The naval commandos came out of complete darkness when they made their final approach towards the Francop cargo vessel near Cyprus, some 100 nautical miles from Israel late Tuesday night.
The elite soldiers climbed aboard the ship, encountering zero resistance as they conducted a brief search of the cargo, discovering just a sample of the hundreds of tons of weaponry it was carrying, and then commandeered it for the sail back to Ashdod.
The route that the ship took is a demonstration of the complicated international battle that Israel is waging to win the war against weapons smuggling in the Mediterranean.
The arms cache began its journey aboard an Iranian cargo ship some 10 days ago when it left the Bandar Abbas Port in Iran just near the Straits of Hormuz. The dozens of containers carrying the weaponry were unloaded at the Egyptian port of Damietta next to Suez Canal, were loaded onto the German-owned Francop vessel and on Tuesday afternoon began making its way towards its final destination – Syria.
The war against the illegal weapons trafficking in the Middle East picked up speed following the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Israel cooperates with a number of countries to track ships sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, including the United States, Egypt, the European Union and NATO.
NATO, after 9/11, established a special taskforce, which Israel is a part of – called Active Endeavor based in Naples – whose mission is to uncover illegal sea trafficking in the Middle East.
The best-known arms smuggling ship was the Karine A which was intercepted by the Israel Navy in January 2002 as it made its way from Iran to the Gaza Strip loaded with 50 tons of rockets, missiles and weapons.
In December 2003 and January 2004, Iran sent planes full of weaponry to Lebanon disguised as humanitarian shipments following an earthquake.
The cooperation between the different countries gained additional momentum following Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip earlier this year. In January, for example, Cyprus stopped the Monchegorsk ship that was chartered by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and was carrying artillery shells, tank shells and raw materials to make rockets on its way to Syria.
Just last month, the Hansa India ship, which left Iran flying a German flag, was caught carrying eight containers filled with bullets and industrial equipment that could be used to manufacture weapons. These containers were also intended for Syria.
While these seizures are impressive, they are likely only the tip of the iceberg.
Take Hizbullah for example: The Israeli defense establishment has said that Hizbullah has over 30,000 rockets. The Francop was carrying some 3,000. This is just 10 percent, meaning that as many as 10 other ships have already succeeded in making it from Iran to its proxy in Lebanon.
The IDF recognizes this statistic and has, as a result, increased the number of ships it boards in the Mediterranean to several hundred just this past year. UNIFIL has also boarded hundreds of ships near Lebanon and the US Navy has boarded dozens.
One reason that Iran uses the sea track is because of the sheer size of the cargo: the amount of weaponry on the Francop, for example, would have required 20 planes to carry.
In addition, a plane leaves a high intelligence signature, since anyone can check when a plane takes off and lands. A ship is far more discreet.
The significance of this arms shipment though was not in the quality of the weapons – Hizbullah has had Katyushas, mortar shells and grenades for decades – but in the massive quantity – some 500 tons.
The assessment in the IDF is that if and when Iran or Syria will decide to supply Hizbullah with balance-altering weaponry, it will be done by ground or by plane, which will minimize the risk of it being captured.
The seizure may also deal Iran a severe economic blow. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1803, countries are asked to board and inspect IRISL ships. Now foreign shipping companies are likely to be far more cautious before agreeing to carrying IRISL containers. This will also increase the premium the Iranian company needs to pay.
Lastly, the seizure also helps Israel on with its public diplomacy efforts. It happened the same day the UN convened to discuss the Goldstone Report and just a day after Military Intelligence revealed that Hamas had test-fired a rocket that could reach Tel Aviv.