U.S. citizens attempting to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza could face action for violating Israeli and American law, the Obama administration warned Thursday, as two boats sailed across the Mediterranean Sea toward the Hamas-controlled territory and a potential confrontation with Israel.
Twenty-seven pro-Palestinian activists from the U.S. and eight other countries were aboard the flotilla that set sail from Turkey on Wednesday. Israel and the U.S. view the mission as a dangerous provocation after the fallout from last year's attempt to challenge the blockade. That voyage ended in a deadly clash with the Israeli navy in which nine Turks, including one dual American citizen, were killed.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was renewing its call to Americans "not to involve themselves in this activity," and warned of possible consequences. When 36 Americans announced this summer that they'd try to reach Gaza in a similar effort, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said organizers were attempting to provoke Israel into taking military action, something she said would be justified.
Nuland also said the administration was pleased that Turkey's government has decided against sending naval vessels to accompany the activists, which it vowed to do after last year's deadly incident. Relations between Israel and Turkey have been severely damaged ever since.
"We've been clear to them that we think that that would be an extremely bad idea," Nuland told reporters. She said U.S. and Turkish officials spoke Thursday, and Turkey's government said "quite emphatically" that it wouldn't get involved.
Israel imposed a sea blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas militants seized control there. Israel's military says the blockade is meant to keep weapons from reaching the Islamic militants and notes that it has been upheld as legal by a U.N. study.
An Israeli military spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, said the military knew about the boats and the navy was prepared to intercept them. Activists said they were bringing medicine, but Leibovich said they could send aid to Gaza by land.
The death of an American last year put the administration in a difficult position as critics of its Mideast policy demanded that the U.S. rebuke Israel for its actions. The incident also highlighted international concern about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, which was largely cut off from the outside world.
But the U.S. has strongly backed Israel's right to prevent cargo from entering Gaza, pointing out that the territory is run by Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. It has warned that Americans providing support to Hamas are subject to fines and jail.