High-Stakes "Hot Potato" Over PLO Arms Shipment

Sunday, August 5, 2001 | Tag Cloud

ICEJ NEWS - 01/07/2002
US special "security" envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni ended his brief regional visit on Sunday saying chances for an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire were improving, despite Israel's daring seizure of a freighter loaded with weapons bound for the Palestinian Authority. Iran and Hizb'Allah have joined the PA in vigorously denying any connection to the captured vessel, while many Israelis are wondering what possibly more could their leaders want before finally declaring PLO chief Yasser Arafat an enemy.

As more details emerged concerning the 50-ton cache of weapons captured by Israeli commandos aboard the "Karine A" in the middle of the Red Sea before dawn last Thursday, no one wanted to step forward and claim ownership, least of all the embarrassed PA. The interception of the ship came just as Gen. Zinni returned for a second try at brokering a sustainable truce to end the violent Palestinian intifada, and could potentially reshape the way players on all sides approach the conflict in future.

The stakes in the "Karine A" affair are serious. Direct PLO involvement in the arms smuggling operation - which took more than a year to arrange and execute - would further undermine Arafat's already shaky "peace" credentials just as he has hyped a new willingness to crack down on terrorist activity and renew peace talks. Evidence indicating that Iran and Hizb'Allah also played major roles would force the international community into viewing the PLO more and more as a member of the camp of "global terrorists" that the US has declared war on since September 11.

On the other hand, if Arafat had no knowledge of the operation, as PA officials are loudly proclaiming, that means he is unable to control "rogue" elements within his own security forces and finance division - and thus should not be made king over an independent Palestinian state anytime soon.

When Israeli military officials announced the seizure last Friday, they stated the ship was owned by the PA and was captained by a top PA naval officer. The weapons were of Iranian origin, they revealed, and included 50 tons of long-range rockets, mortars, anti-tank missiles, explosives and sabotage equipment, and much more.

The news broke just as Zinni met with Arafat in Ramallah to discuss a possible ceasefire. He had been informed of the catch the night before and reportedly asked Arafat for clarifications in the course of their discussions. The PA quickly denied any links to the vessel, charging Israel had timed the disclosures to undermine Zinni's mission. They also announced the arrest of six Islamic Jihad members just before the Zinni visit, hoping the news would impress the US envoy.

It seemed that Zinni was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment, as he emerged from his meeting with Arafat to express optimism that, in contrast to his stay here in December, "conditions are right" for progress to be made in easing tensions. Zinni went ahead with scheduling a joint security meeting on Sunday involving the US, Israel and the Palestinians to discuss renewed security cooperation.

Meantime, a story in the New York Times sided with the PLO spin, citing an anonymous "senior Bush Administration official" as saying Israel had no clear evidence linking the weapons shipment to the PA and suggesting the arms instead were headed for Hizb'Allah in Lebanon.

Israeli officials took up the challenge and released earlier than planned more details on the vessel, its crew and deadly cargo over the weekend. According to IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz and other Israeli authorities, several senior PA figures planned and carried out the shipment with the help of Iran and Hizb'Allah.

As early as October 2000, the top arms buyer for the PA, Adal Mugrabi, and the deputy commander of the Palestinian naval police, Fathi Razam, began planning the arms smuggling operation, purchasing the ship in Lebanon and making contacts with Iran and Hizb'Allah about the arsenal of weapons to be bought. Fouad Shubaki, the PA's financial director, assisted with the finances. The ship cost the PA some $400,000, while the arms bill may have topped $100 million.

PA Naval Police Colonel Omar Akawi commanded the 13-man crew abroad the 4,000-ton freighter. Israeli officials noted that Akawi had made a videotaped full confession of the PA-directed smuggling operation.

The crew flew through Yemen and Dubai on the way to the Iranian island of Kish, where the weapons cargo was loaded on board. A Hizb'Allah "trainer" assisted with instructions on placing the 83 crates of weapons into special waterproof containers he had designed to be lowered beneath the surface for later pick-up by smaller Palestinian fishing vessels along the Gaza coast.

The ship was destined to carry the war materiel through the Suez Canal to Alexandria, where it would have been off-loaded to three smaller craft for delivery to the waters off the Gaza shoreline and eventually to Judea/Samaria as well.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army chief of staff, said the cache included Katyusha rockets with a 12-mile range, 120-millimeter mortars, antiaircraft missiles, mines, armor-piercing Sagger antitank missiles and sniper rifles. The arms also included more than two tons of high explosives, he said. He said the arsenal would have dramatically altered the PA's ability to threaten Israel and "significantly widened the scale of terrorist attacks."

