Israeli Forces Investigate Alleged Palestinian Weapons Smuggling

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Trouble in the Gaza Strip has forced the postponement of an Israeli-Palestinian Authority meeting to discuss further implementation of the "Bethlehem-Gaza First" plan.

Israel pulled its troops out of Bethlehem last week as part of an understanding, in which Israel agreed to turn over security control to the PA in areas where calm prevails. But the Gaza Strip is not one of those areas.

The Israeli armored corps, navy and air force were operating off the coast of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, following the sighting of a number of objects floating in the sea, believed to be an attempt at weapons smuggling.

Security sources reportedly are concerned that the Palestinians are trying to smuggle arms via the sea into the Gaza Strip, but it is not yet clear what the floating objects are and whether they contain weapons.

Security sources noted that on board the Karine A - a weapons smuggling ship intercepted in January - weapons and ammunition were packed in special barrels designed to float just below the surface of the water. The Karine A ship was carrying more than 50 tons of weapons from Iran to the Palestinians.

Overnight, a mortar shell slammed into a Jewish home in the Gush Katif area of the Gaza Strip, an army spokesperson said. The shell caused extensive damage to the roof and top floor of the house, but a couple and their three children, who were at home at the time, escaped uninjured.

Fire was also directed at Israeli army outposts in the Gaza Strip, the spokesperson added.

In reaction to the mortar attack as well as continued trouble in the Gaza Strip, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer postponed a meeting with PA Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yahya. They were supposed to discuss the transfer of the Gaza Strip to PA security forces, a spokesperson at the Defense Ministry said.

The meeting, which was to have taken place Wednesday evening, has not yet been rescheduled.

Yahya, who is responsible for reforms in the PA security services, has so far been unable to persuade militant Palestinian groups to accept the agreement. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Martyrs of the al-Aksa Brigades (linked to Arafat's Fatah faction) all have rejected the agreement and vowed to continue to carry out attacks.

American diplomat drops in

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield is due to arrive in Israel on Wednesday for four days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

"The purpose [of his visit] is to continue with the business of reforms in the PA," a U.S. Embassy spokesman said.

Satterfield attended weekend meetings in Paris on reform in the PA with members of the ad hoc committee on PA reforms, which includes Russia, the U.N., EU, Norway, Japan and the World Bank.

The subjects to be discussed include civil society reforms, economic reforms, reducing violence, promoting security cooperation and dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, financial and judicial reforms as well as upcoming Palestinian elections.

The U.S. is trying to convince the PA to hold parliamentary elections first, then have the new legislature elect a prime minister prior to presidential elections.

Currently there is no position of prime minister in the PA. Washington would like to see Arafat elected to a "figurehead" position with less power than he currently wields.

PA Minister Saeb Erekat earlier said that he refused to even discuss the idea with U.S. officials on a recent trip to Washington, because it is none of Washington's business, he said.

Satterfield is also expected to press Israel to further ease restrictions on the Palestinians and work toward security cooperation.

Although the subject of a U.S. attack on Iraq is not on the official agenda, the Embassy spokesman said that he wouldn't be surprised if the topic is raised.

Sources in the prime minister's office were quoted as saying that Satterfield's trip was also intended to make sure that things stay quiet here so nothing will interfere with any U.S. offensive against Iraq.