- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli naval commandos, dropped from helicopters over the Red Sea, seized a boat carrying 50 tons of mostly Iranian-made weapons that the Jewish state said were bound for the Palestinian Authority.

The operation, which military officials here lauded as one of Israel's most complicated and daring, cast a pall over efforts by the special U.S. envoy, Anthony Zinni, to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire during his four-day mission to the region.

Under the 1993 Oslo agreement, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's police force is allowed to have a fixed number of automatic rifles but not heavier weapons.

Israel cited the arms shipment as proof that Mr. Arafat was girding for the next round of fighting and was not interested in a truce. Mr. Arafat, in a televised address to his people last month, said it was time to halt the 15 months of bloodletting with Israel.

But Israelis presented no evidence that the Palestinian leader or anyone in his administration was involved in the delivery, and Palestinian officials described the accusation as propaganda.

They also criticized Israel for carrying out fresh raids on Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Iran also denied any official knowledge of the shipment.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has no collaboration in the military or in the area of furnishing arms to the Palestinian Authority," said government spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi, who accused the "Israeli Zionist regime" of trying to "deflect public opinion away from its growing crimes against the Palestinian people."

Israeli army Chief Shaul Mofaz, who canceled a trip to Washington this week to oversee the raid, said Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority owned the intercepted ship, named Karine A. He said the captain on board was a senior officer in the Palestinian naval police.

"Official elements in the Palestinian Authority were involved in the smuggling attempt, including senior members of the Palestinian naval police with close links to senior Palestinian Authority leaders," Gen. Mofaz told reporters at a news conference.

He said the weapons seized included long-range rockets that could reach most Israeli cities if fired from the West Bank and Gaza, parts of which are under Mr. Arafat's control.

Troops took control of the ship early Thursday, about 300 miles from the Israeli coast of Eilat, but officials kept the news secret until yesterday. Karine A docked last night in Eilat's port, where soldiers began unloading the weapons and putting them on display for journalists.

The interception could not have been better timed for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who might have faced pressure from Gen. Zinni to begin political negotiations with Mr. Arafat after a sharp recent decline in Palestinian attacks.

Mr. Sharon's Cabinet decided after a series of suicide bombings last month that Mr. Arafat could no longer serve as a peace partner and deemed him politically irrelevant.

Washington, while sharply critical of the Palestinian leader's failure to crack down on Islamic militants, still views Mr. Arafat as the man Israel must engage.

Mr. Sharon, at a meeting yesterday morning at his ranch in southern Israel, described to Gen. Zinni details of the Israeli operation and showed him a video taken by soldiers on board Karine A, with shots of the weapons seized, officials said.

Shimon Peres, the dovish foreign minister who has prodded Mr. Sharon to be softer with the Palestinians, participated in the meeting. He said later that Palestinians had to decide whether they were for or against "terrorism."

Gen. Zinni later traveled to the West Bank town of Ramallah for talks with Mr. Arafat and other top Palestinian officials. The Palestinian leader told him the Palestinian Authority had nothing to do with the ship in the Red Sea.

"We know nothing about this ship that the Israelis are talking about, and we consider it Israeli propaganda in order to sabotage the mission of Gen. Zinni," said Mr. Arafat's media adviser, Nabil Abu Rdaineh.

Other Palestinian officials complained that Israel was trying to provoke suicide attacks by raiding areas under Mr. Arafat's control. In the latest incursion, soldiers killed a Palestinian in a West Bank village and spent hours searching the area for fugitives.

Israel said the troops were looking for men involved in a bus ambush that killed 10 Israelis near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank last month.

Gen. Zinni, who made his first visit to the region last month but cut it short after a wave of Palestinian bombings, announced late yesterday that Israeli and Palestinian security officials would hold more meetings next week.

Gen. Zinni did not comment on the arms shipment.

Israel has said for months that Palestinians were trying to upgrade their arsenal, which is limited to automatic rifles and primitive mortars and rockets. Soldiers have caught Palestinians running guns through tunnels linking Egypt and Gaza and have apprehended smugglers along the border with Jordan.

Last May, Navy patrolmen stopped a boat with weapons as it made its way from Lebanon to Gaza, but this week's operation was much bigger, as was the consignment aboard the ship.

Gen. Mofaz and Navy chief Yedidya Yaari disclosed few operational details, but Israeli media said intelligence officials had been tracking for months Palestinian efforts to put together the arms deal in Iran.

Israeli helicopters had to refuel during the long flight south over the Red Sea, according to Israel's Channel Two television. The helicopters approached the ship under the cover of darkness and dropped commandos into inflatable speed boats.

The soldiers quietly pressed their boats alongside Karine A, boarded the vessel and overpowered the crew of 13 without firing a shot, Gen. Mofaz said.

"If warfare equipment of this kind had reached the hands of terrorists acting against us, it may have dramatically altered the security of the citizens of the State of Israel and the soldiers of the Israeli army and drastically increased the terror activity against us," the army chief said.

At least 800 Palestinians and 234 Israelis have been killed since Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted in September 2000

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