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Welcome to Palestine visitors travel to Israel

April 15, 2012 10:34 A.M. (Updated: April 15, 2012 8:14 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Visitors on a tour of Palestine began to arrive in Israel on Sunday, as demonstrations were held in European airports to protest the barring of dozens of tourists as part of the 'Welcome to Palestine' initiative.

Organizer Mazin Qumsiyeh said several passengers had arrived, and Israeli news site Ynet reported three passengers from Paris had been allowed to enter after questioning in Ben Gurion airport.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that 41 people had been refused entry at Ben Gurion airport by early afternoon Sunday, and they would be deported.

Four Israeli supporters, two holding "Welcome to Palestine" signs, were also arrested as they waited to greet the arrivals.

Earlier, organizers told Israeli daily Haaretz that more than 60 percent of the expected 1,500 had flights canceled by airlines, after Israel circulated a blacklist of passengers and warned it would fine carriers.

An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said the Immigration Authority had on Wednesday given airlines the names of some 1,200 activists whose entrance to Israel has been barred.

On Saturday, Micky Rosenfeld said that hundreds of police officers had been deployed in and around Ben Gurion airport.

Meanwhile, protests were held in Brussels, Paris, Geneva and Rome airports to support the initiative, Qumsiyeh said.

In Brussels Zaventem airport, around 100 Belgian and French pro-Palestinian activists were not allowed to board flights to Israel.

The activists, some of whom said they wanted to build a new school, held up letters that were handed to them at the airport which said that they were on a no-fly list because they intended to "disrupt the order and confront security forces at friction points".

Cellphone video uploaded by an activist to the internet showed about 20 pro-Palestinian activists at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, surrounded by police.

The group staged a sit-in at an airline check-in counter, where they chanted in French: "Let us go to Palestine".

Some 25 organizations have invited internationals to visit Palestine from April 15-21 as part of the Welcome to Palestine week. Israel has denounced participants as provocateurs intent on confrontation with Israeli security forces.

On Saturday, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a letter it hoped to hand the activists upon their arrival.

"You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime's daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives," the letter read. "You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime's brutal crackdown on dissent and support of terrorism throughout the world."

"But instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East's sole democracy ... We therefore suggest that you first solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience. Have a nice flight."

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

Reuters contributed to this report
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