Israel intercepted the ship, which was sailing under an Antiguan flag, near Cyprus, 100 miles west of the Israeli coast, and took it to the Ashdod harbor in southern Israel.
“As of now, what we know is that this was a smuggling attempt to arm Hezbollah with terrorist means against civilians,” Shaul Mofaz, a member of the Knesset and a former defense minister, told Israel Radio. “The intent was to send arms, mainly missiles and launchers, meant to strike civilian targets.”
News reports quoted the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, and other officials saying the ship had been carrying the arms from Iran to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, but officials released no evidence to back up those claims.
The capture of the arms comes hours before the United Nations General Assembly begins deliberations on the Goldstone report on the fighting in the Gaza Strip in January.
Col. Avital Leibovich of the Israel Defense Forces said the ship had been captured as part of the navy’s routine work to prevent arms smuggling.
Israel Radio reported that the navy had not used force in boarding the ship, the Franco St. Johns. Defense Minister Ehud Barak hailed the capture as “an additional success in the unending struggle against the attempts at arms smuggling and armament whose goal is to strengthen terror elements threatening the security of Israel.”
According to Israel Radio, Mr. Barak told the security cabinet Wednesday morning that the ship had been under surveillance since leaving its home port, which he did not identify. He said that the ship had also tried to evade capture.
The broadcaster said the elite Shayetet 13 naval commandos were the unit responsible for seizing the ship.
In January 2002, Israel captured the Karine A, a cargo ship laden with antitank rockets and light arms, which Israel said had been intended for the Palestinian Authority.
On Tuesday, Israel’s military intelligence chief said that Hamas in Gaza had recently test-fired a rocket that flew 37 miles into the sea. That range would put the Tel Aviv area under missile threat.