PA Weapons Smuggling Called 'Ultimate Escalation'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The smuggling of weapons into areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority show that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat has chosen to escalate the level of violence, Israeli security experts said on Tuesday.

Arafat apparently has chosen a path likely to lead to an Arab-Israeli war, one analyst said.

Israel revealed late Monday that its navy had intercepted a Lebanese vessel laden with weapons destined for the PA-controlled Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said it was not just the quantity of the weapons that was cause for concern, but also the type.

The cache, neatly packed in waterproof containers, included 107 mm Katyusha rockets with a range of about five miles, SA-7 Strella anti-aircraft missiles with a 2.5 mile range, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank grenades, two 60mm mortars and 98 mortar shells, landmines, Kalashnikov assault rifles, and some 13,000 rounds of ammunition.

Having access to such weapons would enable the Palestinians to launch attacks on most major Israeli population centers, and even threaten to bring down military and civilian aircraft landing at Israel's main airport near Tel Aviv.

There was no immediate indication whether the weapons were being shipped directly to the PA itself or to other militants in the area. But Israel Navy Commander Yedidiah Ya'ari said they had probably been sent by the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril said on Tuesday this was not the first time his group had smuggled weapons to the Palestinians and would not be the last. However, he did not say whether or not the PA was involved.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that the crew of the vessel, the San Torini, had apparently already succeeded in smuggling weapons to PA areas three times in the past.

PA officials have denied that the weapons were being sent to them. But analysts say that since the militant Palestinian organizations are working together in the uprising, the PA will undoubtedly use the weapons in the end.

Col. Moshe Hager, a reserve commander in the Israeli Army, said in a telephone interview that the PA is already using ammunition and weapons that have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip.

According to Oslo Accord agreements signed between Israel and the PA, the number of PA policemen, vehicles, rifles and pistols allowed to maintain internal security was clearly delineated.

The original agreement allowed for up to some 12,000 policemen, and that amount was increased by several thousand in successive accords. But today there are an estimated 30-50,000 Palestinian "policemen," including members of such agencies as military intelligence and general intelligence, none of which were allowed under Oslo.

Hager charged that the Palestinians had "decided to establish an army" since Israel began negotiating with them in 1993. From Israel's point of view, the end result of the negotiations would be the establishment of a de-militarized Palestinian entity neighboring Israel.

Hager warned that if the PA completes a port near Gaza, "they will bring in tanks and missiles."

The PA already has an airport in Gaza, which Israel has closed down periodically during the last few months because of security concerns. Work has also begun on construction of a seaport.

Provoking Israel into retaliation

Boaz Ganor of the International Policy Institute on Counter-Terrorism, north of Tel Aviv, said he believes the Palestinians have been smuggling in weapons since the establishment of the self-rule authority.

They had used many different channels, he claimed - a boat over the Dead Sea from Jordan, through tunnels from Egypt, vehicles of PA VIPs, and even in Arafat's personal helicopter.

But Ganor said the shipment now seized were of a different order, much more advanced than anything used by the Palestinians up to now.

"Using this kind [represents] the ultimate escalation," Ganor said. Katyusha rockets, for instance, could be fired into most of Israel's large cities, forcing a powerful Israeli retaliation - possibly including the limited recapture of PA-controlled lands.

But even the U.S., Israel's most faithful ally in the current crisis, has made it clear that Israeli forays into PA areas are unacceptable.

Hager downplayed the idea of Israel retaking PA territories but suggested that Israel disarm the Palestinians before they have a chance to launch an all-out war on Israel. Taking away all of their guns would take "some years" he acknowledged, but said Israel "can do it."

Ganor envisages one of three possible scenarios developing. In the best case, Arafat would decide that he would not gain anything through the use of violence, having observed that what he had expected had not materialized - the Israeli public has not yet broken down emotionally over the number of casualties; the European Union has not supported him; the Arab nations have not backed him beyond rhetoric: and the U.S. has not pressured Israel.

A second scenario could see Arafat decide to engage in a long war of attrition, aimed at eventually forcing outside involvement through the sending of international troops. This tactic has been unsuccessful up until now. The U.S. recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution to send an observer force to the PA territories.

In the worst case, Ganor said Arafat would carry out a major attack that would force Israel to retaliate, perhaps even re-conquering some of the Palestinian territories so as to establish wider buffers between Israeli population centers and positions from where the Palestinians could launch attacks. That Israeli retaliation would then prompt Arab nations to declare war on Israel.

Ganor said it would appear that Arafat had opted for the worst-case scenario.

The only way to stop the violence would be to apply pressure on Arafat, he said. But even the U.S. does not hold enough sway over Arafat, he added. Instead, pressure would have to come from more moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan.