Middle East

Israel: Deadly Cargo

The boat and the weapons in question (Photo: AFP)

It all seemed surreal: After Israel intercepted a Lebanese fishing boat smuggling heavy weapons to Gaza off its northern coast on May 7, stunned Israelis learned that this was the fourth illicit shipment of heavy arms bound for the Palestinian Authority and the first that Israel seized. An outcry came from the Israeli press, which lashed out at the Palestinian Authority for gearing up for war. “The purchase of arms in Lebanon should make countries that are sending money to the Palestinian Authority begin asking questions about how part of this money is being used,” wrote Ze’ev Schiff in Tel Aviv’s liberal Ha’aretz (May 8). That such weaponry was now believed to be in Palestinian arsenals was interpreted by analysts as a turning point in the ongoing struggle.

The 40-ton Lebanese vessel departed from Beirut and was bound for the Gaza Strip, where it was to have dumped its load at sea, contained Katyusha rockets and antiaircraft and antitank missiles. Even though the Israelis were caught off guard, the purchase of such a vast amount of long-range weapons, which could easily reach Tel Aviv or Ashkelon and even threaten Israeli commercial and military planes, was bound to happen, according to longtime observers. “The Palestinians have been running weapons all their lives,” a Western security source told Beirut’s independent, English-language Daily Star (May 10). “Any Palestinian with the necessary money can buy and ship weapons from Lebanon. It’s no problem at all.”

Lebanese authorities, however, denied any knowledge of the shipment. In response to the capture of the cache of weapons, Israel prepared new guidelines for commercial aircraft landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmat Jibril claimed responsibility for the shipment—which he said was supplied to him by Iran—vowing that more would follow “to create a sort of balance of terror between us and the enemy.” “This is a war of existence,” declared the right-wing, religious-affiliated Hatzofeh of Tel Aviv (May 9). “We are sick and tired of idiotic talk about security coordination with the Palestinian Authority.”

“This is another example of seeing the writing on the wall,” agreed Uri Dan in the conservative Jerusalem Post (May 10). “One person only directs all this smuggling—[Yasser] Arafat. While trampling on every clause in the agreements he signed with Israel, [he has spent] tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars since 1994 in order to set up the armed gangs that are fighting against Israel.” And Tel Aviv’s centrist Yediot Aharonot (May 9) added: “Arafat is liable to lose his entire world and his not-insignificant achievements.... [He] is seeking to up the ante in the ongoing violence, hence the weapons that were captured.” Roni Shaked of Yediot Aharonot disagreed (May 8): “There are no reports that link Arafat to the shipment. Jibril sees in Arafat his enemy. His allies are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Therefore, the shipment was meant for them and not Arafat and his people.”

Either way, Alex Fishman opined in the same paper (May 8), “the weapons are the tip of the iceberg of what the Palestinian Authority has amassed since 1994, and they point to a dramatic shift in their military ability....Israel has information that links the Palestinian Authority directly to the seized weapons.” The London-based Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat (May 9) quoted a Palestine Liberation Organization official in Lebanon claiming, “Israel’s aim—through its intelligence service—is to drive a wedge between the Palestinian authorities and our Palestinian people in Lebanon.” Israel Rosenblat of Tel Aviv’s centrist Ma’ariv countered (May 9): “[The Palestinians] shoot, whine, and hoard weapons.”

Ramallah’s pro-Palestinian Authority Al-Ayyam (May 10) proposed that Israel’s fears of heavy weapons in Gaza should yield political moves. “Israel is dazed and stunned!” snapped Hasan al-Batal in the paper. “Even the shadow of a surfboard in international waters seemed like a long shadow of a naval armada....As for the Palestinians, they have always been in a daze....What is the solution? Perhaps the solution can be for the Israelis to stop their raids on free Palestinian areas. This would nullify the Palestinian need to look for weapons like the arms that Israel says it seized.”

Meanwhile, the saga of the smuggled arms continued: On May 13, Ma’ariv reported that 42 mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades, and ammunition—part of the intercepted shipment—had been stolen from an Israeli army base and transported by donkey to Bethlehem.

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