In the air between Geneva and Tel Aviv, I spent some time talking to the international activists who joined the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign.
Activists who told this writer in the Geneva airport that they are traveling to Palestine cheered quietly and smiled as the plane took off.
However, a number of those activists declined to be interviewed. Several who had said, in the airport, that they were part of the action became skittish and recanted, claiming that they were visiting Tel Aviv or that they didn’t speak English at all.
Two men, aged 25 and 49, said that they were, indeed, headed to Bethlehem but that they were feeling “paranoid” and preferred to talk after they landed in Tel Aviv.
A majority of the activists appeared to be in their twenties.
One 19-year-old man who asked to remain anonymous said he is traveling to the West Bank to “help the Palestinian people…because they are my brothers in religion and humanity.” The young man is a French national who is the son of an Algerian Muslim father and a French mother. He is studying to be a plumber and heating technician and is active with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
When asked about critics’ claims that “Welcome to Palestine” activists don’t want Israel to exist and are attempting to delegitimize the country, he shook his head. “No, that’s not true,” he answered. “[Jews and Palestinians] can live with two countries, with two equal states.”
Ofir Gendelmen, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office claimed on Twitter, however, that, “The #airflotilla2 provocation was conceived by extremist Islamic+anti-Israel organizations who object to peace&call for Israel’s destruction.”
The young activist added that he had joined the action not just because he is a Muslim but also because he feels that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is unjust.
When asked if he is nervous about arriving to Ben Gurion International Airport—where hundreds of Israeli police and security forces await the unarmed activists—he smiled and nodded. “Sure, I’m scared.”
Loubna Amar, a 37-year-old French national of Moroccan and Algerian descent, was hesitant to be interviewed. Only after this writer mentioned that she was employed, in the past, by Al Jazeera, did she consent.
“Okay, for you I speak English,” Amar said, smiling.
She said she had joined the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign because, “We have a right to [travel] to Palestine freely.
“[Palestinians under Israeli occupation] are like prisoners. It’s not acceptable.”
She added that “we have to show people all over the world” that Palestinians, including those in Palestinian-authority controlled Area A, live with severe restrictions imposed by the Israeli government.
Amar, a sales assistant who lives in Lyon, France, said that she feels that the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign is “good for Palestinians as well as Israelis” because an end to the occupation would mean that Israelis could “live peacefully—no more war, no more wall of shame.”
Amar is active in the BDS movement and said she believes in one state, to be shared by Jews and Palestinians alike. “Jews and Palestinians lived together before 1948. Why isn’t it possible now?”
When asked about critics’ claims that “Welcome to Palestine” activists want to see Israel blotted out of existence, Amar said, “No, not at all. [Jews] have the right to live…what’s important is the human being, not [whether they are] Palestinian or Israeli.”
Does Israel have the right to block her passage to Bethlehem? “No,” Amar answered. “We are pacifists and we want to go to [build the] school [in Bethlehem]. If there was an airport in Palestine, in the West Bank, we would go there.”
Amar showed this writer the letter she intended to present to Israeli border control. It stated that she had been” invited to participate in the building of the Palestine International School” and that she “will be hosted… in Bethlehem.”
Amar explained that she became interested in Palestine about five years ago, when she befriended a Palestinian Jordanian whose parents were from Jenin. He wasn’t politically active, but he did tell Amar about his family’s roots and she began exploring the issues on her own.
While more than half the passengers on the flight from Geneva were expected to be activists, Amar estimated that about 20 of the passengers were taking part in the action.
She acknowledged, however, that she might not know all the activists on the plane.
Many passengers said that they knew about the action but that they weren’t involved. Some passengers said they had not heard about the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign. A number of Israeli passengers seemed suspicious of the internationals and several used their cell phones to snap photos of this journalist and her interviewees.
Asked for her personal thoughts about the activists’ intention to visit Bethlehem, Tehilla Michel—a 54-year old French-Israeli social worker who lives in Jerusalem—remarked, “I don’t have a problem with it.”
Michel added, however, that she thinks that Israel has a right to decide who can enter the country. “Every country does this.”
When this writer pointed out that the activists aren’t trying to enter Israel, that they’re trying to reach Bethlehem, Michel countered that they needed to enter Israel to do so, not realizing, perhaps, that the action was meant to call attention to exactly that–that Israel ultimately controls even Area A of the West Bank.
A young Israeli man who this writer mistook for an activist said, derisively, that “thank God” he is not a part of the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign.
UPDATE: I saw the 19 and 25-year-old men I spoke with taken away by security after they presented their letters.