Israel threatens to punish journalists for covering Gaza flotilla

A flotilla of activists preparing to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza is expected to leave Greece this week.

Ariel Schalit/AP/File
The Mavi Marmara ship, the lead boat of a flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip which was stormed by Israeli naval commandos in a predawn confrontation, sails into the port of Ashdod, Israel May 31, 2010. Israel on Sunday, threatened to ban international journalists for up to a decade from the country if they join a flotilla planning to breach the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

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Hundreds of activists are preparing to set sail for Gaza from Greece this week in an effort to break the Israeli embargo on the Palestinian territory despite Israel's warnings that it will not allow the fleet to reach Gaza and will punish journalists who cover the news from the flotilla.

The event comes a little more than a year after nine Turkish activists were killed when Israeli commandos intercepted a flotilla also attempting to reach Gaza. The international uproar that ensued led Israel to ease the blockade on Gaza, and greatly damaged its relationship with its key strategic ally, Turkey.

Israel is eager to avoid another violent confrontation that would increase international pressure, but it is not expected to back down from its commitment to prevent the ships from reaching Gaza. The country began limiting the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza in 2006 when Hamas militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still in captivity. The embargo was tightened when Hamas took over the territory in 2007.

A warning to foreign journalists

On Sunday, Israel warned foreign journalists who sail on the flotilla that it could ban them from entering Israel for up to 10 years and confiscate their equipment, reports Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The warning, in a letter from the Government Press Office, says the flotilla is “a dangerous provocation that is being organized by Western and Islamic extremist elements to aid Hamas."

Flotilla participants are simulating encounters with the Israeli Navy, practicing for what is likely to happen on the three-day journey to Gaza, wrote Amira Hass, a columnist for the Israeli daily, Haaretz. She's in Greece, preparing to board the flotilla.

A columnist for the Israeli news website YNet writes that media are crossing the line by boarding the ships.

“We should all be extremely concerned by the announcement that among those sailing on the imminent flotilla to Gaza are journalists representing mainstream media, including the New York Times and camera crews from CNN and CBS,” writes Simon Plosker. “This is a clear example of the symbiotic relationship between the media and anti-Israel agitators such as those behind the flotilla.”

Israel: We will stop the flotilla

Israel said Thursday it would stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza.

"The flotilla has nothing constructive. There is nothing humanitarian or anything that has to do with Palestinian welfare in the organizing of this flotilla," said Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor. Mr. Prosor called flotilla participants "extremists."

On Friday, US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said those participating are taking “irresponsible and provocative” actions and urged activists to use “established and efficient” mechanisms for getting aid to Gaza. According to the AFP international news service, the flotilla includes about 350 pro-Palestinian activists from 22 countries.

Al Jazeera reports that the activists are purposefully keeping their departure date vague to “keep an element of surprise.”

After Greek authorities said they had received a complaint about the seaworthiness of one of the vessels, which may keep it from sailing, some of the activists accused Israel and the US of pressuring the Greek government to keep the flotilla from sailing, reports Al Jazeera.

Israel denied pressuring Greece, reports CNN.

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