The capture of a massive Palestinian arms shipment 300 miles down the Red Sea from Eilat has revived Israel's spirit after 15 demoralizing months of intifada mayhem. "This is what we are trained for," exulted a senior security officer. Every-one invoked the 1976 Entebbe rescue of hijacked airline passengers.
Like Entebbe, the storming of the Karine-A was a triumph for military intelligence, logistics, ingenuity and discretion. The audacious operation, codename "Noah's Ark," was at least four weeks in the planning. Drills were practiced; key reservists were drafted. Yet, not a whisper leaked. The commanders of the army, navy and air force sneaked through a back door to brief Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his home. The Americans, who shared intelligence data, were told as much as they needed to know.
Surprise was total. When Israeli marine commandos struck from the sky and the waves at 4 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 3, 11 of the 13 crew members were asleep in their bunks. The other two were dozing on watch. The marines handcuffed some before they woke. Not a shot was fired, and there were no casualties.
Israeli intelligence had been tracking the Karine-A for months. In early December, the ship set sail from Yemen under a Tongan flag of convenience for the Iranian coast. On Dec. 11, it approached the Iranian island of Qais under Israeli electronic surveillance. Military sources said it was met by Iranian intelligence officers and a representative of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, who supervised the loading of 50 tons of weapons in 83 containers.
Israeli missile boats and combat and transport helicopters were waiting. As the Karine-A sailed into the Red Sea toward the Suez Canal, they closed in. The marines pounced simultaneously, some coming down by rope from the helicopters, others scaling the deck from rubber boats. It was all over in eight minutes.
The chief of staff, Lt. Gen Shaul Mofaz, a laconic veteran of Entebbe '76, commanded the operation by radio from a Boeing 707 high in the sky. "It's in our hands," he reported to Tel Aviv.
The shipment, which Israel has no doubt was destined for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, was a gift for Sharon. He rapidly upgraded Arafat from "irrelevant" to a "bitter enemy of the people of Israel," who had forged an alliance with Iran, the world's biggest exporter of terror. Nobody was going to force Sharon now to "negotiate under fire." He shouldn't fret over the "painful compromises" he says he's ready to make for a "true peace."
The most optimistic scenario is that the world will lose the last vestige of faith it has in Arafat and force him to impose a cease-fire. The latest American trouble-shooter, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, says he's hopeful. Sharon is ready to let him try. It can't hurt. But he will constantly remind Uncle Sam that Arafat can't be trusted.
"The type and character of the weapons and ammunition prove once again that the Palestinian Authority has been focusing all its efforts on terrorism, and preparing the operational infrastructure for the next wave of terror," Sharon said Jan. 6. "Let there be no mistake -- this is the choice made by the chairman of the Palestinian Authority."
Sharon was speaking on the parade ground of the Eilat naval base, where the booty was laid out for inspection. Most of the weapons carried Iranian markings. Israel estimates that the cargo must have cost tens of millions of dollars -- in addition to the $400,000 paid for the Karine-A. The Katyushas would have put Ben-Gurion International Airport and Israeli cities within Palestinian range.
The United States finally acknowledged Tueday that the arms were bound for the Palestinian Authority. Analysts say the Bush administration initially hesitated because it didn't want the issue to derail a renewed U.S. peace effort in the Middle East.
"We find the fact that there are Palestinians involved in shipping these weapons deeply troubling," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "I would say we are waiting to hear a full explanation of the incident from" Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian Authority has denied any connection to the boat, although the captain -- a senior officer in the Palestinian navy -- says he received orders from a high-ranking P.A. official. American officials called the
Palestinian denials "unconvincing."
The Palestinian Authority announced that it would investigate the
incident and punish anyone it found responsible. Mofaz said the captain and other sailors had admitted under interrogation that the weapons were to be smuggled into Gaza, then infiltrated into the West Bank.
The chief of staff said the prisoners confirmed that "central figures" in the Palestinian Authority were responsible for procuring the ship and its cargo, as well as recruiting the mixed Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian crew. The captain was Col. Omar Akawi, a senior officer in the naval police, an elite unit that spends as much time on land as at sea. It reports to Arafat.