JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday rescinded a warning by the Israeli Government Press Office that foreign journalists who board a flotilla challenging Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip could be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 the 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 10 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 the 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.
Israel’s 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 vessels and divert them to Israel’s port of Ashdod. The ships are expected to converge at sea this week and attempt to sail to Gaza.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Israel Radio that both he and Netanyahu were “surprised” when they heard on the morning news about Helman’s move, which he called “problematic.”
“It’s impossible today in the modern era to block the media,” Ya’alon said. “And if the media is there, it is preferable that we not clash with it.”
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 Gaza.