Military Tribunal Convicts Three 'Santorini' Crew Members

An IDF tribunal at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza on Thursday convicted three crew members of a ship seized while trying to smuggle weapons from Lebanon into the Gaza Strip.

The fourth crew member of the "Santorini," the son of the ship's captain, was acquitted. The three will be sentenced in January.

Intercepted in May 2001, the Santorini was the first ship caught in an attempt to smuggle weapons to Palestinan-controlled territories.

The Navy stopped the "Santorini" on its way from Lebanon to Gaza with a large shipment of weapons, including Strella anti-aircraft missiles - the kind that terrorists fired at an Arkia passenger jet two weeks ago as it took off from Kenya - as well as mortars, guns, grenades, mines and explosive material.

After the ship was captured, Israel announced the weapons were headed to the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, and were destined for use in terror attacks.

The military prosecutor, Captain Ronen Shor, said in court that the boat's captain, Lebanese civilian Div Va'iza, and two of his relatives, Hussein Va'iza and Fahdi Awad, had been involved in three previous smuggling attempts, backed by Hezbollah and Ahmed Jibril's Palestinian terror organization.

Div, who earned his living from smuggling weapons, refused a request by his operators to bring the shipment into Gaza itself, on the grounds that it was too dangerous. Instead, he agreed to take the boat near to the Sinai beach in Egypt, from which agents were supposed to collect the weapons.

The "Santorini" crew had failed to meet their partners at the Egyptian beach during three previous attempts, and were arrested on the fourth attempt.

The court focused on two central issues: Whether the weapons were headed for Gaza (in which case the court has jurisdiction) and whether the crew knew that Gaza was to be the final destination of the shipment.

Although the judges, headed by Justice Major Yehoshua Resnik (res.), convicted three of the accused men, they accepted a request by defense attorney Mustafa Sah to acquit Diav Va'iza, the captain's son, on the grounds that he had only been present on the fourth trip and there was no absolute proof that he knew of the final destination.

Va'iza is still being held, however, as the military prosecution said it will appeal the acquital.

In January 2002, IDF troops thwarted the arrival of a larger haul of weapons bound for Gaza when special forces seized the Karine A in international waters. The ship's cargo included 50 tons of advanced weaponry including Katyusha rockets, rifles, mortar shells, mines and a variety of anti-tank missiles.