By Gwen Ackerman and Calev Ben-David,

11-4-09 captured vesselNov. 4  — The Israeli navy intercepted a ship heading for Syria and seized an unprecedented 500-ton haul of weapons from Iran intended for the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, the army said.

“This is the largest cache of smuggled weapons ever to be seized by Israel,” army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz said in a phone interview today. “The cache includes thousands of rockets as well as hand grenades and mortar shells.”

Israel seized the ship 100 miles off its Mediterranean coast and discovered 40 containers carrying the weapons, Leibovitz said. The vessel was flying the flag of Antigua and was stopped late yesterday due to “suspicions” about the vessel, she added.

The seizure reflected “a well-known Iranian technique, taking advantage of cargo ships flying different flags in order to smuggle containers loaded with large amounts of highly volatile weaponry to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah,” the army said in a statement. Israeli officials have accused Iran and Syria previously of supplying weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.

“This is another success in the continuous struggle against attempts to smuggle weapons and military equipment with the goal of strengthening terrorist elements that threaten the security of Israel,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an e- mailed statement.

‘Supplier of Arms’

In December, Israel launched a three-week military initiative against Hamas to stop cross-border rocket attacks from Gaza. It fought a monthlong war against Hezbollah in 2006 after two soldiers were abducted.

“Iran is the major supplier of arms to Hezbollah, usually via Syria by air or over land,” Ephraim Kam, deputy director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security, said today in a telephone interview. “Maybe they used a sea route this time because of the types of weapons involved.”

In 2002, Israel seized the ship Karine A, which it said was bringing arms from Iran to the Gaza Strip. In January, Cyprus seized an Iranian ship that it said may have been taking arms to Gaza in violation of United Nations sanctions.

Israeli officials said yesterday that Hamas had tested a rocket with a range of 60 kilometers, enabling it to reach from Gaza to the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. “This is the type of weapon that could not be made in Gaza, and had to be brought in from outside,” Kam said.

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