Israel charges French Consulate driver with gun smuggling

A French employee of the country's consulate in Jerusalem is under arrest for allegedly smuggling dozens of weapons from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, Israel's domestic security agency says.

Consulate's SUV used to carry 70 handguns and 2 rifles from Gaza to West Bank for financial gain, police say

French consulate worker Romain Franck, a French employee of France's consulate in Jerusalem, covers his face during a hearing at the district court in Beersheba, Israel, March 19. Franck has been arrested on charges of smuggling dozens of guns from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

A French employee of the country's consulate in Jerusalem is under arrest for allegedly smuggling dozens of weapons from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, Israel's domestic security agency said Monday.

The Shin Bet said the man, identified as Romain Franck, 23, was part of a broader Palestinian smuggling ring. It said he used his consular vehicle, which gets more lenient security checks, to transport the weapons through Israel's tightly secured border with the Gaza Strip. It said he took part in the ring for financial gain and that his employer was unaware of his actions.

The French Embassy in Israel issued a statement confirming that a consulate employee had been arrested, saying it was treating the incident with "great importance," but wouldn't discuss the case itself.

The embassy said it was in contact with Israeli authorities and the suspect's family, and was opening an internal investigation into the matter.

On Monday, Israel charged Franck with conspiracy to commit a crime and multiple weapons offences, among other counts.

"This is a very serious incident in which the privileges and immunity granted to foreign missions in Israel were cynically exploited to smuggle dozens of weapons that could be used in terror attacks," the Shin Bet statement said.

The Shin Bet said Franck transferred a total of 70 handguns and two assault rifles on five occasions over recent months. It said he received the arms from a Gaza man employed at the French cultural centre in Gaza and brought them to someone in the West Bank, where they were then sold to arms dealers.

Romain Franck covers his face during a hearing in Beersheba, Monday. Israel's internal security agency said Franck smuggled more than 70 guns on five occasions in his consular vehicle, which was subjected to more lenient security checks than other vehicles. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

The French Foreign Ministry said the arrested employee, a member of the consulate's "technical staff," was detained by Israeli authorities "under serious charges related to alleged trafficking in arms."

The ongoing internal investigation is aimed at "drawing all the conclusions to allow our Consulate General's members to pursue in the best conditions their important mission in a difficult context," ministry spokesperson Agnes Von Der Muhll said.

The French ambassador and other embassy officials have visited the consular employee and "we're making sure that all the rights of our compatriot are well respected," she said.

The Shin Bet said Franck, who was arrested in February, confessed to the charges. A gag order on the case was lifted Monday.

According to the indictment, Franck was a driver for the consulate and would ferry diplomatic staff between Gaza and Jerusalem.

He would transport the arms in packages or suitcases in the trunk of the consular car and lie to Israeli security guards at the Gaza border crossing when asked if he was carrying any weapons. The indictment said Franck earned thousands of dollars for moving the guns.

Israeli officials believe that consular immunity would not apply in this case.

The Shin Bet sent reporters a picture of what it said was the consular vehicle, a silver SUV. It was not clear from the photo whether the vehicle carried the white license plates of the consular corps.

Nine people, including Franck, were arrested, the Shin Bet said. Among the suspects is a Palestinian security guard at the French Consulate in Jerusalem.

The Shin Bet said French authorities were kept aware of developments on the case during the investigation.

Israel has previously accused Palestinians employed by the UN or non-governmental organizations of participating in hostile activities, including collaborating with Gaza's militant Hamas rulers, but allegations against international staffers are rare.