Israeli naval forces on Wednesday intercepted an Iranian arms vessel carrying medium-range missiles in the Red Sea, about some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from the Israeli coast. The shipment was headed for the Gaza Strip via Sudan.
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Special forces from the Shayetet 13 (Flotilla 13) unit overpowered the cargo vessel named the Klos C – which is registered in Panama – in the early morning hours. A search aboard the vessel uncovered dozens of 302mm rockets, which are manufactured in Syria and were fired into Israel by Hezbollah during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The rockets have a range of about 100 kilometers (about 62 miles).
"We have conclusive evidence that there were rockets on board the ship, and we have proof and can say with certainty that Iran is behind this operation," a senior Israel Defense Forces officer said.
The officer said that the rockets originated in Syria, were loaded onto airplanes at the Damascus airport from which they were transported to Iran. There they were boarded onto the cargo ship, which set sail about 10 days ago en route to a port in Sudan.
The IDF tracked the ship, saying it sailed north toward Iraq instead of heading directly toward the African country. The army believes that, in Iraq, the rockets were covered with cement bags in an attempt to disguise the shipment after which the vessel continued to sail toward Sudan.
'Smiles and deadly weapons'
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in the United States following the AIPAC policy conference, on Wednesday spoke with Israel's top defense officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Mossad Director Tamir Pardo, to praise them for the successful operation.
"At a time when Iran is talking with world powers, is smiling and uttering pleasantries, it is also sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations – via an elaborate network of secret operations around that world that aim to funnel rockets, missiles and other deadly weapons to be used to harm innocent civilians," Netanyahu said. "This is the real Iran, and this country must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. We will continue to do everything we must to protect the citizens of Israel."
Israel is hoping the incident will help prove to the P5+1 that Iran is still deceiving the West, despite the friendly tone characterizing the recent talks in Vienna over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
The Israeli raid took place a day before the ship was set to dock in Sudan, some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) off the coast of Israel. A senior Israeli officer who spoke to reporters said the rockets' final destination was meant to be terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.
"They intended to unload the rockets in Port Sudan and transfer them to Gaza from there, presumably through Sinai," the officer said.
Once the Israeli forces raided the ship, they began to alter its route toward the Port of Eilat, where it is expected to arrive in about three days. The 17 crew members aboard the Panamanian-flagged ship were questioned by Israeli authorities and it appeared as though they did not have a role in the operation.
The scope of the arms shipment remains unclear, although the army says it contains dozens of rockets which were being tallied by the navy. Israel Navy Commander Ram Rothberg oversaw the operation from a missile boat at sea, while Gantz supervised from the Defense Ministry complex in Tel Aviv.
The army said that Gantz on Tuesday ordered naval forces to intercept the ship after receiving a green light from the government. The IDF spokesman said the operation was carried out "in accordance with international law" and that "the IDF would continue to thwart the arms race that Iran is leading in an attempt to inflame the region, and will use all means at its disposal to ensure the security of Israelis citizens."
The spokesperson of Hamas' Interior Ministry said Wednesday that the seizure of the arms shipment by the IDF is an Israeli pretext to justify the Gaza blockade. He said Hamas knows that Gaza's maritime zone is under Israeli surveillance and that any ship that attempts to pass through would be stopped and that Gaza resistance forces are not so naïve as to send a large arms shipment via the sea.
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah did not issue an official response to the takeover of the ship but Palestinian officials told Haaretz that the operation raises questions regarding the timing of the operation. "The ship has been sailing for weeks and it is seized exactly when Netanyahu is in Washington," the official said. "The entire operation and the reports raise many questions regarding the timing and whether the event was real or fabricated."
Ya'alon on Wednesday said the attempted arms shipment is further proof that "Gaza is a terrorist entity under Iranian auspices preparing to strike deep into Israel."
"It has once again become clear that Iran continues to be the greatest exporter of terror in the world, with the express purpose of destabilizing the Middle East," Ya'alon said in a statement. "Iran supplies financial support, arms and training to terror organizations in the region and around the world, and its failed effort to transfer the weapons discovered this morning, is additional evidence. The Iranian regime continues to deceive the world; while it shows its smiling face it continues to be the biggest threat to world peace," Ya'alon said.
This is not the first time Israel has seized a ship carrying a cargo of concealed weapons.
In March 2011, the "Victoria," a German-owned ship sailing under a Liberian flag, was intercepted and seized by Israeli special forces some 200 kilometers from the Israei coast. According to the IDF Spokesman, the ship, which started its voyage in Iran, was carrying several tons of concealed weapons destined for "the use of terror organizations operating in the Gaza Strip."
In 2009, after reportedly being tipped off by the U.S., Israel raided the "Francop" off the coast of Cyprus and redirected it to the Ashdod port, where it unloaded 500 tons of weapons. The ship was allegedly en route from Iran to Hezbollah.
Perhaps the most famous such incident occured in 2003, when IDF forces seized the "Karine A", a vessel carrying 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition destined for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The ship's cargo including rockets and missiles that could have reached Ben-Gurion International Airport and major Israeli cities from PA territory. Both Iran and the PA denied any involvement.