Israel suspends MP for opposing Gaza blockade

The Israeli parliament has temporarily suspended an Israeli-Arab politician who participated in the Gaza-bound flotilla last year that was intercepted by Israel in a bungled assault that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.

Civil rights groups condemned the controversial sanction against Haneen Zoabi, an MP with the Balad Party. Her suspension came as a lone French yacht tried to run Israel's blockade of Gaza as the sole representative of a much larger convoy that had hoped to sail weeks ago but has been grounded by the authorities in Greece.

The French-flagged Dignite - Al Karama, which sailed from Greece after naming Egypt as its destination, expects to reach Gaza's territorial waters around midday today in an attempt to refocus international attention on Israel's four-year blockade of the tiny Palestinian enclave. Activists on board the vessel, which is carrying 17 passengers, among them a French politician, said they were bringing a message of "peace and love and hope".

The effort is likely to be more symbolic than effective as Israeli troops are primed to prevent any ship from entering the sea around Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's hawkish Prime Minister, has repeatedly warned that the Jewish State will use force to repel any attempt to run the blockade.

Last year, Israeli commandoes mounted a deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship of a Gaza-bound aid convoy, that left nine Turkish activists dead, provoking international outrage and badly damaging Israel's relations with Turkey, its erstwhile ally.

Ms Zoabi, a vociferous critic of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, was a passenger on the Mavi Marmara, attracting fury in Israel. She was branded a traitor by colleagues and stripped of some parliamentary privileges. But the latest move to sanction her demonstrates the extent to which the flotilla affair still rankles in Israel. The Knesset's ethics committee voted to bar Ms Zoabi from parliamentary debates until the current session ends next month, declaring that her actions had "harmed national security and were inconsistent with the legitimate conduct of a lawmaker".

The committee accused her of co-operating with IHH, the Turkish charity that was the driving force of the flotilla, with links to Hamas, the militant Islamist group in charge of Gaza.

Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist group, and imposed its blockade in part to weaken it and prevent arms smuggling, but critics say the policy, which has devastated Gaza's economy and effectively imprisoned its 1.6 million inhabitants, has failed.

Ms Zoabi slammed the committee's decision, saying she had taken part in the flotilla "as part of a struggle that is humanitarian, moral and politically just in defence of a besieged people".

"The decision to keep me away from discussions in the Knesset is a political decision and a reflection of the right-wing majority," she told Agence France Presse.