TEHRAN 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 (45 miles) from Gaza. The ship went on to Egypt, which borders Gaza, but was refused permission to unload.
Iran lodged a protest over the issue 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 headng 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 recognise 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.
The actions are in response to Israel's boarding of a flotilla of Turkish aid ships heading to Gaza on May 31 in which troops killed nine pro-Palestinian activists after they were set upon by some passengers with metal rods and knives.
An official of the Iranian Red Crescent Society's youth organisation 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 programme, which it fears is aimed at developing atomic bombs -- something it sees as a threat to its survival.
Iran says its nuclear programme 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.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)