Brute Force and a failure of intelligence
Denmark has demanded an explanation from the Israeli government, and the Israeli prime minister, president and chief of staff felt compelled to criticise the officer. Lt Col Shalom Eisner, deputy commander of the Jordan Valley territorial brigade, was suspended by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) pending an investigation. It has been reported that on another occasion he threatened to bust the head of a military policeman who pulled him up for speeding.
An Israeli newspaper that normally supports the government carried a cartoon of Eisner swinging his rifle butt and demolishing a pile of Hebrew letters spelling "Hasbarah" - the word used for the Zionist state's international public relations work.
As if the military's intervention against the cyclists wasn't bad enough, it came on the same weekend that a major security operation was mounted to stop people going to Bethlehem to show support for the Palestinians. As Gershon Baskin in Jerusalem puts it:
"They sent 650 police and security folks to Ben-Gurion airport for a whole day. They conducted intelligence operations for weeks to identify the names of all of those planning to come. They spent hundreds of man- and woman-hours going through the Facebook and twitter accounts of hundreds of people....All to prevent a group of idealistic, pro-Palestinian activists from entering 'the only democracy in the Middle East.'"
The visitors had wanted to demonstrate how Israel acts as a jailor controlling who can enter or leave the Palestinian territory. With police seizing travellers and those who held up signs to welcome them, and foreign airlines enlisted to stop people even boarding planes if they were on the Israeli intelligence blacklist, the Israeli operation succeeded in making the point much more obviously than the protestors themselves alone could have done. Instead of one demonstration in Bethlehem they managed to spread the issue to Brussels and Manchester.
To add to the embarassment it turns out that far from being a triumph for Israeli intelligence, the preparation to meet the protest "invasion" was quite the opposite. As Ha'aretz reports:
Forty percent of the non-Israeli citizens whose names appeared on a Shin Bet blacklist ahead of Sunday's so-called "fly-in" protest by pro-Palestinian activists were added to the list despite the fact that the security service had no concrete information showing they were connected with the protest in any way.
'This information comes from a high-ranking Israeli source with knowledge of the blacklist, who added that the Shin Bet also had no solid grounds for believing that 470 of the 1,200 people whom Israel labeled as "pro-Palestinian activists" intended to do anything illegal.
"We put people on the list who are as far removed from anti-Israel political activity as east is from west," one Foreign Ministry official said. "We have insulted hundreds of foreign citizens because of suspicions, and have given the other side a victory on a silver platter."
"Direct damage has been done to tourism and to Israel's good name," the official said.
Organizers said on Sunday that their "Welcome to Palestine" protest, in which hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists were planning to participate in demonstrations in the West Bank, was a success that still advanced the Palestinian narrative even though many of the protesters were forced to stay home.
"It doesn't matter if eight people came or 800," said Lubna Masarwa, one of the organizers of the event. "What's clear is that there is a popular struggle that is gaining momentum and has the international support of thousands of activists. The Palestinians are not alone in their struggle."
A 23-year-old French woman who made it into Israel to take part in the protest said about half her group of 50 was detained. "The security forces in France and Israel treated us like criminals," she said. "It's very frustrating and surprising that the authorities cooperated with the Israeli claims and propaganda."
The list of banned passengers was inflated over the weekend in what one Foreign Ministry official called "overexertion."
"The net was spread too wide, bringing down innocent people," he said. That net did not spare holders of diplomatic passports, like a French diplomat and his wife who are due to begin working at the French consulate in Jerusalem this summer. The couple was planning to look for an apartment in Jerusalem, but the night before their flight they received an e-mail from their airline, Lufthansa, saying their tickets were canceled because they had been banned from entering Israel.
"The Population Registry people told us their flight route was suspicious because they were coming in on a connecting flight from Munich, not direct from Paris," said a Foreign Ministry official. "Only after we explained that the ticket from Munich was bought because it was cheaper did they take them off the list."
Lufthansa was one of about 20 airlines, mostly European, that Israel threatened with sanctions if they did not cancel the tickets of the passengers who appeared on the lists Israel sent them. Other airlines that canceled tickets included Air France, Alitalia, Easyjet and Turkish Airlines.
Other passengers who appeared on the blacklist despite having no connection to the protest include an employee of Italy's Communications Ministry who was supposed to meet with her Israeli counterparts here, and a Dutch member of the board of directors of German pharmaceutical giant Merck, who was part of a company delegation taking part in the dedication of a biotechnology hothouse at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in which Merck is investing 10 million euros.
Both were eventually allowed into the country.
It wasn't only foreign citizens who were banned from entering Israel, though: An Israeli woman from Kfar Vradim was informed the night before her flight home that she wouldn't be allowed to board the plane. There were other instances of Israelis being put on the blacklist.
The Shin Bet, which compiled the list along with the intelligence division of the Israel Police, did not respond to a request for comment. For its part, the Population Registry was also involved in keeping out certain passengers, but said it was following the Shin Bet's orders.
Some Israeli commentators have suggested that, far from being an isolated individual who was overreacting, Lt.Colonel Eisner reflected a deeper malaise which runs through the country's rulers, so that despite military strength they react with panic to a few hundred protesters.