JERUSALEM (AP) – The Israeli government on Monday dropped a threat to issue lengthy deportation orders against journalists aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla, in an attempt to scale back a crisis with the international media.
On Sunday, Israel's Government Press Office sent a letter warning that any journalist caught on board the flotilla would be violating Israeli entry laws and could face deportation and a 10-year ban from the country.
The warning sparked an outcry from foreign journalists and was fiercely debated in Israeli media.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that after the issue was brought to his attention he ordered authorities not to apply the regular measures taken against infiltrators and to find a formula for the reporters intending to take part in a flotilla that violates Israel's entry laws.
He did not provide any details — only that an exception will be made for the journalists on board.
"In parallel, it was agreed that Israeli and international journalists join the navy ships in order to create transparency and reliable coverage of the events," his office said in a statement.
The Foreign Press Association, which represents hundreds of journalists working for international news organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories, had sharply condemned Israel's original threat, saying they should be allowed to cover a legitimate news story.
"The government's threat to punish journalists covering the Gaza flotilla sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel's commitment to freedom of the press," it said in a statement.
The Israeli warning highlighted an already strained relationship with the international media and reflected Israeli jitters over the flotilla, which comes just more than a year after a similar mission ended in the deaths of nine Turkish activists in clashes with Israeli naval commandos.
Israel is eager to avoid a repeat of last year's raid, which drew heavy international condemnation and ultimately forced Israel to ease its blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza. Israel says the embargo is needed to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into the territory.
Israel said media on board the flotilla would be complicit in an illegal breach of its naval blockade of Gaza.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said an exception would be made for journalists.
"The first decision was taken at a lower working bureaucratic level but when the issue went to the top, the prime minister made a decision that he thought would serve the country's interests," he said.