IDF refuses comment on reported sinking of Gaza-bound weapons boat

The IDF Spokesman issued a terse "no comment" on an exclusive report in yesterday's New York Post suggesting that the army sunk a fishing boat bound for Gaza with a cargo of weapons from the Hizbollah. The report was written by Uri Dan, considered a close confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and apparently caught Israeli military censors by surprise.

According to the New York Post, the Palestinians were unaware of the fate of the boat, which sank "just days ago before it could reach the shores of Gaza." But an extensive report in Yediot Aharonot, published only after the Post story was printed, suggested that the boat was sunk three weeks ago off the Lebanese coast.

"Yediot Aharonot presented the story of the weapon boat's sinking to the military censor numerous times over the last two weeks, and each time its publication was banned," the paper said. But after the story surfaced in the New York Post, Yediot Aharonot was able to publish additional details of the incident.

The boat's crew included Fatah members, and it sailed from a Lebanese port, Yediot Aharonot reported. The Israeli army decided to sink the boat, and not capture it as it had with two previous weapons shipments - the Santorini in May 2001 and the Karine A in January this year - possibly because the two previous missions resulted in the crew being more alert to the potential of Israeli actions. All crewmembers are believed to have lost their lives when the boat sank.

The quantity of weapons on the boat was much smaller than the weaponry seized on the Karine A, and is thought to be more comparable in quantity to that of the Santorini. The crew reportedly planned to drop the weapons in floatable containers off the Gaza coast, where they would wash ashore to be collected.

According to military sources, weapons on the boat included RPG and Katyusha launchers, mortars and other bombs. Procurement of the weapons began about a month and a half ago, at the height of Israel's military offensive in the West Bank. The weapons were purchased with the aid of the Hizbollah.

The Palestinians were trying to bring "quality" weaponry to the Gaza Strip in preparation for a potential IDF invasion, Yediot Aharonot reported. The Katyusha rockets and heavy mortars would bring a "strategic change" in the Palestinians' battle with Israel.

Israeli military sources warned that the publication of the boat's sinking would cause potential damage to the IDF's operations. "It can't be that diplomatic sources will speak out against leaks, and even cancel military operations due to them, and here the person closest to the prime minister comes out with this story," the sources said, in reference to the cancellation of the IDF's operations in the Gaza Strip due to reported leaks regarding the operation's goals and targets.

Military sources emphatically denied the possibility that publication of the story by Uri Dan in the United States was coordinated in advance in order "to get the story out," Yediot Aharonot said. "This publication was not coordinated with us, and raised a good deal of anger."

Uri Dan refused to comment on the story. "You can quote the New York Post if you want," he said. The military censor said that Dan never presented the story for review before it was published in the Post.

Ellis Shuman Israelinsider

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