Bethlehem Mayor to Israel: Allow Our Friends to Visit

The mayor of Bethlehem on Tuesday urged Israel not to humiliate hundreds of tourists invited to a week-long tour of Palestine.

Some 25 Palestinian organizations have invited internationals to visit Palestine from April 15 – 21 and Mayor Victor Batarseh urged Israel to let them enter and not to humiliate them, at a news conference in Bethlehem.

"We demand our international friends have access to Bethlehem," the mayor said. "It is our right to welcome visitors."

Israel’s public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, said Tuesday that guests of the Welcome to Palestine initiative would be detained and deported, the Israeli news site Ynet reported.

"If they arrive in 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," Aharonovitch said.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told Ma’an on Wednesday that police were preparing for the visitors’ arrival and implementing measures inside and outside the airport. He did not elaborate.

Palestinian organizations have arranged a week-long program, starting Sunday, which includes helping to build a school in Bethlehem and day trips to Hebron, the Jordan Valley, Ramallah and Jerusalem.

All visitors to the West Bank must first pass Israeli border control and many arriving in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport do not tell Israeli security if they will be visiting Palestinian areas as this leads to interrogation and often deportation.

But the "Welcome to Palestine" campaign has asked its guests to be open about their plans to visit the West Bank.

Coordinator Abdul-Fatah Abu Srour told reporters in Bethlehem the participants are declaring their right to say they are coming to Palestine and "we are not hiding it, we are not going to lie about it."

Organizer Mazim Qumsiyeh added: "We cannot understand why Israel wants people to lie about why they are coming."
Qumsiyeh emphasized that the visitors were "normal average Europeans willing to visit people under occupation."

"These are peaceful people that want to visit us here in Bethlehem and the Holy Land," he added.

At least 1,500 people from over 15 countries have booked tickets to participate in the program, organizers say, adding that up to 2,000 could arrive. Most are flying in from Europe but visitors are also coming from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada.

The Welcome to Palestine campaign organized a similar program in July 2011 but Israel sent lists of participants to foreign airports who refused to let blacklisted passengers board. Over 120 participants who arrived in Ben Gurion airport were detained and deported by Israel.

Minister Aharonovitch told Israel’s Channel 1 on Wednesday that Israel would send blacklists to foreign airports again this week.

But Qumsiyeh said airlines had agreed not to cooperate with Israel’s blacklists after facing legal challenges over their refusal to let passengers board last year.

Another Welcome to Palestine organizer told reporters the initiative sent a message to European governments that Israel was "dismissing" their citizens’ freedoms.

Israel violates bilateral agreements by deporting Europeans, she said, noting that European countries allowed Israelis to enter freely.

"We reject all attempts to isolate us," Abu Srour added.


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