This Week in History: Navy captures ‘Karine A’

Dozens of naval commandos intercept largest Palestinian weapons shipments ever detected.

Display of weapons from Karine A  (photo credit: Courtesy WikiCommons)
Display of weapons from Karine A
(photo credit: Courtesy WikiCommons)
Just before daybreak on January 3, 2002, dozens of sailors from the IDF's elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit sat silently on Apache and Blackhawk helicopters flying over the Red Sea. The naval commandos may not have known at the time but in a few hours time they would intercept one of the largest Palestinian weapons shipments ever detected, let alone captured.
For months, Israeli intelligence had been tracking the cargo ship purchased by the Palestinian Authority in Lebanon. The Rim K, or the Karine A as it was renamed after being re-registered in Tonga, had sailed from Sudan to Yemen and an Iranian island where it was loaded with rockets, assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and mines, and tons of explosives and ammunition in several stages. By the time the ship headed back toward the Gaza Strip, it was being monitored 24 hours a day.
At 4 a.m. on January 3, most of the entirely Palestinian crew was asleep, unaware and unsuspecting of their fate. Sailing through relatively rough seas at a modest pace some 200 kilometers south of Sharm e-Sheikh, only three crew members were awake. Meanwhile, IDF Navy Dabur patrol boats and Apache and Blackhawk helicopters were speeding south from Eilat.
When the patrol boats and helicopters rendezvoused a few miles away from the Karine A, motor-powered rafts were dropped from the helicopters and the Shayetet 13 commandos rappelled into them. The force continued its race toward the transport ship.
The commandos silently approached the Karine A and slithered up its hull. They quickly overpowered the crew without a shot. The takeover was so fast and the element of surprise so great that some of the crew were handcuffed as they slept in their bunks, military sources said at the time.
The captain, then-Commander of the Palestinian Naval Police Juma'a Ghali and his crew were all taken into custody and brought into port in Eilat. With very clear intentions, the cargo of smuggled weaponry was publicly displayed for journalists several days later. The weapons, the IDF said, were on their way to the Gaza coastline where they would have been dropped in Iranian-made waterproof containers for retrieval from shore.
For Israel, the seizure of the Karine A served as proof that the Yasser Arafat-led Palestinian Authority was involved in funding and arming terrorists in the Second Intifada. Sure enough, near-immediate condemnation came down on Arafat and the PA. Citing credible evidence linking the PLO chairman to the smuggling affair, then-US president George W. Bush said he was “very disappointed” with Palestinians and the already strained relations between the PA and Washington worsened.
The PA never admitted any connection to the affair but the involvement of several senior PA officials and former Arafat aides painted a different picture. Fuad Shubaki, head of the PA’s finance operations at the time, was eventually convicted by an IDF military court for organizing much of the mission. The direct involvement of the PA’s Naval Police was itself damning. In addition to the Palestinian Authority and Iranian involvement, Israel also alleged Hezbollah was involved in the purchase and smuggling of the weapons. A major operation involving a number of countries had been foiled by Israel.
But while the tracking and peaceful capture of the Karine A continues to be lauded as a complex military achievement, the operation was harshly criticized by Israeli officials who were dissatisfied with another aspect, one which continues to challenge Israel and its security organs to this day: getting the right message out at the right time.
Speaking a few days after the capture of the Karine A, former Israeli ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval called the operation a huge military success, but an information "debacle."
Foreign Ministry officials lamented that they were not involved in presenting the catch to the world. The IDF decision to wait three days after the capture to hold a press conference displaying the weapons was made without an understanding of media, they said. Contradictory information presented to the media, officials added, "cast doubt over the whole story."
Eerily foreshadowing the exact same criticism that would be directed at the Israeli security establishment nearly a decade later during the Mavi Marmara incident, Shoval said at the time, "the most important thing is immediacy, real time." Footage of the manner in which the ship was commandeered should have been available to the foreign news agencies immediately, giving the story a much more dramatic edge, he added.