Israel Resource Review 9th January, 2002


Military Implications of the Seizure of the PLO Gun Ship
Lt. Col (res) Gal Luft

Alongside the diplomatic efforts to reach a ceasefire with Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been involved -- since the beginning of the second intifada -- in the indigenous production of weapons and ammunition and in repeated attempts to smuggle arms on a massive scale into the territories under its control. To thwart these efforts and to degrade the PA's fighting capabilities, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have destroyed dozens of warehouses and weapons-producing factories and have sealed all land, sea, and air passages leading into the PA.

But the January 3 capture by the Israeli Navy of a ship -- the Karine-A -- transporting fifty or more tons of arms indicates that senior members of the PA who, according to Israel, planned, financed, and carried out the smuggling operation are still committed to the objective of overcoming Israeli interference and transferring into the PA enough weapons and ammunition to prolong -- perhaps even escalate - the conflict with Israel. In doing so, the PA receives help from several terrorist organizations as well as, seemingly, the governments that sponsor them. Moreover, the types and the quantities of the weapons captured aboard the Karine-A, as well as the timing of the ship's voyage, indicate that Palestinian armament efforts are designed not exclusively for defensive purposes, but rather for changing the military balance between the PA and Israel.

Palestinian Weapons Smuggling

Attempts to smuggle illegal weapons into the West Bank and Gaza Strip began soon after the PA's establishment in 1994, but these attempts were limited mainly to small quantities of light arms and ammunition. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, the intensity of the fighting has grown, and with it the need for a constant inflow of weapons of higher quality and lethality. These weapons have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip through a system of secret, underground tunnels which connect Egypt to Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. Despite the IDF's efforts to locate and destroy those tunnels, many are still very active.

Israel has also thwarted several Palestinian efforts to smuggle weapons through the Dead Sea and the Jordan River Valley. But the main inlet of weapons into the Gaza Strip has been via the Mediterranean Sea. On January 29, 2001, the IDF found two sealed barrels on a beach near Ashkelon containing weapons with indication that a smuggler's ship from Lebanon had discharged them into the sea off the coast of Gaza. It is believed that dozens of other barrels from the same shipment, allegedly sent by Hizballah to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza, reached their destination that night.

On May 7, 2001, the Israeli navy captured a fishing boat off the coast of Haifa with a large quantity of arms and ammunition bound for the PA. The arsenal contained 107-mm rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder- launched anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-tank missiles -- all prohibited by the Oslo agreements -- and had apparently been dispatched to the PA by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is headquartered in Damascus with bases in Lebanon. Now, this latest capture has revealed another weapons source: Iran. Although it is not yet clear whether the shipment of weapons to the Palestinians was sanctioned by the Iranian authorities, Israeli intelligence claims that the weapons were loaded in Iran by both Iranian nationals and Hizballah operatives.

Strategic Escalation?

Due to their tactical inferiority vis-a vis the IDF, the Palestinians are interested in developing military capabilities that could offset the Israeli advantage and deter the IDF from carrying out uninterrupted attacks against the PA using tanks and aircraft. The cargo of the Karine-A included weapons that have never before been in the PA's possession. For instance, the shipment included a large number of antitank missiles, including modern, Iranian- manufactured missiles carrying Tandem-Charge warheads capable of penetrating heavy armor. Israeli tank units, which have become accustomed to entering Palestinian cities with impunity, would be subjected to real danger if such weapons were to be activated.

More unsettling are the 122-mm katyusha rockets found on board which have a range of 12 miles. They could, if launched from the West Bank, hit any location in Israel between Hadera in the north and Ashkelon in the south, including strategic targets such as critical road junctions, oil and gas farms, power stations, and, most importantly, Israel's air and sea ports. Yasir Arafat's acknowledgment that Hamas and PIJ suicide attacks against Israeli civilians have both run their course and threatened to cast him in the same light as the international terrorists currently being pursued by the United States, offers a glimpse into the Palestinian leader's possible motivation, if he is indeed behind this arms shipment. These arms would increase his ability to pressure Israel: by acquiring long-range artillery, the Palestinians could threaten the Israeli home front and achieve a demoralizing and deterring effect on the Israeli public, similar to the "walking bombs" of Hamas and PIJ.

