David Harris
June 16, 2010 - 12:00am

Three ships bound for the Gaza Strip, two from Iran and one from Lebanon, are expected to set sail in the next few days, and a confrontation with the Israeli navy is likely.

These are the latest missions to break the blockade on Gaza, following an Israeli naval raid on an aid flotilla on May 31, killing nine people.

Israel officially started an investigation into the raid after its cabinet approved on Monday the establishment of an inquiry panel including two foreign observers.

The Jewish state is likely to meet challenge from the north as the Naji Al Ali is to set sail. The ship was named after an Arab cartoonist, a harsh criticizer of Israel, who was killed by unknown assassins.

The journey, organized by two local groups, namely Journalists without Bounds and Free Palestine, is to ship aid and volunteers, most of whom are women, to the enclave. Besides, there will be a heavy presence of at least 50 journalists.

Israeli officials are concerned that in addition to genuine grassroots activists, members of organizations such as the Lebanese-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah will also be aboard.

Israel said it will not allow any ship to dock in Gaza, and in light with an agreement signed with the Palestinians in 1994, it will let such vessels to stop at the Israeli port of Ashdod near Gaza for security checks, and then transport the aid to the enclave by road.

Israel would strive to avoid incidents like last month's raid which exposed the Jewish state to international condemnation.

Ephraim Kam, principal researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Tuesday that to ease critics, Israel will adopt such measures as establishing investigation committees, seek help from its allies, particularly the U.S. and Europe, to calm the waters.

The country is also prepared to use force when necessary, he said, noting "the question is who is sailing? Who is behind these missions?"

However, Kam said Israel is likely to adopt different military tactics when facing confrontation next time to avoid casualties.

If the flotillas carry unarmed civilians there will be no violence, he said, citing Israel's treatment of six other vessels accompanying the Mavi Marmara and the Rachel Corrie arriving in the region a few days later.

Avi Segal, an expert on military policy with the country's Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, proposed to partially ease their blockade of the Gaza Strip, a suggestion largely unpopular among Israeli politicians.

"Israel needs to say ahead of time that it has no problem in allowing the flotillas through to Gaza as long as they allow Israel to ensure that there is no military equipment or other forbidden items on board," he said.

The first of the two Iranian ships will leave for Gaza in the next few days, and Israel can seek some solace from the fact that the ships will not be escorted by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, according to Iranian officials.

The ship will reportedly carry four tons of aid.

"The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has no plan to escort humanitarian aid ships to Gaza," the Iranian Mehr news agency quoted IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami as saying on Monday.

On June 6, the IRGC had said it was prepared to accompany the ships.

The ship, may be named the Convoy to Gaza, will leave Khorramshahr in Khuzestan Province in southern Iran within days, the official Iranian news agency IRNA said.

The second ship, carrying a medical team is scheduled to sail right after the first one from northern Iran. It will dock in Turkey before making its way through the Mediterranean to the Gaza Strip, and meanwhile, several Iranian lawmakers are expected to set foot on the Israeli-sieged enclave.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Sunday named 10 things that should be done against "the Zionist regime" for its way of treating flotillas following the deadly raid.

The measures he mentioned at an executive meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference include placing leading Israelis on trial, breaking the Gaza siege by air, land and sea, sanctions on Israel, suspending Israeli membership from international organizations and calling on the UN to provide more aid to the Palestinians.

Assuming Israel deals successfully with the Lebanese and Iranian shipments, the Jewish state will only be able to breathe a sigh of relief for the briefest period before more flotillas attempt to break through to Gaza.

At least 10 missions will be launched till the end of October, according to the Hamas movement and the Hezbollah TV channel Al Manar.

The flotillas will carry people from Sudan, the United Kingdom, Norway and Turkey. In the cases of the Lebanese, Iranian and Sudanese missions at least, there is governmental support, Al Manar reported.

Israel is trying to persuade the European Union to forbid its citizens from participating in the voyages, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported Monday.

The request was passed to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is the envoy of the peace Quartet, including the UN, the United States, the EU and Russia, to work on the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.

The maritime pressure on Israel is expected to peak in October when Muslim-led and other missions try to dock in Gaza to bring aid in time for the Ramadan holy month.


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