- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

JERUSALEM — In a sign that Palestinians are trying to raise the stakes in their 7-month-old battle with Israel, the Jewish state intercepted a ship carrying Katyusha rockets and other heavy weapons from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip yesterday.
Israel announced the seizure hours after its troops killed a 4-month-old baby in Gaza in a barrage of retaliatory fire for mortar attacks started by Palestinians.
Both incidents stoked an already blazing conflict in the Middle East, virtually guaranteeing that an international report with a blueprint for halting the violence would go unheeded.
Israel said its navy had been tracking the vessel since Saturday after a reconnaissance aircraft spotted it leaving northern Lebanon. Israeli ships cut it off in the Mediterraneans international waters.
Navy commander Yadidyah Yaari told reporters in a Haifa news conference late yesterday that the ship was brimming with arms, including mortar bombs, Strela anti-aircraft missiles, shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades, land mines and dozens of Katyusha rockets and launchers.
He said a preliminary investigation pointed to a Palestinian group in Lebanon backed by Syria and headed by Ahmed Jibril — the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) — as organizer of the shipment.
Mr. Yaari said the arms would have "changed the situation in the balance of powers in our battle with the Palestinians."
While Israeli leaders said the shipment was intended for Yasser Arafats Palestinian Authority, officials in Gaza denied involvement and pointed out that the PFLP-GC did not belong to Mr. Arafats Palestine Liberation Organization.
"We are not responsible for his actions and anyway, Jibril is hostile and a rival to the Palestinian Authority and the PLO," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
Palestinians have been waging a guerrilla campaign against Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza using primarily automatic weapons and homemade mortar bombs that have a range of about a mile.
More than 400 Palestinians and 80 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.
The Katyusha rockets, which guerrilla groups occasionally fire at Israel from Lebanon, can hit targets up to five miles away and would have brought several Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip into firing range.
Israel has long accused the Palestinian Authority of arranging illegal weapons shipments by sea and through tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt.
Under the 1993 Oslo agreement, Mr. Arafats police force is allowed to have a fixed number of automatic rifles but not heavier weapons.
Mr. Yaari said the ships crew appeared to be professional smugglers. Their plan was to pack the weapons in barrels and drop them in the sea for Palestinians to pick up.
The PFLP-GC representative in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Hussam Arafat, said it was possible the ship belonged to his group.
"There is a decision by the group to continue to support the steadfastness of our people through providing them with all kinds of fighting material and weapons until Israel withdraws from areas occupied in 1967," Mr. Arafat said.
Earlier yesterday, Israeli troops stationed in Gaza unleashed a torrent of automatic fire at the Khan Yunis refugee camp after mortars fired by Palestinians slammed into Jewish settlements in the Strip.

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