By Ran Tzabar
ASHDOD, Israel (Reuters) - Israel displayed on Wednesday advanced arms that it said had been found aboard a cargo ship seized in the Mediterranean Sea, and pointed to the haul as proof of the need to blockade the Gaza Strip.
"To all those who questioned and attacked and criticized Israel for stopping Gaza-bound ships in order to check them, here is the answer," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at Ashdod port, where the guided missiles, artillery rounds and assault-rifle ammunition were laid out.
"Their origin is in Iran, they passed through Syria and were en route to terror elements in Gaza. But their ultimate target was Israeli civilians," Netanyahu said. "It is our duty, not just our right, to stop these ships and remove their weaponry."
Israel maintains a naval blockade on Gaza, a Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas Islamists hostile to the Jewish state.
The policy came under foreign censure after Israeli marines killed nine pro-Palestinian activists who resisted the boarding of a Turkish-sponsored flotilla headed for Gaza last year.
The German-owned "Victoria" was intercepted Tuesday some 200 miles from Israel, after it set off from Syria and berthed in Turkey. Israel said ordnance stowed on board would have been offloaded in Egypt and smuggled to neighboring Gaza.
Iran rejected Israel's account as false. Syria, another foe of Israel, had no immediate comment. Nor did Hamas, whose forces have relied heavily on cross-border rocket and mortar salvoes during past conflicts with Israel.
Since the devastating 2009 Gaza war, Hamas has signaled a desire for a truce and has tried to prevent smaller Palestinian factions from attacking Israel. Some Israeli media speculated that the shipment was intended for groups other than Hamas.
The arms find included six C-704 radar-guided anti-ship missiles, thousands of mortar shells and almost 67,000 assault rifle bullets for AK-47s, an Israeli military spokeswoman said.
Also on display at the Ashdod docks were sacks of lentils which, the Israelis said, were used to disguise the arms caches.
The Chinese-designed C-704s could have enabled Palestinians in Gaza to challenge Israel's control of their coast. Hezbollah guerrillas used a similar missile to cripple an Israeli warship and kill four of its personnel during the 2006 Lebanon war.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said C-704s launched from Gaza could also threaten an Israeli off-shore gas field and a fuel pipeline, as well as commercial shipping to and from Ashdod.
"This is an item that could change the mode of conduct around the coast of the Gaza Strip," he said.
A source in Israel's Foreign Ministry said Victoria's crew would be repatriated "at the earliest opportunity."
"In principle, the ship itself will be returned to its owners once the legal situation is resolved," the source said.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Dan Williams)