An employee at the French consulate in Jerusalem was indicted on Monday for using a diplomatic vehicle to smuggle dozens of guns from Gaza to the West Bank.
In addition to Romain Franck, five residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem were also charged. A total of nine suspects have been arrested in the case.
According to the indictment, Franck, 24, was aware of the reduced security checks for vehicles with diplomatic license plates, which he allegedly used to illegally transport weapons out of Gaza and into the West Bank.
Franck, who worked as a driver at the consulate, spoke through an interpreter to confirm his identity during the brief court appearance. Two French diplomats were at the court to monitor the proceedings.
He allegedly made five smuggling runs, bringing 70 pistols and two assault rifles to the West Bank from a Palestinian employee at the French Cultural Center in Gaza, Zuheir Abed Abdeen. A contact in the West Bank then sold the weapons to other arms dealers, investigators say.
Franck was already transporting various valuables in his car on behalf of Abdeen when in September 2017 the Palestinian propositioned him to join a gun-running ring run by Gaza resident Mahmad Jamil al-Haladi, the indictment said.
Franck later brought Mahmad Siad, an Israeli citizen employed at the French consulate in Jerusalem, into the operation and the two would allegedly travel together to deliver the weapons in the West Bank.
Prosecutors say Franck would usually take delivery of the guns from Aabdin and then place them in the trunk of his vehicle. At the border checks he would then falsely declare that all of the bags belonged to him or his passengers and that he was not carrying any weapons.
He was paid several thousand shekels for each delivery, depending on the number of guns he carried across the border.
The Shin Bet security agency said Franck was motivated by financial gain and that his superiors at the French consulate in Jerusalem were unaware of his actions. He was arrested February 15, but the case only became public on Sunday.
Details of the case were released hours ahead of the arraignment Monday, days before French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was set to visit Israel.
Among the others indicted Monday were East Jerusalem residents Moufak al-Ajluni and Mohamed Katout.
The Foreign Ministry earlier denounced the “very serious” arms smuggling charges against Franck but said the incident would not compromise diplomatic ties between the two countries.
“This is a very grave incident in which the immunity and privileges granted to foreign missions in Israel was cynically exploited for smuggling,” a Shin Bet official said, adding the weapons could have been used in attacks on civilians and security forces.
Echoing the Shin Bet, the Foreign Ministry said “this is a very serious incident which we are treating severely.”
It also thanked French authorities for cooperating with the investigation.
“The ties with France are excellent and the affair doesn’t adversely affect them,” the Foreign Ministry stressed.
A spokesman for France’s embassy in Israel said on Sunday that “we take this case very seriously and are in close contact with the Israeli authorities.”
Franck “has benefited and continues to enjoy the consular protection” provided to French nationals, he said.
According to the Le Monde daily, France won’t block prosecution, but Franck may serve his sentence in France and not Israel.
AFP contributed to this report.