Implications for Indigenous Arms Production

The downside of the Israeli success in intercepting arms transfers and denying the PA the possibility of importing weapons is that it will likely increase pressure inside the PA to invest more resources in the domestic production of weapons and ammunition. Local arms production could provide the Palestinians with sufficient ammunition to prolong their guerrilla operations.

The Palestinians lack the industrial infrastructure needed to manufacture advanced weapons, but they have demonstrated their ability to produce light arms and ammunition, such as grenades, primitive antitank weapons, and artillery weapons.

In May 2001, for example, the Israeli security services uncovered a network of Palestinian operatives in Gaza who were involved in the manufacturing of thousands of mortar shells of various calibers. Members of the network included senior ranking officers of the Palestinian police and the Preventive Security Service in Gaza, headed by Muhammad Dahlan.

Hamas has also been involved in plans to produce homemade katyusha rockets. On January 2, the Israeli General Security Service arrested a Hamas operative en route to Saudi Arabia, apparently on a mission to receive funding and technical assistance for establishing rocket production plants in Gaza and the West Bank. Should such efforts continue to fail, some Palestinians have suggested that the PA consider developing chemical and perhaps biological weapons, which could be smuggled and concealed more easily than conventional weapons and could act as deterrents against any future Israeli attack intended to destroy the PA.

Israel's Response to the PA's Armament

In the short run, Israel will tighten its blockade along the Gaza coast and pressure the United States to recognize as sponsors of terrorism the countries involved in arming the PA. It may also change its attitude toward the 1,000-man Palestinian Coast Guard (Shurta Bahariyya), an elite unit established in 1995 (as part of the Cairo Agreement) to prevent the smuggling of goods and weapons into the PA. The fact that the captain of the Karine-A, Omar Akwi, is a Coast Guard colonel indicates that this group has become the main facilitator of weapons smuggling into the PA -- a reality that may force Israel to equate the Coast Guard with the Tanzim and Force 17, both officially recognized by Israel as terror organizations.

In the longer run, the strategic threat represented by long- range weapons introduced into the hands of the Palestinians adds a new dimension to the debate about the feasibility of a demilitarized Palestinian state as part of a final-status agreement with Israel. When peace negotiations resume, Israel is likely to condition any further concessions to the PA on the collection and surrender of all weapons prohibited by the Oslo agreements, and will be less flexible in granting the Palestinians control over border passages with Jordan and Egypt, as well as air and sea ports.

Lt. Col. Gal Luft (IDF, res.) is a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and is the author of The Palestinian Security Services: Between Police and Army (The Washington Institute, 1998).

Copyright © The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
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When the Captain of the PLO Gunship Gave a news Interview
Reportage on Israeli Media: January 8, 2002

The Captain Speaks

Akawi: "I knew the weapons were destined for the Gaza Strip".

Ma'ariv (p. 8) by Oded Granot -- "I knew the weapons were destined for the Gaza Strip. I received instructions from the Palestinian Authority's representative in Greece, Adel Awadallah," said yesterday the captain of the Karine-A weapons ship, Omar Akawi, in a special interview he gave to television networks from his cell in the Shikma prison in Ashkelon.

Following are excerpts of the interview that was conducted by Oded Granot:

Question: Can you give us some details. How was the loading of the weapons carried out?

Akawi: "I was asked to go to a certain point in the Persian Gulf."

Question: In the Persian Gulf?

Akawi: "Near the border with Iran, that's where they gave me a point [of destination] and told me to sail to it and to drop anchor, to dock. I sailed, afterwards another, small ship approached me. They said to me: 'we have a few items for you.' I said 'be my guest.'"

