U.S. suspects Arafat knew of weapons

Doubtful credibility of Palestinian leader may affect relationship

January 09, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Casting new doubt on Yasser Arafat's credibility, the Bush administration strongly suspects that the Palestinian Authority president or "people close to him" knew about a shipload of sophisticated weapons allegedly bound for the Gaza Strip that was seized by Israel last week, a U.S. official said yesterday.

Arafat has denied knowing of the arms shipment and ordered an investigation, saying those responsible should be punished. But the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, indicated that the Bush administration finds Israeli charges of high-level Palestinian Authority involvement more believable than Arafat's denial.

"It would be hard to imagine that Arafat or people close to him had no knowledge of this shipment," the U.S. official said. He based that judgment on the planning involved in importing tons of weapons from Iran that were superior to anything the Palestinians are known to have used before in the 15-month uprising.

The judgment carries potentially serious implications for the U.S. relationship with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. In the past, the United States has generally avoided pinning direct responsibility on Arafat for attacks on Israelis, while demanding that he do more to crack down on militants and prevent attacks.

The administration is required by law to make periodic reports to Congress on whether the Palestinians are fulfilling their commitment to the peace process, and continued dialogue between the United States and the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Arafat heads, depends on the Palestinians' seeking a peaceful resolution to their conflict with Israel.

Publicly, the State Department avoided any conclusions about the involvement of Arafat or the Palestinian Authority, although spokesman Richard Boucher said some sort of Palestinian role is clear.

"I would say we're waiting to hear a full explanation of the incident from Chairman Arafat," Boucher said yesterday. "The fact that we've seen the statements from the Palestinian commander of the ship obviously reinforces our deep concern about the situation."

The captain, Omar Akkawi, has said a Palestinian Authority official gave him his orders for the shipment but that he doubts top Palestinian leaders were involved.

The State Department spokesman said the captain's account is credible. "Our view is that the incident with the ship, the finding of this quantity and quality of arms, finding of the involvement of the Palestinians, is in itself deeply troubling because of the potential for escalation of the violence that these weapons would represent," Boucher said.

Two high-ranking Israeli intelligence officials will be at the State Department today, and Boucher said U.S. officials "look forward to hearing further from them." The shipment included Katyusha rockets, plastic explosives and anti-tank weapons from Iran.

Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian representative at the United Nations, insisted yesterday that "the Israeli story defies logic and common sense." He urged U.S. officials not to rely on Israeli information in making a judgment.

He said it would have been "impossible" for the Palestinian Authority to attempt to smuggle arms ashore in Gaza, given the tight Israeli control of coastal waters.

"Gaza fishermen can't even fish. We want to smuggle Katyushas onto the Gaza beach?" he asked. Palestinians would not employ such rockets, he said, because to do so would trigger immediate Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian territory.

He said the Palestinian Authority's relationship with Iran, the source of the weapons, is poor, and called the idea of a military tie between the two "ludicrous."

"No one can deny there is a Palestinian captain" of the ship, al-Kidwa said. But he said Akkawi was believed to have left the Palestinian territories at least a year ago and held out the possibility that the captain might have been employed by the Israelis.

"Hundreds of Palestinians are working for the Israelis, unfortunately. After 35 years of occupation, we can't avoid this kind of sickness," he said.

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pointed to the arms shipment as evidence of ties between the Palestinian Authority and Iran that pose "a great danger" to Israel.

"Iran at the present time is the center of world terror," he told visiting American Jewish leaders yesterday.

Iran has denied any involvement in the arms shipment. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, speaking Monday on Iranian television, said Israel was making the allegations to "intensify a crackdown" on the Palestinian uprising.

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