Cargo vessels owned by Israel’s richest man, who died on Friday, had been used to ferry elite Israeli forces for operations inside Iran, according to defence sources.
The death in Tel Aviv of Sammy Ofer, 89, came just days after the United States accused his company of breaching sanctions by selling an oil tanker to Iran. It has mystified Israelis why a company with close links to the government was allegedly breaching sanctions.
Military experts suggested the cargo ships had carried Black Hawk helicopters, hidden in modified containers, for use by commando teams in reconnaissance missions against Iran’s secret nuclear sites. Israel is conducting a massive intelligence operation to monitor Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
By using giant freighters with helicopters and men hidden in containers on their decks, the Israeli forces would possess a logistical platform similar to a helicopter assault warship and one that could approach the Iranian coast without suspicion.
Defence sources said some ships from the group controlled by Ofer and his brother Yuli were known to have given Israeli forces access to Iranian waters.
At least 13 ships owned by the Ofer Brothers Group have docked in Iran over the past decade, using the port of Bandar Abbas on the southern coast and the Kharg Island oil terminal in the Gulf, according to Equasis, a shipping information database.
The Raffles Park, a ship sold to Iran by the Singapore-based Tanker Pacific, had docked off the Iranian shore four times between September 2002 and January 2010, according to Equasis records. The US State Department said Tanker Pacific was owned by the Ofer Group but the company has said this is “a mistake” and denied any wrongdoing.
Israel has said the matter is one between the company and the State Department and it will not back Ofer’s efforts to be removed from the American blacklist of companies found trading with Iran.
Ofer, whose fortune was estimated at $10bn (£6bn) by Forbes magazine, and Yuli built up Israel’s biggest industrial conglomerate from a ship’s chandlery business founded in the 1950s.
Last week Richard Silverstein, an American blogger who specialises in breaking Israeli defence secrets, claimed Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, used Ofer Group cargo ships to smuggle its agents into Iran.
Last year Mossad agents allegedly assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhuh, a senior Hamas militant, in his Dubai hotel room. It is now believed some of the agents left Dubai hidden in one of Ofer’s ships.
Zodiac Maritime Agencies, one of the group’s main shipping businesses, is based in London and many of its 150 vessels, which operate under charter to leading container lines, are registered in Britain.
Israeli reports suggested the Ofer Group’s contacts with Iran may have been authorised, but this was denied by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “There was no permission for any contact or delivery to Iran. We have clear policies on this matter,” he said last week.
However, in a statement after Ofer’s death, Netanyahu praised him as a “Zionist through and through”.
Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of Mossad, intervened in the controversy in a clear attempt to defend the Ofer brothers, saying “the case had been blown out of proportion”.
Israeli commandos are known to have used cargo ships before. In April 1988 an elite force left Haifa on a container ship concealing helicopters. Off the coast of Tunisia, pre-installed hydraulic doors opened and two helicopters loaded with special forces took off under the command of Moshe “Bogi” Ya’alon, now the Deputy Prime Minister.
Mossad agents waiting on shore ushered the commandos into rented cars and drove to a beachside villa where Khalil el-Wazir, the deputy leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was working in his study.
Within minutes he was gunned down in front of his wife and children. The soldiers then returned to a different location to be flown to the ship.
Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, reported that sources close to the Ofer family had revealed that last year the company had instructed all its ships to stay away from Iran. This was interpreted as implying they had previously docked in Iranian ports.
The domestic scandal took a new turn last Tuesday when Carmel Shama-Hacohen, a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, cancelled a televised debate on the allegations after receiving a handwritten note, widely thought to be from state security, which warned that such a discussion could harm Israel’s interests.
While he refused to discuss the note’s contents, Shama-Hacohen stoked speculation with a cryptic statement: “Let’s just be clear, the note is not from a political figure and not from a business figure. It turns out reality is much more complex, much more complicated and touchy than the average imagination can handle.”
Sammy Ofer, the billionaire founder of the Ofer shipping line, who died last week aged 89, was an Israeli who spent much of his life in Monaco but showed enormous generosity to Britain.
Born in Romania, his family emigrated to Haifa when he was two. Ofer volunteered with the Royal Navy in the Second World War and later helped found the Israeli navy.
He created Israel’s biggest holding company, whose interests include the London-based Zodiac shipping company, and 16.5% of the Royal Caribbean line. In 2008 Ofer was made an honorary Knight of the British Empire. He gave £20m to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich — one of the largest private donations made to a British cultural institution. He also gave £3.3m towards the restoration of the Cutty Sark.
© Times Newspapers Ltd 2011
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