Israel, Palestinians trade recriminations

March 16, 2006|By KEN ELLINGWOOD | KEN ELLINGWOOD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERICHO, West Bank -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called Israel's raid on a Palestinian jail "an ugly crime" yesterday, and Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister, said the six men seized would be tried in Israel.

Israel and the Palestinians traded recriminations throughout the day over the Israeli military operation on Tuesday in the West Bank town of Jericho. In a daylong Israeli siege that destroyed the jail, soldiers captured five members of a militant group that has claimed responsibility for killing an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001. A sixth Palestinian, accused of organizing a large weapons shipment, was also seized by the Israelis.

Abbas cut short a trip to Europe and returned home to visit the ruins of the jail.

"What happened is an ugly crime that cannot be forgiven and an insult for the Palestinian people," Abbas told reporters.

Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University, said the raid had "a damaging effect on the Palestinian Authority in general and specifically on Abbas." The episode showed "that the authority is incapable in front of the Palestinian people, incapable of protecting them."

The outgoing foreign minister, Nasser Kidwa, took issue with assertions by U.S. and British officials that the two governments had withdrawn their monitors at the jail because Palestinian authorities could no longer guarantee their safety.

U.S. and British observers were posted at the jail as part of an agreement to ensure that the six men, five of whom are suspected by Israeli in the 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, remained in custody. The 2002 arrangement, brokered by Americans and British officials, helped end an Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israel said that, with Hamas coming to power, it believed the imprisoned men would soon be freed, and it decided to act when the monitors left.

"It was clear that the moment there was a Hamas minister of the interior, he'd free them, and Abu Mazen [Abbas' popular name], as usual, didn't say he wouldn't free them or that he would prevent their being freed," Amos Gilad, a senior official in Israel's Defense Ministry, told Israeli radio. "It was clearly extremely likely that the moment the jailers left, they would very soon be freed."

The Israeli operation came two weeks before Israel is to hold national elections and at a time when Hamas is working to form a new Palestinian government. The Israeli news media and politicians described the raid as a success, though a few critics suggested the timing was intended to show Olmert as a strong, tough leader before the election.

Olmert dismissed this, saying the timing was determined by the British and American decision to withdraw their monitors.

"We are proud that we have imposed justice on these killers," Olmert said during a tour of police headquarters in Jerusalem. The Palestinians who were seized "will be indicted according to Israeli law and they will be punished as they deserve."

The most prominent prisoner is Ahmed Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small militant group that has said it carried out the killing of Zeevi.

Some Palestinians said the raid could be a sign of how Israel is likely to act with Hamas in power.

Palestinian militants kidnapped at least nine foreigners in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli raid began. Most were released within hours of their abductions, and the final four - two French journalists, a South Korean television correspondent and a Canadian national - were released unharmed yesterday,

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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