flotilla - AFP - June 7 2011
Activists from the Gaza-bound flotilla holding flags of the participating countries in front of the Greek parliament in Athens yesterday. Photo by AFP
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The hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists who plan to try to enter Israel by air as a counterpart to the planned flotilla to the Gaza Strip won't be allowed into the country, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said Tuesday.

"In the coming days, hundreds of radical activists from throughout Europe are expected to come to Israel to create provocations and illegal demonstrations and undermine our legitimacy in our own land," Aharonovitch said, speaking at a ceremony in Nazareth to mark the division of the police's Northern District into two new districts. "I want to make it clear that as a sovereign democratic state, we won't allow them to conduct propaganda, foment unrest or hold illegal demonstrations - not at the airport and not anywhere else."

Aharonovitch said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered him to deal with the aerial flotilla, and he in turn had ordered the police to make the requisite operational and intelligence preparations for "thwarting this illegal activity."

"Those hooligans who will try to break the law and disturb the peace won't be allowed to enter Israel; they will be returned to their countries of origin, in accordance with the law and international conventions," he continued. "My message is clear and unequivocal: You should know that your attempt won't succeed, and you would do well to refrain from coming here. But the State of Israel would be happy to welcome you as tourists so that you can get acquainted with its beauty and its wonderful inhabitants."

The activists, however, denied that they had any intention of demonstrating or engaging in provocations. One of the organizers, Lubna Masarwa, told Haaretz from London that the goal is simply to enter Israel as tourists and proceed to Bethlehem, as part of a project called "Welcome to Palestine."

"There's no connection" between this project and the flotilla to Gaza, she insisted. "Confrontation with Israel isn't the goal in this case; the goal is to visit Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and also Jerusalem."

Another activist said the group is entering via Ben-Gurion International Airport only because going via Jordan is much more expensive.

Between 600 and 1,200 activists (the lower figure being Masarwa's and the higher being Israel's worst-case estimate ) are expected to arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday. Though Israel is expecting the main protest to take place Friday morning, the first activists are likely to arrive Thursday night.

Police and other security personnel will therefore descend on Ben-Gurion in force on Thursday to prepare. Hundreds of policemen, including members of the special anti-terror unit Yasam, will be at Ben-Gurion to deal with the expected demonstrations. They will be backed by the Israel Airports Authority's security staff.

The police's central command room will also be staffed with representatives of all the other relevant agencies: the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of passport control; the Finance Ministry, which is responsible for customs; the Transportation Ministry, which oversees the airports authority; and the Prime Minister's Office, which oversees the Shin Bet security service.

The media are expected to be present in force on Friday as well, and government officials said they expect the activists to "run riot" and "create provocations" in an effort to make a media splash.

But they do not expect the demonstrations to begin until the activists have entered the main terminal. They expect the activists to try to slip past passport control one by one, without drawing attention to themselves.

The goal, therefore, is to nab the key activists as soon as they reach passport control, by carefully examining the planes' passenger lists and comparing them with watch lists compiled by the Shin Bet. To aid in this goal, extra staff will be put on passport control duty on Thursday and Friday.

Extra staff will also be stationed at other points, such as the baggage claim area and customs, to deal with any activists who make it through passport control.

The main goal is to prevent the activists from demonstrating or otherwise disrupting the airport's orderly operation. But government agencies are also preparing for extreme scenarios, such as an activist trying to set himself on fire.

The Foreign Ministry has also given the Shin Bet information about the activists in the eight countries from which most of them are expected to depart - the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Poland - as well as about a host of foreign airlines. It has not asked either the countries or the airlines to stop the activists from flying, but is hoping to prepare the ground for the expected mass deportations.

Meanwhile, the Israel Navy is monitoring the lone ship in the flotilla that managed to set sail from Greece on Tuesday. It is not yet clear whether this ship, which carries a mere eight activists, is even still headed for Gaza.

The navy is also on alert lest other ships manage to leave Greece despite the Greek government's efforts to stop them. But even if all of them sailed, there would be only a handful of ships carrying some 300 activists, compared to the 20 ships and 2,000 activists originally planned. The navy has already released some of the reservists it called up to stop the flotilla.