Israeli naval forces have raided a ship in the Red Sea and seized dozens of advanced rockets from Iran destined for Palestinian militants in Gaza.
The ship, the Klos C, was carrying Syrian-made M-302 rockets and was intercepted off the coast of Sudan.
A military spokesman said the M-302 rockets have a range of up to 100 miles and would have significantly improved the capabilities of Gaza militants, putting nearly all of Israel in their range.
Previously, militants in Gaza have only been able to reach about 50 miles into Israel with their own-make M-75 missiles.
The operation, codenamed Full Disclosure, followed months of intelligence gathering.
The spokesman said the shipment originated in Syria. From there the weapons were flown to Iran then moved out of the port of Bandar Abbas.
He said the Iranians tried to “obscure their tracks” by shipping first via Iraq and then out to sea. The shipment was destined for Sudan, from where it was to be moved overland through Egypt to Gaza. Israel says militants have used similar routes in the past.
The spokesman added the 17 Klos C crew members, who were flying under a Panama flag, were not suspects and were probably unaware of what their cargo was. The vessel was being brought to the Israeli port of Eilat, where the crew would be released and the missiles unloaded.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “At a time when Iran 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 organisations and 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.
“This is the real Iran and that country must not be able to have a nuclear weapon.”
A military video showed soldiers on the ship inspecting the rockets, which were packed in large crates.
Defence minister Moshe Yaalon said the weapons heading for Gaza were “strategically important”.
He added: “Iran trains, funds and arms terror groups in the region and around the world and its failed attempts to transfer the arms that were discovered this morning is more proof of that.”
Gaza is ruled by Hamas, an Islamic militant group which already possesses thousands of rockets.
A number of smaller groups, including the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda-inspired groups also hold rocket arsenals. The military did not specify which group the shipment was believed to be destined for.
Israel accuses Iran of supplying rockets and other arms to its enemies – militants in Gaza and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – and it has moved to intercept weapons shipments in the past.
Three years ago, Israel seized the cargo ship Victoria, which was loaded with weapons allegedly sent by Iran to Gaza militants. They included land-to-sea missiles.
In November 2009, Israel took over the Iranian vessel Francop off the coast of Cyprus and captured hundreds of tonnes of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons on board that it said were en route to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Israel is also suspected of carrying out airstrikes in Sudan on arms shipments believed to be bound for Gaza. Israel has never confirmed carrying out the raids.
In January 2002, Israeli forces stormed the Karine A freighter on the Red Sea, and confiscated 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for the Gaza Strip.
In May 2001, Israel captured the vessel Santorini off its coastline, which was packed with explosives Israel said were being sent from Hezbollah to Palestinian militant groups.
Israel’s foreign ministry said its troops boarded the ship in accordance with international law and with the consent of the crew and the relevant authorities.
It said the ship was operated by a company registered in the Marshall Islands.