An Israeli radio program reportedly interviewed a navy frogman involved in the seizure operation - code-named "Noah's Ark" - who claimed Arafat's signature and official seal were found on paperwork located on the ship.

Other reports said the ship was being tracked by both Israeli and American intelligence from the time it left the Iranian port, and that radioed instructions to the PA navy captain were intercepted as it entered the Red Sea from the Persian Gulf.

Despite Israel's specific information on the operation, the PA continued to deny any official link to the vessel, with some officials pitching the line that the delivery might have been headed for Hizb'Allah. If PA naval forces were part of the operation, it was simply to make a buck, they explained.

But Hizb'Allah leaders in Beirut and their Iranian backers both adamantly denied any involvement with the ship. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran insisted, "Iran does not have military cooperation with the Palestinian Authority."

A PA arms deal linked to Hizb'Allah and Iran at this time would force Washington into a major decision concerning Arafat and his Authority in order to be consistent with the anti-terror policy spelled out by US President George W. Bush following the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11. Bush has repeatedly stated that any country or organization that harbors or aids terrorists will be considered terrorists as well, and Hizb'Allah has been added recently to the target list of "terrorist organizations with a global reach."

In addition to Iran's backing of radical Muslim terrorist factions opposed to peace with Israel, the Islamic regime's number two cleric recently suggested that Arab/Muslim states should use nuclear weapons to annihilate the Jewish State.

So far, Zinni and other US officials have refrained from taking a public position on who was behind the shipment. Zinni rejected a request from senior PA officials to set up a three-way Israel-Palestinian-American investigation to look into the affair, saying the US did not need to get involved in such an inquiry.

Zinni left the region late Sunday night telling both sides the seizure had not affected his drive to install a ceasefire and then begin implementing the Mitchell report's formula for resuming final-status negotiations. "The Zinni mission will continue, ship or no ship," one US official quipped.

After chairing the trilateral security meeting yesterday, Zinni returned to Washington to brief US Secretary of State Colin Powell on his four days of meetings. A US official said Zinni feels that "at long last" some progress is being made toward implementing a ceasefire. He is expected back in the region on January 18 and has requested that Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs continue to meet in his absence to work out a security cooperation plan to put into action once he returns.

Yesterday's security discussions dealt mainly with an agreement hammered out by Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in late September at the Dahaniya International Airport in southern Gaza. That agreement - violated by the PA within hours of its signing - spelled out in detail the various steps both sides had to take to bring about a ceasefire, and Peres apparently has convinced Zinni it is worth reviving.

Before departing last night, Zinni huddled with Javier Solana, the European Union's senior foreign policy official, who is here to pick up the baton of truce-making during a three-day swing through the region.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday visited the embargoed ship at the Israeli naval base in Eilat and afterwards told a pool of accompanying journalists, "The Palestinian Authority is a major player in the network of international terrorism, spearheaded by Iran and aimed at sowing death and destruction throughout the entire world."

Describing Arafat as a "bitter enemy," Sharon noted "the type and character of the weapons and ammunition discovered on the ship prove once again that the PA has been focusing all its efforts on terrorism, and preparing the operational infrastructure for the next waves of terror." Arafat "chooses to buy long-range Katyusha missiles instead of investing in children's education," charged the prime minister.

Sharon addressed the issue at the weekly Cabinet meeting earlier yesterday as well, stating: "This is a very grave affair that unveils the true face of the PA, an authority which is completely infested with terror." According to Sharon, "The authority operated now, under the cover of efforts for a ceasefire, to improve the capabilities of Palestinian terror to strike at Israel and its citizens."

Sharon promised to convene a "strategic discussion" soon at the cabinet level regarding Israel's relations with the PA. Sharon argued this would happen because "it is impossible to go on as though nothing has happened" after the capture of the ship.

Sharon is under growing pressure from his own nationalist camp and the Israeli defense establishment to use this incident as the opportunity for severing contacts with the PA. Mofaz urged the Cabinet yesterday to reassess its strategic position toward Arafat in light of the PA's "duplicitous game." He promised more evidence that would prove, "The operation was led by Arafat. It was his initiative and he instructed the money be spent on it," Mofaz insisted.

But Sharon's two main coalition partners on the Israeli left, Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer were slow to jump on the bandwagon.

Ben-Eliezer joined Sharon in making some tough remarks about Iran, which both called the "center of world terror," and he likewise lamented that millions of dollars were spent on weapons instead of Palestinian education and alleviating suffering. And while he insisted the connection between the ship and the PA was irrefutable, Ben-Eliezer nonetheless cautioned that he wanted a more thorough investigation and discussion within the defense ministry before going into a cabinet debate on the future with or without Arafat.

