JERUSALEM — Israeli naval commandos intercepted and boarded a civilian ship in the southern Red Sea early Wednesday, preventing an attempt to smuggle an Iranian shipment of advanced rockets destined for Gaza, according to senior Israeli officials.
The ship, identified as the Klos-C, was seized in international waters between Eritrea and Sudan, approximately 1,000 miles from the port of Eilat, Israel’s most southern point. It was carrying Syrian-manufactured M-302 rockets with a range of about 100 miles, according to Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military.
The takeover took place without violence; Israeli officials said the crew of 17 cooperated with the Israelis and seemed unaware of the vessel’s contents. The ship, which was also carrying civilian cargo, was flying under a Panamanian flag. The ship is now being escorted to Eilat, where it is expected to arrive in the next few days. The Israeli military distributed video footage and photographs of rockets it said were found on board.
The apparent intelligence and operational coup provided Israel’s leaders an opportunity to underscore their contentions about the true nature of the Iranian regime as world powers are engaged in talks with Iran to curb its nuclear program.
“When it is talking to the major powers, Iran smiles and says all sorts of nice things. The same Iran is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is visiting the United States.
Iran is doing so, he said, “via a ramified network of secret operations in order to send rockets, missiles, and other deadly weapons that will be used to harm innocent citizens. This is the true Iran, and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons. We will continue to do whatever is necessary in order to defend Israel’s citizens.”
Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said, “It has once again become clear that Iran continues to be the greatest exporter of terror in the world, with the express purpose of destabilizing the Middle East.”
Officials said Israel had been tracking the shipment for months, from when the weapons were loaded onto a plane at Damascus International Airport and flown to Tehran. From there, they were transported overland to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and then shipped to Iraq “to try to create a smokescreen,” Lerner said.
The vessel was loaded with cement in Iraq and set sail on the last leg of its journey, to Port Sudan, the Israelis said.
Israeli officials have identified Sudan in the past as serving as a transit point in a weapons supply route from Iran via the Sinai desert to Palestinian militant groups in Gaza. In 2012, Sudan accused the Israeli military of being behind an air attack that destroyed a weapons factory in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
There is also a history of Israel seizing ships carrying weapons. The first, in 2002, was the Karine A, a Palestinian-captained ship caught in the Red Sea with 50 tons of Iranian weapons. In 2009, the Israeli Navy seized the Francop in the eastern Mediterranean carrying hundreds of tons of weapons that Israel said were from Iran and bound for Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite group.
In March 2011, Israeli commandos commandeered a cargo vessel en route from Turkey to Egypt that was loaded with weapons. The ship had sailed to Turkey from Syria and the weapons were thought to be destined for Gaza.
Lerner said the rockets found aboard the ship seized Wednesday “do not exist in Gaza today” and that their long range would have put millions of Israelis in danger.
The Palestinian coastal enclave is controlled by Hamas, the militant Islamist group, which has launched thousands of rockets into Israel over the years.