REPORTING FROM PALESTINE | Would you book a flight to another country if you knew in advance that you might not be allowed to complete your journey?
This Sunday more than 1500 people from around the world will go to their local airport hoping to board flights bound for Tel Aviv, Israel.
At this stage most are unsure if they’ll even be permitted to board their flights, or if they will be allowed to enter at their final destination.
These people are part of the Welcome to Palestine program, organised by a coalition of more than 25 Palestinian organisations inviting people to “come, see and get involved” with what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) and Israel.
The program stands in protest of Israel’s continued control and isolation of the oPt. Organisers have stated “There’s no way into the occupied Palestinian territories other than the Israeli control points. Israel has turned Palestine into a giant prison, but even prisoners have the right to receive visitors.”
Under normal circumstances, people intending to visit Palestine are cautious about sharing their travel plans with Israeli border officials.
Expressing intent to visit Palestine is likely to lead to lengthy questioning, invasive security searches, and sometimes deportation. Yet delegates of Welcome to Palestine intend to openly state their plans for visiting Palestine when they arrive in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
No one is certain what will happen when they do this, but anyone successfully granted entry will travel to Bethlehem to participate in a week long program including visits with local communities and school-building.
Based on past experiences, delegates are cautious in their expectations of success on Sunday. In 2011, Israeli security services obtained a list of delegates in the first Welcome to Palestine program. These passengers were blacklisted, and their names provided to foreign airports that stopped them from boarding their flights. Out of hundreds of participants, only 127 were able to board flights, and on arrival in Tel Aviv all but 7 of these were detained for 4-5 days before being deported to their home countries.
Israeli media have reported this week that at least 650 police officers will be assigned to the airport on Sunday, mostly in plain clothes. An entire terminal of the airport is being designated as a sterile zone where Welcome to Palestine delegates will be diverted before likely being detained and deported.
Despite this seemingly negative outlook, many delegates view the situation as win-win. If they are stopped from flying or denied entry, then it helps to draw attention to the situation of Palestine; if they are granted entry then they can spend a week helping Palestinian communities and learning more about the conflict.
A mother of 6 from Switzerland, ‘J’ (name withheld for security reasons) was part of the 2011 Welcome to Palestine program, but was stopped from boarding her flight by Swiss officials. She is back on board for the 2012 program because “it is a non-violent act to show how Israel reacts to civilians…we say we want to visit Palestinian friends and use Israel as a transit only because the occupied Palestinian territories have no airport. Why is it in the hands of Israel to declare me as tourist or terrorist and send me home or detain me after hours of interviewing? I have to do this out of solidarity and to use any chance to give the Palestinians a voice.”
She also sees the program as a chance to deliver a wake up call to the people and governments of the world to ensure that international laws and human rights are upheld and respected everywhere.
When asked if she is worried about being arrested or detained this Sunday she said “Not yet. But I will be.”
The program has received endorsements from a number of organisations worldwide, and also from notable public figures including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, John Pilger, Hedy Epstein, and Noam Chomsky.
Importantly, the program is well supported by peace and human rights organisations in both Palestine and Israel. The commitment of participants to take part in the program, knowing the risks and personal costs, sends a strong message of solidarity and encouragement to those working locally for peace and reconciliation.
Anyone interested in following the progress of Welcome to Palestine 2012 can find more information at: http://www.welcometopalestine.info
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