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Israel drops warning to foreign journalists on Gaza flotilla
By Joel Greenberg, Monday, June 27, 11:36 AM
[In this May 31, 2010 file photo the Mavi Marmara ship, the lead boat of a flotilla which was stormed by Israeli naval commandos, sails into the port of Ashdod. Israel threatened to ban journalists for up to a decade from the country if they join a flotilla.]
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday rescinded a warning by the Israeli Government Press Office that foreign journalists who board a flotilla challenging Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza could be barred from the country for a decade.
The threat, in a letter sent Sunday to accredited foreign correspondents in Israel from Oren Helman, the director of the press office, strained relations with international media and drew criticism in Israel, including from one of Netanyahu’s deputies.
Helman wrote that participation in the flotilla, even by journalists, violated Israeli law and 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.”
The Foreign Press Association in Israel said the letter sent a “chilling message” to international media and raised “serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.”
A statement from Netanyahu’s office said that after the matter had been brought to his attention, he had directed that “the regular policy against infiltrators and those who enter Israel illegally not be implemented,” and that “a special procedure” be drawn up for journalists covering the flotilla who might arrive in Israel in violation of its entry laws.
The Israeli military has warned that it will stop the flotilla, expected to consist of about 10 ships carrying activists from several countries, and if necessary seize and divert the vessels to Israel’s port of Ashdod. The ships are expected to converge at sea later this week and attempt to sail to Gaza.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon told Israel Radio that both he and Netanyahu had been “surprised” by Helman’s move, which he called “problematic.”
The statement from Netanyahu’s office said it had been agreed that Israeli and foreign reporters would be embedded with Israeli naval vessels “to create transparency and credible coverage of the events.”
An Israeli naval commando raid on a Turkish ship in a similar flotilla 13 months ago met resistance from activists on board, and nine were killed. The incident drew international condemnation and led Israel to ease its land blockade of the Gaza Strip.