VIDEO - Navy soldiers seized a German merchant vessel chartered by a French company transporting weapons from Syria to Gaza 200 miles west off Israel's coast on Tuesday. The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said the "Victoria" ship sailed under the Liberian flag and was carrying various types of weapons.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed his finger at Iran claiming it provided the Gaza-bound weapons.
The prime minister noted he authorized the Navy operation on Monday night. "We had reason to assume the ship carried weapons meant to hurt Israeli citizens. The source of the weapons is Iran," he said. Netanyahu further added, "The takeover was carried out mid sea in accordance with international law. The ship is being escorted to Ashdod."
Weapons found on 'Victoria' (Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
The IDF's Spokesperson's Unit said that the takeover was carried out swiftly and did not meet any resistance. The ship was later escorted back to the Israeli shore by Navy vessels for more scans.
In addition to weapons, soldiers who boarded the "Victoria" also found a radar used to detect ships prior to the launching of anti-ship missiles.
The army said at least four anti-ship missiles with a range of 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) were found on the vessel. Deputy Navy Commander Rear Admiral Rani Ben-Yehuda said the C-704 missiles would have threatened Israeli sea-based strategic installations and navy vessels.
A preliminary probe suggests the ship's crew was not aware of the weapons concealed on board the vessel.
On its way from Syria to Alexandria, Egypt the ship docked at Turkey's Mersin Port. It is estimated that the weapons on board were intended for terror groups operating in the Gaza Strip.
Turkey was in no way connected to the ship as far as the IDF is aware. The seizure of the vessel was authorized by the government.
Israel tracked vessel thanks to accurate intelligence
Security officials tracked the vessel for several days, possibly weeks. It is estimated the weapons were meant to pass Rafah's tunnels en route to Gaza thus avoiding the naval blockade.
Netanyahu authorized the Navy operation Monday night and was briefed on the developments on Tuesday. The PM told a conference in Eilat Tuesday afternoon that "Iran sends weapons to terrorist organizations in Gaza that would target the heads of our children. It is our right and duty to take action. We will unload the equipment and show it to the world, a world that rushes to blame Israel, which is struggling for the lives of its citizens.
"It is important for the world to see what we are up against, against what people we exercise our right for self defense," he said.
Earlier on Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz informed Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the weapons found on the ship. The IDF and the Foreign Ministry informed German authorities of the arrest as the ship belongs to a German company as well as the government of Liberia.
"Efforts to smuggle weapons into Gaza show that radical elements continue their attempts to hurt Israel and destabilize the region," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. "The IDF and security forces will continue working resolutely to defend the country."
Shayetet 13 troops performed the takeover.
Later Tuesday, Barak said the "Victoria" was a rather large vessel owned by a Lebanese citizen. He said the crew "did not know it was carrying weapons intended for terror groups in Gaza."
Speaking at the Command and General Staff College in Glilot, the defense minister said the security establishment estimates that the ship carried weapons and equipment that constitute "the beginning of an advanced system that could have affected our operational freedom off Gaza's coastline had they reached (the Strip). That is why this interception was so important."
The defense minister was apparently referring to the radar.
Barak said the operation "proves the importance of the naval blockade on Gaza and the radical axis. We don’t know what Syria and Hezbollah's roles (in the attempted arms transfer) were; we will find out in the coming days."
Yoav Zitun and Attila Somfalvi contributed to this report
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