BEN GURION AIRPORT, Israel- Israel on Sunday barred 43 pro-Palestinian activists who had flown in for a “Welcome to Palestine” campaign as hundreds more would-be protesters were stranded at airports across Europe.

As hundreds of police deployed at Israel’s main international airport in a bid to stop activists from entering, Europe’s main airlines faced a wave of passenger fury after cancelling some 300 tickets following heavy Israeli pressure. By late afternoon, police said they had detained 43 passengers on suspicion of being part of the fly-in campaign, better known as the “flytilla,” with all facing deportation.

Organisers of “Welcome to Palestine” had been expecting to welcome up to 1,500 people as part of a campaign to expose Israel’s control of movement both into and out of the occupied territories. But only three activists managed to reach a news conference held by organisers in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in the early evening. Israel had vowed to prevent the activists’ entry, warning airlines they would be forced to foot the bill for the activists’ immediate return home in a move which saw many carriers toeing the line. With airlines cancelling at least 300 passengers’ tickets, scores of activists staged angry demonstrations at airports in several European capitals. At Brussels airport, protests erupted after at least 100 French and Belgian nationals were unable to board flights with Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa and Swiss Air.

In Geneva, several dozen activists held an angry demonstration after around 45 people out of a group of 70 who had been planning to join the campaign were barred from boarding an easyJet flight.

Scores of activists also protested at Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where airport sources said 90 passengers had been prevented from boarding Lufthansa and Swiss Air flights for Tel Aviv.

Flanked by dozens of anti-riot police, they marched up to the Lufthansa counter to demand an “official written statement” as to why they had not been allowed to fly.

At Istanbul airport, another 50 activists were stranded after Turkish Airlines reportedly refused to allow them on board, Anatolia news agency reported.

In Vienna, Austrian Airlines said five passengers were barred from flights to Tel Aviv, and in Rome, Alitalia turned back seven Italian activists, press reports said.

Air France and two British budget carriers, and easyJet, also barred an unspecified number of passengers, with easyJet confirming it had prevented activists from flying to Israel from London and Switzerland.

Despite the success of its diplomatic campaign to pressure European carriers not to allow activists to board flights for Tel Aviv, Israel deployed hundreds of police at its main international airport with orders to “exercise restraint, but to intercept any troublemakers.”

Sunday’s arrests took place far from the whirring cameras with police detaining activists from France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Canada and Portugal.

Thirty-one of those detained had refused to board planes back to their homelands, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.

“Twelve have been sent back to the destinations from which they arrived, and the rest have been transferred to a prison in Ramle (near Tel Aviv),” he said, adding that most of them were French.

In addition, Rosenfeld said, “nine Israelis were detained for being involved in public disturbances at the terminal.”

More flights were scheduled to arrive from Europe in the evening and the police will remain on site, he added.

Israeli officials hailed their counter campaign as successful.

“A few activists attempted to arrive and create a provocation; dozens were arrested,” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said according to Israeli media.

“My goal was to prevent a provocation and a public disruption, and that goal was achieved.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told activists to concentrate on solving “real problems” in the region.

“We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns,” he said in a letter dated Saturday.

“We know there were many other worthy choices. You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives.

“We therefore suggest that you first solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience,” added Netanyahu.

“Have a nice flight.”

At the Bethlehem news conference, organisers dismissed Netanyahu’s letter as “ridiculous.”

“When Israel says it is the sole democracy in the Middle East it contradicts itself by deporting people,” Amira Musallem said. “Democracy isn’t only about women being able to talk freely.”

One of the three activists who managed to attend the news conference slammed the Israeli internal security minister for saying the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign was provocation.

“We are not criminals,” the activist said. “We should all be able to fight - peacefully - for what we believe in.”

Last year, around 800 people tried to join the campaign, with many blocked from flying by airlines. Another 120 were denied entry by Israel and deported.