IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi speaking at an event for wounded soldiers in June, 2010 Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Tuesday that Israel mustn't allow Gaza to become an Iranian port, addressing the events of the recent Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

Speaking to ultra-Orthodox soldiers in Kiryat Shmona, the chief of staff said "We have a natural right to examine and prevent the inflow of weapons into Gaza."

After an international outcry over the killing of nine Turkish activists in a May 31 raid, Israel eased its land blockade of Gaza but insisted on maintaining a naval blockade it says is necessary to keep weapons shipments out of the hands of Gaza's Hamas rulers. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas overran the Palestinian territory in June 2007.

"For those who are truly concerned about the [humanitarian] situation in Gaza and wants to bring medical supplies," Ashkenazi continued, "they are welcome to dock in Ashdod. We will examine [the cargo] and let it in if needed."

"It is important that we stand up for this right," Ashkenazi asserted. "We cannot allow Gaza to become an Iranian port."
 

The chief of staff went on to say that "this is no longer an issue facing the Israeli towns around Gaza. They could be bringing missiles capable of reaching other towns."

"If a flotilla comes out of Lebanon, we will handle it," the IDF chief added, referring to plans by Lebanese activists to sail additional aid ships to Gaza in violation of Israel's naval blockade. "If they seek peace, that's how we'll respond. If not, we will do what we have to do."

In regard to last month's raid on the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara, Ashkenazi said that "following initial investigations, the fighters acted superbly under the circumstances."

"I salute them," he said of the commandos who raided the ship. "It was an unusual situation and they reacted the way they should."
 

'Ships sent by Iran's ayatollahs have nothing to do with humanitarian aid'

Iran said Tuesday it would send a blockade-busting ship carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists to Gaza, fueling concern in Israel, where commandos were training for another possible confrontation at sea. Israel's Foreign Ministry, however, voiced doubts regarding the humanitarian goals of the expedition.

Israel has warned Iran to drop the plan. The Iranian announcement came days after Israel eased its three-year-old blockade of Gaza under international pressure following its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last month.

"No one in their right mind can believe that a ship sent by the ayatollahs and their Revolutionary Guards has anything to do with humanitarian aid," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "I don't think there is one single country in this region and beyond that would let such an ayatollah ship come near its coasts."

Security officials said the prospect of an Iranian boat headed for Gaza had Israel deeply worried, and that naval commandos were training for the possibility of taking on a vessel with a suicide bomber on board. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose operational details.

After an international outcry over the killing of nine Turkish activists in a May 31 raid, Israel eased its land blockade of Gaza but insisted on maintaining a naval blockade it says is necessary to keep weapons shipments out of the hands of Gaza's Hamas rulers. Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas overran the Palestinian territory in June 2007.

Egypt had joined Israel in blockading Gaza, but opened its land crossing with the territory indefinitely after the May raid to let thousands of Palestinians through. Egyptian transportation official Mohammad Abdelwahab suggested his country was ready to back off the naval blockade as well.

He said Egypt would not prevent the Iranian ship from passing through the Suez Canal, a strategic passageway that connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea that Gaza borders.

"As long as the ship is not at war with Egypt and doesn't pollute the air, water or land, then it will be allowed to cross," Abdelwahab said.

Iran's state television reported that an Iranian ship called Infants of Gaza would sail Sunday for Gaza carrying 1,100 tons of relief supplies and 10 pro-Palestinian activists.

Israel considers Iran the most serious threat because of its suspect nuclear program, its long-range missiles and its support for Lebanese and Gaza militants.

The Iranian ship is one of several that activists say will head for Gaza in the next few months. One is said to be heading for Gaza from Lebanon within days.

International Mideast envoy Tony Blair has been at the forefront of global efforts to ease the Israeli blockade, and on Tuesday, he told Gaza businesspeople and civic leaders that he expected the amount of goods entering Gaza to nearly triple within weeks. Gazans say they need far more than that.

Israel has agreed in principle to reopen land crossings so more cargo can move through, and limited quantities of construction materials will be allowed in, he said. But it wasn't clear how freely Palestinians would be able to move in and out of their territory, he added.

"Some of this will be resolved satisfactorily, and some of this will be a struggle, frankly," Blair told the group by video link from Jerusalem.

Blair also expressed concern about whether Israel would allow exports, largely banned under the blockade. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told The Associated Press: Exports will be expanded further down the road.

Construction materials desperately needed to rebuild after Israel's offensive against Hamas 17 months ago have been largely barred because Israel said militants could use them to build bunkers.

Blair's audience was skeptical of Israel's promises, and some told the envoy that consumer goods weren't the answer to Gaza's problems.

"We are not in need of more ketchup or mayonnaise," said civic leader Amjad Shawa. "We need our freedom."