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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel is closely tracking an Iranian freighter believed to be carrying weaponry for Hamas that is currently docked in the Red Sea outside the Suez Canal, after Egypt refused to permit it to cross the waterway to the Mediterranean.
According to a report received at the Defense Ministry from the Pentagon, the US Navy recently boarded an Iranian vessel that was carrying artillery shells and other weaponry.
"This is a big test for the Egyptians," a senior defense official said. "So far the Egyptians have prevented the ship from crossing the Suez and we hope it will stay that way."
Defense officials said that Iran is trying to supply Hamas with new Grad-model Katyusha rockets and to replace high-grade explosives that were exhausted or destroyed by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead.
"There are two main smuggling routes," one official explained. "Some of the weaponry comes by ground from Somalia, Sudan and then into Egypt and through a tunnel into Gaza, while some comes by boat."
The boats sometimes unload the shipments in the Sinai's Port Said, where it is smuggled into Gaza by land. Other times, the shipments are dropped overboard in waterproof containers and are picked up by Palestinian fishermen or divers.
As reported in The Jerusalem Post last week, the IDF is concerned that Iran will supply Hamas with long-range Fajr missiles that are capable of reaching Tel Aviv.
According to the London Times, Combined Task Force 151 of the US Navy, which is fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden, has been instructed to track Iranian arms shipments to Gaza.
Last week, the report claimed, troops from the USS San Antonio boarded a former Russian cargo vessel that was flying a Cypriot flag and was reportedly carrying weaponry destined for Hamas.
In addition to the US, the French have also dispatched a frigate to the Mediterranean to participate in the clampdown on the Gaza Strip and to prevent weapons shipments from reaching Hamas.
The frigate is carrying a helicopter that can support reconnaissance missions off the Gaza coast.
Israeli officials said they are impressed with the international community's efforts to curb the flow of weapons to Gaza, but also expect Egypt to take practical steps along the border with Gaza to uncover and destroy the smuggling tunnels.
Head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau Amos Gilad will head to Egypt in the coming week to continue discussions on the new mechanism established to counter the smuggling.
The new mechanism Israel has set up with the Egyptians consists of three layers - intelligence cooperation, obstacles in Sinai and the deployment of new tunnel-detection technology along the Egypt-Gaza border.
Defense officials said that, since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, large quantities of explosives, machine guns and other weaponry had arrived in the Sinai peninsula, but the Egyptians were taking measures to prevent them from being smuggled into Gaza, including erecting road blocks near Rafah and increasing patrols in the area.