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US is Concerned about Possible Palestinian Weapon Shipment - 2002-01-08

The Bush administration says it accepts as "credible" Israel's charges that the Palestinian Authority was involved in the effort foiled by Israel last week to smuggle in tons of Iranian-made weapons including rockets and high explosives.

The Bush administration is still awaiting an explanation of the affair from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But with the captain of the ship intercepted by Israel publicly saying he was hired by the Palestinian Authority, officials here say Palestinian involvement on some level is evident.

According to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, the administration is taking the comments of the captain who is in Israeli custody "at face value" and is "deeply concerned" the arms shipment may have been aimed at escalating the Middle East conflict.

"The incident with the ship, the finding of this quantity and quality of arms, the finding of the involvement of the Palestinians, is in itself deeply troubling because of the potential for escalation of the violence that these weapons would represent," said Mr. Boucher. "And they reinforce the need for immediate action by the Palestinians to dismantle terrorist infrastructure that perpetuates violence and terror."

Israel is sending a team of military intelligence officials to Washington this week for talks on the issue.

After meeting here Tuesday with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Israeli Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit stressed that despite Mr. Arafat's denial of any knowledge of the affair, his government believes the Palestinian leader was personally involved.

"There is no doubt, according to the knowledge we have, no doubt that Arafat himself was responsible for the purchase of these weapons, for bringing it to the area," said Mr. Sheetrit. "The captain of the ship is the deputy commander of the naval Palestinian forces. So I don't understand why anybody [would] have any doubt about what's the target of this ship, and who brought it, and who stands behind it."

Mr. Sheetrit dismissed speculation that the arms may have been bound for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, saying Hezbollah had a direct route for importing weapons from Iran through Syria.

Though accusing Mr. Arafat of habitually lying about arms trafficking and other matters, Mr. Sheetrit said the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not want to shut the door on peace efforts, and welcomes the effort by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to arrange a cease-fire.

He said if Israel gets the seven days of calm demanded by Mr. Sharon, it would be ready to start implementing the Middle East peace plan offered last year by the commission headed by former Senate Majority leader George Mitchell.