Israel says weapons shipment a war crime, Iran and Syria cry foul

Israel's Netanyahu said Thursday a large arms shipment seized this week was sent by Iran to Syria and Hezbollah, and charged this was a 'war crime.'

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
An Israeli military police officer stands next to rockets seized by Israeli authorities on a ship near Cyprus, and presented in the port of the Israeli city of Ashdod, Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that a large Iranian weapons shipment that Israel seized on Wednesday – and alleges was destined for Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon – constituted a "war crime." He said the United Nations Security Council should convene a special session to discuss the issue.

"The bulk of the shipment included rockets whose aim is to hurt our citizens and kill as many civilians as possible,'' Prime Minister Netanyahu charged in a press conference. Iran and Syria said there was no weapons shipment, and Hezbollah said whatever the cargo, it was not intended for them.

Israel seized the German-owned freighter Francorp in international waters near Cyprus after it had departed Iran, transited the Suez Canal, and made a brief stop in Egypt. The Israeli navy said it found 500 tons of Katyusha rockets, mortars, bullets, and grenades in containers belonging to an Iranian shipping line, and said the ship's manifest indicated the cargo was destined for Syria. Both Iran and Syria have supplied arms to Hezbollah in the past.

UN Security Council Resolution 1747 does forbid Iran from selling arms: "Iran shall not supply, sell, or transfer directly or indirectly
from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft any arms or related materiel, and that all States shall prohibit the procurement of such items from Iran by their nationals."

But Israel offered no proof for its contention that their ultimate destination was the hands of Hezbollah, which fought a brief war against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 2006. That war ended with a cease-fire monitored by the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is charged with interdicting arms shipments in Lebanese territorial waters and inside the country. A UNIFIL spokesman said the group considered the charge the weapons were destined for Hezbollah as yet "unproven."

Israel has, on a number of occasions in the past few years, hinted that it would be willing to unilaterally attack Iran's nuclear sites if it grows convinced that Tehran's nuclear program cannot be curtailed by other means. Iran, which has only a small number of missiles with sufficient range to strike out at Israel, has cultivated ties with Hezbollah – fellow Shiites – in the past decade, and security analysts say it sees the threat the militant group poses to northern Israel as part of its deterrent against an Israeli attack.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that the "Foreign Ministry issued a document to Israeli embassies and consulates around the world on Wednesday, instructing diplomats to utilize Israel's seizure of the ship to direct international pressure toward Iran."

Netanyahu made clear in his comments on Thursday that Israel wants the focus to be on Iran, which has been threatened with new sanctions by President Barack Obama if progress isn't made in curtailing the growth of its nuclear program by the end of the year. Israel alleges Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, something which it argues would pose an existential threat.

"This is a war crime which Iran intends to commit again in the future,'' Netanyahu told reporters at army headquarters. "The international community should be focusing on this, but instead, the world condemns Israel and the Israel Defense Forces and undermines our right to self defense."

Netanyahu was referring to the Goldstone report, which was debated at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday. That investigation of Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza strip last year found that both Israel and Hamas were probably guilty of war crimes in the conflict, which claimed the lives of 13 Israelis and more than 1,400 Palestinians. Israel has angrily rejected charges of war crimes and refused to participate in the investigation, preventing the Jewish South African jurist Goldstone and his team from conducting work in Israel or the occupied West Bank.

The largest rockets reported seized from the Francorp shipment were 122-millimeter Katyushas, which have a range of about 20 miles. What impact the shipment, even if intended for Hezbollah, would have on the security situation is unclear, since Israeli President Shimon Peres alleged in August that Hezbollah had rebuilt its stockpile, following its 2006 war with Israel, to include 80,000 rockets – more than it had at the time of the conflict. During that conflict, 44 Israeli civilians were killed by Hezbollah rocket fire in northern Israel. Lebanon said that about 1,100 of its civilians died in the conflict.

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