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If ship smuggled arms for Arafat, so what?

SHARE If ship smuggled arms for Arafat, so what?

Israeli officials are said to be miffed that the rest of the world did not immediately accept their claim that Yasser Arafat is the arch-villain behind what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls "The Ship of Terror."

After all, they have the evidence. Israeli commandos seized the Karine-A in the Red Sea as it was transporting 50 tons of Iranian-supplied arms to Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip.

In jailhouse interviews with Israeli television and the Fox network, the captain of the vessel admitted to working for the Palestinian Transportation Ministry and said he agreed to smuggle the arms because "it is the Palestinians' right to defend themselves."

The weapons, which included Katyusha rockets and antitank missiles, were picked up at Iran's Qeys Island and were to have been transported through the Suez Canal to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. There they were to have been transferred to three smaller boats, then placed in watertight containers and set adrift with the incoming tide near the Gaza coast.

The captain also revealed that he took his orders from Adel Awadallah, identified by Israel as a major weapons buyer for the Palestinian Authority. Ergo, Arafat must have known about it since he heads the Authority and is its chief paymaster.

Arafat denied this and promised a "full investigation." Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit called him "a cheat and a liar."

The State Department accepted as "credible" Israel's evidence of Palestinian involvement but has yet to see evidence of Arafat's personal involvement. And the European Union's Javier Solana said the "question of the ship is not over; it is just beginning."

Certainly there are some unanswered questions.

Lloyd's shipping registry lists the Karine-A as Iraqi-owned. Given the enmity between the two countries, it seems unlikely that Iran would allow an Iraqi vessel to enter its waters on an arms-bying mission. And would a wily guerrilla leader like Arafat really expect to sneak a boatload of weapons past the U.S. Navy flotilla in the Persian Gulf, Israeli naval patrols in the Red Sea and the Egyptians in the Suez Canal?

Yes, said Israel, putting the biggest haul of arms it has ever captured on show for diplomats at the Red Sea port of Eilat. "This proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the Palestinian Authority is infested with terror from head to toe," Israel's Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz told a press conference that largely overshadowed the peace mission of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni.

Almost ignored in the hullabaloo was Sharon's admission that arms smuggling "is not a new thing" in the occupied territories and Shitreet's admission that Israel had intercepted three such arms shipments in the past. So what made this one such a big deal?

Both sides had long ago declared the Oslo accords dead, so the Palestinians no longer feel constrained by a provision that limits the types of arms they may acquire. And since Israel openly receives American arms that it uses against the Palestinians, why should they not do the same?

As for Arafat, having been labeled "irrelevant" by Sharon's government and thus no longer a partner in the peace process — if anything is left of it — he may feel he has every right to arm his people to oppose a 34-year-old military occupation that much of the world deems illegal and a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

So why not admit it?

Writing in the daily Ha'aretz, Israeli author David Grossman reminded his countrymen that they too smuggled arms when Jews were fighting for the creation of a Jewish state, much as the Palestinians are doing now.

"The fighters of Haganah, the Lehi and the Etzel underground movements collected and hid as many weapons as they could, and their splendid sliks (arms caches) are to this day a symbol of the fight for survival and the longing for liberty, as were the daring weapons acquisition missions during the British mandate (which were defined by the British as acts of terror)," he wrote.

"When we did those things, they were not terrorist in nature. They were legitimate actions of a people fighting for its life and liberty. When the Palestinians do them, they become 'proof' of everything we have been so keen to prove for years now — their murderousness and the terrorism that burns in their breasts like second nature."

Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail: hjens@aol.com.