Israel detained dozens of international activists as they landed at its main airport on Sunday, preventing them from entering the country to participate in a planned solidarity mission with Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israel said the activists, part of an umbrella group called "Welcome to Palestine," were provocateurs who posed a security threat. But organizers said the event, meant to draw attention to Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinians, was nonviolent, and they accused Israel of using heavy-handed tactics to stamp out legitimate protest.
Israel is jittery about the prospect of a large influx of foreign protesters arriving because of deadly confrontations with pro-Palestinian activists in the past. In the worst instance, Israeli naval commandos clashed with activists while storming a flotilla trying to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010, killing nine activists.
By early evening, the Interior Ministry said a total of 49 people had been stopped at the airport, most on flights from France, but also from Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Italy and Portugal. At least 12 were placed on flights back home, while arrangements were being made to expel the others.
Hundreds of police were deployed in and around the airport. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said nine Israeli sympathizers were questioned at the airport after causing "public disturbances," such as unfurling pro-Palestinian banners. No other unrest was reported.
Asked why Israeli authorities consider this particular group of activists a threat, Rosenfeld replied that they have "security backgrounds" or were "involved previously in different activities," including "security issues concerning Israel."
He would not elaborate.
Hundreds of additional activists were expected to arrive on flights later Sunday.
Israel took action over the weekend to prevent the fly-in from ever taking place by pressing airlines not to allow at least 100, maybe more, known activists, to board their flights.