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Avoid Gaza Flotilla, Israel Warns Foreign Journalists

by Open-Publishing - Tuesday 28 June 2011

Media-Network Demos-Actions International

Israel threatened Sunday to bar for up to a decade any foreign journalist who boards a flotilla seeking to challenge an Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.

Oren Helman, the director of the Government Press Office, sent a letter to registered foreign correspondents here asserting that the flotilla, scheduled to sail this week, was illegal and that participation in it, even as a reporter, was “liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years, to the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions.”

Mr. Helman asked that his message be sent to editors around the world.

Israel’s Foreign Press Association replied by calling on Mr. Helman to reverse his decision, saying journalists “covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threat and intimidation.”

It added that his letter “sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.”

Scores of pro-Palestinian activists, including a group of Americans, are planning to sail about 10 vessels from European ports toward Gaza to protest Israel’s control of Gaza’s waters. Israel says its blockade is aimed at stopping arms and rockets from arriving in Gaza, which is run by the militant group Hamas.

Journalists, including one from The New York Times, have signed up to cover the flotilla by joining the activists on board.

Thirteen months ago, Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish vessel whose crew and passengers were seeking to break the blockade and, facing resistance, killed nine people aboard.

Israel says that its Gaza blockade is legal and that it will make sure that no boat violates it, even if that means resorting to force again.

Some of the vessels planning to take part this year are bringing construction equipment and humanitarian aid, including medicine, which have been scarce in Gaza because of a siege imposed by Israel and Egypt for the past four years to isolate Hamas.

But the real purpose of the flotilla is less to deliver goods and building supplies, which are increasingly available in Gaza now, than to challenge Israel’s control over Gaza’s borders. The American vessel, for example, will not be loaded with any goods.

Israel’s relationship with the foreign news media has grown strained in recent years; the country increasingly believes that foreign portrayals of its conflict with the Palestinians are harsh and one-sided.

Two and a half years ago, when Israel invaded Gaza to stop Hamas from shooting rockets at Israeli communities — about 8,000 had been fired — the Israeli military barred reporters from entering Gaza to report on the war.

There was no public outcry, but the Foreign Press Association took the case to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled that the army had acted improperly. It ordered the army to admit a small groups of reporters. Commanders kept saying that it was unsafe, and it was not until the last day of the war that the foreign journalists were allowed to enter.