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Iran To Send Aid Cargo To The Gaza Strip, State TV Reports

TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran will send its first ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip despite an Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory, state television reported.

Israel patrols the coastal waters around Gaza and accuses Iran, which refuses to recognize Israel's existence, of supplying Hamas Islamists with weapons. Tehran denies this, saying it only provides moral support to Hamas.

Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip has been stepped up in recent weeks amid a surge of violence along its frontier with the Palestinian territory.

"Despite the Zionist regime's blockade ... the Iranian aid ship will leave on [December 27] and will arrive in 12 days' time in Palestine," television reported.

It said 12 Iranian doctors and relief workers would be on board. "The cargo contains over 2,000 tons of food, medicine, and appliances."

Earlier this month, the Jewish state turned back a Libyan ship trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip and prevented Israeli Arabs setting off in a boat from Israel to the territory.

Israel, apparently seeking to avoid a public confrontation, had previously allowed several boats carrying pro-Palestinian international activists and humanitarian goods to dock in the Gaza Strip after setting sail from Cyprus.

Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip two years ago after Hamas won a parliamentary election.

The United Nations and human rights groups have voiced concern about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip if the blockade is not eased.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's stridently anti-Israel rhetoric has increased regional war fears.

The West accuses Iran of covertly trying to build nuclear bomb. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and it is aimed only at generating electricity.

Israel, widely assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, insists the Islamic state must not be allowed to develop an atomic bomb. This has fueled speculation that the Jewish state could mount a conventional strike on its arch foe.