Reports began to trickle out of the Middle East early Wednesday morning that elite Israeli commandos had stopped and boarded an Iranian vessel in the Red Sea carrying a massive arms shipment to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. A video quickly published by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) – and embedded below – indicates that Israeli intelligence had been tracking the shipment of advanced missiles since it left Syria.
From Syria the missiles had apparently traveled through Iran, and – after departing an Iranian port ten days ago – through Iraq. The Klos-C merchant ship was flagged as Panamanian and was sailed by 17 crew members from a cross-section of nationalities. The interdiction took place 1,500 kilometers off Israel’s coast, and the Israelis had reportedly been tailing the ship for several days. All 17 have been taken in for questioning, though early IDF statements suggested they were probably not aware of what they were carrying. The missiles were reportedly hidden behind cement.
The cargo contained, among other things, advanced M302 missiles with a range of 125 miles.
Observers began publicly worrying at least as far back as last November that Hamas was stockpiling advanced weapons, and by last month Israeli analysts were outlining how Hamas was positioning itself to saturation bomb Israeli civilian centers during any future conflict with Jerusalem. The existence and potential use of such weapons contributed significantly to Israel’s decision in November 2012 to launch a week-long campaign to degrade Hamas’s arsenal.
The incident – which is not the first time that a Gaza-bound Iranian arms shipment has been intercepted by Israel – has the potential to reverberate regionally. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), quickly called attention to a potential Egyptian role in the operation. Iranian-born analyst Amir Taheri cited sources in Tehran suggesting that some of the missiles may have been bound for the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula. Cairo’s army-backed government recently escalated economic and political moves designed to limit Hamas’s capabilities. The Egyptians accuse the group of facilitating the transfer of jihadist personnel and materials into the Sinai.
A video published this morning by the IDF outlined the path taken by the arms shipment: