JERUSALEM Israel said Sunday that any foreign journalist caught on board a Gaza-bound flotilla could face deportation and a 10-year ban from the country, in a move that threatened to worsen the nation's already strained relationship with the international media.
Journalists said they should be allowed to cover a legitimate news story, but Israel said the media would be complicit in an illegal breach of its naval blockade of a hostile territory ruled by a terrorist group.
The announcement reflected Israeli jitters about the international flotilla, which comes just more than a year after a similar mission ended with the deaths of nine Turkish activists in clashes with Israeli naval commandos who intercepted them. Each side blamed the other for the violence.
Israel is eager to avoid a repeat of last year's raid, which drew heavy international condemnation and prompted Israel to ease its blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Many Israelis believe that the media's coverage of the bloodshed contributed to their country's image problems.
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."
He warned journalists that taking part 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.
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.