Israel under fire over flotilla warning 27Jun11 June 28, 2011

by Ayse Alibeyoglu  -  Aljazeera -  27 June 2011

The Israeli government is facing mounting backlash from the media after it warned that journalists who travel aboard a planned Gaza flotilla may be banned from entering the country for a decade.

The Israeli security cabinet is reported to have decided to review Sunday’s warning in the wake of the criticism.

The Jerusalem-based Foreign Press Association said on Monday the “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”.

Freedom Flotilla II, comprising 10 vessels, is expected to set sail from Greece and elsewhere for the Gaza Strip in the coming days in a bid to break Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian territory. About  350 pro-Palestinian activists from 22 countries are likely to participate.

The flotilla comes a year after another aid flotilla was intercepted by Israeli commandos. At least nine activists were killed when commandos stormed Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-owned lead aid ship.

International criticism

Criticism of the Israeli warning has also come from international media organisations.

“It is very worrying that Israel would hinder journalists’ access to information, it goes against the international conventions that Israel has signed and ratified,” Soazij Dollet, head of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders North Africa and Middle East desk, told Al Jazeera.

“We want the Israeli authorities to go back on their word and allow foreign journalists and especially Israeli journalists access to Palestinian territories as a whole.”

Israeli public radio announced on Monday that the country’s security cabinet had decided to rethink the threat to punish foreign journalists.

“They decided to consider afresh the decision on the sanctions against journalists joining the flotilla,” a veteran political reporter for the station said.

The decision to review the warning has been welcomed.

“We are certainly pleased that the Israeli government is revisiting the issue of freedom of the press,” Ann Wright, an activist, told Al Jazeera.

Wright, a former US army colonel, has made several trips to Gaza in opposition to the Israeli blockade of the territory, and had participated in the 2010 flotilla.

Navy’s plans

The controversy comes as Israeli media reports say the security cabinet has approved the navy’s plans to prevent the flotilla from breaching the Gaza  blockade.

“The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were authorised to prevent it in a determined manner but one which would avoid causing casualties,” the news website Ynet said on Monday in a report corroborated by the Israeli public radio.

“Ministers approved the navy’s operational plans to take over ships in the event they approach Gaza and attempt to breach the blockade.”

An Israeli official confirmed that the closed-door meeting, the second session in as many days, had taken place but refused to comment on the deliberations.

Ministers began hearing on Sunday the military’s preparations for the flotilla.

“Yesterday, the ministers decided not to allow the ships to anchor in the Gaza Strip, although they will be allowed to unload their cargo at [the Israeli port] of Ashdod or the Egyptian port of El-Arish,” Israeli army radio said.

“If no weapons or ammunition are found, the cargo will be transferred in its entirety to Gaza.”

Israeli public radio said Egypt had already agreed to allow the ships to dock at El-Arish, an Egyptian port which lies some 50km west of the Gaza border.

Cargo vessels

Boats from Greece, France, Italy and Spain are among those joining Freedom Flotilla II, although the Mavi Marmara will not be part of it.

Two cargo vessels will carry medicines, a fully equipped ambulance car and cement.

“We are delivering a dangerous cargo of letters and words. Free passage must be allowed, Gaza waters are not Israeli waters,” Wright said.

“The United States and Israel should end the blockade so that the people of Gaza can live humanely with dignity and self-respect, values that we take for granted in our societies.”

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, and several international leaders have urged the flotilla not to set sail, and the US has warned American nationals not to join the attempt to break the embargo.

A number of journalists are among those taking part in the fresh bid to break Israel’s five-year naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians.

The border has remained largely shut since June 2006 when Israel imposed a tight blockade on the coastal territory after fighters snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held.

The blockade was tightened a year later when Hamas seized control of the territory, ousting forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority.

The UN has called the blockade illegal and repeatedly demanded it be lifted. A ban on civilian goods and foodstuffs was eased last year but many restrictions remain in place.

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