|French police at Charles de Gaulle airport, where several airlines stopped dozens of Palestinian solidarity activists heading for a ‘fly-in’ protest in Israel from boarding planes in Paris [REUTERS]|
On July 11, Israel announced it was not interested in having the United Nations become involved as a mediator in its maritime border issues with Lebanon.
But when it comes to recruiting other countries to assist in the enforcement of its naval blockade of Gaza, or having international airlines deny entry to passengers destined to the occupied territories from flying, Israel is keen to have other countries help.
In 2010, Israel faced the worst kind of media exposure when its military raided the Mavi Marmara, shooting dead nine activists and wounding 40 others, evoking global condemnation and a beginning a tectonic shift in its relations with Turkey.
Rather than risking direct confrontation with activists taking part the recent Freedom Flotilla II, or the ”Flytilla” of activists who attempted to fly into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, Israel instead chose another strategy that has proven quite effective.
Anchoring the flotilla
In June, ten ships carrying some 200 activists from 20 countries were to take part in what came to be known as “the second Freedom Flotilla”, whose goal was to break through the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.
Israel began its campaign to keep the vessels from reaching Gaza by warning journalists on June 26 they could be banned from entering the country for ten years if they travelled aboard the aid flotilla.
The Israeli government also said journalists could also have their equipment seized, in addition to other sanctions placed on them.
Jay Bushinsky from the Foreign Press Association in Israel questioned the constitutionality of the Israeli government’s warning, and said it could be overruled by Israeli courts. He told Al Jazeera: ”If the steps are taken, it will reflect an unwise policy and a losing proposition.”
Israel backtracked and retracted the warning.
The next day, June 27, activists aboard the Swedish ship Juliano reported their vessel had been sabotaged by divers. In a statement, they said, ”hostile divers had destroyed the propeller house and cut the propeller shaft”.
At approximately the same time, Israel escalated a media campaign that was geared towards demonising flotilla activists. According to Tel Aviv daily Yedioth Aharonoth, military sources said participants of the flotilla were planning to pour chemicals, such as sulphur, on Israeli soldiers, and senior Israeli officials claimed that ”radical elements” among the flotilla activists had stated an intention to ”spill the blood of Israeli soldiers”.
Then on June 30, three days after the Juliano was sabotaged, the Irish ship Saoirse had to abandon plans to set sail, because of what it called Israeli sabotage. Activist Huwaida Arraf told Israel’s Army Radio that the ship’s engine was damaged while in port and could have led to deaths on board.
“When the engine was started, it completely bent,” Arraf said. “While out at sea, if this would have happened, if it would have bent in this way, the boat would have started taking on water and it could have led to fatalities.”
The alleged sabotage occurred at the Turkish coastal town of Gocek where the Saoirse has been berthed for the previous few weeks, according to organisers.
Israel refused media requests for comment on both allegations.
GO HERE FOR A MAP showing the approximate location of the flotilla vessels, including descriptions of what happened to each boat [Al Jazeera]
Also in late June, an anonymous private legal complaint was filed against the Freedom Flotilla. The complaint alleged that the US boat, The Audacity of Hope, was not seaworthy and therefore was unfit to sail. In response, the harbour master in Athens, Greece, where the boat was docked, told the crew that he could not allow them to leave until the complaint was resolved.
Two days later, the Israel Law Center, Shurat Hadin, accepted responsibility for the complaint, that, while baseless, was a very successful exercise in legal harassment that kept the boat docked. Shurat Hadin is a Tel Aviv-based law centre that, according to its website, specialises in lawsuits against ”terrorists”.
This, coupled with mounting pressure from the Greek and US governments, kept most of the boats moored in Greek ports. Under the watchful eye of the Greek coastguard, when the US and Canadian boats tried to sail, they were both commandeered by coast guard personnel who brought the captured vessels back to port. The captain of the US vessel was jailed for three days, before eventually being released.
Activists with the US boat claimed that Israel had threatened economic sanctions if Greece did not cooperate in preventing the flotilla from leaving Greek ports.
Khalid Tuhraani, an American-Palestinian activist whose ship was stuck in the port of Corfu, told Al Jazeera: ”Many of the Arab countries have, like Greece now, become hostages of the political will of the United States and Israel.
“We chose Greece because this country has a history of support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom,” he said. “Unfortunately we did not expect the Greek government to just roll over and die. But the Middle East Quartet issued a statement against our flotilla, so I think the pressure on the Greek government just might have been too enormous for it to bear.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu publicly acknowledged Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou’s cooperation in efforts to stop the flotilla.
Israel’s ‘no fly’ zone
The ”Flytilla” campaign that took place on July 8 involved an estimated 600 Tel Aviv-bound Palestine solidarity activists whose stated goal was to challenge Israel’s policy of not allowing freedom of movement between Ben Gurion airport and the West Bank, and to show the injustice and human rights violations imposed on the Palestinian community by Israel.
However, roughly half of the activists were not allowed to board their planes in their home countries.
Nearly 100 activists were not allowed to board their Lufthansa Air flights at Charles de Galle airport in Paris on Friday morning.
“We came this morning at 4:30am to get our 6:30am flight,” Satina, an activist who asked that only her first name be used, told Al Jazeera. “When we arrived and wanted to check in, they told us to go to another check in point, where there they told us they could not check us in. We grouped together and asked why, but they didn’t give us anything in writing.”