Question: Where did that ship come from, from Iran?

Akawi: "I don't know where it came from. The ship came to me. It didn't have a name or a flag. Nothing."

Question: At this stage, did you know that you [your boat] were being loaded with weapons and explosives?

Akawi: "Yes. I knew they were loading weapons onto me [my boat]."

Question: How did you feel? That isn't something routine, after all.

Akawi: "Look, I was told that these were weapons for Palestine. And I'm a Palestinian officer who is doing his duty. It is my people's right to defend itself."

Question: Did you know precisely what kinds of weapons were involved?

Akawi: "No. Everything was closed, and as the commander of the group it was my job to transship. My job wasn't to take the weapons there. My job was to take these weapons and transfer them to other boats. I knew only that these weapons were going to Palestine."

Question: From the outset you knew that these weapons were going to the Palestinian Authority and not to Lebanon or anywhere else?

Akawi: "These weapons were, I believe, a contribution from good members of the Arab and Islamic nation to the Palestinian people."

Question: So you mean from Iran, from Hizbullah, from whom?

Akawi: "I received it near Iran, so where could it have come from? You're smart and can understand on your own."

Question: What is Hizbullah's connection to this affair?

Akawi: "Hizbullah wants to help the Palestinian people. They want to take part in the Palestinian people's struggle."

Question: But a senior Hizbullah official took part in loading the weapons.

Akawi: "There was a guy. He was a diver who was responsible for those containers."

Question: Were you surprised by the Israeli troops that landed on your ship? Did you expect that?

Akawi: "I didn't expect it."

Question: Tell us what happened.

Akawi: "I was asleep. They came at around 4:30 and raided the ship between 4:30 and 4:45. I wasn't awake yet. I was asleep. I woke up when I heard noises on the deck. Stomping feet, so I thought it was a malfunction of some sort. I went out to see, it was around 4:45, and I saw armed soldiers all over the deck. What do you want, I said to my deputy. What's up. They asked me: 'what are you carrying?' I said to them, just cargo. 'Open up here, what's in here?' they asked, I said: crates. 'And what's in this crate?' I said to them: equipment. They opened it, of course. Inside was a rubber boat, and they opened the large crate and said: 'what's in here?' I told them: weapons. They said: 'you open it.' I said to them: okay, I'll open it. They told me: 'it's booby-trapped.' I said to them: 'I don't think so.' They said to me: 'you open it.' I said: fine, and I opened it. They followed me and removed a Kalashnikov rifle from the crate."

Question: While you were en route to Gaza, did you send reports to the Naval Command Headquarters here [i.e. in Gaza]?

Akawi: "I maintained some radio contact. I was in contact with another individual."

Question: With whom?

Akawi: "With Adel Awadallah. I didn't have anything to do with the others, neither with Gaza nor with anyone else."

Question: And where is Adel now?

Akawi: "I don't know."

Question: Where was he?

Akawi: "He worked in Greece."

Question: Is there anything you want to say?

Akawi: "I want to say that we will rely on patience and Allah. I want my daughter Malek to be proud that her father struggled. I want to find out how my daughter, wife and parents are."

Akawi signaled V for victory at first, but then asked for tissues.

Ma'ariv (p. 8) by Oded Granot -- Captain Omar Akawi, 44, is a veteran seaman and a member of the middle generation in Fatah. He is a mustached seaman of the kind that becomes nauseous on solid ground.

He was born in Tulkarm, but spent most of his years in the organization outside the territories. In 1976 he joined the Fatah's naval force in Beirut, received naval training in Pakistan and sailed from one port to another. A little bit of trade and probably a bit of smuggling too. He moved to Gaza just three years ago and in the past two years has served, in addition to his job as an officer in the naval force, as the captain of the Gandali, a missile ship of sorts that is docked in Gaza.

