JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of pro-Palestinian foreign activists planned to fly into Tel Aviv this week, prompting Israeli warnings Wednesday that security would be beefed up at the country's already heavily fortified international airport.
The campaign coincides with a separate attempt to break Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip with an international flotilla.
Those set to arrive at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport on Friday said they plan to tour the West Bank in solidarity with the Palestinians and don't intend to stir up trouble. But the prospect of an influx of pro-Palestinian sympathizers sparked agitation in Israel.
The Israeli public security minister claimed some of the potential arrivals were "hooligans," and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a show of reviewing security agencies' plans at the airport before flying to Romania on Wednesday.
"Every country has a right to block the entry of provocateurs," Netanyahu declared. At the same time, he said, officers were instructed to avoid "unnecessary confrontations."
The protesters accused Israel of distorting their message, insisting their activities would be peaceful. They said their only protest at the airport would be to declare they had come to "visit Palestine," and that they hoped to draw attention to Israeli policies that often bar foreigners with Palestinian ties.
Israel has been especially wary of trouble with foreign activists since a deadly clash aboard an international flotilla last year. Nine Turkish activists were killed, and the incident drew harsh international condemnations and forced Israel to loosen its blockade of Gaza. Israeli fears have been further heightened by deadly clashes in recent weeks with pro-Palestinian activists along Israel's frontiers with Lebanon and Syria.
Central District police commander Bentzi Sao told Army Radio the activists were expected to arrive on 50 flights from Europe between Thursday evening and Friday afternoon.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said hundreds of police officers would begin deploying Thursday evening at the airport.
Two Israeli TV stations said Israel has asked airlines to provide lists of passengers to identify possible activists. The reports said Lufthansa has already been asked to bar 50 people from boarding for Tel Aviv. An airline spokesman said he was not aware of the issue.
In London, Britain's Foreign Office said it had not been asked by Israel to prevent anyone from boarding flights to Israel.
Sao said Israel would deny entry to those considered troublemakers. He wouldn't say if Israel had a list, but suggested some activists might be deported or jailed.
Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for Israel's Interior Ministry, said authorities would decide on "a case by case basis" who is allowed to enter.
She said a person who wants to visit "Palestine" would not be barred, unless authorities determine they plan to participate in what Israel considers illegal demonstrations or violent acts. Hundreds of foreigners, many of them aid workers or activists, are in the West Bank's Palestinian-controlled areas at any given time.
"Not everyone is a suspect. Many are allowed in," Hadad said.
The activists are taking part in a Palestinian program known as "Welcome to Palestine." Organizers say nearly 600 men, women and children have accepted their invitation to visit the West Bank for a week, in a show of solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
Israeli authorities have the program's details and are aware that activists are not trying to cause problems at the airport, organizers said.
Sophia Deeg of Germany, a coordinator for the activists, said "most of them are families or elderly people who never were in Palestine" but wanted to draw attention to the severe limitations on movement in and out of the Palestinian territories.
Israel says it has the right to determine who passed through its borders. But the activists note that the only way to enter the West Bank is through Israel-controlled crossings — either by arriving at airports inside Israel and entering the West Bank by land, or via the Israeli-controlled West Bank border with Jordan.
Access to blockaded Gaza is even more difficult.
The Palestinians, along with the activists, said it is a basic human right for Palestinians to be able to receive peaceful visitors.
"There is an arbitrary policy in place to deny or restrict people who desire to enter the occupied territory," said Sam Bahour of the "Right to Enter Campaign," a grassroots Palestinian group.
He said it was impossible to compile statistics on the number of people barred entry, because they are stopped and returned to their countries of origin, but said Israeli travel bans have included people of Palestinian origin and foreign sympathizers, among them high-profile academics.
The latest flotilla hopes to breach a sea blockade that Israel says is crucial to stopping weapons from reaching Gaza's anti-Israel Hamas rulers.
Greek authorities have blocked the flotilla from sailing from the Greek ports where they are docked and have arrested four people.
Athens, which has improved ties with Israel in recent years, said it issued the ban for security reasons, pointing to a similar blockade-busting effort last year that ended in the deaths of nine activists after Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship.
Israel has warned it would stop any attempt to try to breach the embargo.