An employee of France'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 suspect, identified as Romain Franck, 24, was part of a broader Palestinian smuggling ring and used his consular vehicle as cover to transport the weapons through Israel's tightly secured border with the Gaza Strip, according to Israel's security authority, the Shin Bet.
In all, Franck transferred 70 handguns and two rifles on five occasions over recent months, the Shin Bet said. He received the arms from a man employed at the French cultural center in Gaza and brought them to someone in the West Bank where they were then sold to arms dealers, investigators added.
Police said Franck used his diplomatic vehicle as a cover, exploiting the lesser security check that is granted to diplomats. Israel's security authority sent reporters a picture of what it said was the consular vehicle, a silver SUV, though it was not clear from the photo whether the vehicle carried the white license plates of the consular corps.
Investigators said Franck was arrested Feb. 15 in the Erez Checkpoint during one of his smuggling attempts. A source with the security authority told Fox News they found “several weapons wrapped in a plastic bag” in the trunk of the car.
He confessed to the charges citing financial motives, and said his superiors at the consulate did not know about the plans, police said.
The investigation was carried out in coordination with the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “We take this case very seriously and are in close contact with the Israeli authorities,” a spokesman for the French Embassy in Tel Aviv said.
It was not clear what level of diplomatic immunity, if any, Franck has held. His level of immunity could affect whether he is tried in Israel or expelled to France, if found guilty.
In all, nine suspects have been arrested, and six were indicted Monday. Among the suspects: a Palestinian security guard at the French Consulate in Jerusalem.
According to his Facebook page, Franck, who is from Lambersart in the north of France, arrived in Jerusalem in January 2017. "It's the big day, starting to a new adventure.. Thank you for everything that accompanied me and supported in this new experience that begins!" he wrote at the time.
Later he posted many photos from the region, including from Petra and Aqaba in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the Jordan Valley.
The case was reported extensively on Sunday in the French press but a gag order was imposed on coverage of it in Israel, even though the relevant agencies in Israel, including the Shin Bet and the Foreign Ministry, had already worked on a press release on matter. It was removed on Monday morning, prior to the indictments of the suspects.
This is not the first time that a security-related case has been barred from publication while it was covered extensively abroad.
The sensitive case comes ahead of a planned visit next week by the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.