JERUSALEM — The Palestinian Authority said Tuesday it will question government officials accused by Israel of trying to smuggle Iranian arms to the Gaza Strip, while an Israeli Cabinet minister criticized the United States for its muted response to the affair.
Israel has accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of being directly involved in the operation, saying he had to have known of the attempt to smuggle tens of millions of dollars worth of rockets and anti-tank missiles.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that if the Palestinians had obtained the weapons, it would have put the country "in an impossible situation, where all of Israel becomes hostage to Yasser Arafat."
The weapons, seized in an Israeli raid on a ship in the Red Sea, included rockets that could reach Israeli cities from Palestinian areas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sharon said security talks between the Israeli and Palestinians could continue, but he opposed any resumption of the peace talks that broke down a year ago.
The Palestinian leadership confirmed the captain of the ship is an official in its naval unit, but denied links to the shipment.
"The Palestinian Authority is not interested and does not want any form of escalation in this situation," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told a news conference. "It is not a Palestinian option to lead the confrontation toward a military one between the two sides."
Abed Rabbo said those accused of involvement would be questioned by a four-member committee of senior security officials. The captain of the freighter has said he received his instructions from Adel Awadallah, also known as Adel Mughrabi and identified by Israel as a major weapons buyer in the Palestinian Authority.
The U.S. State Department said Monday it was still looking into the affair and did not know who hired the ship and who the recipient of the weapons was.
Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said Washington was deliberately taking a low-key approach in order not to encourage Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians and to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with Tehran.
"It appears that the problem is that those who are hearing our words are not willing to admit the full significance," Sneh told Israel Army Radio on Tuesday. "If you ask yourself to what destination a ship will be headed if its captain is a senior official of the Palestinian Authority and there are other people on board who also belong to the authority, any reasonable person knows where it was bound."
Sharon has said his Cabinet would soon meet to review its already tense contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Several Cabinet ministers demanded Tuesday that Israel cut off ties with Arafat's government.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who is on a visit to India, said he would vote against such a proposal.
"Do we want to change their (the Palestinians') leadership or do we want to change their policy? If we want to change the leadership, the result will be to unite everyone around it. If we want to change policy, there is every chance that we will succeed," Peres said on Army Radio.
Despite distrust heightened by the smuggling allegations, Israeli and Palestinian security officials were still holding meetings in the hopes of working out a truce to end 15 months of violence. There has been a lull in fighting since Arafat's Dec. 16 call for a halt to attacks on Israel, and a U.S. envoy was to return to the region Jan. 18 to evaluate progress toward a formal truce.
The "Karine A" was captured last week by Israeli naval commandos some 300 miles from Israel in the Red Sea. No one has claimed ownership of the vessel or the weapons.
The captain, Omar Akawi said in jailhouse interviews that he picked up the weapons at Iran's Qeys island, just off the country's southwest coast.
Israel says the weapons shipment included 62 Katyusha rockets with a range of 12 miles, 2.2 tons of explosives, anti-tank missiles and 698,000 rounds of ammunition. The Katyushas would have enabled the Palestinians to target Israeli population centers, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv's outskirts.
Akawi said he works in the Palestinian Transportation Ministry, and agreed to smuggle the weapons because "it's the Palestinian right to defend ourselves." He gave interviews Monday to Israeli television and the Fox News Channel in Ashkelon Prison on Israel's Mediterranean coast.
The captain said that after Arafat's Dec. 16 truce speech, he expected to be called back. "That's when I was midway," Akawi said. "I expected to receive an order to stop." But when he spoke with Awadallah "he did not tell me to stop."
Akawi said the plans were for the ship to go through the Suez Canal to Alexandria, Egypt, where three smaller vessels would pick up the weapons. The weapons would then be placed in airtight containers, put into the water and set to drift to the Gaza coast.