Yesterday he told me that as such, it was his honor to ferry Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to the consecration of the natural gas site off the coast of Gaza. He cannot confirm whether Arafat knew about the weapons ship. In the last 20 years it has been his lot to be involved in some way in all the failed operations conducted by the Palestinian naval force. He was on board the Blue Moon, which tried in the early 1980s to fire Katyusha rockets on Eilat, and which was caught by Egypt. Nearly two years later he was on board another ship that was about to open fire on Eilat, but which was sunk by the Israeli Navy.

He was also linked to the Santorini, which last year tried to smuggle weapons from Lebanon into the Palestinian Authority but was caught by the Israeli navy. There were some people who tried to foist onto him the blame for the negligent planning of the operation, which led to the seizure. Yesterday, in the interview he gave from Shikma prison in Ashkelon, Akawi did away with all doubts and confirmed what was already known: The weapons being carried by the ship were meant for the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. The Iranians organized the shipment. Hizbullah was involved in training the divers.

Akawi entered the interview raising his hand in a V for victory. He knew that he was transporting weapons and he did it to assist "the struggle of my people." He burst into tears when he recalled his wife and daughter, who live in Libya. "I want my daughter Malek to be proud of her fighting father," he said, crying.

He asked for a tissue. I handed him a box. When he wiped the tears and composed himself he said that while the IDF operation took him by surprise, he believed that there was a good chance that the Egyptians would stop him in the course of the strict inspection they conduct in the Suez Canal, or the Americans, who now check out the entire world.

Sharon demanded and the GSS objected, but ultimately the interview was approved.

Ma'ariv (p. 9) by Yoav Limor --

GSS officials objected to allowing the captain of the Karine-A to be interviewed by journalists, but ultimately caved in to the explicit demand made by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The proposal to hold interviews with the captain of the Palestinian ship, Omar Akawi, was introduced on Sunday night. The reason for the proposal was the meager turnout of foreign journalists at the press conference held by the prime minister in Eilat, and the feeling that the Israeli public relations effort had failed to be persuasive in the world. After a consultation, a decision was made to allow a number of foreign journalists to meet with Akawi and to interview him.

The recommendation was approved by Sharon, and a decision was made to let two foreign television crews -- from the American Fox network and the Reuters news agency -- to interview Akawi. The IDF Spokesperson's Office began coordinating the interviews, at which point a new idea was raised by the Prime Minister's Bureau, to allow Israeli television crews interview the captain.

Akawi is under GSS custody and is being interrogated by GSS agents in the Ashkelon prison. As a result, officials from the Prime Minister's Bureau asked the GSS to arrange for the interviews to be held. The GSS objected strongly to this proposal. GSS Director Avi Dichter said he believed that the investigation ought to be completed first, noting that the public relations effect could be achieved by other means. But Dichter failed to persuade Sharon, who instructed that the interviews be arranged. Yesterday morning the television crews showed up at Ashkelon prison, and interviewed Akawi for a number of hours. When representatives of the other media learned of this (the radio and the press) they were furious and demanded that they be given an equal opportunity to interview the captain of the Karine-A. Their demands were rejected.

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Was Arafat Responsible for the PLO Gun Ship?
Israeli Media Analysis: January 8, 2002

Seamen admit: we reported every step to the PA

Yedioth Ahronoth (p. 7) by Alex Fishman --

Members of the Israeli intelligence service burst into laughter when they heard Arafat's announcement that he proposed establishing a committee to investigate the affair of the Karine-A arms ship. This was because the two central figures in this affair, those who engineered the weapons purchase and its method of smuggling, are regular members of Arafat's entourage. The two are the deputy commander of the Palestinian naval force, Fathi Razem, and the director of the financial administration of the National Security Service, Fuad Shubaki - the man in charge of financing the Palestinian security mechanisms. The two men are permanent members of Arafat's entourage. They do not make a move without him because they both know that if they attempt to move without the immunity of Arafat's entourage, Israel will arrest them.

