How Israel Foiled an Arms Convoy Bound for Hamas

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Nili Bassan / EPA

An Israeli jet-fighter pilot readies his helmet in a hangar

Israeli fighter-bombers, backed by unmanned drones, were responsible for a mid-January attack on a 23-truck convoy in the Sudanese desert carrying arms to Hamas militants, two highly placed Israeli security sources revealed to TIME. The attack was a warning to Iran and other adversaries, showing Israel's intelligence capability and its willingness to mount operations far beyond its borders in order to defend itself from gathering threats.

The sources revealed exclusive details about the bold air attack on what they said was an Iranian weapons convoy, which was transporting rockets and explosives destined for Gaza, where an Israeli assault was ongoing. They denied earlier news reports that U.S. aircraft had been involved in the attack on the arms convoy as it crossed at night through the Sudanese desert heading for Egypt's poorly guarded border. "The Americans were notified that Israel was going to conduct an air operation in Sudan, but they were not involved," a source said. He denied prior claims by a U.S. television network that a ship and a second convoy were destroyed. "There was only one raid, and it was a major operation," he said, adding that "dozens of aircraft" were used. (See pictures of the recent Gaza conflict.)

F-16 fighter-bombers carried out two runs on the convoy, while F-15 fighter planes circled overhead in case hostile aircraft were scrambled from Khartoum or a nearby country. After the first bombing run, drones mounted with high-resolution cameras passed over the burning trucks. The video showed that the convoy had been only partially damaged, so the Israelis ordered a second pass with the F-16s. During the 1,750-mile (2,800 km) journey to Sudan and back, the Israeli aircraft refueled in midair over the Red Sea. (See pictures of violence in Sudan.)

The bombing raid came after an intelligence tip-off. In early January, at the height of Israel's assault on Gaza, Israel's foreign-intelligence agency, Mossad, was told by an informant that Iran was planning a major delivery of 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, including antitank rockets and Fajir rockets with a 25-mile (40 km) range and a 99-lb. (45 kg) warhead. With little time to plan the operation, naval vessels and helicopters were rushed to the Red Sea in case Israel had to rescue a downed pilot, and the plan was hurried through. "The Israelis had less than a week to pull this all together," a source said.

The Iranian shipment was bound for Port Sudan. From there, according to the security sources, the Iranians had organized a smuggler's convoy of 23 trucks that would take the weapons across Egypt's southern border and up into the Sinai. Hamas would then take charge of the weapons and smuggle them into Gaza through the tunnels left unscathed by Israeli bombardments. (See pictures of Gazans digging out.)

It was a route used occasionally by Hamas but never before on such a large scale, sources said. "This was the first time that the Iranians had tried to send Hamas a shipment this big via Sudan — and it is probably the last," a source said. Several Iranians were killed in the raid, along with Sudanese smugglers and drivers, the source claimed. "No doubt the Iranians are checking back to see who might have leaked this to the Israelis," he said.

Even if the shipment had reached Gaza, it's doubtful that it would have changed the outcome of the battle, in which Israeli forces sliced into the heart of the Palestinian enclave, killing more than 1,300, many of them civilians. But the deadly new armaments and missiles would almost certainly have raised the Israeli death toll, among both soldiers and civilians living within range of the Fajir rockets. Eleven Israelis died during the Gaza offensive. (See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.)

One Hamas official, while not denying that the arms convoy was theirs, said it numbered only 15 trucks and was laden with fewer weapons than the Israeli sources claim. "The Israelis are trying to overplay the quantity of arms as a way to justify this raid and to mobilize the Europeans to crack down on smugglers in the Mediterranean," he said. In January, Cypriot authorities seized an Iranian freighter that the U.S. and Israel claim was shipping arms to Hamas in Gaza. (See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.)

Israel never officially admits to carrying out overseas actions against its foes, but it is suspected of sending planes to destroy a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, and it is also blamed for the Damascus car-bomb killing in February last year of Hizballah military commander Imad Mughniyeh. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will step down on Tuesday, hinted that Israel was behind the Sudan raid, saying, "We operate in many places near and far and carry out strikes in a manner that strengthens our deterrence."

Meanwhile, the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat reported on Monday that a few days before the alleged Israeli raid, a senior U.S. official warned Sudan to stop smugglers from bringing weapons to Hamas in Gaza, but Sudan failed to comply. (See TIME's Pictures of the Week.)

A Hamas security official contacted by TIME waved off Israeli reports that the destruction of the weapons convoy was a major setback to the Islamic militants who govern Gaza. "We have our own 'home delivery' setup for weapons," he said with a laugh, explaining that Sinai's tribes of Bedouin smugglers are still bringing arms to the many secret tunnels snaking into Gaza. This is no idle boast. On Sunday, a senior Israeli security chief told Olmert's Cabinet that since Israel ended its 22-day offensive in Gaza on Jan. 1, Hamas had smuggled in 22 tons of explosives and "tens" of rockets, readying for another round of fighting. Israeli officials can breathe easier knowing that the longer-range Fajir missiles did not get through. Iran and Hamas, no doubt, will try again.

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See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.