Arrests shed light on Israelis who sell weapons to their enemi

Sunday, July 28, 2002

JERUSALEM -- The arrests of 10 Israeli men on suspicion of selling 50,000 stolen bullets to Palestinian militants has put the spotlight on a long-running furtive trade that helped arm the Palestinians both before and during their current uprising.

Despite the deep-rooted bitterness of the Mideast conflict, some Israelis, apparently motivated by the prospect of quick money, are funneling weapons and ammunition to the Palestinians with the knowledge they may be used against Israeli citizens.

In two separate cases announced over the past week, all of those detained were current or former members of the security forces who apparently tried to exploit their access to ammunition stockpiles. Police spokesman Gil Kleiman said a number of similar cases had arisen in recent years, though he did not have figures.

In addition, a Palestinian arms smuggler said he bought hundreds of pilfered Israeli M-16 military rifles and large quantities of ammunition over the past eight years, most of it supplied by Israelis.

In a continuing investigation, police announced the arrest of a policeman this past week, bringing the number of detainees to 10. Army Radio said stolen ammunition was found in his home.

In Israeli eyes, the biggest shock is that most of the suspects lived in Jewish settlements on the West Bank -- places that have come under frequent Palestinian attack and whose residents harbor strong anti-Palestinian sentiments.

The army and police suspect the men, including two sets of brothers, stole crates of M-16 ammunition from the military and sold it over the past three years to a Palestinian member of the Tanzim militia. Israel accuses Tanzim of carrying out dozens of deadly attacks on Israelis.

Police investigator Avi Kalif was quoted in the newspaper Maariv as saying one suspect, Sela Amar, acknowledged he could have helped arm Palestinians who recently attacked the settlement where he lives.

In a second case, two soldiers were arrested last week on suspicion of trying to break into a munitions depot in Kfar Saba, in central Israel, to steal arms they intended to sell to Palestinians, police said.

Palestinian militants are no match for the Israeli army, yet have had ample stocks of rifles, bullets and bombs for hundreds of attacks during the nearly 2-year-old uprising.

When Israel accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of trying to smuggle weapons from abroad earlier this year, Arafat said imports were not necessary -- plenty of arms could be bought directly from Israel.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, at the rough-and-tumble Balata refugee camp, a Palestinian arms smuggler related how he exploited his connections as a policeman and a member of Arafat's Fatah movement to buy arms from Israelis over the past eight years.

The smuggler, who insisted his name not be used, said that after the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, he quickly grew disillusioned by widespread corruption he witnessed among Palestinian officials and by his salary of $250 a month.

He said he began buying weapons on the black market, mostly from Israeli sources. His leading supplier was a man he knew only as Itzik, who lived near Tel Aviv and was willing to venture into Nablus in the quieter times of the mid-1990s for lunchtime meetings.

Itzik was arrested in 1997 for selling arms to Palestinians, but the smuggler said he never ran out of Israeli sellers, even after the latest Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

In his biggest single purchase, the smuggler bought 60 M-16 assault rifles, paying $1,500 for each and doubling the price when he sold them to Palestinians.

He typically sold to ordinary Palestinians eager to own weapons after Israeli troops pulled out of their cities. But he also acknowledged selling to a Palestinian militia that he declined to identify.

"In the Balata camp, you couldn't find a house without a weapon," he said.

He said he never dealt directly with an Israeli soldier, but understood many of the weapons had been stolen from military armories and worked their way into the hands of his Israeli contacts.

Before the Palestinian uprising began, he said, he would not sell to common criminals or to the militant Hamas movement, because he did not want to aid people the Palestinian police were supposed to be keeping in check. He said he dropped those restrictions after the uprising began.

Initially, he was still able to buy guns from Israeli dealers. But he said that proved increasingly difficult as contacts between Israelis and Palestinians grew scarce, and in recent months he's only been able to buy bullets.

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