JERUSALEM - A lightning nighttime raid by Israeli commandos against a cargo ship in the Red Sea has thwarted a Palestinian arms-smuggling operation linked to top Palestinian officials, the Israeli army said yesterday.
At least 50 tons of weapons, including rockets that could easily reach Israeli cities when fired from Palestinian areas, were found Thursday hidden in 83 crates aboard the ship, which the army said was owned by the Palestinian Authority.
Army officials said they arrested a Palestinian naval officer and several other Palestinian Authority security officers aboard the Karine A. The ship, flying the flag of the South Pacific nation of Tonga, was seized in international waters, about 310 miles south of the Israeli port city of Eilat.
Israeli officials described what they said was a sophisticated smuggling attempt, which included the transport of Iranian-made guns and mortars. They were packed in pressurized, water-tight pipes attached to buoys, which were apparently intended to be floated in the sea and then hauled to shore by boaters.
Palestinian officials denied any connection to the vessel and dismissed Israel's claims as propaganda to divert attention from the relative calm that has settled over the deadly conflict during the past two weeks.
Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army chief of staff, said he believes that the Karine A planed to sail north through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea and travel near Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip. He described the arms seizure as one of the largest during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mofaz said yesterday that the incident demonstrated that Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, was not ready for peace. "We are witnessing a double game played by the Palestinian Authority leadership," he said at a news conference in Tel Aviv. "It is a terrorist network, infected from head to toe with terror. ... The smuggling attempt emphasizes and points directly at the Palestinian Authority's intention to continue a strategy of terror and violence."
Thursday's seizure is larger than one last May in which a fishing boat containing 40 tons of arms, including anti-aircraft missiles, was intercepted off the northern Israeli coast. Four Lebanese crewmen were detained.
News of the arms cache overshadowed the first day of U.S. mediator Anthony C. Zinni's latest visit and was used by Israeli leaders to bolster their claims that, despite the low level of violence, Arafat has yet to crack down on militant groups.
Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdudeina, said in a statement that the raid "is an attempt to destroy the Zinni mission. ... We know nothing about this, and we are going to investigate it."
The Palestinian Authority's senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said in an interview that the afternoon meeting between Zinni and Arafat went well. Asked whether the Palestinian Authority owned the Karine A, Erekat said: "I don't think so. I don't have any information about it."
Zinni was briefed on the seizure Thursday night, after his arrival from Washington. He did not mention it in brief public remarks after meeting with Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The envoy said his mission to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table is on "a very difficult path," but he expressed optimism that he will succeed. "I feel the conditions are right for progress this time."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will not begin peace talks until seven days of complete quiet have passed. Violence is at its lowest point since fighting began 15 months ago, but small numbers of attacks are enough to prevent substantive negotiations.
The Palestinian Authority says that it has implemented and sustained a cease-fire and that it is ready for the next step. But yesterday, Israeli soldiers raided a West Bank village, killed a Palestinian and arrested several others who they said were about to embark on a suicide bombing mission.
The ship seizure lent support to Israel's claim that top Palestinian officials are tied to the violence.
If the Karine A was owned by the Palestinian Authority and captained by a Palestinian naval officer, the Palestinian Authority might have violated agreements outlining how it is to spend its money, much of which is contributed by the European Union.
The EU has put restrictions on expenditures. The Oslo peace accords also restrict how many and what types of arms can be used by Palestinian security forces - and exclude rockets.
Israeli officials released few details yesterday about the seizure of the Karine A. Authorities would not say when they became aware of the vessel or how or from whom the Palestinian Authority allegedly purchased it. They would say only that it had entered the Red Sea at the start of the week and was sailing north.
They also refused to say where the ship originated, but Israeli news media reported that it had previously docked in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.