Victoria’s Secret: Israel’s High Hand on the High Seas

A German-owned, French-operated cargo ship, flying a Liberian flag, leaves Lattakia, Syria’s largest port. Before heading south to Egypt, the ship sails 90 nautical miles northwest to Mersin, Turkey, en route to Alexandria or El Arish, depending on the military spokesperson. (The two Egyptian cities are 200 nautical miles apart.) Israeli naval commandos–on “routine patrol” in international waters–board the ship, inspect its cargo and seize the ship and its crew.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initially released this statement on Tuesday morning:

A short while ago, IDF Navy fighters intercepted the cargo vessel “Victoria” loaded with various weaponry. According to assessments, the weaponry on-board the vessel was intended for the use of terror organizations operating in the Gaza Strip. The vessel, flying under a Liberian flag, was intercepted some 200 miles west of Israel’s coast. This incident was part of the Navy’s routine activity to maintain security and prevent arms smuggling, in light of IDF security assessments.

The force was met with no resistance from the crew on-board and the vessel is now being led by the Israeli Navy to the Israeli port in Ashdod for further searches and detailed inspection of the cargo.

The vessel was on its way from Mersin Port in Turkey to Alexandria Port in Egypt. The IDF would like to note that Turkey is not tied to the incident in any way.

The operation was approved as necessary in accordance with government directives in light of the Chief of the General Staff’s recommendations.

This press release isn’t just about finding hidden weapons on a ship, and exculpating the crew and the country of Turkey. It’s a declaration that Israel considers its maritime domain to extend 200 nautical miles or more beyond its Mediterranean coastline. Within it, Israel claims the right to board, inspect, intercept and impound the cargo ships of other nations at will–a unilateral Mediterranean Monroe Doctrine of sorts.

One of the reasons that forcible boarding and seizure of  the Mavi Marmara — the lead ship in the flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza Strip last May to deliver humanitarian aid — was so controversial because Israeli naval commandos had raided the convoy when its ships were  40 miles out at sea, in international waters. In a Washington Post article by Colum Lynch last June, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cited the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflict at Sea in support of Israel’s right to enforce its blockade of Gaza, and “to intercept even on the high seas, even in international waters.”

Anthony D’Amato, a professor of International Law at Northwestern University School of Law disagreed, challenging Regev’s interpretation and declaring the raid on the Gaza flotilla an illegal challenge to the principle of “freedom of the seas.” D’Amato said the laws of war between states didn’t apply between Israel and Hamas, which is not even a state. Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies, noted that  “Israel is now claiming a new international law, invented just for this purpose: the preventive ‘right’ to capture any naval vessel in international waters if the ship was about to violate a blockade.”

The interdiction of the Victoria takes this claim even further. Israel is now testing its right to seize a cargo vessel of a neutral country 200 miles off its coastline, whose destination (Egypt) is not subject to Israel’s blockade. It claims this right on grounds that the ship’s cargo is weapons that might eventually be smuggled into Gaza. It’s particularly helpful if Israel can demonstrate that Iran is behind the arms shipment, since UN Security Council Resolution 1747 prohibits Iran from supplying, selling or transferring arms to other states. While Israel generally takes a dim view of UN resolutions that apply to itself, it takes UN resolutions against Iran far more seriously, having just announced it will file a complaint with the UNSC about the Victoria’s clandestine cargo.

In the process, Israel can claim it is doing the world a favor by helping to enforce a UN resolution.

The initial IDF announcement of the seizure of the Victoria and its cargo didn’t mention Iran, but the identification of Iran as the source of the cache of weapons quickly became the focus of subsequent Israeli news releases and press reports. Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu offered a teaser when he told Israeli Army Radio that Syria’s fingerprints were all over the shipment, predicting Israel will “find more evidence of the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah axis.”

Shortly afterwards, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “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.”

The evidence?

Rear Admiral Rani Ben Yehuda initially hinted that it might be more than coincidental that the Syrian weapons shipment had occurred shortly after two Iranian vessels had transited the Suez Canal en route to Syria in late February:

Just days before the cargo was loaded aboard the ship, two Iranian warships crossed the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 revolution. Ben-Yehuda said that he did not know if the Iranian ships brought the weaponry that was loaded onto the Victoria but that the timing raises serious questions.

“This needs to be considered,” he said.

So let’s consider it: Two Iranian warships transited the Suez Canal, for the first time in 32 years, on February 22. The Israeli Deputy Naval Commander suggests that, bypassing the Sinai peninsula, the ships transported Iranian arms to Syria. Those arms were to be shipped back to northern Egypt, past an Israeli naval blockade in the Mediterranean, so they could be smuggled into Gaza. Then the ships sailed back in early March, passing the Sinai coast and again transiting the Suez Canal. Hmmm….Sounds more like “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight” than “the most dangerous nation on earth.”

Among the weapons reportedly found aboard the Victoria were C-704  anti-ship missiles. Ben-Yehuda initially said,“The missile is made in China and it is in the possession of the Iranians, and this adds to suspicions that it came from Iran.” The Jerusalem Post‘s newly re-headlined piece, “Navy Intercepts Iranian Weapons Bound for Hamas“, on Wednesday stated that among the weapons were C-740s with “Nasr 1 written on them,” noting that “Nasr is what Iran calls the missile.” Although Iran opened a factory last spring to mass produce Nasr-1 missiles, which are identical to the Chinese C-704s, it wasn’t until Thursday morning that Adm. Eliezer Marom stated that the C-704s had been made in Iran.

But on Wednesday, Ben Yehuda was still basing the claim of Iranian responsibility for the arms shipment on the accompanying how-to manuals, which were written in Persian:

…guidebooks in Farsi had been found on the ship, along with other symbols of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, another indication that the Victoria was an Iranian attempt to shift the order of power in the Middle East.

Exactly what use Arabic-speaking Gazans would have had for Persian language manuals is unclear. Farsi is written in Arabic characters, but is otherwise unintelligible to a reader who only knows Arabic.

The IDF also asserted that “the identification document for the anti-ship missiles was in Persian and contained emblems of the Iranian government throughout…This incident further demonstrates Iranian and Syrian involvement in strengthening and arming terror organizations in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.” Again, if true, not very smart!

Foreign correspondents invited by the IDF to view Victoria’s secret” cargo Wednesday morning were apparently unimpressed, especially after being held up at a security checkpoint for over an hour before being allowed to view the Victoria’s clandestine cargo. According to Y-Net, 30 reporters and photographers “left the Ashdod Port outraged.”

Is Iran involved in arms smuggling? It’s quite possible that it  is. But like the previous interceptions of the Francop and the Karine A, the Victoria interception coincides with pressure on Israel to move forward in making peace with the Palestinians by creating a Palestinian state. All three interception narratives attest to Israeli determination to keep its tensions with Iran front and center on the stage of world events, regardless of what else is happening, in order to explain why peace with the Palestinians can’t and won’t happen.

But the ho-hum quality of the interception narratives, and the yawns they are beginning to elicit, should not be allowed to distract from Israel’s increasingly radical reinterpretations of international law, which it justifies with the specter of “the Iranian threat.” That’s Victoria’s real secret.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Just more of the same. Israel doesn’t bother to obey international laws. It obeys a higher law–its own. We’ve known this since the USS Liberty was bombed with impunity.

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