JERUSALEM – Israeli naval forces on Wednesday seized a ship laden with rockets allegedly bound for militants in the Gaza Strip, and officials accused Iran of orchestrating the delivery in an elaborate 5,000-mile journey that included covert stops across the region.
The Syrian-made M-302 rockets would have put Israel’s biggest cities well within range of Gaza, where militants already possess thousands of less powerful rockets. During eight days of fighting in 2012, armed groups fired 1,500 rockets into Israel, including several that reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The naval raid, which took place in the Red Sea hundreds of miles from Israel, came as Iran showed off powerful new ballistic missiles equipped with multiple warheads. The arms bust drew renewed Israeli calls for world powers to toughen their stand in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran has been exposed for what it is. It smiles in the Geneva talks about its own nuclear ambitions, gives soothing words, and as they’re doing that, they’re shipping these deadly weapons to the world’s worst terrorists, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in California.
Israeli officials said Wednesday’s naval raid took place in international waters about 100 miles off the coast of Sudan.
They said the rockets had been flown from Syria to Iran months ago, then shipped from Iran’s Bandar Abbas port to Umm Qasr, Iraq, before being loaded onto the civilian ship destined for Sudan. From there, Israeli officials said they were to be smuggled overland through Egypt to Gaza.
Rear Adm. Yaron Levy, the navy’s chief of operations, said Israel deployed a strong naval force but halted the Panamanian-flagged ship without incident.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the circuitous route, stretching nearly 5,200 miles, was meant to conceal the shipment.
It was an Iranian attempt to bring weapons to the Gaza Strip without leaving Iranian fingerprints, he said. Apparently they tried to conduct a secret operation that we managed to thwart.
Israel believes Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies. Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state, citing Iranian calls for Israel’s destruction, its development of long-range missiles and its support for hostile militant groups.