JERUSALEM Israel warned foreign journalists on Sunday they could be barred from the country for 10 years if they board a new flotilla that plans to challenge an Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
In a statement sent by email to Reuters and other international news organisations, Oren Helman, director of Israel's Government Press Office, said participation in the flotilla would be "an intentional violation" of Israeli law.
A year ago, nine Turkish activists, including one with dual U.S.-Turkish nationality, were killed by Israeli soldiers who raided a Gaza-bound aid convoy and were confronted by passengers wielding clubs and knives.
Pro-Palestinian activists have said ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip could depart from European ports in the coming days.
Helman said that sailing in a new flotilla "is 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."
Israel has made clear it will enforce a naval blockade it says is aimed at stopping more weaponry from reaching Hamas, an Islamist group shunned by the West over its refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing peace deals.
Palestinians say the measure is illegal and is helping to strangle Gaza's underdeveloped economy.
"I implore you to avoid taking part in this provocative and dangerous event, the purpose of which is to undermine Israel's right to defend itself and to knowingly violate Israeli law," Helman wrote in the email, asking Israel-based journalists to pass along its contents to their editorial boards overseas.
At least one Israeli journalist, a reporter for the left-wing Israeli Haaretz newspaper, plans to sail in a Canadian ship in the flotilla, according to an article published on the daily's website on Sunday. Israeli citizens are banned by Israel from entering the Gaza Strip.
In response to Helman's warning, the Jerusalem-based Foreign Press Association said in a statement: "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.
"Journalists covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threats and intimidation. We urge the government to reverse its decision immediately," the association said.
On Friday, the United States, Israel's main ally, said groups seeking to break the blockade were acting irresponsibly and risking the safety of their passengers.
In a statement, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said recent arms seizures and periodic rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza against Israeli civilians illustrated the necessity for Israel to screen cargo bound for the territory.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Jan Harvey)