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Airline blocks activists from travelling to Palestine

Libby Powell reports on how ‘Israel has turned Palestine into a giant prison’—with no visitors allowed

April 15, 2012
5 min read

Budget airline Jet2.com has refused to carry three British women bound for Palestine after being threatened with a fine by Israel. The airline notified the passengers of the cancellation by email yesterday morning, less than 24 hours before they were due to fly to Tel Aviv from Manchester.

The women were en route to Bethlehem with 1,500 others from Europe and the US to take part in an international meeting and an education project. The initiative has been organised under the banner of ‘Welcome to Palestine 2012’, with the aim of challenging the isolation of Palestinians as a result of the Israeli occupation.

Update: After the demonstration in Manchester Airport, the airline promised the passengers refunds. The managers would not even show their faces, leaving the police to pass on the news.

Many visitors, from around the world, did get to Tel Aviv—but were arrested or put on return planes. Israel had ordered around 1,200 people to be kept off flights, and deployed 650 police to patrol Ben Gurion airport and catch any who made it to Israel.

In the email to the British women, Jet2.com said that they had been mandated by the Israeli authorities to provide the details of all passengers on flights to Israel. The company said it had been informed that the group would not be permitted to enter Israel and that the airline would face a fine from Israel if they carried the three women.

The Welcome to Palestine initiative follows on from a series of recent attempts by international activists to push for free access to the Palestinian territories. Last summer, 100 activists attempting to fly to Palestine were detained at Ben Gurion Airport and deported. The violent interception by Israeli forces in 2010 of an international boat, the Mavi Marmara, bound for Gaza’s coastline resulted in the death of nine activists. Several other attempts to reach Gaza by boat have since been deflected by the Israeli navy.

Israel, which maintains a blacklist of identified Palestinian supporters, has in the past put pressure on airlines to refuse passengers. The authorities have made it clear that they intend to bar all those traveling as part of the campaign, stating that measures will be taken at border control to detain and return all passengers to their home countries. Lufthansa has also been forced by Israel to reject dozen of passengers wishing to travel from Swansea for the event.

In a public statement, high profile supporters of the initiative, including Sam Bahour, Tony Benn, Chomsky, John Pilger and Desmond Tutu, said that ‘Israel has turned Palestine into a giant prison’—but make the point that even prisoners have a right to receive visitors.

There is no direct access for foreigners wishing to visit Palestine. Landlocked West Bank is surrounded by the Israeli wall and travel within the region is restricted by more than 500 checkpoints and barriers. Those wishing to visit must first fly to Tel Aviv, where anyone declaring their wish to visit Palestine is likely to be refused entry.

From within Israel, entry by road to the central West Bank city of Ramallah is funneled through the vast Kalandia checkpoint, where cars and people can wait for hours against the backdrop of watchtowers and political graffiti.

Access to besieged Gaza is even more obstructed. The airport was bombed in 2002 and Israel maintains its blockade of all sea, air and land entry points, closing the Strip to all but essential humanitarian staff.

One of the women due to travel from Manchester tomorrow is retired nurse, Norma Turner, who has worked in the NHS since she was 16. In 2010, Norma visited Gaza to help deliver training to nurses and develop a community health course for women in Nusrat refugee camp. ‘My goal was always to empower patients to control their own lives with dignity and without fear,’ she said. ‘For those nurses, it is impossible from them to work with that goal because Palestinian people do not have any control over their own lives.

‘The suffering and injustice that I have witnesses on my visits to Gaza and the West Bank is worse than anything I have experienced in my whole career as a nurse in England, India and Africa.’

Norma was planning to travel with teacher Sandy Broadhurst and fellow NHS health worker Pia Feig. Pia’s rejection by the state is particularly poignant as a Jewish woman with family in Israel. “The Israelis have created a ghetto for the Palestinians”, she says.

Norma says that the group is considering legal action against the airline. They organised a protest at the Jet2.com desk in Manchester Airport this morning.

‘Israel is able to control any border it chooses, including Europe and America,’ she added. ‘This shows that the Palestinians in the West Bank are as imprisoned as those in Gaza.’