Israel intercepts ship it says carried Iranian weapons bound for Gaza

March 15, 2011

The Israeli navy on Tuesday intercepted what officials alleged was a ship carrying Iranian weapons destined for Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip.

Navy commandos boarded the German-owned, Liberian-flagged ship Victoria 200 miles off Israel’s coast and directed it to an Israeli port for further inspection, officials said.

The Israeli military, citing shipping documents and statements by the ship’s crew, said the vessel had left Syria’s Latakia seaport and proceeded to the Turkish port of Mersin. From there, it was headed to Alexandria, Egypt. The military noted, however, that neither Egypt nor Turkey appeared to have any connection to the weapons on board.

Israeli anxiety about weapons being smuggled to Gaza via Egypt has risen since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last month. Some officials have expressed concern that Egyptian policing of the Egypt-Gaza border could become more lax, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood gains greater prominence in Egyptian politics. The Brotherhood has ties to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the weapons seized had originated in Iran. A spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces speculated that they were related to a shipment from Iran to Syria via the Suez Canal last month. “We can assume there might be a relation or connection,” Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich told reporters.

Netanyahu said there was “considerable weaponry” on board, “destined for terrorist forces in the heart of Gaza.” He said Israel had acted in accordance with international rules in seizing the ship.

Late Tuesday, the Israeli military said that of 39 containers loaded onto the Victoria in Latakia, four were intended to be unloaded in Alexandria. The military said it had carried out a preliminary examination of three of the four, which were described in the ship’s manifest as containing cotton and lentils.

Beneath those goods, Israeli commandos found a “large quantity’’ of 60 millimeter and 120 millimeter mortar shells and between two and four Chinese-made C-704 shore-to-sea missiles, with a range of 21 miles, Leibovich said.  The military e-mailed reporters a photo of a booklet printed in Farsi that accompanied the missiles, saying it constituted evidence the weapons had come from Iran.  

Some countries accused Israel of violating international norms in May when it boarded a Turkish ship in international waters carrying activists bound for the Gaza Strip. In that incident, Israeli commandos faced stiff resistance and nine Turks were killed, including one Turkish American. Israel said it acted legally to enforce a closure of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli navy prevents ships from reaching the sliver of Palestinian-ruled territory on the Mediterranean Sea as part of a blockade that Israel says is designed to keep weapons from Hamas, which Israel defines as a terrorist organization. Hamas officials had no immediate comment on Tuesday’s incident.

Over the years, Israel has periodically intercepted ships carrying weapons it said were destined for Hamas or the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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