Iran ‘provokes Israel with warship parade’

ISRAEL has warned Iran and its ally Hezbollah not to test it, charging that Tehran was preparing to send warships into the Mediterranean as the Lebanese militia threatened to occupy northern Israel in the event of a new war.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel could not ignore the planned sailing of two Iranian naval vessels through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean en route for Syria and Defence Minister Ehud Barak labelled the act “hostile”.

“Tonight two Iranian warships are supposed to cross the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Syria,” Lieberman told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

He said an Iranian naval presence in the area was something that had not occurred for many years and was a “provocation that proves the self-confidence and cheek of the Iranians is growing from day to day.”

“The international community has to understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations for eternity,” Lieberman said.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment but Barak’s office issued a terse statement saying that Israel was closely monitoring developments.

“Israel is watching attentively the hostile Iranian movement and has updated friendly countries on the matter,” it quoted him as saying.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said: “We’ll be watching to see what they do,” confirming that he was talking about the same vessels to which Lieberman was referring.

Crowley, however, did not call them warships or identify them as Iranian, saying that he knew neither their intention nor destination.

In a speech on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned off Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, after the Shiite militia chief told his fighters to prepare to storm the Galilee hills of northern Israel in the event of a new conflict like that of 2006.

“Nasrallah declared today that he will conquer the Galilee,” Netanyahu told the American Jewish leaders. “I have news for him. He won’t.”

He spoke after Nasrallah urged his fighters to be prepared to take the Galilee in any future conflict and warned that his followers were ready to kill Israeli leaders “anytime, anywhere.”

“Let there be no doubt, Israel has the ability to defend itself,” Netanyahu said. “We have a strong army and a determined people. We seek peace but the army is ready to defend Israel against its enemies.”

Nasrallah’s calls were made in a televised speech to mark the 19th anniversary of the death of key Hezbollah militant Abbas Mussawi in an Israeli missile strike.

“I say to the fighters of the Islamic Resistance: Be ready. If a new war is imposed on Lebanon we may ask you to take Galilee, to free Galilee,” he said. “I hope the people of Israel have good bomb shelters.”

Netanyahu responded with a jibe at Nasrallah’s reclusive habits since Israel declared him its enemy number one and threatened to assassinate him.

“He who hides in a bunker should stay in a bunker,” the Israeli premier said.

The Hezbollah leader’s comments followed warnings by Barak that the Israeli military might have to enter Lebanon again to ensure the Shiite militia remembered the lessons of the bloody war the two sides fought in 2006.

The war killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

There was no immediate confirmation of Israel’s allegations about a planned Iranian naval deployment to the Mediterranean.

The Suez Canal Authority said it had not been informed of any request from the Iranians to send ships through the canal but added that it would have no objections if they asked.

“The Suez Canal Authority allows all ships of any nationality to cross as long as the country is not in a state of war with Egypt,” it said, noting “it would be the first time Iranian warships have used the Suez Canal since 1979.”

A powerful US aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, passed through the canal in the other direction heading from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea earlier yesterday, witnesses and officials said.

A spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet said the voyage was part of a long planned deployment to support the war in Afghanistan and was not related to tensions in Egypt or the wider Arab world.

Israel, which has the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear arsenal, suspects Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons under cover of a civilian energy programme.

Tehran denies the charge, and has accused Israel of trying to sabotage its civilian energy programme and kill its nuclear scientists.

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