In a development that marks a new escalation in the 8-month-old intifada, Palestinians were caught smuggling sophisticated weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, into Gaza this week, prompting Israeli authorities to take precautionary steps at Ben-Gurion Airport.
All airplanes using Ben-Gurion are being instructed to remain above 7,000 feet until only seven miles from the airport because of the threat from anti-aircraft missiles.
The directive from the Israel Airport Authority came one day after Israeli authorities revealed that the Israeli navy on Sunday had intercepted a boat smuggling weapons from Lebanon to Gaza. The seized weapons are more powerful than the Palestinians have used since launching a wave of violence Sept. 28 that has claimed more than 500 lives.
On Wednesday morning, Israeli authorities said Palestinian terrorists used more conventional weapons — stones — to brutally murder two teenage boys who were hiking Tuesday along a riverbed about 700 yards from their settlement of Tekoa in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion region.
Yaakov “Kobi” Mandel, 13, the son of Rabbi Seth Mandel, a former Hillel rabbi at the University of Maryland, and Yosef Ish-Ran, 14, were apparently stoned, stabbed and possibly shot and their bodies dumped in a cave near Tekoa, which is east of Bethlehem. Reportedly they were playing hooky from school. A search for the boys was organized when they did not return home Tuesday night.
“I’m in shock,” Mandel’s grandmother, Marilyn Lederman of Delray Beach, Fla., told The Jewish Week. “He was born in Israel. I was there for the birth. This is the worst thing that could happen.”
She said that when the violence erupted, she called Yaakov’s mother, Sherri, and “begged her to come back.”
“She said they were safe,” interjected Sherri’s sister Loren.
“I even found a job for her husband in Bangor, Maine,” said Marilyn Lederman, “but they said there was no Jewish school there and they are Orthodox. And she said they love Israel, their friends and their lives there. Don’t you know, she said, this is our homeland.”
Yaakov was the oldest of four children and had his bar mitzvah in Tekoa last year. He would have celebrated his 14th birthday June 14. The family made aliyah six years ago.
Yehudit Tayar, a settler spokeswoman, said of the slaying: “If you have an enemy that is led by those who continue to incite murder in cold blood, this is the result. You can’t continue to live in a vacuum and ignore the Palestinian educational system, which teaches its people to hate, trains them to kill and sends them out as emissaries of death.”
The shipment of weapons intercepted Sunday is evidence of a “marked escalation” in the level of warfare the Palestinians are preparing to launch against Israel, according to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
“It makes a mockery of all the agreements and promises and everything they made commitments about,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “We keep calling for a return to the negotiating table, and in contrast they are preparing for war.”
In addition to the anti-aircraft missiles, the boat carried Katyusha rockets, grenade launchers, anti-tank grenades, mortars and mortar shells, mines and assault rifles. None of those weapons are permitted under the Oslo accords signed by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
Although the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command was said to be behind the shipment, Sharon said the weapons were for Arafat’s organization.
“The only ones who could have collected [the arms cache] was the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “No one else had the means on the beaches of Gaza to collect such quantities of weapons.”
Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the Russian-made heat-seeking SA-7 Strella missiles that were seized are designed “to shoot down aircraft.”
There was disagreement over just how much of a threat the missiles posed. A researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Shlomo Brom, said they did not represent a strategic threat to Israel. Brom was quoted as saying that the anti-aircraft missiles are for countermeasures and not a serious threat to commercial aircraft.
But Reuven Pedatzur, director of the Galili Center for Strategic and National Security, told the French Press Agency that the “anti-aircraft missile could be a disaster. Think about a helicopter which is shot down by this missile, or an El Al plane full of 250 people, which is a possibility with this kind of missile.”
Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said it was the fourth time the boat had tried to smuggle weapons from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip. There were reports that two of those trips were successful.
“We think [the weapons] come from Iran,” Shalom said during a trip to New York City. “Most of the weapons to the region are from Iran to Damascus and then trucked to south Lebanon to Hezbollah.”
Israeli sources say there is evidence that Hezbollah has sent some of those arms by sea to Palestinians in Gaza. In addition, Palestinians have smuggled in weapons through underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, via the Dead Sea, and in trucks crossing from Jordan to the West Bank.
In addition to supplying arms to Hezbollah terrorists and Palestinians, Gold said Iran has also deployed “its own rocket forces under Iranian command and control” in Lebanon.
“It has two types of missile systems — one with a range capable of striking any point in northern Israel from Lebanon and a second that can strike central Israel as well,” he said. “Israel knows where they are in Lebanon.”
“All of this is reminiscent of a crisis in 1962 when the Soviet Union did not have dependable intercontinental missiles to hit the U.S. and chose to deploy them in Cuba,” added Gold, who declined to say how many missiles Iran had in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Jewish leaders this week braced for what could become a new battle between Washington and Jerusalem over Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Both the Egyptian-Jordanian cease-fire plan and a report by a commission headed by former Sen. George Mitchell have called for a freeze on settlements as one of the steps necessary for a resumption of peace talks.
But Sharon Tuesday visited Ma’aleh Adumim, a settlement near Jerusalem, and vowed not to halt the “natural growth” of settlements. In addition, it was reported that he plans to ask his cabinet Sunday for an extra $350 million to provide for that growth.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker questioned that decision, saying such “activity risks further inflaming the already volatile situation in the region and is provocative.”
The warning to aircraft using Ben-Gurion Airport came less than a week after Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh said it was “shameful” that Jews were canceling trips to Israel.
“This is the antithesis of solidarity,” he said during a visit here.
There have been many solidarity missions to Israel since the violence began. UJA-Federation of New York said it has sent 175 people on those missions, plus another 50 on fact-finding or educational missions.
But Sneh said he was “not happy” with the efforts of Jewish leaders here to get more Jews to come.
“The situation is difficult, Israel is in a military conflict, and this is the time to show that the Jewish community is behind Israel,” Sneh said. “There are areas of confrontation where Israelis and the IDF are under attack, but that doesn’t mean the State of Israel can’t be visited. Most of Israel is safe. I don’t want to belittle the problem, but what is happening does not justify avoidance of Israel.”
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.