* Syrian-made arms would have boosted Palestinian firepower
* Disclosure comes as Netanyahu makes U.S. lobbying visit
(Adds State Department comment on U.S. involvement, paragraphs
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, March 5 The Israeli navy seized a
ship in the Red Sea on Wednesday that was carrying dozens of
advanced Iranian-supplied rockets made in Syria and intended for
Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip, the military said.
The disclosure came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu was in the United States to press his case for tougher
international action against Iran over its disputed nuclear
programme and support for Islamist guerrilla groups.
The Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel Klos C was boarded in
international waters without resistance from its 17-strong crew
in a "complex, covert operation," military spokesman
Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner told reporters.
Lerner said dozens of M302 rockets were found aboard the
Klos C, a weapon which could have struck deep into Israel from
Gaza and would have significantly enhanced the firepower of the
Palestinian enclave's Hamas rulers and other armed factions.
"The M302 in its most advanced model can strike over 100
miles, and if they would have reached Gaza, ultimately that
would have meant millions of Israelis under threat," he said.
Hamas dismissed the Israeli announcement as a "silly joke".
"This is a new Israeli lie aimed to justify and prolong the
blockade of Gaza," said Taher Al-Nono, an advisor of Hamas Prime
Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
There was no immediate comment from Iran or Syria.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United
States helped Israel by providing information on the ship.
"Soon after becoming aware of the imminent movement of the
suspected vessel, the White House directed the Department of
Defense to monitor the vessel," she said.
Psaki said U.S. options for handling the ship included
taking unilateral action if necessary but that after sharing
intelligence, Israel chose to take the lead in the operation.
Military footage showed the Israeli navy chief, Admiral Ram
Rothberg, inspecting a rocket on the floor of a ship hold, with
cement bags labeled "Made in Iran" in English next to it.
Lerner said the rockets were flown from Syria to Iran, from
where they were shipped first to Iraq and then towards Sudan.
Had they reached the African coast, they would have probably
been smuggled overland through Egypt to Gaza, he said.
Nic Jenzen-Jones, an Australia-based military arms
specialist and director of Armament Research Services, said most
reports indicated the Syrian-produced rockets had a 90 to 100 Km
"Several Israeli assessments of these rockets have
questioned their reliability," he said. "(Lebanese Shia group)
Hezbollah has made use of these rockets, and Hamas is believed
to be attempting to stockpile longer-range rocket systems."
NETANYAHU IN U.S.
Israel and Islamist Hamas last fought a major conflict in
November 2012. Hamas has largely held fire since but Israel says
it has been trying to build up its capabilities. That has been
made difficult, however, by a new military regime in Cairo which
has cracked down on the Egyptian border with Gaza.
Netanyahu's office said that the prime minister, who was in
Los Angeles on Wednesday after holding a White House meeting and
addressing a pro-Israel lobby in Washington, had approved the
ship seizure after consultations with his security chiefs.
"At the same time that it is talking to world powers, at the
same time that Iran is smiling and saying all kinds of honeyed
words, that same Iran is sending lethal weaponry to terrorist
organisations and it is doing so in a complex web of covert,
worldwide operations," Netanyahu said from Los Angeles.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel had obtained
Panama's permission to board the ship.
"We followed international law to the letter. The ship
travelled under a Panamanian flag, the company was listed in
Marshall Islands, the captain was Turkish and the crew was from
various different countries," he told a conference in Tel Aviv.
In a speech to the AIPAC lobby on Tuesday, Netanyahu had
reiterated his unhappiness with the prospect that world powers
negotiating a curb on Iran's nuclear programme would let it
retain some technologies with bomb-making potential.
The Islamic republic denied seeking nuclear weapons and
accused its arch-foe Israel of being the real regional menace.
Iran had orchestrated the shipment, Lerner said, describing
the process as months in the making. The Klos C was being
brought to the Israeli port of Eilat where its contents would be
more fully inspected and displayed to the public.
Lerner said there was no immediate indication the crew had
known the nature of their cargo.
According to tracking data, the Klos C was previously at
Bandar Abbas port in Iran in early February 2014 and prior to
that in Port Said in January.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London and Nidal
al-Mughrabi in Jerusalem and Bill Trott in Washington; Editing
by Crispian Balmer, Ralph Boulton and David Gregorio)