HAIFA (Jan. 1)
The five French-built gunboats which arrived here last night after a 3,700 mile voyage from Cherbourg were being prepared today for a civilian role as oil-prospecting craft. The Israeli naval crews which brought the 40-knot craft from the French port turned them over to civilian crews engaged by Netivel Nepht, an Israeli firm that prospects for offshore oil.
The five boats were anchored in the Kishon River estuary while technicians surveyed them for possible damage sustained during their six-day voyage. Their officers reported that the trip had been stormy throughout and that 18-foot waves had been encountered at one stage. They denied that the boats were escorted at any time by Israeli naval craft. They said they were refueled from other ships on the high seas.
The voyage of the five boats created an international sensation after it was learned that they slipped out of Cherbourg harbor on Christmas Day, reportedly flying the Norwegian flag. The boats were built in France for the Israeli Navy but were “frozen” there under the French Government’s arms embargo against Israel. Although unarmed when they left Cherbourg, they are designed to carry Israel-made “Gabriel” sea-to-sea missiles.
Officials of Netivei Nepht permitted reporters and camera men to board the vessels after their arrival to emphasize that they were not armed and had no military equipment. The officials said the boats were leased from Starboat & Weill, S.A., a Panamanian concern which purchased them in France. Starboat & Weill is reportedly largely owned by Maritime Fruit Carriers Ltd., an Israeli shipping company that specializes in the transportation of frozen produce. The boats were given a rousing welcome by hundreds of Israelis who had been looking out for them for the past few days. News of their arrival was immediately transmitted to Premier Golda Meir who was attending a plenary session of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.
When the boats left Cherbourg under mysterious circumstances early on Dec. 25, world-wide opinion was that the Israelis had executed a brilliant coup in seizing their property under the noses of the French. The French Government reacted sharply, suspending two high-ranking Defense Ministry officials, pending an inquiry.
(The French Government formally named today Adm. Mordechai Limon, chief of Israel’s purchasing mission in Europe, as the official they wanted Israel to recall in the gunboat incident. This was made known to Israeli envoy Walter Eytan by French Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann, who interrupted his New Year holiday to call in the Israeli envoy, an action interpreted by reliable sources in Paris as indicating the importance of the matter to the French Government.
(However, immediately after that meeting, Mr. Eytan and four members of the Embassy staff, went to the Elysee Palace, the official residence of President Pompidou, for a reception honoring the diplomatic corps. Many observers in Paris, the JTA reported, expressed surprise that in view of the manifested displeasure of the French Government, a full delegation of the Israel Embassy, including the military attache in full uniform, were invited to the Palace to express good wishes to President Pompidou.
(The London Telegraph said editorially today that the release of the gunboats to Israel was “conducted at some high level, though not necessarily by the two French generals who have been suspended.” The Telegraph said that if Pompidou intended to start a reversal of the de Gaulle arms embargo, this was “a strange way to set about it,” adding that the “uncanny silence” of the Arabs over the incident probably stemmed from assurance of French favors to come.)
The boats, which originally had Israeli naval names, were re-named “Starboat” numbers one through five. Netivei Nepal officials said the boats would be used for oil prospecting and to guard oil-drilling craft. They were the last units of a fleet of 12 ordered by the Israeli Navy in 1966 and paid for in full. Seven were delivered before then President Charles de Gaulle imposed his embargo and are now on duty in the Israeli Navy.