JERUSALEM, (AP) – Israeli officials tallied up hundreds of tons of weapons seized from a commandeered ship Thursday as Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas denied Israeli claims that the arms were meant for them.
Israeli naval commandos, acting on intelligence reports, boarded the Antiguan-flagged Francop before dawn in waters off Cyprus on Wednesday and discovered that the cargo included hundreds of crates of rockets, missiles, mortars, anti-tank weapons and munitions.
The arms shipment was the largest Israel has ever seized, and it shone a spotlight on dangerous tensions between Israel and Iran. Israel considers Iran a strategic threat because of its nuclear program and long-range missile development, and says Tehran is lying when it denies it is building atomic arms.
The Hezbollah guerrilla group, which fought a bruising, month long war with Israel three years ago, denied that the arms cache was meant for its fighters.
“Hezbollah categorically denies it has any connection with the weapons which the Zionist enemy claims it seized aboard the Francop ship,” Hezbollah said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press in Beirut.
Israel had not provided evidence the arms were meant for Hezbollah — and the guerrilla group accused the Jewish state of fabrication and “piracy” for intercepting the ship.
Iran has had no comment on the affair.
The weapons were sealed in containers carrying Iranian shipping codes and provided Israel with a rare opportunity to showcase its longtime claim that Tehran was arming militants on Israel’s northern border — and implicitly, Hamas militants in Gaza.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday that he hopes the capture of the weapons will be a “wake-up call to those few in the international community who up until now have still held illusions about the true character of the extremist, radical regime in Tehran.”
The presence of Iranian proxies in the Mideast, combined with worries over Tehran’s nuclear program and arsenal of long-range missiles, have made Iran the Jewish state’s most formidable foe.
Neutralizing Iran’s bomb-making ability remains Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top priority — and Israel has not ruled out a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials and commentators said Thursday that the capture of the ship should help buttress Israel as it fights war crimes allegations at the United Nations and seeks crippling global sanctions against Iran.
“When it comes to explaining the real situation in Israel, this gives us some more recognition that … sometimes we must take protective measures to exercise our right to self defense,” said lawmaker Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee.
The arms shipment eclipsed the previously largest haul, in 2002, of 50 tons of missiles, mortars, rifles and ammunition headed for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Israel has said that shipment came from Iran as well.
“They (the Israelis) are going to send the pictures of all those rockets all over the world,” predicted Israeli military analyst Reuven Pedatzur.
“For them, this is the perfect example of the activity of the Iranian regime in our area, that there is no doubt they are sending weapons, that they’re trying to destabilize the region,” Pedatzur said.
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly is expected to resume its discussion of a report accusing both Israel and Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers of war crimes during their conflict last winter. Both sides deny the charges.
The General Assembly is expected to send the report to the Security Council, where Washington is expected to veto it, already having said the report is biased and should not be taken up by the U.N.’s most powerful body.
“This kind of vivid evidence makes it easier for the United States to veto any resolution against Israel,” Hanegbi said.