Israeli police have arrested six pro-Palestinian activists and detained more than 100 other people participating in a fly-in protest at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.
The arrested activists, all Israeli citizens, timed their demonstration to coincide with the anticipated arrival of hundreds of others hoping to travel to Palestine in a show of solidarity that some have dubbed the "flytilla," a reference to the flotilla of aid ships that were recently blocked from sailing to Gaza.
Throughout Friday and Saturday, officials at the airport refused entry to more than 100 mostly European activists and said most would be repatriated on the first available flights.
On Saturday, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 120 people had been denied entry and were waiting deportation with one or two days. Others had already been flown out, according to an immigration spokeswoman.
Early on Saturday morning, a delayed Lufthansa flight arrived, and the roughly 20 activists on board were immediately separated from the rest of the passengers by at least 15 border police officers, reported an Al Jazeera journalist who arrived on the flight. The group was taken for interrogation and passport checks, and the mobile phone network inside the area of the terminal where the plane arrived appeared to be disabled.
Organisers of the "flytilla," – officially called the "Welcome to Palestine" campaign – had said up to 800 activists were expected to fly into Ben Gurion airport in a peaceful mission to visit Palestinian families.
Israeli provided airlines and foreign security agencies with a list of 342 "unwanted people," hoping they would be turned back at European airports.
At least 200 activists were halted in Europe by Friday evening, though a few dozen have reportedly managed to enter Israel so far, but further attempts are expected through Saturday.
Israeli authorities said they largely managed to pre-empt the campaign by foreign activists – most of them from France – who are demonstrating for the right of access to the West Bank.
A statement from the Public Security Ministry quoted regional police chief Benzi Sau as saying a joint operation by police, the foreign ministry and transport officials "prevented the departure of hundreds of activists at their points of departure for Israel".
"Public Security Minister [Yitzhak] Aharonovitch instructed that … forces continue to deploy so as to be able to deal with incoming flights this afternoon, including the prevention of disturbances, while exercising the necessary sensitivity," it added.
Officials also managed to prevent Israeli activists from meeting the incoming activists at the airport.
"Six left-wing [Israeli] activists were arrested at the airport after causing a disturbance in the terminal," Micky Rosenfeld, Israeli police spokesman, said. "They arrived from inside Israel. They didn’t come off the planes."
Concerned by the growing number of confrontations with media-savvy activists and the international criticism that has often ensued, Israel has taken measures to avoid a clash this time by preventing protesters from reaching the country altogether.
According to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, police and intelligence units followed social networks used by the groups organising the protest.
Laura Durkay, an American pro-Palestinian activist, said she was being held in a pre-interrogation area with more than 30 other activists in a large waiting room inside the airport.
"Everyone’s mood is excellent and people are cheering as more activists come in," Durkay said. "We don’t know what will happen but we think Israeli authorities will give us a choice of being deported immediately or being arrested and then detained."
"What we want is to get into Palestine, but if that’s not going to happen, then the longer we stay here the more then media will keep paying attention to our story. We want to show how the Israeli government treats people trying to travel to Palestine."
Anna De Palma, 44, a Portuguese citizen, said she passed border controls without problems, apparently because she didn’t identify herself as an activist.
"I said I was coming to visit. That was it," she said. "I am not a conspicuous person and we don’t have to be conspicuous about it."
Some 50 airline passengers who described themselves as "pro-Palestinian" were prevented from embarking on a flight to Israel from Geneva airport on Friday, Swiss officials said, prompting flight delays.
Several people belonging to a French group of pro-Palestinians had tried to get past airport security doors, resulting in authorities temporarily shutting down boarding areas.
At Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport in France, at least nine activists were prevented from boarding a flight of Hungarian carrier Malev to Tel Aviv via Budapest.
Several would-be protesters were turned away from check-in counters, and they subsequently gathered in the terminal, shouting "Boycott Israel" as French police stood by.
Cynthia Beatt, a British citizen living in Germany, told the AP news agency that she had been barred from boarding a Lufthansa plane on Friday morning in Berlin. She had planned to take part in the protest.
"Lufthansa called me last night and said I would not be allowed to board their plane because Israel denied me entry," Beatt said.
In a statement, the organisers of the "flytilla" campaign condemned the Israeli pressure on airlines and threatened legal action.
"We call on all airline companies not to accept such provocative, blackmailing and illegal actions by the Israeli government," it said.
"Visitors travelling between countries have rights under international law and bilateral travel agreements," it added. "Those who had reservations cancelled will exercise their right of protest including bringing legal cases in their own countries."
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)