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Palestinians have a lot of explaining to do



Published: Tue, January 8, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



When a Palestinian naval captain is caught on the high seas with a shipload of weapons headed for Gaza, it's more than a little disingenuous of Yasser Arafat to disavow any knowledge of the operation. What does he expect the world to think -- that this was the latest episode of "Mission Impossible"?

While the vessel's captain Omar Akawi was telling just about anybody who asked that he works in the Palestinian Transportation Ministry and received his instructions from an official in the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian leadership kept insisting it had nothing to do with the weapons shipment. & quot;It's a kind of propaganda unfortunately. It's a false way to undermine the peace process, & quot; said Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian parliament speaker.

Which part is the propaganda? The part about the 50 tons of Katyusha rockets, rifles, mortar shells, mines and a variety of anti-tank missiles that the captain said were picked up from the Iran's Qeys island, just off the country's southwest coast? Or the part about the 13 Arab crew members of whom four were Palestinians? Or the part about Akawi's being a longtime member of Arafat's Fatah movement?

Do the Palestinians have a suggestion of where else the Iranian-made arms should have been headed if not to continue their armed conflict with Israel? Just as some Palestinians were convinced that the World Trade Towers were actually destroyed by Israel to cast Islam in a bad light, perhaps they will now believe that the smuggling operation was also part of an Israeli plot.

Regional threat: So far, at least, no one in the Arab world is protesting the Israeli commando raid. That much armament could certainly destabilize more than one Middle Eastern nation. Arab leaders may also recognize that after Afghanistan, supporting the shipment of illicit arms is hardly the way to win friends and influence the new international coalitions.

In fact, now that Arafat and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, have had a little chat, the Palestinian Authority said it would form a committee to investigate the ship and its cargo. The committee would report its findings to the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. That report should also address the financing of the deadly cargo. The millions of dollars that paid for the weapons must have come from somewhere.

Arafat's spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said that all those discovered to have any connection with the issue will be questioned and punished. However, so far, Arafat's record on punishing his home-grown terrorists has been less than sterling.

The seizure of the ship and its contents could not have come at a worse time for the growing number of Palestinians who are tiring of the conflict and are seeking some sort of acceptable accommodation with Israel. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni had just completed a second trip to the region to try to effect a cease-fire. Zinni plans to return in a week, but after this latest incident, he may find the landscape even less congenial than it has been.




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