General Zinni said he still saw progress Saturday, after Israel said it would further ease West Bank blockades and the Palestinians continued to arrest suspected militants.
Peace negotiations were complicated Friday when the Israeli Army announced the capture of weapon-laden 4,000-ton ship, Karine A, 300 miles from Israel’s port Eilat in the Red Sea.
Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz said the ship belonged to the Palestinian Authority and was skippered by a Palestinian naval policeman. He said senior Palestinian officials were involved in financing and carrying out the smuggling operation.
“The link between the ship’s crew and the Palestinian Authority and its leaders is clear and undeniable,” he told reporters.
The ship reportedly contained Iranian-made arms that included Katyusha rocket launchers with ranges of up to 12 miles, antitank missiles, mortars, mines, sophisticated explosives, light arms including sniper rifles, and bullets. The navy commander said that the weapons were packed in 83 waterproof crates attached to buoys intended to to be dropped off at sea off the Gaza Strip coast and picked up by Palestinian fishermen.
The Palestinian Authority denied the charges and said Israel was trying to sabotage Zinni’s peace-making mission.
“These allegations are false,” said Palestinian Information Minister Yasir Abed Rabbo. “The Palestinian Authority has nothing to do with this ship.”
In Washington, a U.S. official told the Associated Press that the weapons shipment could have been intended for Hezbollah, Hamas or another extremist group, rather than for the Palestinian Authority, as Israel claimed.
The Israeli Army announced the ship capture Friday, just as Zinni was meeting with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Zinni had met earlier in the day with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his sheep farm in southern Israel.
According to State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, Zinni insisted on an explanation from Arafat and the Palestinian leader denied any knowledge of the shipment and offered his full cooperation in a full investigation.
Under the 1993 Oslo accords, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority agreed to limit the type and number of weapons it stockpiles.
Zinni met Saturday with Palestinian negotiators and said he would chair a meeting Sunday between Israeli and Palestinian security officials.
The Bush administration is pushing both sides to implement a truce plan drafted last year by CIA chief George Tenet. Under the plan, Israel is to lift travel bans on Palestinians and pull back troops to positions held before the latest round of fighting which broke out in September 2000. The Palestinians are required to arrest suspected militants and prevent further attacks on Israelis.
Israel says it has removed tanks from some Palestinian areas and opened some roads in the West Bank. “The moves to ease the situation of the Palestinian population will continue,” Israeli government spokesman Arnon Perlman said Saturday.
Palestinian security officials announced Saturday that they arrested a leading activist in the militant Islamic Jihad group. The suspect, Fawaz Khlayef, was involved in shooting attacks on Israelis, the officials said.
Zinni said both sides were moving in the right direction. “I’m hopeful. I’m encouraged,” he said.
Once a truce is in place, the two sides are to follow a plan created by the international commission headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. The so-called Mitchell Plan calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza and says the Palestinians must dismantle militant groups.
Zinni said the first priority is security. “We are going to start with security issues, and that’s the beginning point,” he said. “We will get those other issues when the time is ready.”
Zinni is scheduled to return to Washington Monday to meet with Sec. of State Colin Powell and then return to the region January 18 to evaluate progress.
Although the next U.S. diplomatic move is not clear, the Bush administration has vowed to remain engaged in the effort to bring the two sides together and work towards peace in the region.