By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Wednesday it had cracked a Palestinian militant cell suspected of having been recruited and handled by Iranian intelligence officers who worked out of South Africa.
Israel has long been locked in a shadow war with arch-foe Iran, which supports Islamist guerrillas in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and whose nuclear program is widely believed to have been targeted repeatedly by Israeli saboteurs.
Israel's Shin Bet security agency said three Palestinians from the occupied West Bank had been indicted on espionage and terrorism charges after they confessed to accepting Iranian-assigned missions, including preparation of a suicide bombing and providing their handlers with Israeli cellphone SIM cards.
In its statement, the Shin Bet said the suspects' point of contact was a Palestinian who lived in South Africa and had been recruited by Iranian intelligence. It gave no indication whether the South African government knew of the alleged Iranian activity, or of the Palestinian man's whereabouts.
South Africa, where pro-Palestinian sentiment is strong, has strained relations with Israel, but the Shin Bet statement also suggested the country effectively served as an Iranian spy hub.
"It became clear, during the Shin Bet investigation, that Iranian intelligence used South Africa as a significant arena for locating, recruiting and running anti-Israel agents in the West Bank," the Shin Bet said, adding that several Iranian officers had traveled there "from Tehran" for the operation.
South Africa's Foreign Ministry and Home Affairs Ministry and the Iranian embassy in Pretoria did not immediately respond to the Israeli allegations.
The Shin Bet did not say when it cracked the Palestinian cell or when the trial of the suspects would begin.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday the case showed that "Iran operates in a subversive and terrorist manner ... not just in aiding terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, but also in attempts to organize terror activities within the State of Israel against its civilians".
The Shin Bet did not describe any of the attacks or espionage missions allegedly planned by the suspects as having been near to fruition. It also did not say whether the three had been assigned lawyers or how they might plead to the charges.
A Shin Bet veteran interviewed by Israel Radio about the case suggested the purported South African link may be unprecedented.
"Apparently the Iranians found fertile ground in South Africa," said ex-officer Adi Carmi, adding: "I do not recall South Africa ever having been used by the Iranians as a terrorist recruiting ground for the aim of carrying out attacks."
(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard and Mfuneko Toyana in Johannesburg; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)