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.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Ashdod Port, and warned that Iran would continue trying to smuggle weaponry to Hizbullah.
"We will need to continue to invest [in] efforts to stop them," he said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that anyone who still needed proof that Iran continued to arm terrorist organizations had received that proof in a clear and decisive manner.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi updated the security cabinet on the ship's capture.
"Iran is sending these weapons to terror organizations to harm Israeli cities and kill its citizens," Netanyahu said. "The time has come for the international community to exert real pressure on Iran to stop this criminal activity and to support Israel when it defends itself against these terrorists and their patrons."
"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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed Iran Wednesday while in Egypt, when she met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"We discussed the threat that Iran poses to regional stability, including the nuclear file. As President Obama has said, it is time for the Iranian government to decide what kind of future it seeks," Clinton said.
"Iran was caught red handed again," said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. "This ship is just the tip of the iceberg."
It was an example of Iran's efforts to destabilize the region and rearm "the player," that is happening at an ever-increasing pace, he said.
Speaking on Tuesday, before he knew about the ship, Ayalon told journalists and diplomats at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, "Everything bad that goes on in the Middle East starts in Iran, and the gateway of Iran to the Middle East is Syria."
He added that Iran posed a global threat such as had not been seen since World War II.
Although both Iran and Syria are denying involvement, President Shimon Peres said the whole world knew there was a huge gap between what Syria and Iran say and what they do.
Syria and Iran were rogue states that broke every universal law, said Peres, adding that both Syria and Iran are supplying arms to terrorists.
It was very clear, he said, that they were trying to bring about the collapse of peace in the Middle East. For this reason the capture of the ship was of fundamental significance, not only from a military standpoint but also from a political one.
"You can't argue with facts," said Peres.
The US stressed that it remained "extremely concerned about Hizbullah's efforts to rearm in direct violation of various United Nations Security Council resolutions," following reports of the ship being seized.
A State Department official emphasized that "Hizbullah continues to pose a significant threat to peace and security in Lebanon and the region," though he acknowledged that it was "unclear" what types of weapons had been found.
Hilary Leila Krieger and Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.