(CNSNews.com) – Israel maintained its customary ambiguity Thursday in response to Sudanese accusations that it was responsible for an air strike near its Red Sea coast this week. The attack follows a string of covert incidents that share one characteristic – all are linked to the smuggling of Iranian-sourced weapons into the Gaza Strip.
The latest air strike comes at a time of escalating tensions along the Gaza-Israel border, where Hamas’ armed wing claimed responsibility Thursday for firing an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus traveling near the border, critically wounding a 16-year-old student. The Israeli military then launched strikes against what it said were nine launching sites for rocket and mortar launches.
Also Thursday, Israel reported that 45 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from the strip. A newly-deployed Israeli anti-missile system carried out its first successful interception of a rocket fired from Gaza.
Khartoum blames Israel for the destruction of a vehicle near an airport outside Port Sudan on Tuesday night, and said it would lodge a formal complaint with the United Nations Security Council.
The semi-official Sudanese Media Center (SMC) said a foreign aircraft targeted the car before retreating under heavy Sudanese anti-aircraft fire.
The government said though its official SANA news agency that two men killed in the strike were both Sudanese. Other Middle East media outlets have reported that one was a senior member of the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, which controls Gaza.
Citing Palestinian security officials in Gaza, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency named the man as Abdul-Latif Ashkar, a man responsible for weapons acquisition for Hamas since the previous operative with that role was assassinated in a Dubai hotel last year.
The killing of that man, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was widely blamed on the Israeli security service Mossad, and seen as part of a hardnosed Israeli campaign to cut off arms supplies to Hamas. Mabhouh was reportedly in Dubai to discuss weapons transfers with Iranian agents.
Officially, Hamas officials deny that either of the men killed in Port Sudan were members of the group. One account, from a Hamas-linked news agency in Gaza, quoted a senior Hamas figure as saying Ashkar – his nephew – had in fact been at the scene of the attack in Sudan but had escaped unscathed.
Asked about the incident during a visit to Berlin, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu neither confirmed nor denied Israeli involvement, offering instead a comment open to differing interpretations, and then declining to elaborate.
“Some see Israel’s hand in anything that happens, and it is not always true,” he said during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The latest incident comes at a particularly sensitive time for Sudan, which is hoping to be removed from the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The designation, which has been in place since 1993, carries economic sanctions including a ban on arms-related exports and sales and prohibitions on economic assistance.
The Obama administration announced earlier this year that it was beginning the process of delisting Sudan, presenting it partly as an inducement to fully implement the peace agreement ending the north-south civil war.
To do so, the president will have to certify to Congress that Sudan has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period. Khartoum will also have to provide assurances that it will not support terrorism in the future.
Any evidence that Sudan is complicit in the smuggling of arms to Hamas, a group designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, could thwart its delisting bid.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti told a press conference in Khartoum that that air strike was designed to reduce Sudan’s chances of being removed from the list.
“This incident can only be assumed to be a sorry attempt at linking Sudan to terrorism so as to maintain obstacles between the country and the peace-loving community,” the Sudanese government said in a statement.
“It must be said however that with such heinous actions that the world has repeatedly witnessed (a few of its kind within Sudan alone), the State of Israel is a threat to peace in the region and around the globe.”
Suspected Israeli targeting of arms traffickers in Sudan began long before Khartoum’s delisting was on the agenda.
On at least two previous occasions, in early 2009, mysterious air strikes targeted alleged weapons smugglers in Sudan. In one case, unidentified aircraft attacked an convoy heading towards the Sudan-Egypt border. In the other, an Egyptian newspaper reported that a ship was bombed or hit by missiles near the Sudanese coast. In neither case did Israel confirm or deny responsibility.
Sudan’s location and Islamist orientation has made it a key route for weapons headed for the Palestinian territories. Clandestine cargo arriving by sea or air can then cross into Egypt, and through the Egyptian Sinai to the tunnel-riddled Sinai-Gaza border.
Israel has accused Hamas’ ally, Iran, of supplying weapons to the Gaza-based group, as well as to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In mid-March, the Israeli Navy intercepted a ship sailing from Syria en route to Egypt, and found to be carrying 50 tons of weapons including 2,500 mortar shells, along with documents indicating that anti-ship missiles onboard originated from Iran.
The Israeli military said the crew of the German-owned vessel Victoria were unaware of the nature of the cargo, which Israel assessed was headed for Gaza.
A similar incident in 2009 netted what Israel said was the largest cache of illegal arms it had ever intercepted, hundreds of tons of weaponry believed to originate from Iran and be destined for Hezbollah.