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2011-06-27

Obama Admin Warns of “Fines and Incarceration” if U.S. Citizens Set Sail with Gaza Aid Flotilla

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A group of U.S. citizens is rejecting the Obama administration’s attempt to thwart their aid mission to the Gaza Strip, which threatens to leave them stranded in Greece. They are set to sail from a Greek port on a U.S.-flagged ship called “The Audacity of Hope,” part of an international humanitarian flotilla carrying aid for Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinian residents. Flotilla members are taking part despite Israeli threats to intercept their ships. Nine people were killed in an Israeli attack on the first aid flotilla just over a year ago. The Audacity of Hope passengers have called for the U.S. government’s help in ensuring their safe passage. But instead, the Obama administration has told them not to set sail and even warned them they could face punishment back home. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested Israel would have the right to use force to prevent the ships’ passage. The State Department called the flotilla "irresponsible and provocative" and warned that U.S. delegates could face "fines and incarceration.” We play an excerpt from a press conference when State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is repeatedly questioned about the Obama administration’s threat, but refuses to answer whether the U.S. considers the Israeli blockade of Gaza to be legal. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A group of U.S. citizens is defiantly rejecting the Obama administration’s attempt to thwart their aid mission to the Gaza Strip, which threatens to leave them stranded in Greece. Up to 50 Americans are set to sail from a Greek port on a U.S.-flagged ship called The Audacity of Hope, named after President Obama’s bestselling book. The boat is part of an international flotilla carrying aid for Gaza’s one-and-a-half million Palestinian residents. The first two ships of the 10 ships participating in the mission have already left from France.

The flotilla members are taking part despite Israeli threats to intercept their ships. Nine people were killed in an Israeli attack on the first flotilla just over a year ago. The Audacity of Hope passengers have called for the U.S. government’s help in ensuring their safe passage. But instead, the Obama administration has told them not to set sail and even warned them they could face punishment back home. Speaking to reporters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested Israel would have the right to use force to prevent the ships’ passage.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Well, we do not believe that the flotilla is a necessary or useful effort to try to assist the people of Gaza. 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, you know, try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: The State Department followed Clinton’s comments with a statement calling the flotilla, quote, "irresponsible and provocative" and warned that U.S. delegates could face, quote, "fines and incarceration." On Friday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was questioned about the Obama administration’s threat. Under repeated questioning, Nuland refused to answer whether the U.S. considers the Israeli blockade of Gaza to be legal.

REPORTER 1: Just to make sure, does the U.S. consider that blockade legal?

VICTORIA NULAND: 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 get where it needs to go, to the people it’s intended for, and to discourage, in strongest terms, any actions on the high seas that could result in a conflict.

REPORTER 1: Right, but again, that doesn’t answer the question of the legality or the—whether the U.S. perceives that blockade as legal or not.

VICTORIA NULAND: I don’t have anything for you on legality here.

REPORTER 1: The people who are putting this together have a rather elaborate website, and they say that—on that, that the U.S. should be protecting the rights of American citizens, protecting their safety abroad. So that is the argument that they’re making. They’re very disappointed and shocked that the State Department would be warning people off. What do you say to that?

VICTORIA NULAND: It is in the interest of protecting both Americans and other citizens from around the world who might be thinking about engaging in provocative moves like this that we were putting out these warnings so strongly in the same season where we had this problem last year. We don’t want to see a repeat, and we do believe that those who want to aid Gaza can do so and need to do so in the correct manner.

REPORTER 2: Well, just one more on this, yeah. I don’t think you said it, but people at the State Department have said Israel has a right to defend itself against these flotillas. What exactly would it be defending against, though? That’s what’s not clear to me.

VICTORIA NULAND: Like all states, Israel has a right of national self-defense. Again, I don’t want to get into where the boat might be and law of the sea and all this kind of stuff. We are simply saying this is the wrong way to get aid to Gaza. The correct way to get aid to Gaza is through the established mechanisms, which are improving, which are open, and which can get aid to the people that it’s intended for.

REPORTER 2: But it’s just humanitarian aid, so I don’t see why it would be—Israel would have to defend itself, if it’s just humanitarian aid coming in.

VICTORIA NULAND: It’s the matter of all states to provide coastal defense, but I’m—again, I’m not going to get into the law of the sea issues here. We’re simply trying to make the point that we want this done in a way that not only is going to get the aid where it’s intended but is going to ensure that we don’t have dangerous incidents.

REPORTER 2: You believe that because there are established—already established means, the Israeli port where things are inspected and the Rafah Crossing, that in this case, being provocative is unnecessary and unwise, because it’s just not needed, there are other ways to do it. Is that—that’s the bottom line?

VICTORIA NULAND: That’s certainly the case, and we don’t want—we don’t want further incidents. It’s not in anybody’s interest.

REPORTER 3: Is the regular blockade a provocative act?

VICTORIA NULAND: I think we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go on this subject.

AMY GOODMAN: That was U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.

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