“What is the purpose of your visit?”
This question, from the lips of Israeli security officers, can raise the anxiety of even casual tourists. Entering or exiting, one can expect questions about your activities and local contacts. If the answers arouse suspicion—or if you appear to be Palestinian, Arab or, more broadly, of Muslim faith—many travelers experience extended interrogations or invasive body searches.
The West Bank is accessible only by traveling from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport or through the Israeli-controlled border crossings. For this reason, travelers visiting the West Bank are often advised to play coy and answer mainly about visiting holy sites in Jerusalem or the Galilee in northern Israel. But volunteers or activists whose main purpose is entering the Palestinian Territories must almost certainly obfuscate their purpose for visiting, or risk intense questioning, strip search, or deportation.
Last summer, a group of Palestinian NGOs and international activists hit upon a novel means of drawing attention to these practices and their chilling effect on travel to areas under Israeli occupation. They invited hundreds of visitors to fly into Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport and state openly that they are coming to visit the West Bank. The result, according to The Jerusalem Post:
Some 124 activists were detained upon arrival in Israel and deported. Hundreds more were barred, mostly in Europe, from getting on airplanes to Ben-Gurion after Israel passed on their names to the airlines.
Despite this heavy-handed response–or perhaps because of it–according to campaign organizers, “the publicity shed light on Israel’s attempts to deny visits by internationals for humanitarian peaceful support to millions of Palestinians living under occupation.”
This weekend, a similar coalition, including MCC partner organizations Wi’am Center, Badil, and the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement, has invited thousands more activists for a similar campaign. Once again dubbed, “Welcome to Palestine”, the organizers state:
We believe that every single one of us is a change maker, and nobody has the right to deny access to suffering populations. We call on more internationals to join the hundreds who already booked their tickets and come help us begin to build a school, work with farmers, and join the struggle to bring peace with justice.
Again, despite the campaign’s commitment to nonviolence, Israeli officials quoted in international media have exaggerated the “threat” and promise a similar response as last summer:
“The provocateurs will be dealt with in a determined and quick way,” said Israel’s public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch. “If they arrive to Israel they will be identified, removed from the plane, their entry into Israel will be prevented and they will be moved to a detention facility until they are flown out of Israel.”
Though such media coverage has focused on distorted versions of activists’ goals (campaign organizers are not planning demonstrations or direct confrontations with Israeli authorities), “Welcome to Palestine” has already succeeded in its aim to draw attention to the movement restrictions faced not only by Palestinians on a daily basis, but even on internationals intending to visit them.
UPDATE: It would seem that once again, the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign has succeeded in generating significant media coverage:
Who are the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ activists? +972
Much ado about flytilla Jerusalem Post
In Israel, pro-Palestinian activists get attention, if not entry Washington Post
Israel Moves to Block Activists From Entering New York Times news
Pro-Palestinian activists refused Israel flight BBC News
Pro-Palestinian activists detained in Israel Al-Jazeera
Pro-Palestinian ‘fly-in’ activist: Israel and Europe treated us like terrorists Haaretz
Israeli official: 40% of names on Shin Bet fly-in blacklist were not activists Haaretz
Welcome to Palestine visitors travel to Israel Maan News