Two Israeli passengers of Palestinian-Arab descent were removed from an Aegean Airlines flight from Athens to Tel Aviv on Sunday, after a group of Israelis protested their presence on the plane and repeatedly called for them to be checked for security, the airline has confirmed.
A group of Israelis “very vocally and persistently” requested that the two Palestinian passengers be given an additional security check, a spokesperson for Aegean Airlines said in an email statement released to Newsweek. The two Arab-Israeli citizens are Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, the contested area of the holy city that Palestinians have designated as the capital of any future Palestinian state, Israeli news site Maariv reported.
“While it is indeed unfortunate that they were possibly racially profiling the customers, indeed their fellow Israelis, safety must be first,” the statement read. “The pilot did feel compelled to delay the flight and call the police so to check again the two [Arab-Israeli] passengers’ documents and identities.”
Despite the second security check meeting all of airport security’s requirements and the crew reassuring passengers, a larger group of Israeli passengers began to protest and demanded another security check of the cabin.
The captain closed the cabin door ready to begin the flight, but the Israeli passengers prevented take off by standing up and the two Palestinians subsequently agreed to disembark the plane. They arrived on another flight from Athens to Tel Aviv on Monday.
“With the agreement of the two [Arab-Israeli] passengers that were affected, for which we are very thankful, we offered them overnight stay and transport the next day, we offloaded their luggage,” the airline spokesperson said. “We also offered any other passenger, of course, the possibility to disembark in case they did not feel secure.”
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Greece described the incident as “unfortunate” but would not comment further.
The airline said that the entire delay to the flight was one hour-and-30 minutes and apologized to the two Palestinians for the incident. “We thank again the two passengers that agreed to disembark for their understanding and collaboration and we apologize for the whole episode which was indeed extremely unfortunate.”
A wave of deadly stabbings and shootings committed by Palestinians against Israelis in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the West Bank since the beginning of October has increased anxiety among Jewish-Israelis. Last week, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed two people with a machine gun, wounding at least three more people, outside a bar in central Tel Aviv.
However, Nidal Othman, director of Israel’s Coalition Against Racism, blamed the passengers’ fear on the Israeli leadership’s rhetoric towards the Arab community in Israel.
“The problem is with the political leaders who make more incitement against Arab citizens of Israel, starting with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he says by phone from the Israeli city of Haifa. “Trying to pay more and more fear is not in the benefit of the Jewish nor the Arab community in Israel.”
He adds: “I can understand the fear of the people, but this fear is coming from racial incitement. At the same time that I am understanding this fear, I will not accept such treatment from the people. It’s racist and maybe the way to deal with that is that no one will fly until all of the passengers fly together.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the incident took place on January 3 and not January 4 as originally stated.