The Israeli Navy intercepted an Iranian ship in the Red Sea early Wednesday and found long-range, military-grade surface-to-surface rockets hidden behind containers holding bags of cement. Israeli officials said the rockets were bound for terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
“What the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) did in the early hours of today is saved Israeli lives,” said Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman. “These rockets do not exist in Gaza, and if they had reached Gaza they would have made a major difference in the damage it would have caused on the Israeli way of life. … This [the rockets] would have been a game changer in the hands of Gaza terrorists.”
“We don’t know which organization they would have gone to,” he said. “They could have gone to all the organizations.”
The Iranian-backed organization Hamas controls the Gaza Strip.
The rockets, which have a capability of reaching as far as 150 miles, had been tracked by Israeli intelligence for several months. They were manufactured in Syria and flown from Damascus to Teheran, where they were transported over land to southern Iran. Lerner said the move was designed as a “smokescreen — as a way to fool us.”
The rockets — Lerner said the exact quantity would not be known until the ship was unloaded in the Israeli southern port city of Eilat — were then placed on board a ship at Bandar Abbas Port that sailed to the Umm Qasr Port in Iraq where more cement was loaded aboard.
“Then the ship headed out to the Red Sea,” he said in a conference call arranged by the Israel Project, a non-profit, non-governmental organization created to provide the press with information about Israel and the Middle East.
Lerner said Israel was “extremely concerned” about these rockets because none of the terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip “have these capabilities.” He said the 150-mile range of the rockets – known as the M-302 — would leave “Israelis exposed to potential threats.”
“That’s the importance of stopping [Iranian President Hassan] Rohani’s rockets before they reached port,” he said.
The ship was headed for Port Sudan. Israeli naval ships — including missile ships — stopped the vessel in the Red Sea. Had the ship docked in Sudan, the rockets would have traveled through the Sinai Peninsula and into the Gaza Strip.
Asked why Israel decided to act when it did, Lerner said it was “based on operational considerations. … We did feel it best to intervene this shipment on the high seas, and so the mission was crafted that way. For us to go 1,000 miles in the open is a huge success on our part.”
When the Iranian ship was stopped and boarded, IDF Naval commandos found a crew of 17 from many different nations — none from Iran; its captain is Turkish. Lerner said it is still not clear whether any of them knew the nature of the cargo they were carrying, but at this point it is believed they did not. He said Turkey was notified of the operation before the ship was stopped and that the countries of the other crewmembers have also been notified.
In 2010, the Israeli Navy stopped a so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla that sought to run the Israeli-imposed blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israeli elite tShayetet 13 naval commandos — the same unit involved in today’s interdiction — boarded the six ships involved in order to force them to an Israeli port to see if they were carrying weapons or illegal supplies. At they attempted to board one of the vessels, the Turkish ship Mavi Mamara, they were attacked by men armed with knives and iron bars.
During the ensuing struggle, nine activists — eight Turkish nationals and a Turkish American — were killed. Ten of the Israeli commandos were also injured, one seriously. The incident has strained Turkish-Israeli relations ever since.
Lerner said the 17-member crew of the Iranian ship, the KLOS-C, cooperated in the search of the vessel. The weapons were found in civilian “containers among cement.” Other weapons, in addition to the rockets, were also found.
He pointed out that Iran is a full service exporter of “global terrorism,” involved in “smuggling, arming and training organizations” in its behalf.
“This is just one component that we caught up with today and exposed to the public eye,” he said.
Asked about Syria’s involvement, Lerner said: “Syria here is a tool for Iran — to take the rockets and send them out via Iran and to try to feed them to terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip.”