The United States Friday sharpened its warnings to activists planning a new attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade and deliver relief supplies to Palestinians in the Gaza strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed when Israel forcibly turned back an aid flotilla last year.
Officials here say the United States is making diplomatic appeals to countries around the eastern Mediterranean, including Israel, to try avoid a repeat of the deaths and injuries of last year's flotilla incident.
News reports say several hundred pro-Palestinian activists including a number of U.S. citizens intend to leave Greece in as many as ten private vessels this coming weekend to deliver humanitarian goods to Gaza and commemorate the flotilla effort broken up by Israel on May 31 of last year.
The United States says it supports Israeli efforts to curb the illicit shipment of weapons and other military items to Hamas-controlled Gaza, and says there are safe and legal channels for delivering humanitarian goods that do not challenge the blockade.
At a press event late Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Israel has recently eased restrictions on shipments of goods to Gaza and that the planned effort by the activists is unnecessary.
"We do not believe that the flotilla is a necessary or useful effort to try to assist the people of Gaza," said Clinton. "Just this week, the Israeli Government approved a significant commitment to housing in Gaza. 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."
In a travel warning to would-be flotilla participants earlier this week, the State Department said because of the "dangerous and volatile" security conditions in Gaza, U.S. citizens are advised against travel there by any means including via the sea.
It noted the casualties in last year's incident and said Americans joining in any effort to reach Gaza by sea could also face arrest, prosecution and deportation by Israel.
In a lengthy written statement Friday, the State Department also said that delivering material support to Hamas, which the United States lists as a foreign terrorist organization, could result in prosecution in American courts.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland side-stepped questions about the legality of the Israeli blockade tactics, saying the U.S. interest is in avoiding a confrontation and a repeat of last year's events.
"I think the main point that we were trying to make in the statement was that we've got to use the channels that are safe, the channels that are going to guarantee that the aid gets to where it needs to go, to the people it's intended for, and to discourage, in the strongest terms any actions on the high seas that could result in a conflict," said Nuland.
The flow of everyday materials into Gaza has increased sharply since the fall of the Hosni Mubarak government in Egypt, which had closely controlled the flow of goods through the main crossing point between Egypt and Gaza.
Israel said earlier this week it will allow the United Nations to bring building materials for more than a thousand new housing units and schools in Gaza, though aid groups operating in Gaza say supplies of many key items are still insufficient.
Activists involved in the new flotilla effort say their primary concern is the welfare of the estimated 1.6 million Gaza residents, regardless of their political affiliation.