WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Friday stepped up pressure on American activists planning to challenge Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, formally warning they face action from Israeli authorities and may be violating U.S. law.
The warning was the latest in a series from the State Department this week urging Americans not to join a flotilla planned to commemorate a similar effort to challenge the blockade last year. That voyage ended in a deadly clash with the Israeli navy in which an American citizen and eight other persons were killed.
The warnings came after 36 Americans said they will sail a U.S.-flagged vessel in the flotilla and come at a delicate point in U.S. diplomatic efforts to get Israel and the Palestinians to resume stalled peace talks.
American participation, which Israel has vowed to thwart, could embarrass the administration as the ship the group intends to use is named "The Audacity of Hope," which takes its name from the title of President Barack Obama's best-selling book.
"We don't think it is useful, helpful or productive for the people of Gaza," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, weighing in on the matter for the second time in two days. "We have certainly encouraged that American citizens not participate in the flotilla and we are urging that all precautions be taken to avoid any kind of confrontation."
Friday's formal warning said attempts to break the blockade are "irresponsible and provocative" and notes that Israel has well-established means of delivering assistance to the Palestinian residents of Gaza. It also pointed out that the territory is run by the militant Hamas group, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, and that Americans providing support to it are subject to fines and jail.
"Groups that seek to break Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. She said the U.S. "deeply regrets" that May 31, 2010 confrontation between the previous flotilla and Israeli naval forces, which resulted in deaths, including of a dual citizen of Turkey and the U.S.
The death of Furkan Dogan 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 until recently was largely cut off from the outside world.
Nuland said that the U.S. is concerned about humanitarian conditions in Gaza, but urged those seeking to send aid there to use established channels. She said that Israel continues to have legitimate security concerns about cargo going into Hamas-controlled Gaza, citing recent seizures of weapons and ammunition bound for the territory.
"We underscore that 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 U.S. civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration," Nuland said.
Since the American activists announced their plans Monday, the State Department has issued three increasingly dire warnings on three consecutive days.
On Wednesday, the department's travel warning for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza specifically advised against "participation in any attempt to reach Gaza by sea." On Thursday, Clinton said the flotilla organizers were attempting only to provoke Israel into taking military action, something she said would be justified.
Flotilla organizers have not set a date for setting sail, but their ships are expected to leave from various European ports in the next week.
Meanwhile, senior U.S. diplomats have been trying to get the peace process back on track. U.S. officials are hoping that Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East, in which he laid out a foundation for re-launching negotiations, may spur movement.