x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Israeli navy captures ship it says was loaded with arms for Gaza

Israeli officials claim Iran was source of weaponry found on German-owned merchant ship Victoria bound for Egypt, which included an advanced radar system and anti-ship missiles with manuals in Farsi.

NAZARETH // Israel's navy said it intercepted a ship in international waters yesterday and reported discovering a large cargo of weapons it claimed was bound for the Gaza Strip.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, accused Iran of being behind the shipment. "The one thing that is certain is that the weapons are from Iran, with a relay station in Syria." The consignment, he said, was "intended to harm Israel".

The German-owned merchant ship Victoria had set sail from the Syrian port of Latakia, docking en route in Turkey. Israel said the vessel had been heading to Alexandria, in Egypt, and was about 350 kilometres off the Israeli coast when it was boarded.

The Israeli military added that Turkey "was not tied to the incident in any way".

Avi Benayahu, an Israeli army spokesman, told Israel Radio that at least three containers of weapons had been found during an initial inspection. Hundreds of other containers would be searched after the ship had been escorted to the Israeli port of Ashdod, he added.

Israeli military sources told The Jerusalem Post that the munitions appeared to be of a "higher quality" than usual.

Rani Ben-Yehuda, a rear admiral in the Israeli navy, said commandos had found Chinese-made C-704 anti-ship missiles with manuals in Farsi. The Israeli media also reported the discovery of an advanced radar system. Ehud Barak, the defence minister, had earlier told reporters that the ship was smuggling a system that could "impair our operational freedom along the Gaza coast".

Hizbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon, hit an Israeli naval vessel with such a missile during a month-long confrontation in 2006.

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli land-and-sea blockade since Hamas, the Palestinian ruling faction there, seized full control in 2007.

Israel has frequently accused Iran and Syria of smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip, including rockets destined to be fired into Israel, a claim both countries have denied.

The suspected arms shipment highlighted growing concerns in Israel about the difficulty of maintaining its blockade since Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, stepped down last month. The Gaza Strip shares a short border with Egypt.

Israel and Egypt have worked together on enforcing the blockade, including trying to prevent the smuggling of goods and weapons through tunnels under the Egyptian border.

But since Mr Mubarak's ouster, Egyptian security forces have been taking a more lenient approach to the smuggling, it has been reported. Restrictions on passage between the Gaza Strip and Egypt at the Rafah border crossing have also been eased.

Israeli leaders are worried about the collapse of Israel's 32-year peace treaty with Egypt.

Mr Barak said yesterday that the navy had been tracking the ship for the past few days. "The attempt to smuggle weapons into Gaza shows that there are radical forces who continue to try and harm Israel and undermine stability in the region."

Latakia, from which the Victoria departed, was the destination of two Iranian naval ships that were permitted to sail through Egypt's Suez Canal last month, angering Israel. It was the first time Iranian vessels had passed through the canal in decades.

The navy said it had encountered no resistance from those on board the ship and believed the crew might not have been aware of the concealed cargo of arms.

The Victoria was operated by a French company and flying under a Liberian flag.

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said such a cargo indicates the "rapidly deteriorating" security environment facing Israel.

"Israel's enemies are trying to capitalise on our growing isolation in the region," he said. "We can expect to see more of these kinds of arms shipments, and it will be harder to catch them all."

Shlomo Brom, of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Israel's chief concern would be whether new types of weapons, including more advanced missiles that could reach further into Israel, were being smuggled into Gaza.

The dismissal of Turkish involvement in the shipment so soon after the Victoria was captured appeared to indicate a reluctance on Israel's part to increase tensions with Ankara.

Relations between the two countries, once close military allies, have been severely strained since last summer, when Israel seized a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, in international waters as it brought aid to the Gaza Strip. Nine passengers, all Turkish citizens, were killed in a confrontation as Israeli naval commandos boarded the vessel.

Over the past decade, Israel has seized several arms shipments off its coast destined either for Hamas in Gaza or for Hizbollah. Israel's most famous interception was of the Karine A in the Red Sea in 2002. The Palestinian freighter was found to contain 50 tonnes of weapons, including Katyusha rockets, anti-tank missiles and mortars.

In 2009 Israel seized the Francop cargo ship in the Mediterranean Sea as it headed to Lebanon with hundreds of tonnes of Iranian weapons on board.