|An Israeli raid last year killed nine activists in an aid convoy trying to break the Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza [AFP]
Israel has backtracked on its warning to foreign journalists covering the Gaza-bound international aid flotilla, saying they will not face the same punishment as other participants in the convoy.
Israel's government press office had given warning on Sunday that journalists sailing on the flotilla could be barred from the country for up to a decade and have their equipment confiscated.
On Monday, a statement from the prime minister's office said Benjamin Netanyahu "has ordered the authorities to draw up a special procedure for dealing with foreign journalists sailing on the flotilla that will enter Israel illegally".
At the same time, Israel's security cabinet ordered the country's navy to stop the aid flotilla from breaching a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, but also to avoid clashes with activists on board.
About 10 boats are to take part in the so-called Freedom Flotilla II. Its departure was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of an earlier attempt to break the blockade, during which Israeli troops stormed the lead ship, leaving nine Turkish activists dead.
The move to punish journalists covering the flotilla had been condemned by rights groups and the Israel-based Foreign Press Association as a severe violation of the freedom of the press.
Netanyahu's office said he had been unaware of the original warning.
"When this was brought to the prime minister's attention, he ordered that normal procedures taken against infiltrators and those entering illegally not be applied to journalists," the statement said.
Netanyahu also said he would allow reporters to accompany the naval vessels sent to intercept the flotilla "in order to allow transparent and trustworthy coverage of the events".
Later on Monday, the FPA, which represents foreign journalists in Israel and the Palestinian territories, welcomed the change of heart.
"We are pleased to see that Israel has recognised the value of allowing reporters to cover an important news event, and understands that journalists should be treated differently from political activists," it said in a statement.
Reports of sabotage
Meanwhile, there are indications that at least one of the ships involved in the flotilla might have been tampered with.
A vessel docked in an Athens port was sabotaged, Dror Feiler, one of the organisers of the flotilla, told Yedioth Aharonoth, an Israeli daily newspaper, on Monday night.
"They are attacking us in Greek territorial waters," he said.
For their part, Israeli military sources told the newspaper that flotilla participants were planning to pour chemicals such as sulphur on Israeli soldiers.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, and a number of governments, including Washington, have warned the flotilla not to set sail.
Israel imposed a blockade on the territory in 2006 after Gaza-based fighters, including members of the Hamas, who governs Gaza, snatched an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
A ban on civilian goods and foodstuffs was eased last year, but many restrictions remain in place.