Weapons charges wound Israelis

Jewish settlers held in alleged arms sales to Palestinian militants

July 19, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ADORA, West Bank - In this hilltop settlement, the first wound was inflicted in April, when Palestinian gunmen disguised as Israeli soldiers shot to death four people in their homes. Most residents, it is safe to say, believed that was the worst that could happen to the community.

The second wound came this week, when Israeli authorities charged three Adora residents and two other Israelis, all of them soldiers or army reserve officers, with selling ammunition to Palestinian militants. It has hurt, residents say, as much as the shootings.

Israeli police allege that four soldiers and two reserve officers stole more than 60,000 bullets over three years and sold thousands to Palestinians for a half-shekel each, or about 12 cents apiece, and helped smuggle Palestinians through army checkpoints for $50 per person.

"It's hard to understand all this," said Anat Harari, 41, who was wounded in the April attack in Adora and needs further surgery to repair a shoulder shattered by a bullet that police say might have been sold to the militants by her neighbors.

"Was it worth it to them, to ruin my life for a half-shekel?" she asked. "I can't accept this. I saw the person who shot me. Now I know who put the bullets in his gun."

At a hearing for one of the suspects in Jerusalem, Magistrate Rafi Strauss said: "This is a grave case, one which the heart cannot believe is possible among us."

There is no direct evidence that the gunmen who shot up Adora used bullets supplied by the suspects, but the Israeli army said the gunmen had used army-issue assault rifles and ammunition that had been stolen from a nearby military base.

The charges do not surprise Palestinians, who have long said that the black market is saturated with Israeli weapons. But the news has startled Israelis, who are struggling to understand how settlers and soldiers trained for battle could aid Palestinian gunmen.

Adora's 51 families locked the yellow gate at the settlement's entrance yesterday and ordered their armed security guard to keep reporters away. Residents who agreed to talk by phone, including Harari, said they were ashamed.

An Israeli police spokesman, Superintendent Gil Kleiman, said arms smuggling cases in the past have involved Palestinian and Israeli criminals. This time, he said, the suspects are charged with "transferring military ordnance for terrorist purposes."

As part of the Oslo accords of 1993 that created the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian security agencies were given 15,240 rifles, pistols and machine guns, including AK-47s. But there are far more weapons in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and many attacks have been carried out with M-16s, an assault weapon issued to Israeli soldiers.

Arms have been smuggled to Palestinians through tunnels from Egypt to the Gaza Strip, and by vehicles entering the West Bank from Jordan. In January, Israel seized a shipload of arms that it says originated in Iran.

But another source appears to be the Israeli army itself. Israeli intelligence officers had long suspected that illegal weapons sales were more than isolated incidents. Cases of theft from army bases have more than doubled in the past two years; in the last six months, guns have been stolen on 36 occasions.

Military police said they tapped phones and used surveillance to build their case against the suspects, who include two brothers from Adora, another pair of brothers from the nearby settlement of Telem and two reserve officers. One of the reserve officers is a major from Adora who commands an infantry unit.

Police said some of the suspects were arrested Sunday as they transferred bullets and army gear from a car to a storage room in Adora.

Police said three of the men have confessed, two others denied the charges and the sixth said he sold a box of ammunition to another soldier without knowing that it was later turned over to Palestinians. All but one of the suspects were jailed without bail.

Avi Amiram, a Tel Aviv lawyer who represents one of the Adora suspects, Sela Amar, said his client was framed by a former friend who is an air force commander.

"My client is innocent," the lawyer said yesterday.

He said Amar, 22, served for three years in a paratroop division and fought Palestinians many times, including during Operation Defensive Shield this spring, when Israeli forces reoccupied much of the West Bank. He extended his army service in June after completing a three-year tour of duty as a draftee.

Amiram, who once commanded an elite army unit, said he was dismayed when he heard the charges.

"I don't even want to think that citizens of Israel, and soldiers, could be participating in something like this," he said. "It's frightening that this might be going on."

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