WASHINGTON The United States warned on Thursday that a new effort by pro-Palestinian activists to send a flotilla to challenge Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip was dangerous and urged U.S. citizens not to take part.
Activists set sail from Turkey on Wednesday aboard two yachts carrying medical supplies. The Israeli military said it would not permit them to breach its blockade.
In May 2010, nine Turkish activists, including one with dual U.S.-Turkish nationality, were killed in an Israeli raid on a similar convoy that nearly ruptured ties between Turkey and Israel, both critical U.S. allies in the region.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington had been in touch with the Turkish government on Thursday about the flotilla, and had also spoken to Israeli officials.
"My sense of this was that, given the way this came together there was some element of surprise for both the Turkish government and our own government," Nuland said.
She said the United States had sought clarification on news reports that Turkish warships might be accompanying the flotilla and were told "quite emphatically" by Turkey that this was not the case.
"We've been clear to them that we think that would be an extremely bad idea and they've now reassured us that that is not what they are doing in this case," she said.
Nuland repeated U.S. warnings about earlier flotilla plans, saying that U.S. citizens who take part in efforts to deliver material support or other resources to Hamas could face civil and criminal penalties. Hamas has been officially designated as by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization.
The latest challenge to Israel's embargo of Gaza, in force since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007 from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' forces, comes during a period of tension in the eastern Mediterranean.
The United States has backed the blockade, which Israel regards as necessary to prevent weapons from being smuggled to gunmen in the enclave.
The Palestinians maintain that the blockade is illegal collective punishment.
Turkey was angered by Israel's refusal to apologize for the May 2010 raid and two months ago expelled the Israeli ambassador. Turkey has also increased its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, and expressed disappointment over the conclusions of United Nations inquiry into the incident.
The 27 activists on board the Canadian and Irish vessels came from Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United States, and included Palestinians and at least one Israeli Arab citizen, according to organizers. Turkey has stressed that the vessels were not Turkish-flagged, had no Turkish passengers and the captains were not Turkish.
Israel has offered to unload any aid supplies and deliver them to Gaza. Israel permits humanitarian aid, food and other supplies to enter Gaza for its 1.5 million people, many of them impoverished refugees, via land crossings it closely monitors. Gaza also has a border with Egypt over which goods are imported.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)