Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, accused Yasser Arafat yesterday of ordering an arms shipment for "the next wave of terror", and said the Palestinian leader had forged an alliance with Iran, the kingpin of international terrorism.
Mr Sharon said he was planning a "strategic" review of his country's relationship with the Palestinian Authority and denounced Mr Arafat as an habitual liar who had made himself a bitter enemy of Israel.
He was speaking on the parade ground of Israel's naval base near the Red Sea resort of Eilat, where he congratulated his jubilant fighters and commanders for capturing a Palestinian freighter, carrying 50 tons of arms and ammunition, in an operation 300 miles to the south. The booty was laid out for inspection, row upon row, like so many soldiers: shiny mortars, ground-to-ground Katyusha rockets, anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, bright yellow mines and waterproof containers of small arms and ammunition. Most carried Iranian markings.
Israel estimates the cargo must have cost tens of millions of dollars – in addition to the $400,000 (£280,000) paid for the Karine A vessel. The Katyushas, familiar from their use in Lebanon, would have put Ben Gurion international airport and Israeli cities within Palestinian range.
"The type and character of the weapons and ammunition prove once again that the Palestinian Authority has been focusing all its efforts on terrorism and preparing the operational infrastructure for the next wave of terror," Mr Sharon said. "Let there be no mistake – this is the choice made by the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority."
The Prime Minister denied American suggestions the shipment was destined for the Lebanese Hizbollah militia, linked to Iran. Contrary to some reports, Mr Sharon said, there was no Hizbollah representative among the crew, which were arrested on Thursday.
Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Chief of the General Staff, said the captain and other sailors had admitted under interrogation that the weapons were to be smuggled into Gaza and then infiltrated into the West Bank. The idea was to land the cargo on the Egyptian Sinai coast and transfer them to small fishing boats. The containers, designed to float just below the surface with a buoy showing their location, would then be dropped off Gaza, where Palestinian seamen would scoop them up during the night.
General Mofaz said the prisoners confirmed that "central figures" in the Palestinian Authority were responsible for procuring the ship and its cargo, as well as recruiting the mixed Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian crew. Among others, Israel named Adel Mughrabi, the Palestinian Authority's chief purchasing officer, and Fuad Shubaki, the paymaster of the Palestinian security services. The captain was Colonel Omar Akawi, a senior officer in the naval police.
Israeli security officials said it was impossible for Mr Arafat not to have known about the shipment, as he claimed. None the less, Mr Sharon stopped short of halting ceasefire talks, which resumed yesterday. "This government," he said, "is committed to peace and wants peace. But we cannot move forward without a total ceasefire for seven days." He reiterated that there would be no negotiations "under fire".
The commando operation has revived Israel's spirit after 15 demoralising months of intifada. "This is what we are trained for," exulted a senior security officer at a weekend cocktail party. The Jerusalem Post rejoiced it had "put pride back" in the army. The Yediot Aharonot called it "a classic James Bond operation". Everyone invoked the Entebbe rescue of hijacked airline passengers in 1976.
Like Entebbe, the storming of the Karine A was a triumph for military intelligence, logistics, ingenuity and discretion. The operation, codenamed Noah's Ark, was at least four weeks in the planning. Drills were practised and key reservists were called up. Yet not a whisper leaked. The commanders of the army, navy and air force sneaked through a back door to brief the Prime Minister in his home. The Americans, who shared intelligence data, were told as much as they needed to know.
Surprise was total. When Israeli marine commandos struck from the sky and the waves at four o'clock on Thursday morning, 11 of the 13 crew were asleep in their bunks. The other two were dozing on watch. The marines handcuffed some before they woke. Not a shot was fired and there were no casualties.
Israeli intelligence had been tracking the Karine A for months. In early December, the ship set sail from Yemen under a Tongan flag of convenience for the Iranian coast. On 11 December it approached the Iranian island of Qeys under Israeli electronic surveillance. Military sources said it was met by Iranian intelligence officers and a Hizbollah representative, who supervised the loading of the 83 containers.
Israeli missile boats and combat and transport helicopters were waiting. As the Karine A sailed into the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal, they closed in. The marines pounced. It was all over in eight minutes. General Mofaz, a laconic veteran of the Entebbe raid, commanded the operation by radio from a Boeing 707 high in the sky.