US issues stern warning to Gaza flotilla activists

State Department urges activists to ship aid though "established and efficient" means, says US backs Israel's right to screen cargo.

Victoria Nuland 311 (photo credit: State Department)
Victoria Nuland 311
(photo credit: State Department)
WASHINGTON – The US State Department on Friday warned American activists planning to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza that they risk criminal prosecution if they go through with their attempt.
Organizers said the flotilla – comprised of 10 passenger vessels and two cargo ships – would set sail on Tuesday, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported on Friday.
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According to the report, the vessels, coming from different ports in the Mediterranean, will meet off the coast of Cyprus.
“Delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas, could violate US civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
This was the sharpest US warning against participating in the flotilla to date, and came as a group of American citizens, including noted writer and poet Alice Walker, gathered in Greece with plans to join the flotilla on a vessel called the Audacity of Hope, named after one of US President Barack Obama’s autobiographies.
The Americans are reported to be among the participants of the flotilla, which is intended to commemorate a similar operation that left nine Turkish men – one of who had dual citizenship with the US – dead after a confrontation with the IDF in May 2010.
Nuland strongly criticized the activists aiming to break the blockade, who say they want to provide humanitarian supplies to civilians there, and urged them to use other means to transfer aid to the Palestinians.
“Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers,” she said.
“Established and efficient mechanisms exist to transfer humanitarian assistance to Gaza,” Nuland said.
“We urge all those seeking to provide such assistance to the people of Gaza to use these mechanisms, and not to participate in actions like the planned flotilla.”
The Obama administration has long pushed Israel to offer a more open flow of goods to Gaza, but Nuland said that while the US remains concerned about conditions in the coastal strip, “the humanitarian situation has significantly improved over the last year.”
She also pointed to the recent seizures of weapons bound for Gaza from the sea.
“These seizures underscore the vital importance to Israel’s security of ensuring that all cargo bound for Gaza is appropriately screened for illegal arms and dual-use materials,” she said.
Nuland, also called on Hamas to accept the Quartet principles of renouncing violence, recognizing Israel’s right to exist and accepting past agreements.
In addition to Nuland’s criticism, the White House on Friday also leveled its own attack on Hamas. White House press secretary Jay Carney described the group as “in violation of the standards of basic decency and international humanitarian demands” for holding abducted IDF soldier Gilad Schalit for five years without any access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“As the anniversary of his capture approaches, the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms his continued detention, and joins other governments and international organizations around the world in calling on Hamas to release him immediately,” Carney said in his statement.
Fiamma Nirenstein, vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, said in a statement that her government had reaffirmed its pledge to dissuade Italians from joining the protest flotilla.
The Italian ship Stefano Chiarini is set to sail for Gaza this week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday.
Nirenstein submitted a parliamentary query on June 14, in which she asked how Italy intends to abide by the UN secretary-general’s request “to discourage new flotillas bound for Gaza,” and how it intends to “avoid undermining the safety of Italian citizens in case they should be found on those ships, as it has been reported.”
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s administration replied to Nirenstein on June 22.
“The Italian government fully shares the concerns and recommendations of the UN secretary-general,” the statement read. “In April, Prime Minister Berlusconi stated that his executive intends to make every effort to avoid this year other initiatives that can damage the resumption of the peace process.
“Minister [of Foreign Affairs Franco] Frattini affirmed on May 10 that the best way to assist the population of Gaza is to deliver humanitarian aid via the land crossing, which would avoid any kind of provocation that could only result in a rise in tension,” the statement continued.
Italy said Israeli measures to facilitate movement and access of goods and materials “are going in the right direction,” and it called for additional international pressure “to avoid provocations and situations of crisis in which new flotillas could be involved.”
When asked by Nirenstein about the safety of Italians aboard the ships bound for Gaza, the Italian government wrote, “We are on alert in order to prevent any kind of danger that might undermine the safety of Italian citizens.”
It pointed to Austria, Germany, France and the UK as countries that have also highlighted on their foreign ministry websites the legal and physical risks of trying to break Israel’s blockade.

Herb Keinon and Benjamin Weinthal in Berlin contributed to this report.