Israeli navy intercepts Egypt-bound ship with arms

JERUSALEM — Israel said Tuesday it seized a cargo ship loaded with weapons sent by Iran to Palestinian militants in Gaza, including sophisticated land-to-sea missiles that officials said could change the balance of power in the area.

The takeover in the Mediterranean Sea was the latest in a series of Israeli naval raids meant to counter the growing influence of Iran, which Israel accuses of supplying rockets and other arms to Israel’s bitterest enemies.

The navy’s deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Rani Ben-Yehudah, said investigators had found between two and four Chinese-made C-704 missiles, which land-based forces can use to attack ships.

Ben-Yehudah said Iran is known to possess these weapons, the shipment included instruction manuals in Farsi and there were other clues that “explicitly” showed Iranian involvement.

The military released a photo of a booklet with the words “technical missile identification document” written in Farsi on the cover. It identified the system as a C-704 “Nasr” missile, provided a serial number and date of issue in the Persian calendar.

Such weaponry could impede Israel’s ability to enforce its naval blockade of Gaza, which it imposed after Hamas took power in 2007. The captured ship, the “Victoria,” was being towed into Israel, and further details on its contents were expected to be released after it reached port late Tuesday.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the arms included “the beginnings of an advanced system” the Gaza militants currently do not possess and could affect Israel’s ability to act along Gaza’s coast.

“We will take out the gear and show it to the world, a world that is quick to blame Israel when it fights to protect its citizens. It is important that the world see what we are up against,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel has long contended that Iran and Syria provide arms and other support to Hamas militants in Gaza and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Hamas has been racing to rearm since suffering heavy losses in an Israeli military offensive two years ago. Israeli military officials say Hamas has recovered, in part because of direct assistance from Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Israel says Hamas now possesses rockets that can strike much of Israel, as well as advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Israel imposed the naval blockade after Hamas, a group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, violently seized power of Gaza four years ago. It says the measure is needed to prevent the militant group from importing arms.

To get around the blockade, Israel says Hamas routinely has arms shipments delivered to Egypt, and then smuggled across the largely lawless Sinai peninsula into neighboring Gaza through a vast network of tunnels under the 9-mile (15-kilometer) border.

Netanyahu said he ordered the naval takeover overnight after receiving intelligence about the shipment. “The only certain thing is the source of the weaponry was Iran, and there was a Syrian relay station as well,” he said.

The military said the “Victoria” initially departed from the Syrian port of Latakia before proceeding to Mercin in Turkey. It was headed for the port of Alexandria in Egypt when it was intercepted, some 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

Images the military released showed mortars and other arms among stacks of munition boxes. It also released video footage showing an Israeli commander informing the Victoria’s captain that the ship was suspected of carrying arms. The captain immediately gave the go-ahead for troops to board for inspection. Additional video showed the commandos ascending a ladder to the deck.

Israel said there were no signs that Turkey or Egypt were involved in the arms shipment.

Turkey confirmed it was not involved and said many ships stop in its ports for refueling, loading or unloading materials. There was no immediate reaction from Hamas, Syria or Iran.

The Victoria is German-owned, operated by a French shipping company and was sailing under a Liberian flag, the Israeli military said. German, French and Liberian authorities were notified of the seizure.

Although the ship was intercepted outside of Israel’s territorial waters, maritime law entitles Israel to search any merchant vessel it has reason to believe is carrying contraband to support Hamas, said Benjamin David, a former high-ranking officer in the military’s legal department.

The operation was reminiscent of the November 2009 Israeli takeover of the Iranian Francop vessel off the coast of Cyprus. Israel captured hundreds of tons of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons on board which it said were headed to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

In 2001 and 2002, Israel seized ships carrying tons of weapons it said were intended for Palestinian militants.

Israel’s announcement that Turkey was not involved in the arms shipment appeared to be an effort to defuse any potential tensions with its former Mideast ally.

Last May, Israeli commandoes raided a Turkish ship trying to break a naval blockade of Gaza and killed nine pro-Palestinian activists on board. Each side claims it acted in self-defense.