By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
JERICHO, West Bank, March 14 -- Israeli forces seized six Palestinian prisoners here Tuesday after a 10-hour assault that reduced to rubble much of the Palestinian jail compound where they were being held. The operation triggered a furious response by Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, much of it directed at foreign citizens and institutions.
The operation, coming two weeks before Israel's national elections, left at least two Palestinians dead. Dozens more were injured by gunfire or tear gas used to break up street clashes throughout the day. Employing armor, large-caliber machine guns and explosives, the incursion marked Israel's most aggressive push into a West Bank city in months.
The main target of the raid was Ahmed Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which Israel holds responsible for the October 2001 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. Since April 2002, Saadat had been held with four other front members implicated in the killing, guarded by a team of U.S. and British monitors.
The monitors left the prison complex Tuesday morning because of security fears that have been mounting since Hamas, following its victory in January parliamentary elections, said it would release Saadat later this month. Shortly after the monitors departed, Israeli forces began a day-long siege that rippled through the Palestinian territories before Saadat and the rest of the wanted prisoners surrendered just after dusk.
Palestinian gunmen kidnapped about nine foreigners in the Gaza Strip and attacked British Council offices there and in the West Bank city of Ramallah hours after the operation in Jericho began. Many of those abducted, including two female French physicians, were released by early evening.
The United Nations shut down operations in Gaza, imperiling relief assistance there, and the European Union monitoring mission at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt also pulled out. The International Committee of the Red Cross withdrew some of its staff members after one of its employees, a Swiss national, was taken by gunmen. He was later released.
In the streets of downtown Jericho, groups of young men erected barricades of flaming tires and overturned trash bins and stacks of concrete blocks. By twilight, the main roads were littered with stones.
Several Palestinian officials asserted that the operation was calculated to appeal to Israeli voters who have criticized a proposal by the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to define Israel's final borders through unilateral withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank.
"This was a demonstration for the Israeli elections and no more," said Hassan Barqawi, the general director of Jericho's hospital. "They could do this operation in 15 minutes. But to take 12 hours, well, it is only election propaganda for the Israeli voters."
Israeli officials said the timing of the operation was determined by the departure of the U.S. and British monitoring delegation, whose supervisors warned the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in a letter last week that they would withdraw if security at the jail was not improved.
Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, said in a statement to the House of Commons that "over the last month it has been increasingly clear the Palestinian Authority has been unable to do this." He added, "Ultimately, the safety of our personnel has to take precedence."
"What became clear to Israel is that it needed to take the initiative and bring them to a prison in Israel," said Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "No democracy can tolerate one of its elected politicians, or civilians, being killed. They must be kept behind bars."
Israeli forces used bulldozers, tank fire and explosives to dismantle the military complex housing nearly 300 members of the Palestinian security forces and prisoners, who surrendered in groups throughout the day.
Saadat, who was elected to the Palestinian parliament in January, pledged in interviews conducted by cell phone that he would not surrender. Leaders of Hamas, the radical Islamic group at war with Israel, urged him to hold out.
Saadat's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is a Marxist group on the U.S. government's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Saadat and four other PFLP members allegedly involved in Zeevi's killing -- itself a response to Israel's assassination of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa -- were transferred to the jail here from then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound in May 2002 on the condition they be kept under U.S. and British observation.
The sixth man Israeli forces sought was Fuad Shobaki, a member of Abbas's Fatah party implicated by Israel in arms smuggling. He was brought to the jail here under the same agreement, which ended a 34-day siege of Ramallah by the Israeli military.
Israeli officials said the British informed them Friday that they would be withdrawing the 15-member monitoring team but did not provide a date. U.S. officials said the Israelis and the Palestinians were notified as the three British guards on duty at the time departed.
"The withdrawal decision was made on the ground and not in coordination with the Israelis," said Stuart Tuttle, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Israel turned over this usually tranquil city, set against sheer hillsides amid the palms and orange groves of the Jordan Valley, to Palestinian security forces a year ago. Although Israeli troops maintain a presence on the city's perimeter, Tuesday's operation was the first time Israeli armor had entered the city in such force since the earliest days of the most recent Palestinian uprising, which started in September 2000.
Throughout the day, young Palestinians surged along streets largely empty of traffic, hurling stones at Israeli troops who sealed off several blocks around the military compound.
Along a narrow residential street leading to the compound, teenagers from the nearby Hisham Bin Abdel Malik School threw rocks at Israeli army jeeps a block away, then scattered through groves of fruit trees amid Israeli gunfire.
A university student iced a red welt on his upper thigh, inflicted by a rubber bullet. A young boy, shot through the pelvis, fell amid a back yard full of lemon trees. A group of men rushed him to a clinic blocks away, where he waited for transportation to the city hospital. He underwent surgery there hours later.
Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, commander of Israel's Central Command, said his troops had taken 280 prisoners from the compound by the end of the operation. Israeli officials said the standoff ended when Palestinian police, who had stood by Saadat throughout the day, surrendered soon after dusk.
Naveh said most of the prisoners would be released to the custody of the Palestinian Authority in coming days. But he said his troops had found 15 additional Palestinians wanted by Israeli forces who would remain in Israeli hands.
"We operated according to the circumstances in order to bring the murderers of Zeevi to trial," Naveh said.