The PLO Weapons Ship from Iran (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER PUBLIC AFFAIRS) JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF Vol.1, No.15 01/07/02)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
Last week´s seizure by Israeli naval commandos in the Red Sea of the
Palestinian ship, Karine-A, with its cargo of over 50 tons of Iranian
weapons and explosives, reveals an entirely new network of
cooperation in Middle Eastern terrorism. The PLO-Iranian link will
require a complete re-examination of the strategic landscape in the
Middle East, particularly with respect to the intentions of the PLO´s
governing institution in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the
Palestinian Authority (PA), and the regional role of Iran.
Iran and the Palestinians in the Past
Until the Israeli operation, it was commonly assumed that
revolutionary Iran had sought to exploit international terrorism
primarily through Hizbullah, in order to penetrate fellow Shi´ite
Muslim populations in Arab states that maintained grievances against
Sunni Muslim rulers and elites. This certainly had been the pattern
of Iranian-Hizbullah activity in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and
eastern Saudi Arabia. Iranian ties to Alawi-led Syria were
additionally supported by the determination of Shi´ite clerics that
Alawism be recognized as a legitimate branch of Shi´ite Islam.
The PLO originally had close ties with Ayatollah Khomeini´s
government right after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1978, due
largely to their shared hostility to both Israel and the old Iranian
leadership. But after Yasser Arafat supported Saddam Hussein during
the Iran-Iraq War, the PLO-Iranian relationship weakened during the
1980s. There were other ties at this time between the PLO and pro-
Iranian elements in Lebanon as well. One of Yasser Arafat´s key
officers in his Force-17 bodyguard in Lebanon during this period was
a Lebanese Shi´ite, Imad Mughniyeh, who subsequently became the head
of international operations for Hizbullah by the mid-1980s. By that
time, the PLO had been removed from its Lebanon base. Iranian
influence among the Palestinians was maintained chiefly through the
small Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization.
Basic Elements of the Karine-A Smuggling Operation: Signs of a New
Israel had indications of renewed operational cooperation between the
PLO and Hizbullah in early 2001, when it was revealed that Lt.
Colonel Masoud Iyyad, a Force-17 officer, was also building
Hizbullah´s infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. But the Karine-A
operation indicates that this cooperation began even earlier:
The Karine-A was purchased in Lebanon during October 2000 for
$400,000 by Adel Moghrabi, who heads the Palestinian Authority
weapons acquisition office. Yasser Arafat´s "Al-Aqsa Intifada" had
just begun at the end of September. Presumably, the search for new
sources of weapons and different shipping options had been explored
even beforehand, prior to the outbreak of violence.
After taking possession of the Karine-A, the PA transferred the ship
to Sudan, where it was loaded with innocent civilian cargo. Its
Palestinian crew then joined the ship, which headed initially to the
Yemenite port of Hodeida on the Red Sea. One Palestinian crew member
had been trained by Hizbullah in Lebanon. The ship´s captain was
Colonel Omar Akawi, an officer in the Palestinian Authority Naval
Police. From Yemen the Karine-A headed for the Persian Gulf. Free of
its cargo, it anchored near Iranian islands, within Iran´s
territorial waters, where it was loaded with 50 tons of Iranian
weaponry, brought to the ship by ferry.
The Karine-A required repairs which it completed in Hodeida, Yemen.
On December 29, the ship left Yemen, heading up the Red Sea towards
the Suez Canal. The Karine-A was to cross into the Mediterranean and
meet up with three smaller ships to receive its cargo. The
destination of the shipment was the Gaza Strip.
The intercepted cargo ship contained new escalatory weapons,
including: 62 122mm Katyusha rockets (20 kilometer range), 700 120mm
mortar shells (6 kilometer range), 686 81 mm mortar shells, a ton and
a half of highly potent C-4 explosives, Sagger, RPG, and LAW anti-
tank weapons, and over 400,000 rounds of ammunition for automatic
weapons (Ma´ariv, January 7, 2002).
Implications of the Karine-A for Understanding Palestinian
The fact that the decision to purchase weaponry on this scale was
taken by the Palestinian Authority prior to or even at the beginning
of the current intifada is revealing. Initial Israeli military
responses to the violence were primarily on the level of infantry
units. This weaponry was not decided upon, then, as a response to
Israeli military activity, but rather as part of a Palestinian
The mix of weaponry is not indicative of defensive concerns alone or
of a strategy of deterrence. The large amounts of C-4 explosives
would dramatically increase the lethality of future car-bomb attacks
or suicide bombings conducted in Israel´s population centers, in
comparison to the laboratory-manufactured explosives used in the West
Bank. This new capability could, for example, bring down whole
buildings in Tel Aviv in the future.
The cargo of the Karine-A would have sharply improved the quality and
quantity of Palestinian weaponry used against Israel. Longer-range
Katyusha rockets would have given the Palestinians the capability of
threatening Israeli population centers from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv,
Herzliya, and Netanya, while their anti-tank weapons would have
constrained Israeli retaliatory land operations in the West Bank.
Anti-tank missiles, in large numbers, could pose a new heightened
threat to Israeli civilian traffic crossing West Bank roads, beyond
the automatic gunfire employed over the last year by the Tanzim and
Yasser Arafat has maintained multiple strategic partnerships in the
Middle East: he has used Egypt for political support (chiefly with
Washington); he has ties to Iraq through the Palestinian Liberation
Front of Abul Abbas, based in Baghdad; and he has sought a
rapprochement with Syria.
But by approving major weapons purchases from Iran, Arafat has
indicted that he is willing to tie Palestinian fortunes to Iran´s
Middle Eastern agenda. Given Iran´s declared commitment to the
eradication of Israel, (see "Destabilizing Implications of Iranian-
U.S. Rapprochement for Israeli and Global Security," Jerusalem Issue
Brief, Vol. 1, No. 14), this strategic choice only reinforces the
impression that Arafat views his territorial hold in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip as a stage for ongoing guerrilla conflict with Israel,
rather than as a step in the direction of a negotiated settlement.
Iran emerges from this episode as a state dedicated to regional
instability in the Middle East, by its support of international
terrorism. Iran´s tactical interest in the defeat of the Taliban
should not confuse observers in the West of Tehran´s unflagging
opposition to Middle East peace options and its determination to
exploit every opportunity for the destabilization of Israel itself.
(www.jcpa.org. © Copyright 01/07/02)
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