Israel warns media over latest Gaza flotilla

Israel may ban journalists aboard planned aid flotilla for 10 years and also seize their equipment, official says.

    Nine activists were killed last year when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara [Reuters]

    Israel has warned journalists that they could be banned from entering the country for 10 years if they travel aboard an aid flotilla scheduled to set sail for the Gaza Strip.

    The Israeli government issued the warning on Sunday, saying the journalists could also have their equipment seized in addition to other sanctions.

    The threat came as pro-Palestinian activists prepared to set sail for Gaza from Greece and elsewhere in an effort to break Israel's blockade of the coastal territory.

    Eleven ships - nine passenger boats and two cargo ships - carrying about 200 activists from 20 countries are said to be taking part in the second Freedom Flotilla.

    Among the activists are many Israelis, including Amira Hass, a prominent journalist of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

    "If the steps are taken, it will reflect an unwise policy and a losing proposition," Jay Bushinsky, from Foreign Press Association in Israel, told Al Jazeera. He questioned the constitutionality of the Israeli government's warning and said it could be overruled by Israeli courts.

    The attempt by the activists to break the Israeli siege comes a year after a similar flotilla was violently intercepted by Israeli commandos.

    Nine activists on board the lead ship Mavi Marmara were shot dead and 40 others were wounded in the Israeli assault that evoked global condemnation.

    'Dangerous provocation'

    Israel insists the latest flotilla is a "dangerous provocation" and has vowed to intercept it.

    "Those participating in the flotilla have declared that it is their intention to 'break' the naval blockade that has been imposed on the Gaza Strip for security reasons, given Hamas's efforts to smuggle weaponry and terrorists into the Gaza Strip," Oren Helman, director of Israel's Government Press Office, said.

    Helman said the government of Israel has instructed the Israeli army not to allow the flotilla to reach Gaza.

    "Participation in the flotilla is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for 10 years, to the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions," Helman said.

    Israeli-American journalist Joseph Dana says he will go ahead with his decision to board the flotilla despite Israel's warning

    "I implore you to avoid taking part in this provocative and dangerous event, the purpose of which is to undermine Israel's right to defend itself and to knowingly violate Israeli law."

    In response to Helman's warning, the Jerusalem-based Foreign Press Association said in a statement: "The government's threat to punish journalists covering the Gaza flotilla sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel's commitment to freedom of the press.

    "Journalists covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threats and intimidation. We urge the government to reverse its decision immediately."

    On Friday, the US also warned the activists against their plans to send the new flotilla to the Gaza Strip, saying it would be irresponsible and dangerous.

    "Groups that seek to break Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers," Victoria Nuland, a state department spokesperson, said in a statement.

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there were better ways of getting help into Gaza.

    "We don't think it's useful or productive or helpful to the people of Gaza," Clinton told reporters after a meeting with the visiting South Korean foreign minister.

    'Element of surprise'

    Most of the activists are planning to set sail from Greece. They have, however, deliberately kept their plans vague, including their exact date of departure, to retain an element of surprise.

    Meanwhile, passengers of a US boat in the planned flotilla said Greek officials might be blocking their departure because of US and Israeli diplomatic pressure.

    Activists on board The Audacity of Hope said that Greek officials "received an anonymous request of a private citizen concerning the seaworthiness of the ship".

    The boat therefore requires a detailed inspection before which it will not be permitted to leave.

    "Israel has said openly that it is pressuring governments to try to stop the flotilla, and clearly Greece is a key government since several of the boats plan to leave from Greece," Medea Benajmin, an activist on the boat said.

    "It is unconscionable that Israel would take advantage of the economic hardship the Greek people are experiencing to try to stop our boat or the flotilla."

    The ships are not set to leave for at least five days, Mohamed Sawalha, the head of the International Committee to break the Siege, told Al Jazeera.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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