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'This will not be accepted silently'

Blaming Iran, security officials said to back response to blast on Israeli ship

Gantz says there is ‘likelihood’ Tehran behind explosion in Gulf; TV network: Security officials believe Revolutionary Guards fired 2 missiles at the MV Helios Ray

Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a visit to the Druze village of Julis in northern Israel, February 23, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a visit to the Druze village of Julis in northern Israel, February 23, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israeli security officials view the attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Persian Gulf on Friday as a crossing of a red line on the part of Iran, and support an Israeli response, according to a report Saturday.

Kan News said Israel unequivocally believes Tehran was behind the explosion, and high-level discussions on the matter are expected to take place Sunday.

“We are considering an appropriate response,” senior officials told Ynet. “This will not be accepted silently.”

In an interview Saturday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Kan there is “a likelihood” that Iran is behind the explosion.

The cargo ship MV Helios Ray anchored in Dubai on Saturday morning. The blast did not disable the ship or injure its crew, but forced it ashore for repairs.

The Israeli-owned cargo ship, Helios Ray, sits docked in port after arriving earlier in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 28, 2021 (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

In an interview with Kan News, Gantz said that the proximity between the location of the incident and the Islamic Republic raised concerns that it was responsible for the attack, but added that a probe had not yet been completed.

“We need to continue investigating,” he stressed. “The Iranians are looking to harm Israelis and Israeli infrastructure. The proximity to Iran leads to the assessment that there is a likelihood that this is an Iranian initiative. We are committed to continuing to check.”

Channel 13 News reported that security officials believed the attack was carried out by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who fired two missiles at the ship.

Iranian media documented the damage to the ship in a television report.

The report said Israeli and US teams were expected to arrive on the ship to investigate the explosion in the coming days.

The area of the blast, off Iran’s coast at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, saw a series of explosions targeting ships in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran, against the backdrop of sword-rattling between the countries’ leaders. Tehran had denied the accusations, which came after Trump abandoned Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country.

A maritime risk intelligence company with a UK address and number, Ambrey Intelligence, on Friday tweeted a compilation of pictures said to be of the damage to the vessel. The veracity of the photos could not be confirmed.

Aurora Intel, a network that says it provides news and updates based on open-source intelligence on Twitter, also posted photos it says were from the damaged ship.

The Friday explosion came amid high tensions between Iran and the new US administration, which took its first military action Thursday night against Iranian-backed militia in Syria in response to attacks on US forces in the Middle East.

There were conflicting reports on whether Iran would have known the ship was Israeli-owned.

Haaretz and Channel 13 said in unsourced reports that Iran knew the ship was Israeli, but the ship’s owner and other reports said it was unlikely.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military.”

Damage is seen in the Israeli-owned ship hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, 2021. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions, the country may seek “to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means,” Dryad reported.

In recent weeks, as the administration of US President Joe Biden looked to re-engage with Iran, Tehran has escalated its breaches of the nuclear accord to create leverage over Washington. The deal saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd.

Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction. Hebrew media reported that Ungar is close to Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad spy agency.

Ungar said he did not know exactly what had hit the vessel, but said it was most likely “missiles or a mine placed on the bow.”

“Israeli authorities will investigate this together with me,” he told the Ynet news site. “I don’t think this deliberately targeted an Israeli-owned ship. That has not happened to me before.”

Ungar said it was most likely linked to previous attacks on shipping in the area.

“I think it is part of the game between Iran and the US, that’s why they are hitting Western ships,” he said.

Ungar told Channel 13, “The crew heard an explosion. There was a blast, there’s a hole, there’s damage. There will be a check when the ship reaches port.”

He said the holes in the side of the ship were around 1.5 meters (yards) in diameter.

While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.

The explosion on Friday recalled the summer of 2019, when the US military blamed Iran for suspected attacks on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategically important shipping lanes. In the preceding months, the US had attributed a series of suspected attacks to Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to cripple four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah.

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