by DEBKAfile, 8 January 2002

"Egyptian foreign minister Ali Maher said Monday night, January 7, that the “conflicting reports coming from Israel” on the Karine-A seizure arouse increasing doubts. In particular, he questioned Israel’s assertion that the ship’s course was set for the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip via the Suez Canal.

Maher repeated DEBKAfile’s earlier argument that this made no sense, considering that Egyptian security would have detected any arms cargo sailing up the Canal. Earlier, he condemned the whole episode as an Israeli fabrication.

DEBKAfile ’s Jerusalem and Cairo sources believe that the Egyptian foreign minister’s harangue was provoked less by Israel’s actions and more by the disclosures made a few hours earlier by the Karine-A’s captain, Omar Akawi, during media interviews in Ashkelon jail.

One of his three most telling disclosures was his description of how the arms shipment was loaded in Iranian seas from eight in the evening until five the next morning, a total of nine hours.  Another was that the Karine-A had sailed in Egyptian waters, a disclosure he quickly corrected to “between Egyptian and international waters”.

If Akawi’s first slip of the tongue was a Freudian giveaway, it has two inferences: one,
that the Israeli takeover took place in Egyptian waters. The other is that someone on the Egyptian shore must have kept a protective eye on the boat’s passage, which is why the captain was told to hug the Egyptian rather than the Saudi coast of the Red Sea.

Akawi himself may have been kept in ignorance of the plan. At one point he said he warned his Greece-based handler Adel Awadallah (whom Israel identifies as Adel Mughrabi, the Palestinian Authority officer in charge of smuggling operations) that there was little chance of the operation succeeding since Israel, the US or Egypt, which controls the Suez Canal, could all stop the ship and confiscate the weapons.  So he knew that he could not venture into Egyptian coastal waters with impunity.

A shadowy Egyptian role in the affair emerges even more strongly from Awaki’s third disclosure: his orders to make for Alexandria, Egypt, through the Suez Canal, where three smaller vessels would pick up the cargo. Loaded in airtight containers, they would then be placed in the Mediterranean and allowed to drift towards the Gaza coast.
Assuming the Israeli navy and air force had not intercepted the munitions ship in the Red Sea, the Palestinian vessel would have navigated the Suez Canal, come out in the Mediterranean and headed west to Alexandria, rather than northeast to Gaza.

Alexandria is most likely the port of call the Israeli chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz referred to on Sunday in Eilat, when asked for proof that the cargo was bound for the Palestinians – not Lebanon and the Hizballah. He was understandably cagey about naming the Egyptian port.

But Akawi admitted that the Karine-A was making for Alexandria and therefore nowhere near Lebanon.
Having disposed of that point, Akawi’s orders to make for Alexandria make no sense at all without a friendly presence in the port. The very large Egyptian fleet’s destroyers, frigates, missile boats, fast craft, submarines and marine helicopters, together with its advanced coastal radar, guarantee that no unauthorized intruders come anywhere near the Egyptian coast - let alone the big port-city of Alexandria or the Suez Canal’s outlet.
Could a 4,000-ton munitions vessel conceivably expect to anchor several hours off Alexandria port and unload its 50-ton cargo crate by crate into small boats undetected and undisturbed? These puzzles are solved, in the view of DEBKAfile’s military sources, only by a protective presence on the Egyptian mainland escorting the Karine-A through Egyptian waters and making sure it was left in peace off Alexandria.

Such agents would have disappeared fast when the Israeli military came on the scene to seize the Palestinian arms ship. The possibility of this mysterious agency being an anti-Egyptian subversive element does not make foreign minister Maher’s task lighter. He would rather go on the verbal offensive than expose grave security problems inside Egypt itself. It is not surprising therefore that Egyptian officials are becoming increasingly nervous the more discoveries spill out on the Karine-A affair.

The crew was flown from to Port Sudan, then to Yemen, Dubai and the Iranian island of Kish, where the weapons cargo was loaded on the Karine-A. The ship was destined to carry the war materiel through the Suez Canal to the Sinai coast, from which it would have been offloaded to smaller vessels for delivery to the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Mofaz referred mysteriously to another stop en route.

DEBKAfile’s analysts find four significant points in the Karine-A episode:

1.  Talk of reviving the diplomatic process or peace negotiations with the Palestinian leader has yet again proved illusive. Arafat declared war on Israel in September 2000, has never wavered from that course and has no intention of doing so, whatever the cost to himself in the region or outside it.
2.  Except for the odd exception, all the weapons found in the Karine-A hold are well represented in the Palestinian Authority’s Gaza Strip and West Bank armories – although perhaps in smaller quantities. Stacked there are secret and illegal stores of Katyusha long- and short-range surface rockets, long- and short-range mortar bombs, anti-tank mines, C-4 explosives, Sagger and LAW anti-tank rockets, all made ready to be brought out right after Arafat declared his war of liberation.
3.  The loading of the Kareine-A on the Iranian island of Kish confutes the attempts in some Israeli circles to demonstrate that Iran is governed by two divergent forces  – a moderate Khatami presidency, which wants to recognize Israel, versus the hard-line spiritual leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
4.  Everyone, even the blunt-spoken chief of staff, General Mofaz, fights shy of mentioning Egypt’s role. But the Palestinian arms ship could never have passed through the Suez Canal without Egyptian security identifying its cargo. Ever since Libya sabotaged Suez Canal traffic in 1985 by strewing mines in its waters, special detectors along the canal’s banks pick up any weapons and explosives going through. Arafat would never have tried without making prior arrangements with the Egyptian authorities.

This ties in with another question relating to Egypt’s observance of its peace accord with Israel:
Why did Palestinian naval intelligence operatives count on being allowed to unload their arms ship at El Arish, an Egyptian town located on the Mediterranean coast of Sinai? Where is the Egyptian navy? And what about the Egyptian police?

Furthermore, Israel has counted 14 hidden Palestinian tunnels carrying smuggled weapons from Sinai into the Gaza Strip under Rafah and Khan Younes. This has being going on for many months. Why do the Egyptians not block the tunnels at their end? And why does no one offer any protest to Cairo?

General Mofaz should therefore not be overly sanguine in his hopes of a strategic turnaround by the politicians. In all the eight years since Israel signed its 1993 Oslo peace framework accords with the Palestinians, no Israeli government has ever made any strategic decision beyond giving Arafat yet another last chance to mend his ways, after each wave of terrorist attacks.

Sharon did perhaps afford a glimpse of his intentions when he suggested that the arms delivery to the Palestinians might have been intended to dovetail with the thousands of Katyusha rockets the Hizballah points at Israel from Lebanon. One possibility the Israeli prime minister may have in mind is that the United States will execute a strike against the Hizballah, while Israel at the same time settles its scores with the Palestinian Authority."