Francop ship weapons 248 88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
In the wake of Israel's interception of the Iranian arms-laden Francop cargo ship, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday accused Iran of "war crimes" and called on the United Nations to investigate it instead of Israel for attacking innocent civilians.
Israel's envoys overseas, meanwhile, were instructed to urge their host countries to cease all dealings with Iran's state shipping company, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines - IRISL - which shipped the weapons from Iran to Egypt, in containers marked with its logo. Britain last month barred all such dealings.
Netanyahu spoke at a short Tel Aviv press briefing, which was part of an extensive public relations campaign Israel has launched since it intercepted, late on Tuesday night, the 140-meter-long Francop loaded with 320 tons of Katyushas, rockets, mortar shells and other weapons from Iran. The weapons were due to be delivered to Hizbullah by way of Syria.
The "sole objective" of these Iranian weapons, Netanyahu said, "was to attack and kill as many civilians - women, children and the elderly - as possible. This is a war crime."
He noted the timing of the ship's seizure, which occurred just as the UN's General Assembly was debating the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of committing war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza.
"The UN General Assembly, which is meeting today , should investigate, discuss and condemn [the Iranian shipment]. This is a war crime that should prompt the UN Security Council to convene in special session, especially since it was in gross violation of UN Security Council resolutions," said Netanyahu.
"This is what the international community should concentrate on at all times - but especially today. But instead, they have chosen to assemble and condemn the IDF and the State of Israel, and to try and undermine our legitimate right to defend ourselves."
The prime minister added that the IDF was a moral army of the highest caliber. "We know that it is the IDF and the security services of the State of Israel that stand against the war criminals who plan to perpetrate war crimes against Israeli citizens.
"I think that the time has come for the international community, at least its more responsible countries, to recognize the truth and not promote a lie," Netanyahu said.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, OC Navy Admiral Eli Marom and Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin were also present with Netanyahu.
Yadlin added that besides the weaponry, there was a large amount of money on board the Francop which was meant to fund terror.
Defense officials privately told the media that had the weapons cache reached its destination, it would have given Hizbullah the ability to fight a full month longer in the event of a clash with Israel on the scale of the 2006 war.
The press conference was part a wider Israeli diplomatic initiative. The Foreign Ministry on Thursday brought ambassadors to Palmahim to view the intercepted materiel; on Wednesday Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had spoken with them at the Foreign Ministry.
In Palmahim on Thursday, Foreign Ministry Director General Yossi Gal accused Iran of cynically manipulating innocent countries and hiding behind their flags.
He called on the international community to stop terrorist activity supported and organized by Iran and its satellites.
In a letter which the Foreign Ministry sent to its ambassadors Wednesday, its urged them to speak with the officials in their host country to pressure Iran.
They were instructed to also ask the governments to be more vigilant with respect to commercial shipping and in particular to follow the UK, which earlier this month banned companies from dealing with IRISL.
"Countries should take preventive measures in order to protect themselves and their companies, as mentioned in UNSC resolutions. The designation of IRISL by the government of UK last month is a good example of such a preventive measure," the letter stated.
In spite of the Israeli PR effort, international and even American media gave relatively minor coverage to the ship seizure. The New York Times ran a brief item on Thursday, while The Washington Post published a story in the paper's international section under an analysis of what the Obama administration's doing wrong in the peace process.
A Foreign Ministry source ascribed the low-level media attention to the fact that the international community already expected this kind of activity from Iran and thus was not too surprised by it.
But European diplomatic sources said that subject was being approached cautiously, and more investigation was needed on the matter. Some intimated that there was a strange coincidence in the seizure occurring precisely in the midst of the Goldstone debate at the UN General Assembly.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the media he had no doubt that the weaponry was bound for Hizbullah. Israel, he said, had done a thorough job of tracing the weapons origin and route, and had documentation to back up its claims.
State-run Iran TV said in a commentary that the "Israeli propaganda" was aimed at diverting attention from allegations of Israeli war crimes in Gaza. A Syrian Foreign Ministry official expressed the same view.
Iran's English-language Press TV said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had dismissed the allegations on the cargo's destination and route.
A Palestinian authority spokesman said Israel might pounce on the seizure as an excuse to avoid peacemaking.
"Since the Israeli leadership and society are not ready for peace, they are using any pretext to shun peace obligations, and one is the issue of the Iranian shipment," said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the West Bank-based Palestinian government.
Hizbullah on Thursday denied any links to the shipment - as Syria had done on Wednesday, when its Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused Israel of "piracy."
In a statement faxed to the Associated Press on Thursday, Hizbullah said it "categorically denies" any connection to the weapons. It also called Israel's actions "piracy."
AP contributed to this report