JERUSALEM – Israeli naval forces say a ship boarded Wednesday from Iran was heading to Gaza with advanced rockets to turn the territory into a much greater terror threat to Israel and others.
Iran has already provided the anti-Israel terror group Hezbollah tens of thousands of missiles in southern Lebanon despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers there, say Israeli military analysts.
This shipment intercepted by Israeli naval commandos Wednesday in the Red Sea, more than 1,000 miles from Israel, was carrying Syrian-made M-302 rockets with a range of up to 125 miles and would have significantly improved the capabilities of Gaza terrorists to put nearly all of Israel in their range.
Arieh Herzog, former director of the Israeli Ministry of Defense section responsible for the development and deployment of the country’s missile defense system, said the Syian missiles would have been a “game-changer.”
“It’s a missile that’s significantly longer-range than they have now in Gaza, with a bigger warhead. If you draw a circle 200 kilometers long, it could hit Haifa” in the north, “and of course Tel Aviv and Jerusalem” in the country’s center, he said.
With a warhead that large, “the damage could be significant and Israel needs to do everything it can to stop it,” Herzog said.
Gaza, small strip of land bordering Israel, is controlled by Hamas, a Islamist terror group whose aims has been to destroy Israel. Previously, Hamas has only been able to reach about 50 miles into Israel with their homegrown M-75 missiles.
The Red Sea operation by Israel followed months of intelligence gathering, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said. Lerner said the shipment originated in Syria and was flown to Iran and shipped to Iraq to “obscure their tracks.”
From there the missiles were loaded inside concrete pipes aboard a Panamanian-flagged ship bound for Sudan, from where the weapons were to be driven through Egypt to Gaza, the army said. Israel stopped the ship off the Sudanese-Eritrean border.
Lerner said the 17 crew members of the ship were probably unaware of the cargo. The vessel was being brought to the Israeli port of Eilat where the crew would be released and the weapons unloaded.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is visiting the United States this week, said the shipment shows how worse things will become if Iran is allowed to keep developing nuclear technology.
“At a time when it talks with the world powers, at a time when Iran is smiling and saying all sorts of pleasantries, that same Iran is sending lethal weapons to terror organizations and it is doing it with an elaborate network of covert global operations with the aim of streaming rockets, missiles and other lethal weapons to harm innocent civilians,” he said. “This is the real Iran and that country must not be able to have a nuclear weapon.”
Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Inter- Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, says Iran and Hezbollah have been arming the Palestinians and other militant groups in the Middle East since the 1990s but that Israel has taken away traditional routes for the weapon deliveries by conducting bombing operations on convoys in Syria and Lebanon.
Recently, jihadist and Palestinian groups in the Egyptian region of Sinai have been moving weaponry to Hamas. The Sinai is a largely lawless desert that has a coast along the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and shares borders with Israel and Gaza overland.
Had the missiles wound up in the Sinai, Karmon said, they could have been used to attack all of southern and parts of central Israel, or Egypt. Hamas is being squeezed by Egypt’s anti-Islamic military government, which has shut down the majority of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.
Herzog believes Iran;s aim is to help launch a two-front assault on Israel, from Hezbollah to Israel’s north and Hamas to its south. Hezbollah has already attacked Israel with missiles and is believed to have ones with a range of 185 miles, “enough to reach Dimona,” Karmon said, referring to the site where Israel is believed to keep its nuclear arsenal.
Although Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile systems have an excellent track record, “not all of the country is covered by these batteries,” Karmon noted.