by Adam Gonn
JERUSALEM, March 15 (Xinhua) -- Israeli navy commando forces on Tuesday morning intercepted a Gaza-bound ship and found huge quantities of weapons on board.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that "we are currently collecting information and the one thing that is certain is that the weapons are from Iran with a relay station in Syria."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday commented that " today, the IDF and its fighters thwarted the smuggling of weaponry, which was due to have been used against the residents of Israel, to the Gaza Strip. The goal of the smuggling was to harm the security of Israel."
The ship Victoria started out at Latakia Port in Syria, and then traveled to the Port of Mersin in Turkey before setting out to its final destination Alexandria Port in Egypt.
Analysts said that ships smuggling weapons to Palestinian groups in Gaza is not a new phenomena. However, they said, using Syria as a transit could be the sign of a new trend in arms struggle.
MORE BOLD SYRIA
Barak Seener, a research fellow at Royal United Services Institute in London, told Xinhua that what we are seeing now is the effect of a more bold Syria backed by Iran which is constantly trying to expand its influence in the region.
"A couple of weeks ago, we had an Iranian ship going through the Suez Canal and it was testing the international community, especially Israel," Seener said.
The aim of the passage was to see what the response might be, Seener said, Israel "was mistaken" not to have a response and just letting the ships pass by, the two naval vessels sail on international water outside of Israel's sea border.
Israel's failure to respond resulted in a precedence that would make Syria and its backer Iran become more bold in their actions, according to Seener. This will result in a contained flow of ships from Iran via Syria to Gaza, he added.
"The problem is that it's inadequate merely to intercept the ship," Seener said, "there has to be a precedent set so that these ships won't continue sailing."
One of the ways that Iran determines the limits of its foreign policy and regional reach, Seener argued, is by constantly pushing boundaries and seeing what it can get away with.
Amir Rapaport, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a former military correspondent of Israel newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, said that the smuggling of weapons to Gaza has been going on for some time and isn't connected to regional upheaval.
"If you look at the whole picture, it's just one of many," Rapaport said, "they (Iran, Syria and Hamas) are trying to do a transport every few weeks."
According to Rapaport, one previous route is through East and North Africa, but after an attack two years ago on a weapons convoy, which was reportedly carried out by Israel, the route is no longer in use.
He added that in addition to Israel's intelligence gathering efforts, there is international coordination with other countries, notably the U.S. and some Arab countries.
While the Victoria was the latest ship to be captured by Israel, it was by no means the first. According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson, there has been at least five similar incidents over the past 10 years. The most famous ship was the Karin-A which was carrying 50 tons of weaponry destined to Gaza when it was intercepted.
One major difference between the Karin-A and other ships was that the smuggling attempts was organized by a group closely associated to then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Israeli navy has also intercepted ships that have been carrying weapons to the Lebanese group Hezbollah. In 2009, the vessel Francop was stopped on its way to Syria after loading its cargo in Egypt.
Francop's cargo included 36 containers with 500 tons of arms, 9, 000 mortar bombs, 3,000 rockets, 3,000 gun shells, 20,000 grenades and half of a million rounds of small ammunition, according to the Israeli army.
Special Report: Palestine-Israel Conflicts