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French Consulate Worker Is Accused of Smuggling Guns From Gaza

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JERUSALEM — A Frenchman working at his country’s consulate in Jerusalem was charged on Monday with smuggling guns into the West Bank from Gaza, as Israelis braced for more violence in the Palestinian territories after two deadly attacks and the destruction of two border tunnels over the weekend.

Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, said that Romain Franck, a French citizen, had “cynically exploited” lenient scrutiny of diplomatic vehicles to smuggle 70 pistols and two assault rifles on five trips from Gaza through the Erez crossing.

Mr. Franck, 24, obtained the weapons from a Gaza man employed at the French cultural center there, drove them into Israel — the Shin Bet released a photo of an S.U.V. it said Mr. Franck had used — and then delivered them to the West Bank, where they were sold to illegal arms dealers, the security service said.

Eight others were also arrested in connection with the smuggling operation, including a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem who works as a security guard at the French Consulate.

Mr. Franck took part in the smuggling for financial gain and without the knowledge of his superiors, the security service said. A spokesman for the French Embassy in Tel Aviv said that the French authorities had met with Mr. Franck and had extended consular protection to him, but that officials had taken the case very seriously and had closely cooperated with Israeli investigators. He declined to describe Mr. Franck’s duties at the consulate. 

The arrests came amid a flurry of speculation in the Israeli news media about a possible escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence after two lethal attacks over the weekend left three Israelis dead — two soldiers and a civilian.

On Friday in Mevo Dotan, a Jewish settlement near the northern West Bank city of Jenin, a 26-year-old Palestinian man ran down four Israeli soldiers, killing two and seriously wounding the others, in what the Shin Bet said was a deliberate attack. The suspect in the attack, Ala Qabha, who was hospitalized for his injuries, confessed under interrogation, the Shin Bet said.

Israeli security forces and forensics officials inspected the vehicle used by a Palestinian to ram a group of Israeli soldiers near Mevo Dotan last week.
Israeli security forces and forensics officials inspected the vehicle used by a Palestinian to ram a group of Israeli soldiers near Mevo Dotan last week.

Mr. Qabha lived in nearby Bartaa, of which part is in Israel and the rest in the West Bank, and had spent two years in Israeli prisons, local reports said. As is common practice, the military raided Mr. Qabha’s home, marked it for demolition and suspended the Israeli work permits of the dozens of members of Mr. Qabha’s extended family, officials said.

The Israeli defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, also renewed his call for legislation making it easier for military courts to impose the death sentence on Palestinians convicted of terrorist attacks.

In the second episode, Adiel Kolman, a 32-year-old father of four from Kochav Hashahar, a West Bank settlement east of Ramallah, was fatally stabbed at the Lions’ Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on Sunday.

His assailant, identified as Abd el-Rahman Bani Fadel, 28, a father of two from Aqraba, outside Nablus in the West Bank, was shot and killed by a police officer. He had just entered Israel on a five-day permit and was looking for work, officials said.

Nor was it quiet on the Gaza front over the weekend: After bombs were detonated near the border fence on Thursday and again on Saturday, causing no injuries, Israel hit targets in Gaza from the air and ground. Israel announced a day later that it had destroyed two tunnels from Gaza into Israel, one of them in an airstrike.

The flurry of attacks and responses left Israeli security analysts warning that Palestinian expressions of violence were climbing and, given the calendar, likely to rise even more in the coming weeks, with Israel celebrating its independence day on April 19, and the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem on May 14.

In addition, the Israeli military’s parole board announced on Monday that Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting an already-wounded Palestinian attacker in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2016, would be released on May 10, several months before the end of his 14-month sentence, for good behavior.

Family members during the funeral of an Israeli, Adiel Kolman, in the West Bank on Monday. Mr. Kolman was killed in the Old City of Jerusalem on Sunday.

On March 30, groups in Gaza, including Hamas, which controls the territory, are organizing a demonstration along the border fence that they hope will draw tens of thousands of participants.

March 30 is the first night of Passover for Jews; for Palestinians it is Land Day — the anniversary of some of the first collective protests against the Israeli occupation.

An organizer of the demonstration, which is being billed as the “march of return,” said that it would attract Gazan protesters to camp in tents several hundred yards from the Israeli fence but that it was not intended to provoke clashes with Israel.

“We want to fight and frighten the occupation with the image of the massive crowds of people who peacefully gather and just sit close to the borders,” the organizer, Ahmed Abu Artema, said in a statement. “We hope that this idea will be fully and successfully implemented. We really want to practice and try new methods and styles of struggle against the occupation.”

But Ehud Yaari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “Toward Israeli-Palestinian Disengagement,” said he believed Hamas was “preparing for a crisis” that would put the Israel Defense Forces in a difficult spot.

“They are talking in terms of pushing hundreds of thousands of Gazans to the fences, clearly in an attempt to break through,” he said. “Clearly, they are willing to tolerate losses, and pose the I.D.F. with a very complicated dilemma: How do you deal with these quote-unquote marches, and the tent towns that they intend to build along the fence, without causing casualties? That’s not very simple.”

Yossi Melman, military and security columnist at the newspaper Maariv, said that conditions on the West Bank and in Gaza were ripe for violence to escalate into broader clashes with Israel.

“If you put together the despair, and on top of all these commemorations, the lack of a diplomatic and political horizon for Palestinians, the fact that their economy is not very promising,” and a looming power struggle over who will succeed the aging Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Melman said, “you have a recipe which is very, very explosive.”