JERUSALEM – Israel said Thursday that the arms seized in its largest-ever haul would have given Hezbollah firepower to bombard the country for a month and urged the world to focus on the threat from the Lebanese militants' chief backer, Iran, rather than assailing Israel.
Palestinian leaders expressed concern Israel would use the seizure of a ship laden with what officials described as hundreds of tons of weapons from Iran to divert attention from its settlement expansion and accusations of Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, commenting on United Nations deliberations Thursday over Israel's conduct during last winter's Gaza war, said Iranian efforts to kill civilians by smuggling massive amounts of weapons to Hezbollah are the real war crime.
"It is a war crime that the U.N. Security Council should have a special meeting over," he told reporters in Tel Aviv. "A major component of this shipment were rockets whose only goal was to hit civilians and kill as many civilians as possible — women, children, old people," Netanyahu said.
Israel displayed on Wednesday the contents of the ship it seized off Cyprus — crates filled with rockets, missiles, mortars, anti-tank weapons and munitions — the largest such haul in the country's history. Israel's claim that the weapons came from Iran were bolstered by Iranian markings on the sides of the containers and what it said was a document proving the ship had set off from an Iranian port.
Israel has not publicly shown the document, however, nor offered evidence to back its assertion that the weapons were headed for Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters.
"Hezbollah categorically denies it has any connection with the weapons which the Zionist enemy claims it seized," the group said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press in Beirut on Thursday.
There was no comment from Lebanese officials.
Israeli defense officials said the arms cache would have given Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war against the Jewish state in 2006, enough firepower to sustain a full month of fighting on the scale of that war.
However, the officials also said the weapons would not have significantly enhanced Hezbollah rockets' ability to reach deeper into Israel, as the haul consisted of weapons already in Hezbollah's possession.
The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the military has yet to formally comment on the potential value of the shipment's contents to militants.
Iran has never acknowledged giving weapons to Hezbollah. Proof of large-scale Iranian weapons shipments to its proxy forces on Israel's borders could reinforce Israeli demands for tough action — possibly even a pre-emptive strike — against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel sees Iran as its biggest threat because of what it believes to be Tehran's ambitions to acquire atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is meant only to generate energy.
The weapons seizure appeared likely to boost Netanyahu's top policy priority: neutralizing Iran's bomb-making ability.
Palestinians worried that Netanyahu, a political hawk, would use the seizure to avoid peacemaking — and divert attention away from his refusal to heed a U.S. and Palestinian demand to halt Jewish settlement building on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state.
"Since the Israeli leadership and society are not ready for peace, they are using any pretext to shun peace obligations, and one is the issue of the Iranian shipment," said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the West Bank-based Palestinian government.
In the Muslim world, officials echoed the concern that Israel would use the seizure as a diversion.
State-run Iran TV said in a commentary that the "Israeli propaganda" was aimed at diverting attention from the Gaza war crimes allegations. A Syrian Foreign Ministry official expressed the same view after Israel said the arms were destined for a Syrian port before being handed over to Hezbollah.
Iran's English-language Press TV said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki dismissed the allegations on the cargo's destination and route.