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Iran-Palestinian Alliance Poses Major Threat, Israel Leader Says

January 14, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denounced Sunday what he termed a "very dangerous" alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Iran that has already resulted in the shipment of tons of weapons to the region and poses a serious threat to the future of the Jewish state.

Striking a characteristically uncompromising note, Sharon rebuffed all suggestions that he resume negotiations with the Palestinians until they meet an expanding list of conditions and demands.

Sharon was speaking to a gathering of foreign journalists and embassy press attaches in Jerusalem, his second such appearance since he took office 10 months ago.

Casting Israel's conflict with the Palestinians as an existential struggle, he said that the current violence, in which more than 1,000 people have been killed since fall 2000, is part of a continuum of "120 years of terror" that will not end soon.

The latest twist in the conflict, he noted, was Israel's interception this month of a ship transporting 50 tons of advanced weapons. Israeli military officials, and the vessel's Palestinian captain, have said the arms came from Iran and were destined for the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority has formally denied involvement in the foiled smuggling operation, despite the implication of three of the authority's officials.

"We are facing . . . the involvement of Iran in our area here, which we regard to be a very dangerous development," Sharon said. A link between the Palestinian Authority and Iran--"terrorism center of the world"--will make it all but impossible to offer political concessions to the Palestinians, Sharon said, although he also made it clear that he wasn't inclined to do that anyway.

Israeli military and government officials say the weapons shipment confirmed that Iranian hard-liners are trying to use the militant Lebanese Hezbollah organization to gain a foothold in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza Strip. A Hezbollah operative was reported to have aided in training the crew on the weapons ship, the Karine-A. The Israeli officials allege that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat personally ordered subordinates to establish contacts with Iran.

Iran, however, denies any security ties to Arafat or the Palestinian Authority. Iran has been hostile toward Arafat because of his 1993 decision to enter into peace negotiations with Israel.

Eran Lerman, a recently retired Israeli military intelligence officer, said it was likely that certain hard-line elements of the Iranian establishment, such as supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, were involved in the arms shipment.

Hezbollah, which has had some of its activities curtailed in Lebanon, would probably serve as the go-between, said Lerman, who heads the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee. With Iran's backing, Hezbollah successfully waged a protracted war of attrition against occupying Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, finally forcing Israel to withdraw in 2000, and it has become a role model for many Palestinian fighters. Several attempts by Hezbollah to infiltrate Palestinian territory were detected by the Israeli army last year.

The Palestinian Authority said over the weekend that it had arrested the three Palestinian officials implicated by Israel and by the Karine-A's crew in the smuggling operation. Later, however, Palestinian officials sought to "clarify" their statement, acknowledging that two of the three officials were not even in Palestinian territory. The true status of the third, a close associate of Arafat, was unclear.

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