JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli prosecutors charged a French consular driver on Monday with using a diplomatic car to elude border inspections and spirit guns from the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip to the Israeli-occupied West Bank on behalf of a Palestinian smuggling ring.
The indictment against Romain Franck, a 23-year-old French citizen, was served hours after a gag order was lifted on his Feb. 15 arrest by Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency, whose roles include counter-terrorism and counter-espionage.
Shin Bet officials, however, said Franck’s motive for transporting 70 pistols and two assault rifles was financial, rather than any ideological support for Palestinian militants.
He received some $7,600 in payment for the contraband, according to the indictment, which listed counts including arms possession, arms trafficking, fraud and criminal conspiracy.
“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 in a statement.
Franck’s lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment on how he may plead to the charges in Beersheba District Court.
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.
Franck was arrested along with a Palestinian from East Jerusalem employed as a security guard at the consulate as well as seven other suspects, the Shin Bet said. In the dock on Monday, the Frenchman covered his face with his prison jacket.
Most countries keep their embassies to Israel in Tel Aviv, as well as consulates in Jerusalem that handle diplomatic matters for the Palestinians.
Israel counts all of Jerusalem as its capital, a status not recognised abroad though the Trump administration, breaking with other world powers, plans to move the U.S. embassy there in May.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Shin Bet accused Franck of using a consulate car, which enjoyed more cursory Israeli security checks due to its diplomatic status, to bring the factory-grade guns from Gaza to Palestinian arms dealers in the West Bank.
The first smuggling run took place around Dec. 21 and the last around Feb. 12, the indictment said.
Franck “acted for financial profit, on his own initiative and without the knowledge of his superiors”, the Shin Bet said.
It said Franck received the guns from a Palestinian employed by the French Cultural Centre in Gaza. Officials at the centre could not immediately be reached for comment.
A Facebook page under the name Romain Franck, and carrying photographs that looked similar to the mugshot published by the Shin Bet, shows images of the young man against desert vistas.
“Feeling good in Palestine,” says one caption.
A Jan. 17 posting said the Facebook account-holder was “travelling to Jerusalem starting to (sic) a new adventure”.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich