(photo credit: AP)
Hundreds of tons of weaponry, the largest arms seizure in Israel's history, were intercepted overnight Tuesday in a daring raid by Israeli naval commandos aboard a cargo ship sailing 100 nautical miles west of Israel.
The arms shipment was 10 times the size of the cache found on the Palestinian arms ship Karine A in 2002.
The cache was hidden inside shipping containers belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) which departed from the Badar Abbas Port in Iran some 10 days ago, were unloaded in the Egyptian port of Damietta and then loaded onto the Francop, a German vessel flying an Antiguan flag.
The operation had been in planning for several days and was dubbed "Four Species," for the recent Succot holiday.
Two Israel Navy missile ships approached the Francop late Tuesday night as it passed Israel some 100 miles off the coast. One of the ships raised the captain, of Polish origin, on the radio and asked for permission to board. Once he gave permission, the second ship, carrying several teams of commandos, closed in.
The soldiers boarded without encountering resistance and were given the cargo certificates, which indicated that some of the hundreds of containers on board had originated in Iran and were on their way to the Lattakia Port in Syria, where Israel believes they would have been unloaded and then transferred to Hizbullah.
The total shipment was estimated to weigh over 500 tons and included thousands of rockets and shells of various types, including 122 mm. Russian-made Katyushas, which have a range of some 30 kilometers.
Upon receiving permission from relevant authorities, including the political establishment, the ship was commandeered and brought it to Israel. The Foreign Ministry had a representative in a special command center that was set up, who contacted the countries involved with the ship - Germany and Antigua.
The ship's crew were unaware of the weapons on board, as the armaments were disguised as humanitarian aid. Some of the other containers contained toilets, milk powder and piles of sacks - each weighing 25 kilograms - filled with polyethylene and made by the Amir Kabir National Petrochemical Company based in Teheran.
The transfer of such a large amounts of weapons was "part of Iran's effort to create a balance of terror with Israel," said Brig.- Gen. Rani Ben-Yehuda, deputy commander of the Israel Navy.
"What we discovered is likely just the tip of the iceberg," Ben-Yehuda said, adding that it was "10 times the amount caught on the Karine A," a reference to the Palestinian arms ship that was carrying 50 tons of weaponry and was intercepted in 2002 in the Red Sea, on its way to the Gaza Strip.
"This is the third time this year that Iran has disregarded international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions that forbid it to transfer weaponry," Ben-Yehuda said.
The navy, he said, regularly conducted operations hundreds of miles from Israel's shores to inspect ships suspected of carrying illegal weapons from Iran to terror proxies like Hizbullah and Hamas.
Ben-Yehuda said that there was regular intelligence indicating that Iran was continuing to support terror groups with large amounts of weapons intended for use against Israel. Furthermore, it was likely that additional shipments from Iran would be shipped, he said.
Ben-Yehuda called the shipment "very advanced weaponry."
He added that even though the Iranian containers were loaded at port of Damietta in Egypt, the Egyptians were totally unaware of the ship's contents.
Hilary Leila Krieger and Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.