Israel says seized Gaza-bound rocket shipment from Iran
JERUSALEM - The Israeli navy seized a ship in the Red Sea on Wednesday that was carrying dozens of advanced Iranian-supplied rockets made in Syria and intended for Palestinian guerrillas in theGaza Strip, the military said.
The disclosure came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States to press his case for tougher international action against Iran over its disputed nuclear program and support for Islamist guerrilla groups.
The Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel Klos C was boarded in international waters without resistance from its 17-strong crew in a "complex, covert operation," military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lernertold reporters.
Lerner said dozens of M302 rockets were found aboard the Klos C, a weapon which could have struck deep into Israel from Gaza and would have significantly enhanced the firepower of the Palestinian enclave'sHamas rulers and other armed factions.
"The M302 in its most advanced model can strike over 100 miles, and if they would have reached Gaza, ultimately that would have meant millions of Israelis under threat," he said.
Hamas dismissed the Israeli announcement as a "silly joke".
There was no immediate comment from Iran or Syria.
Psaki said U.S. options for handling the ship included taking unilateral action if necessary but that after sharing intelligence, Israel chose to take the lead in the operation.
Lerner said the rockets were flown from Syria to Iran, from where they were shipped first to Iraq and then towards Sudan. Had they reached the African coast, they would have probably been smuggled overland through Egypt to Gaza, he said.
Nic Jenzen-Jones, an Australia-based military arms specialist and director of Armament Research Services, said most reports indicated the Syrian-produced rockets had a 90 to 100 Km range.
"Several Israeli assessments of these rockets have questioned their reliability," he said. "(Lebanese Shia group) Hezbollah has made use of these rockets, and Hamas is believed to be attempting to stockpile longer-range rocket systems."
NETANYAHU IN U.S.
Israel and Islamist Hamas last fought a major conflict in November 2012. Hamas has largely held fire since but Israel says it has been trying to build up its capabilities. That has been made difficult, however, by a new military regime in Cairo which has cracked down on the Egyptian border with Gaza.
Netanyahu's office said that the prime minister, who was in Los Angeles on Wednesday after holding aWhite House meeting and addressing a pro-Israel lobby in Washington, had approved the ship seizure after consultations with his security chiefs.
"At the same time that it is talking to world powers, at the same time that Iran is smiling and saying all kinds of honeyed words, that same Iran is sending lethal weaponry to terrorist organizations and it is doing so in a complex web of covert, worldwide operations," Netanyahu said from Los Angeles.
"We followed international law to the letter. The ship travelled under a Panamanian flag, the company was listed in Marshall Islands, the captain was Turkish and the crew was from various different countries," he told a conference in Tel Aviv.
In a speech to the AIPAC lobby on Tuesday, Netanyahu had reiterated his unhappiness with the prospect that world powers negotiating a curb on Iran's nuclear program would let it retain some technologies with bomb-making potential.
The Islamic republic denied seeking nuclear weapons and accused its arch-foe Israel of being the real regional menace.
Iran had orchestrated the shipment, Lerner said, describing the process as months in the making. The Klos C was being brought to the Israeli port of Eilat where its contents would be more fully inspected and displayed to the public.
Lerner said there was no immediate indication the crew had known the nature of their cargo.