U.S. Concludes Arafat in on Ship, but Zinni Peace Push to Continue

Evidence from Israeli military officials has compelled the Bush administration to conclude that the Palestinian Authority were directly connected to a shipment of 50 tons of weapons apparently headed for the Gaza Strip.

“The information we are receiving, and developing on our own, makes it clear that there are linkages to the Palestinian Authority,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday. “We are deeply disturbed by the arrival of this ship in the region and the fact that it could have completed its mission and off-loaded weapons that would have been put to the worst kind of use against Israel and others in the region. I’m glad the Israelis intercepted it, and now we have to find all those responsible and accountable for this incident.”

While Powell said he had not seen a direct link to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Israeli military officials gave evidence of his affiliation with the plan, according to a senior Israeli security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. State Department officials said the Israelis laid out a “compelling and extensive case” linking the Palestinian Authority and Arafat to the weapons shipment.

“We think there’s a compelling case to say that there were very senior Palestinian Authority and Fatah figures involved, and that in itself is a very troubling and serious matter,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday. “We think the weight of the evidence is compelling with respect to Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in this arms smuggling operation, including in the provision of the weapons and the planning for their delivery.”

While not providing direct evidence of Arafat’s involvement to reporters, the Israeli security official said those responsible for loading the ship were told to contact Arafat’s office when the job was finished, and that several of the men directly involved were key lieutenants of Arafat’s security forces.

“We possess clear evidence that this operation was an official act of the Palestinian Authority,” the official said.

A State Department official said Arafat’s position “at the top of the pyramid as leader of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah” makes him responsible for the weapons shipment, with or without direct knowledge of the events. The official said the discovery of the weapon transfer ultimately could be a turning point for U.S. attitudes toward the Palestinian Authority.

“This incident is going to be looked at very closely for future reports and analyzes of terrorist elements” in the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, the mainstream party of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the State Department official said.

The plan to transfer the weaponry aboard the Karine-A, seized by Israel in the Red Sea on Jan. 3, originated in the Palestinian Authority, with the details worked out by Hezbollah, according to the Israeli official. The boat contained rockets, missiles, mortars and mines, most if not all of them Iranian.

All those weapons are illegal for the Palestinians to possess under the Oslo accords. Their use would have marked an escalation in the Palestinian intifada raging since September 2000.

“The direct purpose was to acquire weapons that would enable the Palestinians to change the nature of the threat they posed to Israel,” the Israeli official said.

Israeli evidence states that the mission had been planned since last spring, and was not deterred by cease-fires declared by Arafat after a disco bombing in June and suicide bombings in November, as well as the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States. The actual loading of the ship occurred Dec. 11 on the island of Kish, off the Iranian coast.

President Bush said Thursday he did not believe the weapons find should derail the peace process. His envoy, Anthony Zinni, is expected to return to the region later this month after briefing Powell in Washington about his previous mission.

“I think it’s very important for our administration to remain engaged with both parties,” Bush said. “I intend to ask Zinni to go back to the region at the appropriate time, to keep pushing for a dialogue, to keep pushing for the process to go forward.”

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