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French consulate worker charged over Gaza-West Bank 'arms smuggling'

Frenchman and two Palestinians accused of using diplomatic car to transfer handguns and assault rifles between Palestinian territories
French national Romain Franck (face hidden), a worker at the French consulate, and Palestinian Moufak al-Ajluni (L) and Mohamed Katout (C) appeared in court in Beer Sheva, Israel, 19 March 2018 (AFP)

A French citizen who worked at the country's consulate in Jerusalem was charged in Israel on Monday for allegedly smuggling dozens of weapons from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

According to Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, Romain Franck, a 23-year-old French citizen, was part of a broader Palestinian smuggling ring and used his consular vehicle, which is subjected to more lenient security checks, as cover to transport the weapons through Israel’s tightly secured border with the Gaza Strip.

Franck appeared in a court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba along with Palestinians Moufak al-Ajluni and Mohamed Katout.

The indictment against Franck was served on Monday after a gag order was lifted on his 15 February arrest. He was remanded until 28 March.

A total of nine people have been arrested in the case. Franck was arrested along with a Palestinian from East Jerusalem employed as a security guard at the consulate as well as seven other suspects.

Franck spoke through an interpreter to confirm his identity during the brief court appearance. Two French diplomats were at the court to monitor the proceedings.

Shin Bet said Franck confessed to charges and acted on his own and was motivated by money rather than any ideological support for Palestinian militants. His superiors were not aware of his actions, the agency said.

Franck allegedly used a diplomatic car to transfer 70 handguns and two assault rifles on five occasions over recent months.

The first smuggling run took place around 21 December and the last around 12 February, the indictment said.

He received about $7,600 in payment for the contraband, according to the indictment, which listed counts including arms possession, arms trafficking, fraud and criminal conspiracy.

It said he received the arms from a Gaza man employed at a French cultural centre in Gaza and brought them to someone in the West Bank where they were then sold to arms dealers.

"This is a very serious incident in which the immunity and privileges granted to foreign diplomatic missions in Israel were cynically exploited to smuggle dozens of weapons that may be used for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces," Shin Bet said in a statement.

If convicted, Franck could face a lengthy prison sentence.

"The indictment is harsh and quite precedent-setting in terms of its scope," veteran Israeli criminal lawyer Elad Rath, who is not involved in the Franck case, told Reuters.

"It could potentially lead to a jail term in the double digits of years."

France said it was in contact with Israeli authorities.

"We take this case very seriously," a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Paris said in a statement, adding that the French ambassador to Israel had visited the suspect as part of efforts to ensure his rights were being safeguarded.

The French Foreign Ministry had also ordered an internal inquiry "to draw all the conclusions to allow the agents of our consulate-general to pursue in the best conditions their important mission in a difficult context", the statement said.

Appearing in court on Monday alongside his co-defendants, Franck covered his face with his prison jacket.

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