Written by Benjamin Peim – The capture in Nigeria late last week of over a dozen containers filled with weapons highlights the lengths to which Iran is taking to supply its Hamas ally in the Gaza Strip, but leaves a question mark over how successful the arms conduit has been, analysts say.
The containers, unloaded in Lagos, the country’s largest port, came from a cargo ship originating in Iran, the company that owned the ship said in a statement. While their ultimate destination has not been confirmed, analysts believe the containers were bound for Gaza, ruled by the Muslim group Hamas.
“It’s getting harder to obtain the weapons so they’re using all types of funny places,” Martin van Creveld, a retired professor of military history at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “They find a place that is so messy they can get through, and Nigeria apparently wasn’t messy enough.”
As Hamas’ main weapons supplier, Iran’s success in delivering missiles and other arms into Gaza will be a key factor in any future conflict with Israel. In its last confrontation with Hamas 14 months ago, Israel sustained almost no casualties, but if the Islamic group succeeds in obtaining more sophisticated weaponry it could put Israeli cities in rocket-range and jeopardize Israel’s control of the skies.
The shipping company, French-based CMA CGM, said it had been duped by Iranian trader who arranged the shipment. The shipper had listed the materials inside the containers as, “packages of glass wool and pallets of stone,” but when Nigerian security service personnel opened the containers, they found rockets, bullets, mortars and other weapons under a thin layer of floor tiles.
In the past, Hamas and Iran have sought to bring weapons into Gaza through smuggling routes that wind along the east coast of Africa from the Sudan, north into Egypt. From there, they arrive in Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt. But, these routes have grown more difficult as Israel and Egypt crack down on weapons shipments.
“They [Hamas and Iran] were under heavy pressure by the Egyptians,” Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Terror Project at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line. “These routes are under strict supervision, and there is probably some international political pressure as well.”
Israeli warplanes reportedly bombed a caravan of trucks in Sudan that were transporting weapons to Hamas in January 2009, although Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement. The United States could be monitoring the situation, as well.
“They are aware of American capabilities to intercept arms on the east coast of Africa,” said Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
Bar said Iran has infrastructure in Nigeria, which makes it a prime spot to turn to for its smuggling operations. “They have more assets there than in Egypt and the security is weaker,” he told The Media Line.
Hamas has its own rocket workshops in Gaza where it manufactures simple, short-range Qassams, which constituted the mainstay of Hamas’ arsenal when it confronted Israel in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead. Qassams have a range of about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), which limits targets to mostly empty and agricultural land adjacent to the Gaza Strip.
No matter how much Hamas beefs up its inventory of Qassams, short-range rockets like the Qassam won’t significantly improve the group’s fighting capabilities, according to Bar. “The real game changer,” he said, would be surface-to-air missiles that threaten Israeli control of the skies over Gaza.
Without the ability to upgrade its weapons technology in Gaza, Hamas is seeking longer-range and more sophisticated rockets from abroad, analysts said.
“They want to upgrade their capabilities so they can strike further into Israel and possibly strike at our air traffic,” Bar said. “But there is nothing specific in this shipment to change the strategic balance.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said October 20 that Israel believes Hamas, in fact, has obtained surface-to-air strike capability. However, van Creveld, of The Hebrew University, told The Media Line it was likely they would only be capable of hitting helicopters. Jets, which are the key to Israel’s control of Gaza skies, are out of range for Hamas fighters for the time being, he said.
While this smuggling attempt failed, Hamas and Iran will continue their efforts to smuggle weapons into Gaza, analysts said.
“This is a permanent agenda they have,” Schweitzer said. “I don’t think this will deter them from trying to procure weapons in other venues in the future.”