Iran is sending aid ships to blockaded Gaza, state radio said on Monday - a move likely to be considered provocative by Israel which accuses Tehran of arming the Palestinian enclave's Islamist rulers, Hamas.
One ship left port on Sunday and another will depart by Friday, loaded with food, construction material and toys, the report said. "Until the end of (Israel's) Gaza blockade, Iran will continue to ship aid," said an official at Iran's Society for the Defence of the Palestinian Nation.
Iran has sent aid to the coastal territory in the past via Egypt. It was not immediately clear if the latest shipments would do the same, or try to dock in Gaza itself.
In January 2009, an Israeli warship approached an Iranian aid boat heading for the Mediterranean territory and told it to leave the area, 70 km from Gaza. The ship went on to Egypt, which borders Gaza, but was refused permission to unload.
The European Union pressed Israel Monday to lift the blockade of Gaza, deeming it "unacceptable" while the Israeli Cabinet approved an investigation into the deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in an effort to counter international criticism.
EU members met in Luxembourg to discuss ways Europe could renew its role in helping supervise Gaza's volatile border crossings. Mideast mediator Tony Blair said he hopes Israel will soon ease the three-year-old blockade by allowing commercial goods and reconstruction materials to flow into the Palestinian territory.
Israel has rejected heavy pressure for an international investigation into the May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound international flotilla aimed at busting the blockade. Israeli soldiers killed nine pro-Palestinian activists. Israel claims the United Nations and other global bodies have a long history of bias against Israel. But in consultation with its key U.S. ally, Israel agreed to add two high-ranking foreign observers to try to bolster the credibility of its investigation.
Before the Cabinet voted on the investigation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was confident the makeup of the commission - to be headed by a retired Supreme Court justice - would blunt international criticism and prove Israel handled the affair responsibly.
"I am convinced that the commission's uncovering of the facts will prove that the goals and actions of the state of Israel and the Israeli military were appropriate defensive actions in accordance with the highest international standards," he said.
The White House has backed Israel's inquiry, calling it "an important step forward."
Iran lodged a protest over the blockade with Egypt, which has a peace agreement with the Jewish state.
Israel has long suspected Iran of supplying weapons to Hamas. Tehran says it only provides moral support to the group.
The deputy head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards played down reports that the Guards would provide a military escort to aid ships heading to Gaza - something which would be sure to escalate tensions in the region.
"Such a thing is not on our agenda," Hossein Salami was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
The Islamic state has refused to recognize Israel since its 1979 revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, and some Iranian leaders have called for the demise of the Jewish state.
In another sign of reluctance to risk high-level confrontation with Israel, a delegation of parliamentarians who plan to travel to Gaza will do so via Egypt, rather than on any aid ships headed directly to the enclave.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliament's Foreign Policy and National Security committee, said Egyptian authorities were "positive" about the lawmaker's proposed visit, but had yet to issue formal consent.
Up to a quarter of Iran's 291 lawmakers have expressed their wish to go to Gaza, Iranian media reported.
An official of the Iranian Red Crescent Society's youth organization said some 100,000 Iranians had volunteered as potential crew for aid ships, daily newspaper Iran reported.
In the past, similar numbers have registered as potential fighters for any conflict with Israel.
Israel is the most vocal opponent of Iran's nuclear enrichment program, which it fears is aimed at developing atomic bombs - something it sees as a threat to its survival.
Iran says its nuclear program is meant solely to yield electricity or isotopes for medicine and agriculture. It accuses the West of hypocrisy for taking little action against the nuclear arsenal which many believe Israel to have.
With files from Associated Press
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