By ARON HELLER
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 12:30 PM
JERUSALEM - Israel intercepted a ship carrying a large delivery of arms off the country's Mediterranean coast on Tuesday, saying the shipment included sophisticated weaponry sent by Iran and Syria for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The incident was the latest in a string of Israeli naval operations against smugglers it accuses of arming Gaza's Hamas rulers. Israel has long contended that Iran and Syria provide arms and other support to Hamas and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
There were few details on the contents of the shipment, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters that it appeared to include game-changing weaponry that Gaza militants do not currently possess.
"We suspect, or think, that among the weaponry are the beginnings of an advanced system that could affect our freedom of operations along the Gaza coast," he said. He said more details would be released after the ship was towed to an Israeli port late Tuesday.
Palestinians in Gaza are known to have rockets that can reach much of Israel, as well as advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Barak's comments signaled that the weapons could be used against the Israeli navy, which has enforced a maritime blockade of Gaza since Hamas took power in 2007.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he ordered the takeover overnight Tuesday. "The only certain thing is the source of the weaponry was Iran, and there was a Syrian relay station as well," he said. "This is the main axis that provides the forces of terror in Lebanon and Gaza."
The military said the cargo vessel "Victoria" initially departed from the Syrian port of Latakia before proceeding to Mercin in Turkey. From there it was headed for the port of Alexandria in Egypt when it was intercepted. Israel says Hamas circumvents the naval blockade by shipping weapons to Egypt, then smuggling them through tunnels into neighboring Gaza.
Israel said there were no signs that Turkey or Egypt were involved in the arms shipment.
The military released several photos from the raid, showing mortars and other arms amid stacks of munition boxes. It also released a video showing an Israeli commander informing the Victoria's captain that the ship was suspected of carrying arms, and the captain allowing the commandos to board.
Israel's military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, said at least three containers of weapons were uncovered on board. Benayahu said officials were trying to determine whether the weapons were delivered on a pair of Iranian warships that sailed to Syria last month.
"We know, from the bills of lading and crew testimony, that they were in the Syrian port of Lattakia. Link this to the visit of the Iranian ships there not so long ago, and apparently we will be able to find - I say this guardedly at this point - more evidence of the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Gaza terror axis," he told Israel's Army Radio.
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 military said. German, French and Liberian authorities were notified of the seizure.
The interception occurred about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Israel's Mediterranean coast. Israeli officials said the naval commandos met no resistance, and the crew on board told the soldiers they were unaware of the cargo.
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.
Even without prior evidence, if the ship's captain gave permission for the Israeli navy to board, the action is legal, David added.
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 May 2001 off its coast, Israel captured the vessel Santorini, packed with explosives that Israel said were sent from Hezbollah to Palestinian militant groups.
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.
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.
In Jerusalem, visiting Cyprus President Demetris Christofias said his country will not cooperate with any future flotillas to Gaza. The Turkish ship that clashed with Israel last year stopped in Cyprus on its way to Gaza.
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