The mix of weapons and explosives seized by Israeli commandos last week in a raid on a ship bound for Gaza shows that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat plans to escalate his campaign of terror against the Jewish state, a senior Israeli minister said yesterday.
Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said the shipment included 11/2 tons of the sophisticated plastic explosive C-4 that could be used in suicide bombing attacks far more devastating than the attacks on Israel in recent months.
“Up until today, all the suicide bombers were using very primitive explosive materials,” Mr. Sheetrit said in a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
“Suppose what would happen if they have C-4 in these quantities. They could abolish an entire neighborhood,” said the minister, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party.
Mr. Arafat has denied any knowledge of the 50-ton arms shipment and has ordered an internal investigation. Mr. Sheetrit, citing the Palestinian captain’s own testimony in the days since the daring Jan. 3 raid, bluntly dismissed Mr. Arafat’s denials as “lies.”
As Mr. Sheetrit spoke, a separate Israeli military intelligence team was in Washington to brief U.S. officials on the incident, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell this week labeled “deeply troubling.”
A senior Israeli security official told reporters he and his colleagues presented “clear evidence” to U.S. officials that the smuggling was “an official act of the Palestinian Authority” and that “Arafat was deeply involved in the operation.”
The Israeli official said the Palestinian Authority carried out the operation with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, whose members loaded the weapons on the ship in Iran during the night of Dec. 11.
Hezbollah also trained some of the people on the ship, he said.
“It was a strategic move carried out in a very cautious manner, with all the characteristics of a special operation,” the official said.
He said Israeli military intelligence tracked the ship for months before seizing it, which it decided to do in the Red Sea before it crossed into the Mediterranean, where it’s usually “more difficult to operate.”
U.S. officials who were briefed by the Israeli intelligence team said last night they had concluded the “case is very compelling” that senior Palestinian Authority figures, including Mr. Arafat, were involved in the shipment of arms.
While not saying Mr. Arafat initiated the shipment, an official said it was apparent that arranging for the shipment involved “decisions and actions of such a nature that one would assume they would have to have been made at the highest level.”
“From the information provided by the Israelis, we would strongly suspect that Arafat knew about the shipment,” he said.
The staggering Middle East peace process received another blow yesterday when two men in Palestinian police uniforms ambushed an Israeli army post near the Gaza Strip with grenades and assault rifles, killing four Israeli soldiers before being shot.
The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, the first of its kind after nearly a month of relative calm in the region.
But Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said the attack was more proof that Mr. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority “is not fighting the infrastructure of terrorism.”
Less than 24 hours after the killing of the Israelis, 12 Israeli tanks and bulldozers stormed the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah early today and started razing homes.
The tanks and bulldozers began destroying homes under cover of heavy machine-gun fire in Block O, a neighborhood under Palestinian self-rule in the town on the Egyptian border, witnesses and security sources said.
Israeli officials see the seizure of the Gaza-bound freighter Karine A as a diplomatic and public relations coup. They have repeatedly argued that Mr. Arafat has not honored past promises to contain terrorist elements under his control, a promise stated most forcefully in a Dec. 16 address under pressure from the United States.
Israeli intelligence officials say the freighter was loaded at an island off the coast of Iran. Mr. Sheetrit yesterday called Iran the “center of global terrorism.”
The justice minister, in Washington for talks with senior State, Justice and Treasury department officials, said the mix of weapons on board the ship and the fact that the cargo was meant to be brought ashore in Iranian-made containers left no doubt that it was Mr. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and not one of the militant groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas which was behind the shipment.
“We have no doubts on the fact that this ship is connected 100 percent to the Palestinians,” said Mr. Sheetrit, who said Israeli commandos tracked the ship from the moment it was loaded late last month.
“We know exactly all the people involved in this operation, and I think one would have to be blind, deaf and mute in order not to understand that this ship was purchased and organized [entirely] by the Palestinians and, in my opinion, was done in the knowledge of Mr. Arafat.”
Mr. Sheetrit said his government had no direct proof of Mr. Arafat’s role in the shipment, but said several senior Palestinian Authority officials were involved and the $10 million price tag makes it, in his view, impossible to believe Mr. Arafat did not know.
He said the Palestinians’ failure to deal with past terrorist threats only reinforced the Sharon government’s skepticism.
Mr. Sheetrit said Israeli intelligence officials had alerted Palestinian security forces on the morning of Aug. 9 last year that they had learned of a suicide attack planned for that day, even supplying the name of the suspected supervisor for the attack.
The suicide bomber was not apprehended and detonated his bomb in a crowded Jerusalem pizza parlor, killing 15 and injuring more than 130.
Military analysts have said the Karine A shipment if intended for the Palestinian Authority had the potential for a marked shift to a more offensive and deadly resistance strategy.
Iran and the United States are two of the handful of countries in the world known to manufacture C-4, the explosive used by operatives of Osama bin Laden in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
In addition, Mr. Sheetrit noted, the shipment included armor-piercing anti-tank weapons and 122 mm Katyusha rockets, whose 12-mile range could menace virtually every major Israeli city from firing sites within the Palestinian-controlled territory.
“If the Palestinians could acquire this kind of ammunition and weaponry, it puts most of the people of Israel at very high risk,” he said.
The justice minister said the September 11 terrorist strikes and the new U.S.-led war on global terror had increased sympathy and understanding in Washington for Israel’s security struggles. He was in town to discuss legal cooperation in the war on terrorism and to brief U.S. officials on Israeli progress in cracking down on money laundering.
Israel, he said, was one country eager to cooperate in the U.S. fight, without reservation.
He said he told U.S. officials during his visit that this was a case where “the cow wants to give more milk than the calf wants to drink.”
Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.