BEN GURION AIRPORT, Israel — Israel said on Friday that it has prevented hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from flying to its main airport in a mass protest but that security forces will stay on alert for the time being.
Organizers of the "Welcome to Palestine" campaign, which some have called the "flytilla," had said up to 800 activists were to fly in to Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, in a peaceful mission to visit Palestinian families.
But the Israeli authorities said they managed to preempt the campaign, by foreign activists -- most of them from France -- demonstrating for the right of access to the West Bank.
Regional police chief Benzi Sau said that a joint operation by police, the foreign ministry and transport officials "succeeded in significantly affecting the intentions of those behind" the planned protest at Ben Gurion.
It "prevented the departure of hundreds of activists at their points of departure for Israel," he was quoted as saying in a statement from the public security ministry.
"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."
Apart from deploying police in and around Ben Gurion Airport, the main Israeli tactic was to discourage airlines from allowing them to board at their points of departure.
"Israel has given airlines a list of 342 unwanted people, warning them that they will be immediately turned back at the expense of the companies," Israeli immigration spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told AFP.
Following the warning, "the companies have already refused to take on board around 200 of these passengers," she said, adding that two US activists who arrived overnight were sent back to the United States.
The two American women had originally been involved in a scuppered bid by activists to sail to the Gaza Strip on a 10-boat flotilla in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade of the Palestinian coastal territory.
Some 50 airline passengers who described themselves as "pro-Palestinian" were prevented from embarking on a flight to Israel from Geneva airport on Friday, officials said, prompting flight delays.
"This morning passengers for an easyJet flight were prevented from embarking," airport spokeswoman Aline Yazgin told AFP, adding she did not know why they had been prevented from boarding.
She said that as a result 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 airport in France, at least nine activists were prevented from boarding a flight of Hungarian carrier Malev to Tel Aviv via Budapest.
"Their reservation was cancelled at the request of Israeli authorities who have drawn up a list of undesirable persons," an airport source said.
In a statement, the organizers 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 traveling 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."
Hundreds of police are on standby at the airport near Tel Aviv, but no incidents had been reported by early afternoon on Friday.