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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2001 / 25 Teves, 5762

Michael Kelly

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IT ALL POINTS TO ARAFAT -- AT 4:45 in the morning of Jan. 3, the 4,000-ton freighter Karine A was cruising in the Red Sea less than 300 miles from Israel. The Karine A's captain, Omar Akawi, an officer in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority miniature navy, was asleep in his bunk, as was most of the 13-man crew. He heard a noise, he later told Israeli interrogators, and woke up to find himself staring at armed commandos of the Israeli navy.

In the holds of the Karine A the Israelis discovered more than 50 tons of military arms, including long-range Katyusha rockets, high explosives, anti-tank missiles, mortars, sniper rifles and mines. All of this -- reportedly between $10 million and $15 million of materiel -- was packed in 83 crates sealed in watertight plastic, ready for offloading in coastal waters.

Despite the personal publicity efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the seizure of the Karine A made relatively little news. This was due in part to some confusion about for whom the arms of the Karine A were intended. The Israeli government claimed to have "unequivocal, clear and undeniable" proof that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for the smuggling. Palestinian Authority officials denied any involvement and suggested that the shipment had been intended for the Lebanese terrorist force Hezbollah. U.S. officials seemed at first to support that suggestion.

The picture by now has become a great deal clearer.

The evidence is close to overwhelming that the Karine A mission was financed and organized at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority, most likely sanctioned by Arafat himself -- and that Arafat allowed the mission to proceed after he called for cessation of all armed actions against Israel on Dec. 16.

  • As the Palestinian Authority has confirmed, Capt. Akawi is an officer in the tiny fleet of coastal patrol boats the Palestinian Authority calls its navy. In jailhouse interviews arranged on Monday with Western news agencies, Akawi identified himself as "a Palestine officer of the Authority," adding "I am taking my salary and [am an] employee of the Palestinian Authority." He said that he had been a member of Arafat's own group Fatah since 1976 and that "Abu Amar [Arafat's nom de guerre] is my president and my commander and chief." He said he was acting directly on the orders of the Authority: "I'm a soldier. I have to obey my orders." He said he expected to be ordered to stop the mission after Arafat called for a truce, but the order never came.

  • Akawi further said that the operation was organized and supervised by senior Palestinian Authority official Adel Awadallah, also known as Adel Mughrabi, who is based in Greece. He said that Awadallah had arranged the purchase of the Karine A for $400,000 and that Awadallah had personally given him his initial orders. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer testified Monday before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel has "incontrovertible evidence" that the Palestinian Authority purchased the ship on Oct. 10, "a month after the attack on the twin towers in New York."

  • Akawi said subsequent control of the mission was in the hands of Fathi El-Razem, who is known by the nickname Fathi El-Bahriyeh (The Navy) because he is the deputy commander of the Palestinian Authority navy: "I took my orders from Fathi El-Bahriyeh," said Akawi. "He took his orders from Adel Awadallah." The Montreal Gazette reported Tuesday that El-Razem, "who has been Arafat's chief weapons smuggler since the 1970s," was captured with Akawi aboard the Karine A.

  • Akawi affirmed that the munitions were headed for Gaza, and for the Palestinian Authority, not for Lebanon and Hezbollah: "I knew that the weapons were intended for the Gaza Strip," he said. The plan had been to transfer the crates to three smaller boats at a location near the Egyptian port of Alexandria; the small boats would carry the arms to a spot off the Gaza coast or just south of it, off the Sinai, where they would be picked up by Palestinian navy officers disguised as fishermen.

Akawi said that he thought Arafat himself did not know of the mission. This seems more of a politic statement than a heartfelt one, given the amount of money involved and given that the men who commanded Akawi answered directly to Arafat.

Not surprisingly, Arafat supports the rogue operation theory. He reportedly tried to sell it to U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni that the whole thing was a renegade affair, not under his control. The Jerusalem Post said Zinni was "very unconvinced." Yes.

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