JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel backtracked on Monday on a threat to bar foreign journalists from entering the country for 10 years if they board a new international aid flotilla that plans to challenge the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an official statement said, instructed authorities to exempt foreign reporters from "the usual policy applied to infiltrators and those who enter illegally."
In an email to foreign news organisations on Sunday, the Government Press Office (GPO) said journalists' participation in the flotilla would be "an intentional violation" of Israeli law that could result in a 10-year entry ban to Israel and confiscation of their equipment.
The Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem had described the GPO's warning as a "chilling message" that raised questions about Israel's commitment to freedom of the press. Several Israeli legislators also condemned the GPO's move.
Israel says it will prevent the convoy from reaching Gaza, a territory run by Hamas Islamists, and proposes the ships planning to set sail from European ports this week dock in Israel or Egypt and transfer cargo overland to the enclave.
In Athens, a group of 400 pro-Palestinian activists called on the Greek government to let them depart in "The Freedom Flotilla II." Cyprus, used as a launch pad for earlier voyages, has banned them from sailing from its ports.
A year ago, nine Turkish activists, including one with dual U.S.-Turkish nationality, were killed by Israeli soldiers who raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla and were confronted by passengers wielding clubs and knives.
Israeli officials said the GPO warning referred to the likelihood that reporters, along with activists, would be expelled if the ships docked in Israel and that deportation stamps in their passports would disqualify them for up to 10 years from visiting the country.
Netanyahu, the officials said, overruled what they described as a staff-level decision, and lifted the deportation threat for journalists whose credentials are recognized by Israel.
In its announcement, the Prime Minister's Office said Israeli and foreign reporters would be invited aboard Israeli navy ships sent to intercept the flotilla, to ensure "transparency and accurate coverage."
Israel says its blockade is aimed at stopping weaponry from reaching Hamas, which is shunned by the West because of its refusal to recognize the Jewish state, renounce violence and accept existing peace deals.
Palestinians say the edict is illegal and is helping to strangle Gaza's underdeveloped economy.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged governments on Monday not to assist the flotilla and said he had ordered the army to stop the vessels. The United States has supported the naval blockade and warned activists last week the voyage would be irresponsible and dangerous.
"If there is any friction or violence it will be the organizers and participants of the flotilla who bare the responsibility," Barak said in public remarks.
The activists -- who include European MPs, a former CIA analyst and a 75-year Holocaust survivor, professors and authors -- rejected the warnings and said they would not give up.
"If they physically stop us -- we know and they know -- we will come again and again until this siege is lifted completely and permanently," said Dror Feiler, one of the activists.
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou in Athens; editing by Mark Heinrich