The Ships on the Way

by Uri Avnery

The chiefs of the three big parties in Israel–the Likud, the Labor Party and the army–were sitting on the stage. They were frustrated. They knew already that they had not succeeded in selling the great show that they had prepared with so much effort: the capture of a ship loaded with weapons, commissioned by the despicable Arafat. A heroic action, indeed, a second Entebbe.

In one respect they did succeed: in showing that the borders between these three power-centers have disappeared. Their chief could be easily switched–say, Ben-Eliezer to the Likud, Mofaz to Labor, Sharon to the officers–without causing any change at all. Like the Christian trinity, the three are one–Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The capture of the ship was described as a sublime act of courage. The soldiers of an elite unit, using the most advanced technical equipment in the world, overpowered 13 sleepy sailors on the high seas. That was less dangerous than the job of three Bedouin soldiers in a position near the Gaza strip. If General Mofaz needs to tell us that this was equivalent to the Entebbe raid–a daring and sophisticated commando action–it shows that under his command the norms of the IDF have slipped a lot.

It is clear that the army knew all the movements of the ship. Since when? Good question. From the moment that the weapons were loaded? Already from the moment the project was decided upon? It is also clear that the information was provided by agents installed close to the action. But where? In the Hizballah headquarters? In Iran? Among the arms merchants? On the ship itself? And if there was a collaborator on the ship, who?

The captain’s behavior is strange, to say the least. He went out of his way to oblige the Israeli government. Full cooperation. When did that start? Only when he was captured? Or, perhaps long before that?

The captain was very happy to tell all to the Israeli reporters, the picked darlings of Army Intelligence, who played their part in the show. During the evening, I saw the captain on TV three times. The first time I saw something that was omitted later. At the end of the interview, the captain requested: “Tell my daughter that I am a fighter!” Then he broke into tears and hid his face between his hands. What caused this outburst? Is he afraid that his daughter might think he is a collaborator? A traitor?

The captain said that he had received the merchandize at sea, opposite the Iranian coast, and that he was to turn it over at sea, opposite the Egyptian coast. If so, how could he possibly know for whom the arms were destined? Had he been told? That’s strange, considering that the owners of the cargo did not confide in him. And if they told him something, how can we know that they told him the truth?

The ayatollahs have no interest at all in arming Arafat, a secular leader who they are trying to undermine. But they do have every interest in arming his Islamic opponents–Hizballah, Hamas and Jihad. It is logical to assume that the arms were intended for them.

But how? The short Palestinian coastline in the Gaza Strip is hermetically sealed. The Israeli naval blockade is impregnable. Could Gaza fishermen have found the arms beneath the surface of the sea and dragged them to the shore, under the watchful eyes of the Israeli navy? Sounds pretty ridiculous. The whole story does not make sense. It smells of improbability. The more so since all this happened, of course, exactly on time, when Anthony Zinni was due in the country in order to impose a cease-fire to which Sharon strenuously objects (because it would oblige him to freeze all settlement activity). Hocus pocus–and here is a new pretext for continuing the war against Arafat.

It seems that the American suspected much the same thing. It took a major effort of the Israeli propaganda machine–by far the best in the world–to persuade President Bush to support Sharon’s version. In the end he was almost convinced. Almost.

But let’s assume for a moment that the whole story is true. Let’s assume that Sharon, after a delay of 50 years, is now fulfilling Ben-Gurion’s publicly expressed wish that he, please, stop lying. Let’s assume that Ben-Eliezer, too, has been converted to telling the truth, and that Mofaz has become a real soldier again. Let’s assume that this was indeed Arafat’s ship.

So what?

Ehud Barak once said that if he had been a young Palestinian, he would have joined a terrorist organization. One could add: If Barak had been the leader of the Palestinian people at this time, he would have done everything possible to bring in arms, more and more arms.

Like Balaam in the Bible (Numeri 22), Sharon & Co. set out to curse and ended up praising–as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Arafat is sitting in Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli tanks, their cannons aimed at the windows of his room from 300 meters away. And what is he doing? Instead of cringing or escaping, he imports modern anti-tank weapons to destroy the tanks (as his fighters did in 1975 in the alleys of Sidon, when they destroyed a Syrian tank column.)

There are some Palestinian intellectuals, like Edward Said, who have been asserting that Arafat has become a collaborator, a sub-contractor of the IDF and Shin-Bet. Some good people, Palestinians as well as Israelis, have written millions of words about the rampant corruption of the Palestinian Authority. They have asked again and again: Where does the money go? Why is there no transparency? How come only Arafat and a tiny group of his confidants know about the secret accounts abroad? Now, along comes Mofaz and says: The millions were spent on arms. Soon Mofaz will publish the Palestinian balance sheets, and transparency will come into its own.

Arafat is interested in a cease-fire, and therefore is making a great effort to enforce it. At this point in time, it is in the Palestinian interest. Many Palestinians say, quite rightly, that by breaking the cease-fire, Hamas and Jihad are only serving Sharon.

But Arafat knows full well that Sharon will not accept a cease-fire, and that, if he is compelled to accept one, he will break it at the first opportunity, in order to continue building settlements. Sooner or later, Mofaz will resume his all-out offensive. To withstand such an attack Arafat needs arms, a lot of arms. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as long-range Katyushas for deterrence. The Israeli contention that Arafat is buying exactly these weapons will raise his standing among the Palestinians sky-high and fortify his position as their uncontested leader. Never before has he been more “relevant”.

In the mid-40s, when ships bearing illegal immigrants were plying the seas and had become a major weapon in our fight against the British government in Palestine, the poet Nathan Alterman wrote a song that became a battle-hymn for a whole nation: “Here’s to the cold and steadfast night, / The night of danger and hardship, / Here’s to the little ships, Captain, / To the ships that are on their way!” Perhaps some Palestinian poet is now penning a similar song.

That’s how it looks to the Palestinians. Israelis are, of course, glad that these arms did not reach their destination, wherever that was. But there is no power on earth that can prevent the smuggling of arms by a people that believes it is fighting for its life, its very existence. Indeed, in our own war of liberation we smuggled arms into the country by all available means, especially during the periods of cease-fire.

No war is one-sided. Sooner or later, the Palestinians will find ways to destroy tanks and down attack helicopters and fighter planes.

It makes sense to make peace before that happens.

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