JERUSALEM: Israelis hailed Thursday the capture of an alleged Gaza-bound arms ship as a major coup in the fight to unmask Iran but thought it unlikely to scupper ongoing nuclear talks.
The vessel was seized by Israeli naval commandos early Wednesday, with the military saying its cargo included an Iranian shipment of advanced missiles that were en route to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
The pre-dawn raid, which targeted a Panamanian-flagged ship in the Red Sea between Eritrea and Sudan, dominated the front pages of Israel’s main newspapers on Thursday.
The vessel set sail 10 days ago, allegedly carrying Syrian-made missiles “capable of striking anywhere in Israel” which were transported overland to Iran then sent on by sea, the military said.
Pundits were quick to point out the raid coincided with a high-profile US trip by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise a red flag over talks between the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran.
But the Israeli military said the operation had been months in the planning.
The vessel, the “Klos-C”, is currently being towed to Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat where it is expected on Saturday evening, military spokesman Brigadier General Motti Almoz told army radio.
“The ship is about 100 nautical miles from Port Sudan and on its way to Eilat port where it will arrive on Saturday night,” he said.
“From what we understand, it was carrying dozens of M302 long-range missiles which can reach 150 to 200 kilometres (90-125 miles). It may be carrying other weapons as well but we can only know this when it reaches Eilat.
“There is clear and unequivocal information that this (shipment) came from Iran,” Almoz said, without giving further details.
Military intelligence chief Major General Aviv Kochavi also said Israel had “good, solid and incriminating evidence that Iran planned, managed and executed the arms smuggling”, citing the involvement of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
But he also offered no proof.
– ‘Unmasking Iran’ –
Iran has flatly denied any involvement with the shipment, which the Israeli army said was carrying missiles “capable of striking anywhere in Israel”.
“The claim of sending a ship carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza is not true,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying by official IRNA news agency.
“This claim is merely based on the repetitive and unfounded lies of the Zionist media” aimed at derailing negotiations between world powers and Iran over its contested nuclear programme, he said.
Sudan also denied any connection with the shipment, saying the vessel had been in international waters.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, dismissed Israel’s “propaganda” and distanced itself from the episode.
“The occupation’s claims over the weapons ship has no basis or truth, and no link with the Palestinian resistance,” it said.
“This Zionist claim is a new attempt to incite against Gaza, and is pre-prepared propaganda with the malicious intention of coercing support for the blockade against the Strip.”
Almoz denied there was any connection with Israel’s efforts to “unmask” Iran, saying the raid was carried out because of operational considerations.
Commentators said the discovery was a major coup for Israel.
The operation took place as Netanyahu arrived in Los Angeles, just hours after giving a rousing speech to the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in Washington, raising the alarm over the world being duped over Iran.
“This time the prime minister… showed perfect timing. A day after his AIPAC address and two days after his meeting with Obama, he could say to the world: ‘Told you so’,” wrote Yediot commentator Sima Kadmon.
Israel has long accused Iran and Syria of providing military aid to Hezbollah and to Palestinian militants.
But Alex Fishman said it was “unlikely” the weapons shipment would change the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.
“Israeli officials hope the capture of the Klos-C will cast a shadow over (Iranian President Hassan) Rouhani’s charm offensive and perhaps influence the Western countries’ race into Iran?s embrace,” he wrote in Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
“In the present international climate, it is highly unlikely that Israel will be able to leverage this impressive operational achievement and turn it into a political accomplishment against the West?s efforts to reconcile with Iran.”