On Monday, Ben-Eliezer said efforts by the PA to shun responsibility for the arms smuggling attempt should not be taken seriously. "The captain of the ship was the second in command of the Palestinian naval forces," he said. "Therefore, all of this feigned ignorance [by the PA] - the Hizb'Allah has no connection to this, the Iranians have no connection to this, the Palestinians have no connection to this - in the end they will blame us that we bought [the arms]."

Following a meeting with Zinni yesterday morning, Peres told reporters that although the Karine-A incident "creates a very serious problem concerning the credibility of the Palestinian side" and must be "closely investigated," the government has not "ceased our efforts to achieve a ceasefire, to be followed by the continuation of political negotiations."

A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said both Zinni and Peres are doing everything possible to save the ceasefire talks. Sharon, the official said, is not opposed, as long as it is made clear there are no shortcuts through the Tenet and Mitchell plans, and that they must be preceded by a dismantling of the terror infrastructure, and seven days of quiet.

In the expected Israeli cabinet debate, the Sharon government will face two main policy options: the adoption of measures leading to the eventual removal of Arafat, or a combined effort with the Bush Administration to pressure Arafat to act decisively to maintain quiet to the ground and wage war against terror organizations.

Meanwhile in the Israeli public debate, there seemed to be a lot of agreement that this arms shipment was the last straw - or at least it should be in their eyes. The Jerusalem Post editorial today stated: "The idea suggested by an unnamed US official - that the ship was smuggling weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon - is bizarre and shows how deeply denial can run... Even dovish proponents of a Palestinian state agree it must be demilitarized and may not form alliances with Israel's enemies, such as Iran and Iraq. Now we see that Arafat is not bothering to wait until he has a state to violate both conditions."

Even the left-leaning Ha'aretz had some choice words for Arafat as well, opining that: "The 'Karine A' affair teaches that Arafat is preparing for a huge escalation, including the ability to equip hundreds of suicide attackers with explosives and to attack Israeli cities with rockets... The Palestinians' dangerous weapons adventure strengthens those who argue that Arafat's statements from three weeks ago - when he called for an end to the armed struggle against Israel and even stretched out his hand in a gesture of peace - was nothing more than a ruse designed to cover up preparations for a fierce conflict."

Finally, Opposition leader Yossi Sarid of the ultra-dovish Meretz faction commented during a visit to Egypt today that, "This ship could sink everything. The peace camp in Israel is always asked whether it has a partner on the Palestinian side. Ostensibly, Arafat is the partner, but his trustworthiness is questionable and must be proven."

For those in Israel and abroad still in disbelief, the imprisoned PA navy captain, Omar Akawi, confirmed in interviews with Israeli television and the Fox News Network aired this evening that he knew his cargo was bound for the PA.

Akawi claimed he has been a longtime member of Arafat's Fatah movement who undertook the risky operation to help the outgunned Palestinians defend themselves. "I'm a soldier. I obeyed orders," said Akawi, adding that he picked up the lethal cargo just off Iran's coast and that it was ultimately headed for PA-controlled Gaza.

Akawi said he now works in the Palestinian Transportation Ministry and received his instructions directly from a PA official based in Greece, whom he identified as Adel Awadallah, adding the man is in charge of "smuggling operations" for the Palestinians.

Akawi said he knew the operation had a high risk of failure, but he agreed to do it because "it's the Palestinian right to defend ourselves." Akawi was afraid the shipment would get caught by Israel or the US, and if not them, then by Egyptian authorities at the Suez Canal. When he relayed his concerns to Awadallah, he was told to, "Leave it to God."

The PA navy captain admitted the plan was to go through the Suez Canal to Alexandria, Egypt, where three smaller vessels would pick up the weapons. Loaded in airtight containers, the weapons would then be placed in Mediterranean waters and allowed to drift toward the Gaza coast.

Akawi ended the TV interview in tears, folding his head in his hands and pleading to be able to be with his family.

The infamously anti-Israel BBC was undeterred today, reporting that the "Karine A" was listed by the specialty marine newspaper Lloyd's List as belonging to an Iraqi national named Ali Mohammed Abbas and registered under the flag of Tonga. Documents quoted by the paper are said to show that Abbas bought the vessel from its former owners, a Lebanese shipping company, on August 31 last year. The paper says it has established that it was previously known as the "Rim K," and registered in Lebanon.

Interestingly, no Iraqi named Abbas has come forward to publicly charge Israel with hijacking his ship.

Israeli officials have promised more evidence of official PA complicity in the smuggling venture. But former US special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross today asserted that no further proof was needed, dryly observing that "if it looks like a duck and swims like a duck - then it's a duck."

ICEJ. Used with Permission.

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