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A Matter of Perception

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

At the start of this week, hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists planned to board passenger planes and fly to Israel.

Their plan, according to Israeli intelligence assessments, was to join Palestinian demonstrations in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, events that had a high potential to turn violent.

The activists, operating under an umbrella group called "Welcome to Palestine 2012," presented themselves as peace seekers who had come to visit Palestinians in the West Bank.

Their true motive, Israel suspected, was to create possibly violent provocations, generate media publicity, and attempt to delegitimize the state of Israel.

Hundreds of unarmed plain clothes and uniformed police officers were mobilized to the airport on Sunday, in accordance with a detailed plan drawn up by the head of the Israel Police's Central District, Commander Bentsi Sao.

The airport is located in the heart of Sao's Central District, and the Israeli government appointed the veteran officer to head up a national operation to prevent the activists from entering the country.

Sao's chief aim was to keep the airport running smoothly on one of its busiest ever days, when nearly 50,000 passengers were expected to pass through, many of them Israelis completing their Passover vacations abroad.

Yet Sao knew that there was a good chance that the police he deployed to the airport would not need to do much. For weeks before the expected fly-in, Israel submitted a list of around 500 activists to foreign airlines, along with a notification that they would be barred entry into Israel.

The airlines, for their part, informed most of the people on the list that they could not board Israel-bound aircraft. The airlines' cooperation with Israel's request to keep the activists off the plane was fueled by financial reasoning; it is the airlines that must cover the cost of a return flight for passengers denied entry into a country.

Thus, only 80 activists managed to land in Israel on Sunday. Their planes never made it to the airport's bustling Terminal 3, but instead were diverted to the far-off and smaller Terminal 1, where Interior Ministry officials identified them, separated them from ordinary passengers, and began placing them on return flights.

By Sunday evening, the event was largely over, and had barely been noticed by anyone outside of Israel. The 'Flytilla' had been a resounding failure. Frustrated by the lack of success, one of the European activists drew a swastika on the wall of a holding cell where he was kept until his return flight.

Following these developments, a debate within Israel ensued. While all observers agreed that the plan to stop the activists was an operational success, some argued that the act of barring them from entering the country lent credence to their claims that Israel was undemocratic.

On closer observation though, this claim does not hold water. No Western democracy is obligated to allow organized, hostile members of foreign organizations onto its territory.

Democratic rights are granted to the citizens of a country, and indeed, inside Israel, the right to speak one's mind is absolute. Whether it is Arab Israeli Knesset Members who often express their allegiance to vehemently anti-Israel Palestinians, or far left political figures who hold rallies denouncing the state, the fiercest critics of Israel inside Israel know they can air their claims without any fear whatsoever.

In the days preceding the 'Flytilla,' the Israeli Prime Minister's Office (PMO) reached the conclusion that an operationally sound plan was inadequate for dealing with the activists.

Since the activists were attempting to pull off a media stunt in an ongoing battle of perceptions, the PMO reasoned, an adequate response from Israel was also needed on that front too.

That response came on the evening before the event, when the PMO released a letter addressed to the activists.

The missive, which began with a sarcastic thank-you to the activists for "choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns," highlighted the inherent hypocrisy in their failure to organize any visit to Syria, scene of the slaughter of thousands, Iran, where democracy activists were brutally suppressed, or Gaza, where the ruling Hamas regime uses its own civilians as a shield to fire at Israeli civilians, a "double war crime," the letter said.

"...Instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East's sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear," it added.

The letter raises a curious question. Could the massacres in Syria be causing 'the world' to take stock of the real human rights abusers in the region? When Hafez al-Assad slaughtered 20,000 Syrians in Hama in 1982, the event hardly made an impact outside of Syria. Could today's world, linked by flashing Twitter reports and YouTube videos that bypass government censors, be finally waking up to the region's real enemies of human rights?

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers police and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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