The mega-weapons ship capture that turned the tide on US-Palestinian ties

The Jerusalem Post is the first media outlet to fully tell this captivating story.

WEAPONS CONFISCATED aboard the Karine A, a ship laden with weapons destined for the Palestinians but intercepted by Israeli forces in January 2002, are displayed on the deck of the vessel. (photo credit: REUTERS)
WEAPONS CONFISCATED aboard the Karine A, a ship laden with weapons destined for the Palestinians but intercepted by Israeli forces in January 2002, are displayed on the deck of the vessel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“He scanned the room. Shock gripped the room. Suddenly in one moment, the situation was transformed and tense. The concept underlying the default plan had collapsed” with the US shockingly refusing to act, leaving Israel alone to act, thought naval intelligence collection head Lt. Col. Yoki* (full name kept secret to prevent identification.)
It was December 18, 2001.
Israel’s navy had been gearing up to play a supporting role for a presumed US-led operation to take-over the Palestinians Karine A mega-arms smuggling ship.
Capturing the ship on January 3, 2002 and presenting new intelligence relating to the connection between the ship, Iran and then Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the US in mid-January 2002, would eventually turn the US permanently against Arafat with massive war and peace repercussions.
But in that mid-December 2001 moment when S of US naval intelligence informed Israeli naval intelligence that the US was standing down, even the bare minimum goal of intercepting the ship was in question.
S had reached Israeli naval intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Chazi Mesita on his cellphone as he drove to Haifa and said to him that the US could not take the boat as it simply could not afford to redirect any of its forces focused on fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Israel had created vague guidelines for a contingency plan should it need to act.
But suddenly the possibility that it might need to capture the ship itself in the Red Sea, far from its preferred area of operations in the Mediterranean or even the Gulf of Eilat, “had switched to becoming present, imminent and real,” writes retired IDF Brig. Gen. Amos Gilboa in his soon-to-be-released book “Drama in the Red Sea.”
Gilboa’s book is the first detailed declassification of what really happened operationally in taking over the Karine A and of the Israeli military and intelligence secret meetings with top Bush administration officials in mid-January 2002. These meetings altered the course of US Middle East policy.
The Jerusalem Post is the first media outlet to fully tell this captivating story following interviewing Gilboa and receiving a copy of the book, which was also sponsored by the Israel Intelligence Commemoration and Heritage Center, ahead of a conference to publicize the book next month.
The end of the story is history: the Israeli Navy Seals Unit 113 pulled off a brilliant takeover of the long-range Katyusha rocket-filled Karine A on January 3, 2002 in the Red Sea.
But that was not the original plan. Originally, the US was to take over the ship and the backup plan preferred by most of the Israeli navy was an Israeli takeover in the Mediterranean.
The US happening to be spread thin by the War in Afghanistan negated the original plan.
What was viewed as the original backup plan was eventually overtaken by the urging of Israel Navy Seals Commander Col. Ram Rotberg. He convinced then-IDF chief-of-staff Shaul Mofaz that undertaking the more dangerous Red Sea option was worth the risks.
Why was most of the Israeli navy opposed to taking the boat in the Red Sea?
At a crucial internal meeting on December 19, 2001, Israel Navy Commander Maj. Gen. Yedidya Yaari explained the problems with trying to capture the boat so far from Israel’s standard operating areas.
“We do not have the tools for this…the Israeli Navy Seals are not trained to takeover a moving ship here…This would be an operation that would require much more. Our high-speed Dvora patrol boats may just barely survive – since these are waves of 2.5 meters and winds of 30 knots…this is a different situation…This is a plan that I do not recommend on any level.”
While Mofaz did not discount these risks, he explained to Gilboa that, “we needed to undertake every effort to make sure that the ship does not get to the Mediterranean. Of what value will the ship be to me if it arrives…without the arms?”
Israeli intelligence had not finalized what it believed the Karine A’s plan was for where it would deliver the arms.
But one option was that it might leave the arms in special floating tubes off the coast of Egypt, before entering the Mediterranean, for the PA navy to quietly come and pick them up.
If the boat was captured in the Mediterranean without capturing the arms, what evidence would Mofaz have to convince the US that Arafat was behind the Karine A and the Second Intifada?
So he decided on the Red Sea.
Mofaz surveyed the top officials at the meeting and, speaking slowly for emphasis, made it clear that the operation would be in the Red Sea, despite the opposition. “This is a crucial matter. Therefore, I do not want to give up on the operational option of the Red Sea. I am ready to take risks. If we succeed…this would be an astounding achievement.”
There were a number of other operational forks in the road.
Due to unforeseen operational issues, the boat was eventually taken over much farther away in the Red Sea than planned - 450 kilometers from Eilat instead of the planned 310 kilometers from Eilat.
Ultimately, the ship was taken over by a combination of Israel Navy Seals and Israeli commandos lowered down by fast rope from helicopters. But at several points, it was unclear whether the navy seals or the fast-rope helicopter options were feasible. Mofaz had to give the air force a hard push to get its operations teams trained for the operation when its original schedule was not to be ready for any fast-rope operations until months down the line.
The boat was taken in only six minutes between 4:00-4:06 a.m., with the navy seals achieving complete surprise against the crew. They then called in the code name “Harry Potter” for the fast-rope commandos to slide down to the boat from two helicopters to gain control over the boat’s large cargo area.
