JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Sunday threatened to ban international journalists for up to a decade if they join a flotilla planning to breach the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The warning reflected Israeli jitters about the international flotilla, which comes just over a year after a similar mission ended in the deaths of nine Turkish activists in clashes with Israeli naval commandos.
Israel is eager to avoid a repeat of last year's raid, which drew heavy international condemnation and ultimately forced Israel to ease its blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into the territory.
The Foreign Press Association, which represents hundreds of journalists working for international news organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories, condemned the Israeli decision and urged the government to cancel the order.
"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," the FPA said in a statement. "Journalists covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threats and intimidation."
It remains unclear when the current flotilla will actually set sail, but organizers have hinted it could be as soon as this week.
Organizers have said 10 boats, including two cargo vessels carrying aid supplies, will participate in the flotilla and that hundreds, including activists, journalists, politicians, writers and religious figures, will be on board.
About two dozen activist groups, many of them based in Europe, are organizing the flotilla. Among them is IHH, a Turkish Islamic charity that helped organize last year's flotilla and is outlawed in Israel.
In a letter to foreign journalists, the Government Press Office's director, Oren Helman, called the flotilla "a dangerous provocation that is being organized by western and Islamic extremist elements to aid Hamas."
"I would like to make it clear to you and to the media that you represent, that 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.
The letter, he added, was reviewed and approved by Israel's attorney general.
Organizers of the flotilla say the mission is necessary to draw attention to the plight of Gaza's 1.6 million residents. The Israeli blockade has caused heavy damage to Gaza's economy: Unemployment is estimated at close to 50 percent, and the territory still suffers from a shortage of badly needed construction materials.
Israel says there is no humanitarian crisis and says the flotilla is little more than a provocation aimed at stirring up trouble.
Israel has long had a strained relationship with the international media. During an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip 2½ years ago, Israeli-based journalists were prevented from entering the territory, forcing the Supreme Court to order the army to allow reporters in.
Israel imposed a land and naval blockade of Gaza after Hamas, an Iran-backed group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, took control of the coastal strip. Israel withdrew its settlers and military from Gaza in 2005.
The international uproar over last year's deadly flotilla raid forced Israel to greatly ease the land embargo, but the naval blockade remains intact.
Israel has already said it will block the flotilla this time. Naval officials say they will use different tactics in hopes of avoiding bloodshed.
Federman can be reached at www.twitter.com/joseffederman.