Israel finds fault with press after raid on arms shipment

Some complain world ignored operation that won praise at home

January 08, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel's commando raid on a cargo ship last week was as flawless as it was daring and ended with the army gloating over a boatload of arms apparently destined for the Palestinian Authority.

At the helm of the rusted Karine-A was a crew of Palestinian naval officers. For the Israeli government, it was proof that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was preparing for battle while talking about peace. For Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it was an opportunity to demand that the world deal with Arafat as a terrorist and punish him in the same way the United States is punishing Osama bin Laden.

But the seizure of the Karine-A didn't grab as much international attention as Israel would have liked. And now, after days of saturation coverage by the Israeli media, which billed Operation Noah's Ark as one of the army's greatest accomplishments, officials are asking why the headlines never came.

"Normally, when you have a big story in Israel, it is a big story around the world," said an official in Israel's foreign ministry. "But this story was not highly publicized. We had a bonanza here, and we didn't use it properly."

In addition to the secret military operation carried out from boats and helicopters in the Red Sea, 300 miles from the nearest Israeli port, officials had an unprecedented arms cache to show off for television cameras.

Among the items displayed on the deck of the 23-year-old ship were 62 Russian-made rockets with a range of up to 20 miles, 211 Iranian-made anti-tank mines, 346 automatic rifles, 735 grenades and nearly 700,000 bullets.

A U.S. official said the shipment included a "significant" quantity of high-quality weapons that would have given the Palestinians new capabilities.

The foreign ministry blames the army for the relative lack of attention, saying the army excluded everyone except military commanders from the initial news conference. The army faults the foreign media, saying reporters are more interested in covering the deaths of Palestinians than writing about Israeli accomplishments.

"I assume that if we had, God forbid, hit a Palestinian woman or some corner of a mosque, a lot of foreign journalists would have shown up," army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitri told Israeli Radio, complaining about the small number of reporters who attended the first news conference Friday.

There was some irony in Israeli officials squabbling about a lack of press coverage in a country flooded with reporters, where the smallest incidents capture international attention.

The story of the arms cache was partially overshadowed by the peace mission of U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni, who did not directly mention the ship in his public remarks.

Israeli officials hoped Zinni would condemn Arafat over the weapons shipment in the same way he struck out at the Palestinian leader during his visit last month, when a series of Palestinian suicide bombers killed scores of Israel's citizens.

U.S. diplomatic sources said Zinni raised the issue with Arafat in private, but the closest he got to mentioning the ship in public was after he met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Sunday in Jerusalem.

"It is a long road and a long path, and my mission is clearly to start on that path," Zinni said. "It has to start with security, it has to start with countering terrorism and it has to start with security cooperation."

Israeli officials said they had hoped for more. They had what they believed to be proof that Arafat was two-faced -- selling the United States and the world a peace package while stockpiling potent weapons -- but felt it was being ignored.

Sharon described Arafat on Sunday as a "bitter enemy of Israel," but said he would await the outcome of Zinni's latest mission to decide how and whether to strike back at Arafat for the arms shipment.

The Israeli army seized the ship at dawn Thursday. Army officers notified reporters Friday of an "important news conference" in Tel Aviv but declined say what it was about. As a result, few attended.

On Sunday, the army flew reporters and several diplomats to the southern port city of Eilat, where officers promised them a tour of the ship. But reporters were allowed only a brief visit aboard the Karine-A.

Several contradictions had emerged in the government's account. Israel had reported that an agent of the radical Islamic group Hezbollah had been aboard the ship, which proved false. Officials also had said the ship had last docked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, when it had made a port call at an island off the coast of Iran. The army also said the Palestinian Authority owned the ship.

According to international shipping documents, an Iraqi businessman bought the vessel Aug. 31, 2000, for $400,000, when it was called the Rim Kay. He bought the 300-foot vessel, built in Spain in 1979, from a Lebanese man, and in September registered the ship under the flag of Tonga as the Karine-A.

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