Prison raid fallout spreads
An Israeli siege of a Palestinian jail Tuesday could undermine Abbas.
JERICHO, WEST BANK — The Israeli army laid siege to a Palestinian Authority prison here Tuesday, demanding custody of the man Israel holds responsible for the 2001 assassination of its tourism minister. The raid led to a day-long standoff before he and other holdouts surrendered rather than be killed.
The army drove bulldozers in and lobbed tank shells in an attempt to force him and others to turn themselves in, after international observers at the prisons left, citing deteriorating security conditions.
The fallout of the siege spread by the hour, as the diplomatic, military, and political implications of the breakdown in international cooperation became more apparent, raising concerns of further violence in what is already a tinderbox atmosphere.
Making a full-blown incursion into what is supposed to be autonomous Palestinian territory, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) surrounded the prison here just 20 minutes after the 9 a.m. departure of three observers from Britain, which along with the US, had agreed to keep watch over the high- profile prisoners.
They were there to assure Israel that the Palestinian militants responsible for killing Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi would not walk free. One prisoner and one guard were killed and several others were wounded in what became a violent standoff between the army and Palestinian guards.
"If they don't get out, we'll take them out," Col. Roni Belkin, second in command of the IDF armored division in charge of the raid, told reporters gathering on a stony hillside in view of the prison, watching smoke from tank fire rise over the normally placid city.
Enraged over the raid, Palestinians in several West Bank cities marched and fired guns into the air, promising to take revenge on British and US nationals. Hamas called on its activists to join in a massive march in Gaza planned for Wednesday.
In the Gaza Strip, militants believed to be connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation for Palestine (PFLP) - the group that took responsibility for Mr. Zeevi's murder - stormed the European Union's compound. They shot into the building and then set fire to the offices of the British Council, which housed a library and educational facilities.
At least seven foreign nationals were kidnapped Tuesday. In Gaza, a Swiss aid worker in the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, two French citizens, and a South Korean journalist were all abducted. News wires reported that two Australians seized by gunmen were also let go.
An American schoolteacher was kidnapped around Jenin, in the West Bank, and later released. And gunmen fired on a convoy of foreigners being evacuated from Gaza, but there were no casualties, according to media reports.
The fact that the British guards would be walking off the job soon had been apparent since March 8, when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sent a letter to the PA warning of the impending withdrawal. In the letter, Mr. Straw complained that his concerns for the monitors' safety had not been met, and warned that they would leave if their situation didn't change immediately.
Observers say the situation for the Britons had deteriorated since the January election victory of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Group. Both Britain and the US have said that they will not maintain relations with the PA if it is run by Hamas, which they view as a terrorist group.
But the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was angry over the withdrawal of the observers and portrayed it as a surprise for which he had had no warning.
"The Authority denounces this aggression and calls on the Israeli government to withdraw immediately from Jericho and to stop all the military acts, and it calls on the American and British observers to return immediately," Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, said in a statement.
Around 9 a.m., Col. Belkin watched the British observers' cars, ones he knows well, leave town. Twenty minutes later, his men - about 100 of them - were inside Jericho, bombarding the outer walls with bulldozers and using megaphones to call on the prisoners inside to come out. They also used tank shells, according to wire reports.
Of approximately 200 inside, some 170 of them came out voluntarily, many of them dressed in their undergarments in an apparent move to show they were unarmed.
About 30 Palestinians remained inside, including what is believed to be some prison guards. The men inside had firearms, which were permitted under previous Palestinian-Israeli peace accords, but it was unclear whether the Palestinians had fired on the Israeli army waiting outside.
At the end of the day, after a nearly 10-hour-long siege, the man the Israelis wanted most decided to surrender: Ahmed Saadat, the head of the PFLP and a winner, as of January, of a seat on the Palestinian legislative council. He and five other senior militants with high-profile cases have been held in the prison here since 2002.
Mr. Saadat had told Al Jazeera in an interview from his cellphone inside the prison that he would never turn himself in to the Israelis. A reporter who reached one the prisoners said that five men inside were wounded and unable to be evacuated.
Belkin says his soldiers have orders to bring out Saadat "alive," but added, "If he will continue this way, he will be taken - not alive."
Palestinians consider Israeli incursions, though usually on a much-smaller scale, to be paramount proof of Israel's disregard of the peace agreements between the two peoples. But Israelis have condemned what they say is a "revolving door" prison system in which Palestinian convicted of killings and other serious crimes are allowed to come and go.
Israeli officials defended the move by saying that they were concerned that the government minister's assassins would be set free. "In the last four weeks there were several occasion in which we saw Palestinian prisoners being let go from the prison with the PA's acknowledgement, and we know in the end ... they will do it for these six [wanted men]."