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Israel intercepts Gaza weapons boat

JERUSALEM, May 7 (JTA) – Israeli warnings that the Palestinians seek to escalate their violence appeared to be substantiated this week when the navy intercepted a Lebanese boat carrying Katyusha rockets, anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons bound for the Gaza Strip.

“We are witness recently to a weapons smuggling process never seen before, and you will soon be surprised to hear in what kinds and quantities,” Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told a meeting of Labor Party legislators on Monday shortly before defense officials announced the boat seizure.

“The assessment is that at this point the leadership in the territories is not seeking a dialogue,” he said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Navy Commander Yedidya Ya’ari told a news conference in Haifa later Monday that the cache pointed to a clear intent by the Palestinians to raise the confrontation with Israel to a new level.

“It is clear from what you see before you that these items would alter the balance of forces in our current fighting against the Palestinians,” Ya’ari said.

The weapons on the boat were more sophisticated than those used by the Palestinians in the conflict so far – and included arms such as rockets and mortars that the Oslo accords forbid the Palestinian Authority from having.

Some of the weapons, such as the Katyusha rockets, have a range of about five miles. They would give Gaza gunmen the ability to reach major cities inside Israel.

The anti-aircraft missiles could hit Israeli planes and helicopters inside Israel as well, reports said.

Other weapons in the cache included anti-tank rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, anti-personnel mines, explosives and ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Ya’ari said the weapons appeared to have been sent from northern Lebanon by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, a militant group led in Lebanon by Ahmed Jibril.

The vessel was spotted Saturday by an Israeli air patrol, which asked navy boats to take a closer look.

Ya’ari said the air patrol was in part the result of a defense establishment assessment that the Palestinians might try to smuggle arms into Gaza by sea.

He said those onboard the captured boat appeared to be professional smugglers from Lebanon who were planning to drop the weapons in sealed containers at a rendezvous point in the water, where they would then be picked up.

Israeli media said the boat was intercepted outside Israeli territorial waters off the coast of northern Israel.

The disclosure came following a day of widespread clashes between Israeli troops and armed Palestinians, including the IDF shelling of the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza that killed a Palestinian infant.

The girl’s mother, grandmother and three siblings were wounded in Monday’s shelling.

The IDF said it was responding to Palestinian mortar attacks on Jewish settlements in Gaza.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apologized for the death of five-month-old Iman Hije, and said the IDF is under instruction to prevent civilian casualties.

“Children and babies should not be involved in this terrible war,” Sharon said.

Israel’s Channel Two Television reported that Sharon planned to dispatch his son, Omri, for an urgent meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to try to calm tensions.

The High Court of Justice ruled Sunday that Sharon’s son, who is not a civil servant, could act as an informal liaison to the Palestinians on condition that each mission receives prior approval from the attorney general. The Movement for Quality Government in Israel had petitioned the court, trying to prevent Omri Sharon from involvement in affairs of state.

Palestinian and Arab television stations broadcast photos of the infant and footage of the family at the hospital throughout the day.

Arafat’s Fatah movement said it would convene an emergency session in Gaza on Monday night to discuss a response to the infant’s death.

Fatah officials said the Palestinians must respond by escalating their violence.

In other violence Monday, Palestinian gunmen in a passing car opened fire from a Palestinian area on a border police patrol in Jerusalem’s southern Har Homa neighborhood. No one was hurt in the attack.

Reports said there also were exchanges of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen at Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem.

Reports said that in exchanges of fire with Israeli troops south of Hebron on Monday night, a Palestinian security officer was killed and two Palestinian policemen wounded.

In the Knesset, the prime minister told legislators at the opening of the summer session that the conflict with the Palestinians is a prolonged, complicated one. He reiterated that there would be no resumption of political dialogue until the violence and terrorism stops.

“Israel is facing one of the most fateful and important tests in its history,” Sharon said. “Before talking peace, the shooting must stop. When there is shooting, there are no concessions.”

Appealing directly to the Palestinian people, Sharon said, “All of your achievements were gotten through negotiations. All of the tragedies through violence.”

In his address to lawmakers, opposition leader Yossi Sarid assailed Sharon.

“He has no plan, he has no vision and he has no peace,” Sarid said.

“Three months ago, we experienced the greatest political fraud of all time – that there is a treatment for the pain, that security can be restored. But it is a colossal fraud.”

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