The Israel Navy intercepted a ship early on Wednesday that Iran was using to smuggle dozens of long-range rockets to Gaza.
The IDF’s “Operation Discovery” took place in the Red Sea, 1,500 kilometers away from Israel and some 160 kilometers from Port Sudan. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz oversaw the raid.
Missile ships and navy commandos from the Flotilla 13 unit, backed by the air force, raided the Klos-C cargo ship, which was carrying Syrian- manufactured M-302 rockets.
The ship’s crew is in Israeli custody, and the navy is towing the vessel to Eilat, where it is expected to arrive in the coming days.
The rockets originated in Syria, according to Military Intelligence assessments. Iran reportedly flew the rockets from Syria to an Iranian airfield, trucked them to the seaport of Bander Abbas, and shipped them to Iraq, where they were hidden in cement sacks. The ship then set sail for Port Sudan, near the Sudanese-Eritrean border, on a journey that was expected to last some 10 days.
Had the shipment not been intercepted, the rockets could have been unloaded at Port Sudan and taken overland, through Egypt into Sinai, and through smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip.
“This is the same known land route that the Iranians have been using to smuggle arms to Gaza,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said.
One day before the Klos-C reached its destination, the navy took control of it. There were no injuries, and the captain of the ship permitted the IDF to board without resistance, the head of the navy’s headquarters, V.-Adm. Yaron Levi, said.
The ship sailed under a Panama flag, and carried a crew of 17 from various countries.
(The Klos-C, Screenshot, IDF Spokesperson)
“We have certain proof that Iran was behind this,” a senior military source said.
“We don’t yet know what the crew did or did not know.“We found the rockets packed closely together on board,” the source added.
OC Navy Adm. Ram Rotenberg was on board one of the missile ships involved in the operation, the source confirmed.
Iran is believed to store some of its rockets in Syria for future transit to terrorist organizations.
The lengthy smuggling route was apparently intended to prevent Israeli intelligence from tracking the weapons.
The arrival of M-302 rockets in Gaza, with a range of between 100 and 200 kilometers (depending on upgrades carried out on their motors), would have represented a new level of threat to the Israeli home front.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the raid on Wednesday, and added that “the White House directed the Department of Defense to monitor the vessel.”
The US had prepared “unilateral steps” to stop the shipment, but Israel offered to handle the ship, Psaki said.
The planned transfer of arms would violate UN Security Council resolutions, she said.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office said the operation was made possible by inter-agency intelligence cooperation and the military’s enhanced capabilities.
“This prevented the arrival of a shipment of deadly and advanced weapons, which was aimed at harming Israeli civilians, and intended to reach the terrorist organizations of the Gaza Strip that are waging armed confrontation against Israel,” the spokesman said.
The naval commando teams acted in accordance with international law during the raid, and boarded the ship for searches before uncovering the rockets, the spokesman said.
“The IDF will continue to act against the regional arms race that is being led by Iran, which is trying to set the region alight,” the military said. It vowed to “use all of the capabilities at its disposal to ensure the security of Israeli civilians.”
Speaking at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Gantz paid tribute to cooperation among intelligence agencies, and to the navy, which he said led the operation “professionally and resolutely.”
The IDF is engaged in combating arms smuggling in the North and South, he said. “This requires a widespread intelligence effort, and from time to time, active operations that we must take at the appropriate level. We call this the ‘war between wars,’ and we try to reduce the heavy threats that mainly come from Iran and its Quds Force,” the chief of staff said.
“We’ve been following this arms shipment for a long time,” Gantz said. He described the intelligence behind the operation as “impressive. Today, we are harvesting the fruit of this intelligence. I’d like to thank Military Intelligence, Naval intelligence, and the navy for the cooperation that allowed us to carry out a concrete, operational step.
“This is one of many operations.
We thwarted a weapons smuggling effort to Gaza, and at the same time, we exposed the reality of Iranian arms smuggling as it was happening,” Gantz said.
The rockets would have had a “very serious impact on Israeli territory” had the reached Gaza, he said. “I’m very pleased we were able to stop it,” Gantz said.
Ya’alon likewise noted that “this operation prevented a significant threat to Israeli civilians.
Not all of the weapons on the vessel have been exposed, and they would certainly have threatened millions of Israelis had they reached Gaza. What this shows, and it is clear, is that in Gaza we have a terrorist entity, an Iranian arm, certainly Islamic Jihad, which is funded, trained and armed by Iran. This also shows that we have an Iranian regime that smiles on one side – to the Western world, mainly – but also continues with its nuclear project and with developing long-range missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. It is also the No. 1 terror exporter in the world.”
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and smaller terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip are constantly working to build up their rocket arsenal.
Israeli intelligence estimated that at the end of 2013, Hamas possessed 5,000 short-range rockets that could threaten southern cities, and dozens of medium-range rockets that could reach greater Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, placing 70 percent of Israeli civilians in its range.
There are some 25,000 armed fighters in Gaza. Of those, 16,000 belong to Hamas divisions.
Islamic Jihad has 5,000 fighters, split up into five divisions, and more than 2,000 rockets. Smaller groups have more than 4,000 terrorists in their ranks, and dozens of rockets, as well as a large quantity of light arms.
In addition to replenishing its rocket arsenal, Hamas is trying to increase its capability to carry out terrorist attacks. It possesses anti-aircraft missiles, as well.
Last month, Gantz acknowledged that Israel was keeping a close eyes on developments in Gaza, and warned Hamas that it would “regret” any decision to attack Israel.
Michael Wilner contributed to this report from Washington.