JERUSALEM -- In a military operation in the international waters of the Red Sea, Israeli commandos intercepted a ship carrying Syrian-made rockets shipped from Iran and headed for the Gaza Strip, Israel's military announced Wednesday.
According to Israeli army spokesman Motti Almoz, naval commandos boarded the ship about 950 miles from Israel without incident early Wednesday morning. Initial inspection of the cargo revealed dozens of M-302 rockets, concealed in containers covered with commercial-looking sacks of cement, Israeli officials said.
The rockets were transported from Damascus to Tehran and loaded onto a ship that sailed from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, Almoz said. The ship was destined for Port Sudan, officials said, with a stop in Iraq to obscure the smuggling path and load the cement cargo as cover.
Once unloaded in Sudan, Almoz said, the weapons were to travel more than 600 miles to tunnels leading into Gaza.
If they had reached Gaza, "these rockets would have endangered millions of Israeli citizens," Almoz told Israeli media.
There was no immediate reaction to the Israeli statements from Iranian officials. In Gaza, Hamas officials denied the accusation.
[Updated, 12:42 p.m., March 5: Iranian state-run television later quoted an unnamed military source as denying the report, saying it is "totally without foundation," while Hamas officials said Israel's claims were meant to justify its ongoing blockade of Gaza.]
Hamas and other militant groups are not believed to possess this type of rocket, which has a range of about 100 miles and are considered precise. Several M-302s hit the northern Israeli city of Haifa during the war with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in 2006, causing extensive damage.
The ship, named Klos-C, was sailing under a Panamanian flag with a crew of 17 of various nationalities who will be questioned about their knowledge of the ship's illicit cargo, Israeli authorities said.
Israeli navy missile ships are escorting the Klos-C to the Israeli port of Eilat at the mouth of the Red Sea, where it is expected to arrive in two to three days.
[Updated, 12:45 p.m., March 5: Army officials said navy commandos boarded the ship about 100 miles from Port Sudan, while the Israeli navy's commander oversaw the operation aboard a nearby missile ship.]
Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner called it a "complex, covert, intelligence-based operation." Israeli intelligence had been tracking the rockets for months, since identifying their transfer from Damascus to Tehran.
Before his departure to the United States to meet with President Obama on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened Cabinet consultations on the topic and reportedly considered calling off the trip to follow the complex operation.
Netanyahu kept abreast of developments and gave the green light for the operation from the U.S. Following the interception, Netanyahu reportedly spoke with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and praised them for the successful mission.
The timing of the mission was dictated by operational factors but the diplomatic impact could be key for Israel's campaign against Iran's controversial nuclear program. Israel has criticized the efforts of six major powers, including the U.S., to negotiate an agreement with Tehran to limit the program.
The same Iran that "smiles and says all sorts of nice things" to the major powers "is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations" to harm innocent civilians, Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday.
"This is the true Iran and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons," said Netanyahu, adding Israel would continue to do whatever is needed to defend its citizens.
Yaalon said the "weapons of strategic significance" were destined "to reach terror organizations in the Gaza Strip" with the ultimate purpose of targeting Israeli civilians. Yaalon called Iran "the greatest exporter of terror in the world" that aims to destabilize the Middle East.