Her group then began demonstrating in front of all the airlines that were not allowing the activists to board, shouting “Collaborators, collaborators!” to condemn the French authorities for their action. In addition to Lufthansa, other airline operators that disallowed activists from boarding were Air France, Alitalia, Malev Hungarian Airlines and easyJet. The Lufthansa-owned Swiss-branded flight operator also banned would-be protesters from their planes.
“We asked why they wouldn’t check us in and they would not give a reason, they simply said we could not board this flight,” Satina added.
Most of the passengers not allowed to board were French citizens with valid passports, according to Satina, who said activists were “supposed to go on two Lufthansa flights and one Swiss Air flight in terminal one, and Air Italia and Air France flights in Terminal two.”
Israeli immigration spokeswoman Sabine Hadad admitted that Israel had given airlines a list of 342 “unwanted people” and warned airlines that those passengers would “immediately be turned back at the expense of the companies”.
After the warning was issued, Haddad said, “The companies have already refused to take on board around 200 of these passengers,” and added that two US activists who arrived overnight had already been sent back to the United States.
But Donzel Jean Claude, a spokesperson for the Swiss airline, told Al Jazeera that this issue is regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the position of the airlines was clear.
“If a country informs the airline that somebody will not be allowed to enter, that person will not be allowed to board the flight,” he explained, “This problem happens with a lack of visa, or invalid papers, or if in this case we have information from the country these people will not be allowed [in]. For the airline, we have to follow it and we cannot transport the passenger.”
Jean Claude said the airline was “legally obliged” to decline boarding said passengers, because “any country has the right to refuse entry. We are obliged to transport somebody having a ticket, but if their papers are not correct or if, for some other reason, they will be denied entry by the country they are travelling to, then we are not obliged.”
Dr Mark Ellis is the Executive Director of the International Bar Association in London. He told Al Jazeera that, while Israel’s move to bar the passengers from flying is controversial, the country was within its legal right to do so.
“It’s a little like the US no-fly list, in the sense the Homeland Security Department is sending out lists of individuals not allowed to enter the US. This has been controversial, especially in Europe. Anytime a country bars someone from entering and it requires an airline to initiate this, it’s controversial, but it’s not illegal.” Ellis explained that flight restrictions are permitted under a country’s domestic laws.
The only way to get to the West Bank is through Israel-controlled crossings – either by arriving at Ben Gurion Airport and driving to the West Bank, or from Jordan, passing through the Israeli-controlled crossing on the Jordan-West Bank border.
Similar to the strategy the Israelis used to pressure the Greek government keep the flotilla from sailing, most of the “flytilla” activists never got off the ground. For those who did arrive in Ben Gurion, detention and interrogation by Israeli security was followed by deportation.
Political and economic pressure
For the “flytilla”, Israel’s tactic of exploiting airlines’ policies of watching their bottom line was used to their advantage.
If a passenger flies to Tel Aviv and is denied entry, the airline is responsible for flying them back to their place of departure and has to cover the cost. Thus, it makes no economic sense for an airline to fly a passenger if their destination country informs the airline in advance that said passenger will be denied entry. Hence, Israel’s blacklisting the “flytilla” passengers they were able to identify before takeoff.
For the Greek government’s role in carrying out Israel’s wishes of never having the flotilla set sail, the most obvious point of leverage is also economic.
The Greek economy is expected to shrink 3.7 per cent this year, following a decline of 4.5 per cent in 2010, and two per cent in 2009, while unemployment has shot up to over 16 per cent. Citizens who have held on to their jobs have lost much of their pensions, had their salaries slashed and face yet more job cuts in the years to come as Greece slims down its public sector due to its imposition of internationally mandated spending cuts amid its economic crisis.
Debt-ridden Greece is currently negotiating a second economic rescue package, on top of the $158 billion it was granted a year ago. However, these loans depend on harsh “austerity measures” and an overhaul of Greece’s economy, designed to bolster the country in the long-term, but which will most certainly worsen citizens’ financial pain in the short-term.
Greece is in a state of economic desperation and chaos, and enraged protests of hundreds of thousands battled riot police on the streets of Athens while the flotilla was being kept in port by the Greek coast guard. For Israel to exert economic pressure on Greece at this time would obviously prove fruitful in having Greece carry out its wishes against the activists.
The US, always the stalwart ally of Israel, also reportedly exerted political pressure on Greece to abide by the wishes of Israel regarding the flotilla.
A friendship based on mutual need
Greece was the country of choice for flotilla activists because, during the 2010 flotilla the country was very accommodating, in addition to its geographic proximity to Gaza.
But, as political relations with Turkey soured in the wake of the 2010 flotilla disaster, the political and economic climate between Greece and Israel improved, and many of the reasons why are clear.
Greece has seen a 50 per cent increase in Israeli tourists over the past year, while in the same period the number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey has dropped by nearly 90 per cent.
When Turkey downgraded its military and political ties to Israel in the wake of Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza, the political vacuum this caused between Turkey and Israel was filled last year when Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou became the first Greek prime minister to visit Israel in nearly three decades.
A few months after this, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to pay an official visit to Greece. Greece, who had once been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, has recently transformed itself into Israel’s new best friend.
It is a relationship is based on mutual need: Greece remains in economic crisis and the country is frantically looking for new markets and a different source for its tourism, which plays a huge role in the Greek economy, while Israel needs a new strategic political and military ally.
As need dictates, Israel, with the full backing of the US, will likely be forging more relationships such as this. This ability does not bode well for activists seeking governments supportive of future actions.
Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail