Unwelcome to Israel — operation barred foreigners for no reason

In the grip of hysteria and a desperate effort to prevent peaceful protesters setting foot in Israel, a no-fly list that was designed to thwart the Welcome to Palestine campaign included a French diplomat and his wife who were coming to find an apartment in Jerusalem, an Italian government official who had been scheduled to meet her Israeli counterparts, and a member of the board of directors of German pharmaceutical giant Merck which is making a significant investment in an Israeli research institute. Several Israelis were also blacklisted.

Haaretz reports: Forty percent of the non-Israeli citizens who were blacklisted and not permitted entry into Israel on Sunday were kept out even though the Shin Bet security service had no concrete information showing they were connected with so-called fly-in protest. This information comes from a high-ranking Israeli source with knowledge of the blacklist, who added that the Shin Bet also had no solid grounds for believing that 470 of the 1,200 people whom Israel labeled as “pro-Palestinian activists” intended to do anything illegal.

“We put people on the list who are as far removed from anti-Israel political activity as east is from west,” one Foreign Ministry official said. “We have insulted hundreds of foreign citizens because of suspicions, and have given the other side a victory on a silver platter.”

“Direct damage has been done to tourism and to Israel’s good name,” the official said.

Organizers said on Sunday that their “Welcome to Palestine” protest, in which hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists were planning to participate in demonstrations in the West Bank, was a success that still advanced the Palestinian narrative even though many of the protesters were forced to stay home.

“It doesn’t matter if eight people came or 800,” said Lubna Masarwa, one of the organizers of the event. “What’s clear is that there is a popular struggle that is gaining momentum and has the international support of thousands of activists. The Palestinians are not alone in their struggle.”

A 23-year-old French woman who made it into Israel to take part in the protest said about half her group of 50 was detained.

“The security forces in France and Israel treated us like criminals,” she said. “It’s very frustrating and surprising that the authorities cooperated with the Israeli claims and propaganda.”

The list of banned passengers was inflated over the weekend in what one Foreign Ministry official called “overexertion.”

“The net was spread too wide, bringing down innocent people,” he said.

That net did not spare holders of diplomatic passports, like a French diplomat and his wife who are due to begin working at the French consulate in Jerusalem this summer. They were planning to look for an apartment in Jerusalem, but the night before their flight they received an e-mail from their airline, Lufthansa, saying their tickets were canceled because they had been banned from entering Israel.

“The Population Registry people told us their flight route was suspicious because they were coming in on a connecting flight from Munich, not direct from Paris,” said a European diplomat who was trying to help the couple get into the country. “Only after we explained that the ticket from Munich was bought because it was cheaper did they take them off the list.”

Lufthansa was one of about 20 airlines, mostly European, that Israel threatened with sanctions if they did not cancel the tickets of the passengers who appeared on the lists Israel sent them. Other airlines that canceled tickets included Air France, Alitalia, Easyjet and Turkish Airlines.

Other passengers who appeared on the blacklist despite having no connection to the protest include an employee of Italy’s Communications Ministry who was supposed to meet with her Israeli counterparts here, and a Dutch member of the board of directors of German pharmaceutical giant Merck, who was part of a company delegation taking part in the dedication of a biotechnology hothouse at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in which Merck is investing 10 million euros.

Both were eventually allowed into the country.

It wasn’t only foreign citizens who were banned from entering Israel, though: An Israeli woman from Kfar Vradim was informed the night before her flight home that she wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane. There were other instances of Israelis being put on the blacklist.

The Shin Bet, which compiled the list along with the intelligence division of the Israel Police, did not respond to a request for comment. For its part, the Population Registry was also involved in keeping out certain passengers, but said it was following the Shin Bet’s orders.

The 730 people on the initial blacklist were all foreign citizens who were banned either because they were determined by Israeli intelligence to be flying in for the express purpose of taking part in the protest, or because they had arrived here for that purpose during a previous fly-in in July.

The 270 people who took part in the previous protest have been banned from entering the country for 10 years.

Police sources said many of the passengers on the list had been arrested for protests in the West Bank, or their names appeared online in connection with pro-Palestinian groups.

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