Israeli customs officials on Tuesday arrested a French consulate employee carrying nearly $2 million in checks, 152 kg in gold bars -- about 334 pounds -- and a half ton of tobacco as he tried to cross between Jordan and the West Bank in a diplomatic vehicle, a French source confirmed to FRANCE 24.
More than 150kg of gold, mainly in solid bars, were found in the diplomatic vehicle. Intrigued by the smell of tobacco, Israeli officials asked the man if they could search his car. He refused, explaining that his diplomatic plates were registered at the French consulate in Jerusalem and that he possessed a service passport – an official document issued by the French authorities that indicates he is a member of the consular staff but which does not serve as a diplomatic passport.
A hidden treasure
Faced with more questions and increasing pressure, the man grew nervous and asked to be allowed to turn around and return to Jordan. The officials refused and called their superiors, who alerted the French consulate. The ambassador was away, so his deputy took the case.
While the diplomat told the young driver that he was probably right in refusing a search, he insisted it would be in his best interests to obey the custom officials' orders, whereupon the man informed the consular official that what he was carrying wasn’t "insignificant". The diplomat, realising that the situation was becoming increasingly complicated, alerted the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris.
Hundreds of brand new cell phones were also found and seized.
The ministry's advice was to allow the vehicle to be searched to avoid giving the impression that there was a coverup.
The driver eventually complied, revealing 152 kg of gold, mostly in bars; 500 kg of tobacco; hundreds of new cell phones; and nearly $2 million in checks.
Deported back to France
The Israeli police arrested the man, who was in charge of the consulate’s garage, questioned him and quickly deported him to France.
Now back on French soil, it is still unclear whether or not the driver was arrested by French police.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Vincent Floriani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, said the driver was travelling on his own account, privately, and not on behalf of the embassy.
He insisted that the French and Israeli authorities had cooperated fully. "We have absolutely no tolerance for this kind of behaviour," he said.
The case, however, could harm the reputation of the French consulate in Jerusalem, which some Israelis already call “the embassy of France in Palestine".