Analysis

BICOM Briefing: Israel seizes weapons shipment

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Key Points

  • The Israeli Navy and IDF commando forces have captured a cargo ship carrying a large consignment of weapons and ammunition, apparently from Iran, destined for the Gaza Strip.
  • Should the source of these weapons prove to be Iran, it will be a further reminder of their efforts to arm and support extremists in the region.
  • Recent regional unrest has provided opportunities for Iran to further project its influence, whilst also leading to deterioration in the security situation in the Sinai.

What happened?

  • On the morning of 15 March, the Israeli Navy and IDF commando forces captured the cargo ship Victoria carrying a consignment of weapons and ammunition. The weapons, reportedly of Iranian origin, were concealed in shipping containers.
  • The ship departed from Syria, via Turkey, and was headed to the port of Alexandria in Egypt. The weapons were then to be unloaded and smuggled into Gaza. The vessel was seized in the Mediterranean, 200 miles fromIsrael’scoast.
  • The IDF has stressed that Turkey was not involved ‘in any way’ in the attempt to ship weapons into Gaza.
  • The ship is owned by a German shipping company and was flying a Liberian flag. Israel’s Foreign Ministry alerted the German and Liberian governments about the interception.
  • The Israeli Navy is escorting the ship to the Israeli port of Ashdod for further searches and detailed inspection of the cargo. The crew will be questioned as well.

What are the implications?

  • If the investigation of the shipment proves Iranian involvement, the interception of the Victoria will provide yet another indication of Iran’s determination to equip and support terror groups in the region, particularly Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
  • Instability in the Middle East and North Africa provides a convenient backdrop for increased Iranian efforts to project its regional influence. Two Iranian warships passed through the Suez Canal in February – for the first time since 1979 – heading for Syria. While mostly symbolic, the passage of the ships was an Iranian show of force in the Mediterranean.
  • Internal and regional instability in Egypt also threatens the prevention of smuggling. Egyptian security forces are already stretched by domestic unrest and threats along the Egypt-Libya border. It was reported in Israel that Hamas seized the opportunity of instability in Egypt to increase weapons smuggling from the Sinai. A senior Hamas terrorist jailed in Egypt succeeded in escaping back into Gaza during the height of the demonstrations against the Mubarak regime.
  • The speed with which Israeli authorities moved to stress that Turkey was not involved reflects the delicacy of Israeli-Turkish relations since the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, and Israel’s interest in not exacerbating tensions.

Background: Iranian weapons smuggling

  • In November 2009, the Israeli Navy captured a large shipment of Iranian weapons on board the Francop ship off the coast of Cyprus. More than 300 tonnes of weaponry were discovered, including thousands of 107mm and 122mm Katyusha rockets, 9,000 mortar shells and thousands of Kalashnikov bullets. Also among the weaponry discovered were 60mm mortar shells, fragmentation grenades, 106 mm recoilless rifle ammunition and 105mm high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds.
  • In January 2009, Israeli fighter-bombers, backed by unmanned drones, were reportedly responsible for the bombing of a 23-truck convoy in the Sudanese desert carrying arms to Hamas militants.
  • In January 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, Israel captured the Karin A ship in the Red Sea. The ship was carrying a large consignment of Iranian weapons destined for the Palestinian Authority.
  • Whilst Hamas has largely acted to prevent weapons firing from Gaza since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, there have been periodic attacks. The city of Beersheva, 40km from Gaza, was recently hit by two Iranian Grad rockets for the first time since Operation Cast Lead.

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