Iran sought to push Israel into a potentially explosive confrontation in the Mediterranean Sea after a charity close to the Islamic regime announced plans to send two aid ships to Gaza.
By Adrian Blomfield in Jerusalem
Published: 5:12PM BST 07 Jun 2010
A photograph supplied by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) shows Israeli sailors in the navy base in Haifa as they prepare to set sail into the Mediterranean Sea on 29 May in order to track and intercept the Free Gaza Movement flotilla Photo: EPA
The Iranian Red Crescent Society said 8,000 volunteers had enlisted for an attempt break Israel's maritime blockade of Gaza.
The latest challenge to Israel's hold over the enclave comes just days after its naval commandos shot dead nine pro-Palestinian activists on a Turkish vessel that attempted to run the blockade last week. Related Articles
<LI class=bullet sizcache="36" sizset="50">
Israeli troops kill Palestinian 'terror attack' divers
<LI sizcache="36" sizset="51">
Israel must accept Palestinian state, Joe Biden says
<LI sizcache="36" sizset="52">
Hamas declares victory in Gaza claiming it lost only 48 fighters
<LI sizcache="36" sizset="53">
Britain to send warships to Gaza as Israel prepares for ceasefire
<LI sizcache="36" sizset="54">
Analysis: Israel's Gaza offensive also confronts Iran
Israel to widen offensive as Hamas fires more rockets
As Israel fought to fend off calls for an international investigation into the deaths, fears that militant groups in Gaza might launch reprisal attacks surfaced yesterday when an Israeli naval patrol shot dead four Palestinian fighters dressed in diving gear in the waters off the territory.
Israeli military officials claimed that the fighters, who were spotted in a small boat, were planning a terrorist attack, although an army spokesman declined to identify their target or to comment on whether the men were carrying weapons or explosives.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a once powerful Palestinian militant group that has largely broken up since renouncing violence some years ago, said the dead fighters were part of its Gaza-based marine unit. The movement insisted that the men were merely on a training mission and had no intention of launching an attack.
Iran's intervention added an additional and unwelcome complication for Israel.
A senior Iranian Red Crescent official insisted that the planned mission was purely peaceful and humanitarian in its goals.
"One ship will carry donations made by the people (of Iran) and the other will carry relief workers," Abdolrauf Adibzadeh said.
Yet there seems to be little doubt that the Iranian government is the real driving force behind the mission.
Although it is a member of the international Red Cross movement, the Iranian Red Crescent is widely viewed as a tool of the regime and even Mr Adibzadeh conceded that the decision to sail was taken in conjunction with the Iranian foreign ministry.
Over the weekend, Iran even suggested that its elite Revolutionary Guards force could escort aid flotillas to Gaza.
Such threats are widely seen as bluster and have even been criticised by Hamas, the Iranian-sponsored Islamist movement that controls Gaza.
Iran's sudden intervention appeared to reflect growing concerns that it is being eclipsed by Turkey as the Middle East's principal opponent of Israeli policies towards Gaza.
"The Turks are trying to rain on their parade," said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst of Iranian origin, adding that many in Gaza would prefer Turkey as their champion because it commands greater international respect and is dominated by fellow Sunnis.
Mr Javedanfar also suggested that Iran's motivations are prompted by a desire to distract attention from the first anniversary of its controversial presidential election last year. Opposition groups have staged a series of demonstrations, in which dozens have been killed, to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the poll.
It is unclear how the Iranian ships will reach Gaza. If they attempt to go through the Suez Canal, Egypt is likely to come under pressure to intercept the vessels and deliver their cargo through its border with Gaza. But there have also been suggestions that the Iranians could deploy chartered boats from Lebanon, which has a Mediterranean coastline.