June 25th, 2011
09:54 AM ET

State Department ups warnings to Gaza flotilla activists

The State Department Friday ramped up warnings to Americans not to join other international activists in a flotilla, expected to sail soon, aimed at challenging Israel’s maritime blockage of the Gaza strip.

Asked by CNN at a news conference Friday about the plan Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “We don't think it is useful, or productive or helpful to the people of Gaza."

"We have certainly encouraged that American citizens not participate in the flotilla,” she said, “and we are urging that all precautions be taken to avoid any kind of confrontation."

According to organizers, the flotilla is meant to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a May, 2010 flotilla that resulted in a clash in international waters with Israeli navy commandos in which nine people were killed, including an American citizen.

Clinton’s comment followed a statement by State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland who said “Groups that seek to break Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.”

That, in turn, followed a State Department Travel Warning issued Wednesday that advised U.S. citizens “against traveling to Gaza by any means, including via sea.”

“Previous attempts to enter Gaza by sea have been stopped by Israeli naval vessels and resulted in the injury, death, arrest, and deportation of U.S. citizens,” it said. “U.S. citizens participating in any effort to reach Gaza by sea should understand that they may face arrest, prosecution, and deportation by the Government of Israel.”

On their website organizers of the protest accused Clinton of seeming to “lay the ground – indeed almost provide a green light – for an Israeli military attack on the upcoming Gaza Freedom Flotilla.”

The group says it raised funds to purchase a U.S.-flagged vessel, which they named “The Audacity of Hope,” a reference to the best-selling book by President Barack Obama. The boat, they say, will carry 36 passengers, four crew, and ten members of the media. The protesters say they want to “challenge U.S. foreign policy” by providing aid and supplies directly to the citizens of Gaza, in spite of Israel’s blockade.

“We want the government to ensure safe passage by telling Israel it cannot interfere with the voyage,” they said.

The State Department counters that, if the activists want to help the citizens of Gaza, there is a legal way to do it. Thursday Secretary Clinton said “There will be construction materials entering Gaza and we think that it's not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.”

Spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters: “We've got to use the channels that are safe, the channels that are going to guarantee that the aid get where it needs to go to the people it's intended for and to discourage in strongest terms any actions on the high seas that could result in a conflict.”

The Americans planning to sail in the flotilla, meanwhile, provided a stark warning on their website: “In light of Clinton’s statements if any blood is spilled it will not only be on Israeli, but also American hands.”

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