For months they have been acting exactly like wanted men. Every time they wanted to go from place to place, Arafat flew them in his helicopters. Surveillance of flights by the two men has already become part of the folklore of intelligence personnel in Israel who follow their moves. Razem is now abroad, apparently due to the Karine-A deal, and it is apparently technically difficult for him to return to the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, Fuad Shubaki is stuck in Ramallah. When Arafat is grounded, he is also grounded. Two weeks ago he attempted to play it smart and leave under another "umbrella," that of Col. Mohammed Dahlan, the commander of Preventive Security Service in Gaza, who was also a partner in the secret of the weapons ship affair, according to sources in the security establishment.

Dahlan suddenly asked to go to Libya in order to raise money for the Palestinian Authority. From the outset this request looked strange to Israel. And then Dahlan added a request: to have Fuad Shubaki join him. Israel already knew about the Karine-A and Shubaki's involvement in the affair. Dahlan's request to have Shubaki join him was denied and he set out for Libya on his own. On his way back he stopped off in Egypt. It is believed that Shubaki thought he could reach Egypt under Dahlan's protection to supervise from close up the loading of the weapons onto small ships at the port of Alexandria.

Incidentally, four months ago Shubaki set out for Iraq via the Allenby Bridge, and stayed there for some time. When he wanted to return, Israel did not approve his return to the territories. Finally after a month and a half, he succeeded in coming back to Ramallah on Arafat's helicopter. Sources in the security establishment say that the commander of the ship, Col. Omar Akawi, who is the director of the Palestinian shipping authority, told GSS interrogators all of the details of the chain of events in the affair. According to them, he said in his interrogation that he reported to Adel Mugrabi, the weapons buyer for the Palestinian Authority and the man apparently responsible for negotiations with the Iranians, on every action he took during the sail.

Security sources say that all four Palestinians who were arrested on board the Karine-A vessel are cooperating with the GSS interrogators, and that their detailed confessions prove that the Palestinian Authority is behind the smuggling attempt.

Together with the four Palestinian who were arrested on the ship, nine crew members were also arrested who are Jordanian and Egyptian citizens. The GSS is also interrogating them, but it appears that they did know what type of cargo they were carrying and thought that this was a regular sailing. These crew members only discovered that this was a ship carrying weapons after one of the crates broke open and its contents were exposed. They protested the dangerous "cargo," but the Palestinians threatened them "not to open their mouths." It is possible that these nine crew members will be returned to their countries today.

The investigation uncovered the fact that Adel Mugrabi was the one who purchased the ship in Lebanon two months ago, for USD 400,000. From Lebanon it continued on to Sudan, where it met up with its Palestinian crew. Later on the Karine-A continued on its way to Dubai via the port of Hudeida in Yemen where it unloaded the cargo it was carrying, and began to sail in the direction of Iran. Near the island of Qeys in Iran it hooked up with a ferry loaded with crates of ammunition, and the crates were transferred from the ferry and loaded onto the ship.

The plan was to transfer the ammunition from the ship to three smaller vessels at the port of Alexandria in Egypt. The smaller boats were to draw close to the coast of Gaza, and to throw into the sea the special floating containers developed by the Iranians for the smuggling effort.

The investigation revealed the fact that the Hizbullah organization was also connected to the affair. Personnel connected to Hizbullah Deputy Secretary General Imad Mugniyeh, who appears on the American list as an international terror operative, were those who actually transferred the weapons from the ferry to the Karine-A off the coast of Iran. In general, according to the security establishment, Mugniyeh's men mediate between the Palestinian Authority and the Iranians on a regular basis, in order to conceal Iran's role in connection with the Palestinian Authority. However, senior personnel from the Palestinian smuggling mechanisms have a direct connection with members of the Revolutionary Guards and with Iranian intelligence.

It was also discovered that a technical fault on the ship held the campaign up by two days. The defect forced the ship to alter its course and sail to the port of Hudeida in Yemen. The repair took two days and only after it was completed did the ship continue on its way.

