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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The PLO Weapons Ship from Iran

Filed under: Iran, Israeli Security, Palestinians
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 1, No. 15    January 7, 2002

Last week’s seizure by Israeli naval commandos in the Red Sea of the Palestinian ship, Karine-A, with its cargo of over 50 tons of Iranian weapons and explosives, reveals an entirely new network of cooperation in Middle Eastern terrorism. The PLO-Iranian link will require a complete re-examination of the strategic landscape in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the intentions of the PLO’s governing institution in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the regional role of Iran.


Iran and the Palestinians in the Past

Until the Israeli operation, it was commonly assumed that revolutionary Iran had sought to exploit international terrorism primarily through Hizbullah, in order to penetrate fellow Shi’ite Muslim populations in Arab states that maintained grievances against Sunni Muslim rulers and elites. This certainly had been the pattern of Iranian-Hizbullah activity in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and eastern Saudi Arabia. Iranian ties to Alawi-led Syria were additionally supported by the determination of Shi’ite clerics that Alawism be recognized as a legitimate branch of Shi’ite Islam.

The PLO originally had close ties with Ayatollah Khomeini’s government right after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1978, due largely to their shared hostility to both Israel and the old Iranian leadership. But after Yasser Arafat supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, the PLO-Iranian relationship weakened during the 1980s. There were other ties at this time between the PLO and pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon as well. One of Yasser Arafat’s key officers in his Force-17 bodyguard in Lebanon during this period was a Lebanese Shi’ite, Imad Mughniyeh, who subsequently became the head of international operations for Hizbullah by the mid-1980s. By that time, the PLO had been removed from its Lebanon base. Iranian influence among the Palestinians was maintained chiefly through the small Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization.


Basic Elements of the Karine-A Smuggling Operation: Signs of a New Relationship

Israel had indications of renewed operational cooperation between the PLO and Hizbullah in early 2001, when it was revealed that Lt. Colonel Masoud Iyyad, a Force-17 officer, was also building Hizbullah’s infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. But the Karine-A operation indicates that this cooperation began even earlier:

  • The Karine-A was purchased in Lebanon during October 2000 for $400,000 by Adel Moghrabi, who heads the Palestinian Authority weapons acquisition office. Yasser Arafat’s “Al-Aqsa Intifada” had just begun at the end of September. Presumably, the search for new sources of weapons and different shipping options had been explored even beforehand, prior to the outbreak of violence.

  • After taking possession of the Karine-A, the PA transferred the ship to Sudan, where it was loaded with innocent civilian cargo. Its Palestinian crew then joined the ship, which headed initially to the Yemenite port of Hodeida on the Red Sea. One Palestinian crew member had been trained by Hizbullah in Lebanon. The ship’s captain was Colonel Omar Akawi, an officer in the Palestinian Authority Naval Police. From Yemen the Karine-A headed for the Persian Gulf. Free of its cargo, it anchored near Iranian islands, within Iran’s territorial waters, where it was loaded with 50 tons of Iranian weaponry, brought to the ship by ferry.

  • The Karine-A required repairs which it completed in Hodeida, Yemen. On December 29, the ship left Yemen, heading up the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal. The Karine-A was to cross into the Mediterranean and meet up with three smaller ships to receive its cargo. The destination of the shipment was the Gaza Strip.

  • The intercepted cargo ship contained new escalatory weapons, including: 62 122mm Katyusha rockets (20 kilometer range), 700 120mm mortar shells (6 kilometer range), 686 81 mm mortar shells, a ton and a half of highly potent C-4 explosives, Sagger, RPG, and LAW anti-tank weapons, and over 400,000 rounds of ammunition for automatic weapons (Ma’ariv, January 7, 2002).

Implications of the Karine-A for Understanding Palestinian Intentions

  • The fact that the decision to purchase weaponry on this scale was taken by the Palestinian Authority prior to or even at the beginning of the current intifada is revealing. Initial Israeli military responses to the violence were primarily on the level of infantry units. This weaponry was not decided upon, then, as a response to Israeli military activity, but rather as part of a Palestinian military initiative.

  • The mix of weaponry is not indicative of defensive concerns alone or of a strategy of deterrence. The large amounts of C-4 explosives would dramatically increase the lethality of future car-bomb attacks or suicide bombings conducted in Israel’s population centers, in comparison to the laboratory-manufactured explosives used in the West Bank. This new capability could, for example, bring down whole buildings in Tel Aviv in the future.

  • The cargo of the Karine-A would have sharply improved the quality and quantity of Palestinian weaponry used against Israel. Longer-range Katyusha rockets would have given the Palestinians the capability of threatening Israeli population centers from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Netanya, while their anti-tank weapons would have constrained Israeli retaliatory land operations in the West Bank. Anti-tank missiles, in large numbers, could pose a new heightened threat to Israeli civilian traffic crossing West Bank roads, beyond the automatic gunfire employed over the last year by the Tanzim and Force-17.

  • Yasser Arafat has maintained multiple strategic partnerships in the Middle East: he has used Egypt for political support (chiefly with Washington); he has ties to Iraq through the Palestinian Liberation Front of Abul Abbas, based in Baghdad; and he has sought a rapprochement with Syria.

  • But by approving major weapons purchases from Iran, Arafat has indicted that he is willing to tie Palestinian fortunes to Iran’s Middle Eastern agenda. Given Iran’s declared commitment to the eradication of Israel, (see “Destabilizing Implications of Iranian-U.S. Rapprochement for Israeli and Global Security,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 1, No. 14), this strategic choice only reinforces the impression that Arafat views his territorial hold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a stage for ongoing guerrilla conflict with Israel, rather than as a step in the direction of a negotiated settlement.

  • Iran emerges from this episode as a state dedicated to regional instability in the Middle East, by its support of international terrorism. Iran’s tactical interest in the defeat of the Taliban should not confuse observers in the West of Tehran’s unflagging opposition to Middle East peace options and its determination to exploit every opportunity for the destabilization of Israel itself.