Iran prepares to confront Israel with aid flotilla

The iranian red crescent is planning to send humanitarian aid by sea to Gaza in a brazen challenge to Israel's sea blockade of the coastal enclave. The attempt to confront Israel's naval defences could escalate tensions between Israel and Iran, its greatest foe, and trigger a rerun of the bungled raid on a Turkish vessel bound for Gaza last week that left nine activists dead.

The move came as Israel bowed to international pressure to conduct an investigation into the botched flotilla operation. The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said yesterday that Israel would conduct an internal inquiry and examine ways of easing the blockade in Gaza, a step short of the United Nations' demand for an international probe.

"We intend to achieve an investigation of the events," Mr Barak said, adding that the inquiry would also examine the legality of the Gaza blockade. "We will draw lessons at the political level, [and] in the security establishment."

Earlier, US Vice President Joe Biden held talks with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, on new ways to approach the humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza amid signs that Washington's support for the blockade may be wearing thin. An unnamed Egyptian security official said that the blockade had been a failure and that Egypt would keep open "indefinitely" its border crossing with Gaza. The Egyptian crossing is open only to students, medical patients and foreign passport holders.

The Iranian Red Crescent, which is backed by the Islamic regime, said on its website that it had been inundated with requests from volunteers to join its three-ship convoy to Gaza, and so has decided to extend the deadline by another two weeks. It could set sail later this month.

Israel, which has agitated for a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, denounced the plans as "hardcore provocation" and "a threat made before deep thinking".

"If they actually send ships, it would mean they're looking for a confrontation," said Yigal Palmor, a foreign ministry spokesman. He did not indicate how Israel would respond, but officials have insisted that they will not allow any ships to break the blockade.

Israel has justified its land and sea blockade on the grounds that it stops the flow of weapons to the Islamist group Hamas, which governs Gaza. Critics say that the blockade has strengthened Hamas and caused a humanitarian crisis.

It remains unclear how Iran would move aid ships into the Mediterranean without the help of neighbouring countries. The most direct route is through the Suez Canal, which is governed by an international treaty, but Egypt, which has supported Israel's blockade of Gaza, would be likely to stop it.

At the weekend, Iran reportedly suggested that it might send the Iranian Republican Guard to protect future convoys, a move that would be viewed by Israel as a direct challenge to its authority.

The International Federation of the Red Cross, which represents the Iranian Red Crescent abroad, said that it did not have any information on the shipments and could not comment.

Israel drew global condemnation when it launched a bloody assault last Monday on a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, which was part of a six-ship humanitarian convoy attempting to break the Gaza blockade. Israel claimed that its soldiers came under premeditated attack from hardcore activists aboard the ship. Several passengers have alleged that the shooting began before Israeli soldiers landed on deck.

Although the mission, organised by the Free Gaza Movement, was unsuccessful, it drew international attention to the humanitarian conditions of Palestinians in Gaza, who have lived under siege since Hamas seized power in 2007.

Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran, said that Tehran was seeking to steal back the limelight from Turkey. "If anything, the Iranians are going to damage the credibility of the Free Gaza Movement," he said. The risk is that Israel would attempt to stop this new convoy with force as it did on the Marmara, provoking a wider conflict.

Israeli naval commandos shot dead four Palestinian divers yesterday some 100 metres off the Gaza shoreline. Israel said the men, members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militant group loosely aligned with Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction, were planning an attack. One of the survivors said that the men were unarmed and had been taking part in swimming training.

'Witch-hunt' of flotilla MP

An Arab Israeli member of parliament accused colleagues of conducting a "witch-hunt" before a panel voted to strip her of parliamentary privileges for taking part in the flotilla aimed at breaching Israel's sea blockade of Gaza.

The Knesset's House Committee voted seven to one in favour of stripping Haneen Zuabi, a member of the opposition Balad party, of parliamentary privileges including the right to a diplomatic passport and legal financial support.

The move, which must be approved by the Knesset, is likely to erode further already fragile relations with Israel's Arab community who took Israeli citizenship in 1948. Right-wing politicians have used the flotilla incident to renew their attack on Arab politicians perceived as disloyal to the Jewish State.

Ms Zuabi, 41, joined hundreds of protesters aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of six vessels loaded with humanitarian aid that tried to breach the Israeli-led blockade of Gaza last week. In a botched assault of the ship, Israeli commandos killed nine of the activists and drew global condemnation.

Ms Zuabi's participation in the protest drew intense anger in Israel. She was pushed, poked and jostled by colleagues in the Knesset last week and a Facebook page calling for her execution soon attracted thousands of followers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has called on the Attorney General to strip Ms Zuabi of her Israeli citizenship.

She said members of her left-wing party, who stand up for Arab-Israeli rights, had been victims of a witch-hunt. She boycotted yesterday's parliamentary discussion.

"The decision is racist and anti-democratic," the Balad party said in a statement. The MPs "who incite against Zuabi spill her blood – they are calling on the public to harm her and following their decision, her life will be threatened."

Before the vote, Yariv Levin, a member of the right-wing Likud Party and chairman of the House Committee, said that Ms Zuabi had betrayed Israel.

"What Zuabi did crossed the line and even in a democracy there must be red lines. Whoever sails to [Islamist movement] Hamas is a supporter of terror," said Levin, Ha'aretz reported.

Catrina Stewart

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