Security sources: "All the strings lead to Arafat".

Ma'ariv (p. 4) by Eli Kamir and Yoav Limor --

The cabinet will soon hold a strategic discussion on the question of Israel's relationship to the Palestinian Authority. One of the possibilities being weighed by the prime minister: to declare officially that the Palestinian Authority is an enemy of the State of Israel. The significance of such a decision: severing all ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and relating to its forces as to enemy forces.

The Prime Minister's Bureau is now waiting to see the effect of Anthony Zinni's mission, and whether indeed the American envoy's involvement brings about a drastic change in the way the Palestinian Authority does business, "but no one really believes this," said a senior source.

Last night senior diplomatic sources said that the capture of the Karine-A warship and the Iranian involvement, as well as the senior Hizbullah figure who was on board the ship, will aid in proving the triangular conspiracy between Iran, Hizbullah and the Palestinian Authority. "And in the same way that Iran and Hizbullah are declared enemies of Israel, so it will now also be with the Palestinian Authority." Cabinet ministers, principally from the Right, have been putting great pressure in recent days to hasten the discussion and to make a sweeping and unequivocal decision against the Palestinian Authority, and principally against Arafat. As of last night, no date had yet been set for this discussion.

Senior diplomatic sources said yesterday that in recent days Israel has been devoting great efforts to have the US announce that Yasser Arafat is not relevant as far as it is concerned. In order to do this, a vast amount of material is being sent to Washington linking Arafat to terror acts and organizations. Meanwhile, senior security sources also disclosed to the Americans facts that had been hitherto unpublished: data, documents and information regarding the Karine-A ship.

The one to give the official go-ahead yesterday for the attack on the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat was Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz declared at the cabinet meeting: "The situation we have reached obligates a strategic response regarding Israel's relationship to the Palestinian Authority and it is very important that the discussion take place as soon as possible."

The chief-of-staff also referred to the conspiracy between the Palestinian Authority and Iran and Hizbullah: "Today there is a strategic connection between Iran, Hizbullah and the Palestinian Authority. It may be determined with absolute certainty that the Palestinian Authority has hooked up with all the terror organizations," he said.

Other security sources also made similar comments and yesterday said that "the time has come to stop playing games. Arafat is an enemy and we must start treating him accordingly. After what we saw on board the weapons ship, it makes me shudder even to think what would happen if the Palestinians had a state."

The consensus in the security establishment yesterday was nearly total regarding the "wider significance" of the capture of the Karine-A vessel, and the weapons discovered on board. "There is no more room for commentary," a few sources stated. "All the strings lead to Arafat and the people closest to him, now that it is clear what they are really planning while they talk of peace."

The sources said that there is clear cut and unequivocal proof of the fact that Arafat himself was in on the secret of the arms smuggling.

According to them, alongside intelligence evidence, it is also a matter of logic: "Arafat himself personally signs all of the pay vouchers of every last Tanzim branch, so how is it possible that he did not know about an expense of tens of millions of dollars for purchase of weapons and materiel?"

These are the weapons captured:

Ma'ariv (p. 3)

122 mm. Katyusha launchers4
rockets (range of 20 km.)62
107 mm. Katyusha launchers6
rockets (range of 8.5 km.)283
120 mm. mortar launchers10
shells (range of 6 km.)700
81 mm. mortar launchers19
shells (range of 5 km.)686
60 mm. mortar launchers10
shells (range of 1700 m.)159
Sagger anti-tank missile launchers6
RPG rockets328
hand grenades735
launchers for RPG 7 rockets51
RPG 18 rockets346
Zodiac speedboats with 25 HP engines2
C4 and TNT explosives2200 kg
Dargonov sniper rifles with telescopic sights30
machine guns18
Kalashnikov assault rifles212
bullets for Kalashnikov407,800
sophisticated floating containers for weapons80

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