Still, almost everything fell apart.
The navy seals could not find the weapons.
The boat was huge and had plenty of valid standard cargo goods.
IDF military intelligence research head Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser told Gilboa that he wanted to bury himself when Mofaz looked at him after receiving initial reports that the seals could not find any weapons.
Eventually, after interrogating ship’s captain Omar Akawi, a lieutenant colonel in the PA’s Coastal Police, the soldiers found the arms and breathed a sigh of relief that they had not been hoodwinked. The Shin Bet later continued the interrogation of Akawi.
These interrogations on the boat in real time were crucial. Heavy efforts had been made to provide Shin Bet personnel capable of boarding the ship and conducting interrogations at sea while Israel’s Navy Seals directed it to Israel.
This is the until now untold operational intelligence story of how Israel captured the ship.
But capturing the ship would not in and of itself have led to a complete paradigm shift in US policy from viewing Arafat as an eccentric but necessary peace proponent, to viewing him as the heart of the terror problem.
In conversations on January 4 and 8 with US special Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Arafat denied all knowledge of the mega weapons smuggling boat.
The US did not love Arafat, but was inclined to accept his denials without unequivocal evidence proving he was lying. For one, accusing Arafat would mean admitting that a year of diplomacy was a waste and would remove any near-term peace horizon. 
Europe and much of the global media still viewed Arafat as the winner of a noble peace prize and focused on the possibility that the Karine A was intended for Hezbollah, not Arafat and the PA.
How did Israeli military and intelligence officials turn the tide on this issue?
On January 9 and 10, 2001, Mesita and Kuperwasser held crucial meetings with top CIA, Pentagon and State Department officials.
From an Israeli perspective, these meetings planted the seeds for influencing a change in the US view of the PA, but failed in getting the US to point their finger at Arafat personally, let alone in leading to a paradigm shift in US Middle East policy.
Sceptical CIA chief George Tenet had to be dragged into meeting the delegation, with Tenet refusing Mossad chief Efraim Halevy’s request that he meet them. Tenet only agreed after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intervened personally.
In a meeting with Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith, Mesita and Kuperwasser were surprised to find that the Pentagon staff was not up to date on the Karine A Affair.
Yet despite having to overcome that obstacle in terms of familiarizing Feith and the other Pentagon officials, Mesita and Kuperwasser were pleased that Feith and his staff “were not shocked that Arafat was involved in [weapons] smuggling. There was no need to convince them that Arafat was the ‘story’s bad guy.’”
As Mesita and Kuperwasser flew out of Washington DC to provide more briefings in England and France, the US State Department put out a statement that “there was a compelling case that …senior PA officials” were involved with the Karine A, but that the US “had no evidence which directly connected Arafat to weapons smuggling.”
It would be left to IDF chief Mofaz himself, in DC from January 17 to 19, 2001, to close the deal.
Sharon told Mofaz it was crucial that the intelligence picture connecting Arafat to the Karine A he was presenting during his visit actually get to President Bush’s desk and not merely be summarized by intermediaries.
Mofaz met with Secretary of State Powell, CIA Director Tenet, US military chief Richard Meyers, but most crucially met with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and Chief of Staff to Vice President Cheney, Scooter Libby.
Feith told the Post in an interview that the meeting with Libby was likely crucial over the long-term.
He said he viewed Cheney as the primary power in the administration who campaigned on the idea that Arafat had chosen the side of Iran and terrorism even in the post 9/11 world when the US had drawn clear battle-lines.
Gilboa focuses in on the meeting with Rice as the key meeting in the short-term, with Rice cutting the meeting in the middle to bring Mofaz’s intelligence material directly to Bush.
That vital material included Israel’s vast electronic communications intelligence collection apparatus from before the capture of the boat.
It also included documents captured on the boat and other material.
The evidence had three central prongs.
It showed that Akawi had been personally selected by Arafat to take charge of the ship and the operation due to its importance in providing major new arms to inflame the ongoing Second Intifada.         
Further, it demonstrated that Fuad Shobaki, Arafat’s primary money man who did not act alone and directed financing for much of Arafat’s involvement in the Second Intifada, including the Karine A, was “neck deep” in planning and financing the operation.
It showed that Arafat had personally approved joint operations with Iran, starting from April 2000 with a series of meetings between his personal representatives and Iran in Moscow, Oman and the UAE. It also proved that Arafat had in principle approved the stationing of Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel in PA territory.
All of this evidence would be heavily supplemented during Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002 when the IDF entered Arafat’s Muqata complex and collected a treasure trove of documents showing Arafat’s personal involvement in directing the Second Intifada.
When Sharon visited Bush in Washington DC in May 2002 and he raised the issue of the Karine A, Bush responded that he already understood “that Arafat is the problem. It has started to become clear that as long as he is there, the terror will continue.”
On June 24, 2002, Bush publicly called on the Palestinians to choose a new leader “who is not involved in terror.”
Using intelligence from the Karine A Affair, Mofaz and Israeli intelligence had convinced the US that Arafat was a liar and had chosen the side of Iran and terror even after September 11, 2001. For the US, Feith said that this meant, “Arafat was on the wrong side of the war on terror.”