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Israel's seizure of arms shipment highlights rising unease about Iran

Israel's naval commander said the shipment, seized on a merchant ship 200 miles off Israel's coast, contained missiles of 'strategic importance' to Gaza and accompanying Farsi-language manuals.

By Correspondent / March 15, 2011

An Israeli naval vessel approaches the port of Ashdod on Tuesday. Israeli naval commandos seized a cargo ship in the Mediterranean carrying what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said were Iranian-supplied weapons intended for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Amir Cohen/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

Israel today seized the merchant ship "Victoria" 200 miles off its coast, asserting that it had a "solid basis’’ of suspicion that the vessel was ferrying arms shipments from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip that were "intended to hit Israel."

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The ship, which originated in Syria and was sailing to the Egyptian port of Alexandria, was diverted to the Israeli port of Ashdod following the takeover, which was met with no resistance from the crew. Israel's naval commander said that the shipment contained land-to-sea missiles of "strategic importance" to Gaza and accompanying Farsi-language manuals.

Though not the first time Israel has commandeered a weapons shipment to block arms to the Palestinians, the seizure comes amid rising unease in Israel that the turmoil sweeping the Middle East – especially Egypt – is creating an opportunity for Iran to widen its influence.

"The fact that Iran wanted to use an Egyptian port to unload the weapons is yet another clear indication that Tehran is trying to take advantage [of] the recent developments in the region, and Egypt in particular," says Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian expert based in Tel Aviv. "To Iran’s leadership, the changes in Egypt have now made it into a new land of strategic opportunities in many areas, including Iran’s support for Hamas."

The ship, which was flying under a Liberian flag, is German-owned and is operated by a French company, Israel said. Israel’s army spokesman released a picture of what it said was weapons crates, but did not immediately provide details about the amount or type of weapons on the ship.

'Iranians are more confident now'

The fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a month ago removed one of Israel’s quiet allies in trying to block Iran’s growing prominence.

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