Israel said on Wednesday it had cracked a Palestinian militant cell suspected of having been recruited and handled by Iranian intelligence officers who worked out of South Africa, but the suspects' lawyer denied the charges.
Israel has long been locked in a shadow war with arch-foe Iran, which supports Islamist guerrillas in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and whose
nuclear programme is widely believed to have been targeted repeatedly by Israeli saboteurs.
Israel's Shin Bet security agency said three Palestinians from the occupied West Bank had been indicted on espionage and terrorism charges after they confessed to accepting Iranian-assigned missions, including preparation of a suicide bombing and providing their handlers with Israeli cellphone SIM cards.
In its statement, the Shin Bet said the suspects' point of contact was a Palestinian who lived in South Africa and had been recruited by Iranian intelligence. It gave no indication whether the South African government knew of the alleged Iranian activity, or of the Palestinian expatriate's whereabouts.
South Africa, where pro-Palestinian sentiment is strong, has strained relations with Israel, but the Shin Bet statement also suggested the country effectively served as an Iranian spy hub.
"It became clear, during the the Shin Bet investigation, that Iranian intelligence used South Africa as a significant arena for locating, recruiting and running anti-Israel agents in the West Bank," the Shin Bet said, adding that several Iranian officers had travelled there "from Tehran" for the operation.
South Africa's Foreign Ministry and Home Affairs Ministry, and the Iranian embassy in Pretoria, did not immediately respond to the Israeli allegations.