A French consulate employee has been arrested by Israel’s security services for allegedly using a diplomatic vehicle to smuggle dozens of guns out of Gaza to Palestinian arms dealers in the occupied West Bank.
Romain Franck, a 24-year-old worker at the French diplomatic facility in Jerusalem, allegedly used his diplomatic privileges to sneak 70 handguns and two assault rifles through Israel’s border crossing with Gaza.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of MI5, said that Franck had acted out of financial motivations and without the knowledge of his superiors at the French consulate.
“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,” the Shin Bet said.
The French foreign ministry said it was taking the allegations “very seriously” and had ordered an internal inquiry.
The arrest of a French diplomatic worker on gun running charges is deeply embarrassing for France and the news comes days before Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, was expected to arrive for meetings in Israel.
An Israeli official said, however, that the arrest would not affect the “excellent” relations between France and Israel. The official said French diplomats were cooperating fully with investigators.
Franck appeared in court in the southern city of Beersheba on Monday afternoon, where he was charged with arms trafficking, fraud and criminal conspiracy. He could face a significant prison sentence if convicted.
Eight other people, including a Palestinian security guard at the French consulate, were also arrested as part of the case.
Israel alleges that the Frenchman made five gun smuggling trips out of Gaza between December 21 and February 12. Prosecutors said he was paid around $7,600 for the work.
The Shin Bet said that Franck collected the guns from a Palestinian working a French cultural centre in Gaza and then smuggled them out of the isolated Mediterranean enclave.
Diplomatic vehicles receive less intensive checks at the Israeli security post at the Erez crossing from Gaza to Israel, allegedly allowing Franck to get the guns out unseen.
He then allegedly delivered them to a contact in the West Bank who sold them on to Palestinian gun dealers. A Shin Bet official told Reuters that Franck appeared to been trying to make money rather than acting out of a political motivation.
His Facebook page showed he had travelled in Palestinian areas and several photos showed him wearing a black and white keffiyeh, the scarf often associated with Palestinian nationalism. Franck was arrested on February 15 and held without charge by Israeli authorities for more than a month. An Israeli court issued a gag order preventing local media from reporting on the case.
The French ambassador to Israel reportedly visited Fracnk in prison after his arrest.