March 16, 2011 for The Associated Press
by Josh Lederman

ASHDOD, Israel – Rows of boxes, crates and containers filled with weapons stretched out on a dock Wednesday alongside a ship commandeered by Israel’s navy, a display of what Israel said was a shipment of arms, some sophisticated, to Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Israel intercepted the ship Tuesday in international waters in the Mediterranean, saying it was carrying weapons sent by Iran via Syria. Israel says the advanced anti-ship missiles found on board could alter the region’s balance of power by impeding its ability to enforce a naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Next to the captured ship, the “Victoria,” Israeli officials showed off what they said were roughly 2,500 mortar shells, nearly 75,000 bullets and six C-704 anti-ship missiles.

The military said the “Victoria” initially departed from the Syrian port of Latakia before proceeding to Mercin in Turkey. It was headed for the port of Alexandria in Egypt when it was intercepted, some 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

The military said the crew had no idea what they were carrying and said neither Turkey nor Egypt were culpable, placing the blame on Iran and Syria.

Examining the weapons at this port in southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “smash” what he called a Syrian-Iranian “axis of terror.”

“All those who question why Israel must stop … and inspect ships en route to Gaza can find the answer right here in Ashdod,” he said. “They were en route to terror organizations in Gaza but their ultimate target was the Israeli civilian population.”

Israel launched a fierce offensive in Gaza two years ago in response to years of rocket fire from the area. The operation inflicted heavy damage on Hamas, but Israeli officials say the group has rearmed and is largely recovered.

The weapons were spread out in front of the ship, stretching about two-thirds the length of the vessel. The missiles were in huge coffin-like metal containers.

The boxes included English markings with the words “sampling hole,” “indicator” and “sight hole.” The mortar shells, some taken apart, had orange, blue, green and red strips on its base. The weapons were stashed in four containers, a small portion of the thousands of containers on the ship.

The military said Iran possesses the types of weapons found onboard, and it released images of instruction manuals in Farsi. It said there were other clues that “explicitly” showed Iranian involvement.

Israel has long contended that Iran and Syria provide arms and other support to Hamas militants in Gaza and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. To get around its naval blockade, Israel says Hamas routinely has arms shipments delivered to Egypt, and then smuggled across the largely lawless Sinai peninsula into neighboring Gaza through a vast network of tunnels under the 9-mile (15-kilometer) border.

In two related developments, Turkey’s government forced an Iranian cargo plane land in its territory to search for an alleged cargo of arms from Iran to Syria, and Egyptian forces seized five vehicles carrying weapons into the country from Sudan, apparently headed for Gaza. Egyptian officials said the trucks were carrying large quantities of mortars, rocket propelled grenades, rifles and explosives.

Also Wednesday, Israeli fighter jets pummeled a Hamas facility in the Gaza Strip, killing two militants and injuring four. Israel said he airstrike was in response to a rocket attack earlier in the day. No Israelis were hurt.