Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
June 27, 2011 - 12:00am

Israel on Monday set aside a warning it issued the previous day that foreign journalists aboard a flotilla planning to challenge its naval blockade of Gaza risked being barred from the country for up to a decade and having their equipment impounded.

Also, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Monday that he had instructed the relevant authorities to devise a special procedure for journalists covering the flotilla bound for Gaza, on the assumption that they would end up in Israel. In contrast to the activists on board, it said that the journalists would not be subject to the “regular policy against infiltrators and those who enter Israel illegally.”

Officials said the earlier decision had been made by staff members without Mr. Netanyahu’s knowledge. The Foreign Press Association in Israel issued a statement welcoming the turnabout, saying it was pleased to see that Israel “understands that journalists should be treated differently from political activists.”

On Sunday, Oren Helman, the director of the Government Press Office, sent a letter to accredited foreign correspondents here saying that journalists who participated in the flotilla would face draconian sanctions. Mr. Helman described the planned flotilla as “a dangerous provocation that is being organized by Western and Islamic extremist elements to aid Hamas,” the Islamic group that controls Gaza and that is defined by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

The press association said the letter raised “serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.”

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists, including a group of Americans, are planning to sail about 10 vessels from Greece and other European ports in the coming days to protest Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. Israel imposed a formal blockade in early 2009 during its offensive in Gaza. It says it is essential to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Gaza.

The flotilla is likely to be followed with keen international interest after a previous one 13 months ago ended in bloodshed when Israeli naval commandos intercepted the six-boat flotilla in international waters, setting off a confrontation on a large Turkish vessel that left nine activists dead and many others injured, including seven Israeli soldiers.

The episode led to international condemnation of Israel and its policies toward Gaza and severely strained relations between Israel and Turkey, a longtime ally.

Israel has engaged in intense diplomatic activity to try to keep the latest flotilla from setting sail. Ten days ago, the Turkish charity that owns the Mavi Marmara, the vessel at the center of last year’s violence, announced that for technical reasons it would not join the forthcoming flotilla.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Navy has been training for another interception. The prime minister’s office said Monday that Israel would act with determination to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza, but with the most limited confrontation possible between Israeli forces and the passengers.

Activists aboard the American-flagged ship, the Audacity of Hope, including the author Alice Walker, sent a letter to President Obama this month saying there would be “no weapons of any sort on board,” nor “goods of any kind for delivery in Gaza.” They said they were engaged in a nonviolent, humanitarian mission in support of the Palestinian people.

The State Department has urged Americans not to participate in the flotilla, saying, “Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017