Israelis besiege Palestinian jail

6 inmates are seized amid fears of release

Standoff ignites wave of retaliatory attacks against foreigners

March 15, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JERICHO, West Bank -- Israeli forces using tanks, bulldozers and helicopters besieged a Palestinian jail for nearly 10 hours yesterday and seized inmates involved in the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001, unleashing a wave of retaliatory attacks by Palestinians.

Outraged by the raid, which left three Palestinians dead at the jail, Palestinian gunmen kidnapped 10 foreigners in the West Bank and Gaza, including an American University professor, a Red Cross worker, two South Korean journalists and two Australian teachers at an American school.

They also set fire to a British cultural center in Gaza City.

The events highlighted the dismal state of Palestinians' relations with Israel and the international community since the Islamic militant group Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority in elections in January.

Coming two weeks before Israeli elections, the raid on the Jericho jail compound prompted criticism by Palestinians that Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was seeking to shore up support for his campaign.

The Israeli military focused on six prisoners, including five linked to the 2001 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, reviled by Palestinians for advocating the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank. Under the terms of an agreement reached by Israel, the Palestinians and the United States, the six were held in the Palestinian jail but monitored by British and American observers.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said British and U.S. officials had complained to Palestinian officials four times since Friday about lax security within the jail and the growing dangers for the monitors. Fearing for their safety, the British monitors were spending much of their time on the roof of the building, he said.

Straw said that because those concerns were ignored, the three monitors on duty yesterday left the jail, passed an Israeli checkpoint and drove out of the West Bank.

Within 30 minutes, Israeli forces swept into Jericho, surrounded the jail and demanded that Palestinian police and jail officials hand over the six wanted inmates.

The sixth prisoner of interest to the Israelis was Fuad Shobaki, who organized the smuggling of weapons on a ship, the Karine A, that the Israeli navy intercepted in January 2002, preventing the cargo from reaching the Palestinian Authority.

Among those involved in the assassination of Zeevi was Ahmed Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. While jailed, Saadat, who is accused of being the mastermind of the killing, managed to run a successful campaign to be elected to the new Palestinian parliament.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said Israel acted to protect its interests after Palestinian officials said they intended to release the six men when Hamas formally took power this month.

"We had concerns that the prisoners would start to leave the jail, disappearing into the territories. To arrest them again would be a difficult and expensive operation," Regev said. "We had a moment of opportunity we had to use. Otherwise these guys would not be under lock and key."

Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas, told reporters that the raid was "a dangerous escalation against the Palestinian leaders and freedom fighters."

The six prisoners were held in a special section of the jail, where more than 200 other Palestinians were incarcerated, the majority of them common criminals, Israeli officials said.

During the siege, Palestinian police briefly exchanged fire with Israeli forces, who used bulldozers and tanks to begin knocking down the walls of the jail. Black smoke twisted into the sky as Israeli tanks and bulldozers blasted their way through the jail's walls.

By late afternoon, the majority of inmates began surrendering and leaving the compound. Israeli soldiers forced many of the Palestinians to strip to their underwear before walking with their hands in the air into Israeli custody.

Saadat, however, initially refused to surrender, telling Al-Jazeera television: "We are going to face our destiny with courage."

After Zeevi's assassination, Saadat had found protection inside Yasser Arafat's guarded Ramallah compound, where he was joined by his accomplices and Shobaki. Arafat refused to hand them over, and Israeli forces moved in, beginning a five-week standoff.

It ended in May 2002 after President Bush brokered an agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that allowed the men to be held in Jericho, under observation by American and British monitors. In return, Israeli troops pulled back from Arafat's West Bank compound.

Yesterday, after nightfall, Saadat stepped out of the jail and surrendered to Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials said they plan to put the six men on trial.

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