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Iranian Hard-Liners Register Volunteers To Fight Israel

Demonstrators donate financial aid during an anti-Israeli rally in Tehran.
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- A group of Iranian hard-line clerics is signing up volunteers to fight in the Gaza Strip in response to Israel's air strikes that have killed at least 300 Palestinians, a news agency has reported.

"From Monday the Combatant Clergy Society has activated its website for a week to register volunteers to fight against the Zionist regime [Israel] in either the military, financial, or propaganda fields," the semi-official Fars news agency said.

The hard-line group, which is headed by some leading clergy, says it has no affiliation with the government and was formed shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a religious decree to Muslims around the world on December 28, ordering them to defend Palestinians in Gaza against Israeli attacks "in any way possible."

A religious decree is an official statement by a high-ranking religious leader that commands Muslims to carry out its message. While there is no religious and legal force behind it, Khamenei is respected by many Iranian and non-Iranian Shi'a.

Iran refuses to recognize Israel, which accuses Tehran of supplying Hamas Islamists with weapons. Iran denies the claim, saying it only provides moral support to the group.

Israel said the strikes, which have killed 307 Palestinians, were launched in response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip after the Islamist Hamas group ended a six-month cease-fire a week ago.

Fars said the hard-line group provided volunteers with a registration document called "Registration form for dispatching volunteers to Gaza." It said more than 1,100 people so far had registered for military service against Israel.

Khamenei said on December 28 that whoever was killed in the fight to defend Palestinians was "considered a martyr."

Iran will send its first ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip on December 29, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said.

"Iran has dispatched its first plane load of aid, including medicine, to Gaza on Sunday. The second cargo is on the verge of being dispatched," Qashqavi told reporters on December 29.

Tens of thousands of Iranians protested on December 29 to condemn Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, which began with air strikes on December 27.

Protesters burned Israeli and U.S. flags and demanded a stronger response from international organizations to stop Israel's raids, a Reuters witness said.