JERUSALEM – Israeli naval forces raided a ship in the Red Sea early Wednesday, capturing a shipment of dozens of advanced rockets from Iran destined to Palestinian militants in Gaza that would have given them greater reach to strike much of Israel, the military said.
The M-302 rockets were on route in an elaborate smuggling operation orchestrated by Iran, the military said. Manufactured in Syria, the rockets were flown to Iran, then shipped from its Bandar Abbas port to Iraq to cover their tracks and loaded onto the civilian cargo ship destined for Sudan. From there, they were to be smuggled overland through Egypt to the Gaza Strip, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told reporters.
Israel forces intercepted the ship, the KLOS C, in international waters off the shores of Sudan and Eritrea, 1,000 miles from Eilat, Israel's southernmost point and only Red Sea port, Lerner said.
The M-302 rockets have a range of up to 100 miles and would have significantly improved the capabilities of Gaza militants, putting nearly all of Israel in their range, he said. Previously, Gaza militants have only been able to reach about 50 miles (80 kilometers) into Israel with their homegrown M-75 missiles. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah used M-302s in a 2006 war against Israel, the military said.
Iran's semi-official Fars news agency, close to the country's elite Revolutionary Guard force, denied the Israeli claim, calling it "mere lies." There was no immediate comment from Hamas, the militant group that ruled Gaza.
Abu Attaya, a spokesman for the smaller Popular Resistance Committees, said the Israel raid was a pretext "to prepare the public opinion for new wave of aggression planned against Gaza."
Israel says Iran and militants have used a similar route in the past. It was not clear how militants would have smuggled the weapons into Gaza, given the naval blockade imposed on it and the current Egyptian leadership's hostility toward Hamas and its blocking of major smuggling tunnels. Lerner insisted however that Gaza was the destination, saying the operation -- codenamed "Full Disclosure" came after months of intelligence gathering.
The 17-member crew of the Panamanian-flagged vessel cooperated with the Israeli forces, Lerner said, adding they were not suspects and were probably unaware of the content of their cargo. The vessel was being brought to Eilat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is visiting the U.S. this week, held a series of talks with Israeli defense officials ahead of the ship's takeover. He took the opportunity Wednesday to warn world powers about the consequences of a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu has been a harsh critic of world powers' negotiations with Tehran, saying the international community has given it too much relief from sanctions while getting few concessions in return. Netanyahu believes Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb -- a charge Tehran denies.
"At a time when it talks with the world powers, at a time when Iran is smiling and saying all sorts of pleasantries, that same Iran is sending lethal weapons to terror organizations and it is doing it with an elaborate network of covert global operations with the aim of streaming rockets, missiles and other lethal weapons to harm innocent civilians. This is the real Iran and that country must not be able to have a nuclear weapon," he said.
Video released by the military showed Israeli soldiers on the ship inspecting the rockets, shipped in large crates. The video also showed beige bags containing cement with the words "Made in I.R. Iran," in English, written on them.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the weapons headed for Gaza were "strategically important."
"Iran trains, funds and arms terror groups in the region and around the world and its failed attempts to transfer the arms that were discovered this morning is more proof of that," he said.
Gaza is ruled by Hamas, an Islamic militant group that already possesses thousands of rockets. A number of smaller groups, including the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, and Al Qaeda-inspired groups also possess rockets. All have engaged in frequent rocket fire toward communities in southern Israel. The military did not specify to which group the latest shipment was believed to be destined.
Israel accuses Iran of supplying rockets and other arms to its foes -- militants in Gaza and Lebanon's Hezbollah -- and it has moved to intercept weapons shipments in the past.
Three years ago, Israel seized the cargo ship Victoria loaded with weapons allegedly sent by Iran to Gaza militants, including land-to-sea missiles.
In November 2009, Israel took over the Iranian Francop vessel off the coast of Cyprus and captured hundreds of tons of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons on board that it said were headed to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Israel is also suspected of carrying out airstrikes in Sudan on arms shipments believed to be bound for Gaza. Israel has never confirmed carrying out the strikes.
In January 2002, Israeli forces stormed the Karine A freighter on the Red Sea, and confiscated what the military said was 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
In May 2001, Israel captured the vessel Santorini off its coastline, packed with explosives Israel said were being sent from Hezbollah to Palestinian militant groups.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said Israeli troops boarded the ship in accordance with international law and with the consent of the crew and the relevant authorities. It said the ship was operated by a company registered in the Marshall Islands.
It added that Israel will lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations' Security Council and with a sanctions committee established under Security Council resolution 1737.