An Israeli Army spokesman says missiles originally came from Syria and were capable of reaching large area of Israel
Israeli naval forces have raided an Iranian freighter in the Red Sea and seized dozens of missiles that were allegedly destined for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials say the weapons were flown from Damascus to Tehran, then shipped from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, where they were disguised among bags of cement. From there, the missiles would have been transferred by land across Sudan, into the Sinai desert and onwards to Gaza, the officials said.
Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said the Iranian shipment had been seized at the end of a “complex, covert intelligence-led mission” which had started when the missiles began their journey at Damascus international airport several months ago.
The high seas interception is the fourth of its kind by Israel in the past 12 years and the first since the start of the Syrian civil war three years ago. It comes after a spate of air attacks on weapons warehouses and arms convoys in the past 18 months that officials in Tel Aviv had hinted were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The seizure follows a visit this week by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to Washington, where he used a meeting with Barack Obama and a stump speech to the powerful Jewish lobby AIPAC to underscore his reservations about a nuclear deal with Iran.
“At a time when it is talking to the major powers, Iran smiles and says all sorts of nice things,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday. “The same Iran is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organisations … that will be used to harm innocent citizens. This is the true Iran and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons.”
Iran’s armed forces denied the Israeli claims as baseless, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated to the revolutionary guards.
The Panamanian registered vessel, KLOS-C, was boarded by naval special forces on Tuesday night, shortly before it entered Sudanese waters. Lerner said “scores” of Syrian-made M320 surface-to-surface rockets had been seized. With a range of over 100 miles, these could hit targets from Nahariya in northern Israel to Eilat in the far south, where the freighter is expected to dock on Friday, escorted by warships.
17 crew members co-operated when their ship was intercepted in international waters between Eritrea and Sudan, Lerner said. The operation was codenamed Full Disclosure.
“It is a huge shipment of weapons that could have inflicted great damage on the state of Israel,” Lerner said. “That’s why we intercepted it. We have had it under our view since the loading in Damascus airport several months ago.”
Intelligence on who was to receive the weapons in Gaza was “still a bit preliminary”, he said.
Video released by the Israel Defence Forces showed uniformed men inspecting large green rockets in green wooden boxes. Packets of cement with Iranian markings were also visible. Websites that monitor international shipping show that the KLOS-C was last at port in Umm Qasr and was last known to be in the Gulf of Oman.
Israeli warnings about Iran have intensified since an interim deal was struck late last year with the president, Hassan Rouhani, to ease sanctions against Tehran if the Islamic Republic scales back its nuclear programme. The US and European states say they will negotiate a final deal if Iran gives up its enrichment programme and stops work on a heavy water reactor, both of which are key components used to make nuclear weapons.
After more than 40 years of cold truce between Tel Aviv and Damascus, the Golan Heights border between the two countries is increasingly becoming a battle zone. Israeli officials claim tank fire killed two Hezbollah members trying to plant a bomb on the border fence early on Wednesday. Israel believes Syria is stepping up efforts to move strategic weapons, such as anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where they pose a potent threat to its military and citizens. Israeli jets attacked a crossing point between Syria and Lebanon’s Bekaa valley last week that officials had suggested was being used at the time to move advanced missiles to Hezbollah.
Israeli jets have also struck Damascus three times since last January, levelling a base of the Fourth Division near Damascus, destroying a convoy outside a scientific institute and striking an unknown target near the Lebanese border.
Large explosions attributed to the Israeli air force have also taken place in warehouses in the coastal cities of Tartous and Latakia, both strongholds of the regime military.
In addition, Israeli jets twice bombed factories allegedly used to store Iranian-supplied weapons in 2009 and hit a military facility south of Khartoum in 2011. Two overland convoys in western Sudan were also hit by an air strike in 2011.
The regular appearances of Israeli jets above Syria and Lebanon are yet to attract direct retaliation from Hezbollah, which has not yet responded to Wednesday’s apparent Golan Heights clash and played down last week’s strike on the Syrian border.
Hezbollah is heavily engaged in Syria, with its forces playing a lead role in attacking rebel and jihadist groups in the Qalamoun mountains, near the strategically important Lebanese border town of Arsal. Both the Shia militia and its main patron, Iran, remain heavily invested in ensuring that the regime of Bashar al-Assad prevails in the war, which next week will enter a fourth year with little sign of slowing down.
Assad has increasingly relied on his key allies, along with Russia, as the war has gathered steam. Until the start of the war, which has pitched an almost exclusively Sunni opposition against an Alawite and Shia Islamic alliance, Assad had been regarded by Palestinians as an essential champion of their cause.
However, the relationship between the regime and Palestinian factions – particularly Hamas – had broken down by the end of 2012, by which time the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and his politburo had left Damascus for Doha, and Palestinian refugee camps in the capital were under attack by regime forces.
The break between Hamas and the Assad regime also caused a freeze in relations between the militant Islamic rulers of Gaza and Iran, which had in the past supplied rockets and other munitions to the group. After enjoying close ties with the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new rulers have in effect sealed off Gaza in recent months, stopping all arms transfers while they fight a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai.
Tags: Alawite, arms transfers, Assad regime, Bandar Abbas, Bashar al-Assad, covert intelligence mission, Egypt, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Gaza, Golan Heights, Hamas, Iran, Iran's support for Assad in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Israeli, Israeli army, Israeli intelligence, Israeli Navy, jihadist insurgency in the Sinai, Khaled Mashal, Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, Netanyahu, Obama, Palestinian, Qalamoun mountains, rockets and other munitions, Russian support for Syria, Shia militia, Sunni opposition, Syria, Umm Qasr