Israeli occupation forces smashed into a West Bank jail with tanks and bulldozers on Tuesday, pulling out scores of prisoners and guards and seizing a prominent Palestinian prisoner after a siege that killed three Palestinian and ignited protests across the territories.
Ahmad Saadat, accused by Israel of involvement in the 2001 killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, was among a group of prisoners who surrendered just after nightfall, Palestinian and Israeli sources said. At least nine hostages, most of them foreigners, were being held in the Gaza Strip and British and U.S. offices were attacked and ransacked across the territories in reaction to the raid.
The Palestinians blamed the Jericho raid on Britain and the U.S. which removed their monitoring mission from the jail just before the soldiers went in. Palestinians condemned the raid as an Israeli campaign stunt. The troops surrounded the prison for nearly 10 hours, smashing down walls with bulldozers and shooting tank shells at its walls, minutes after the withdrawal of British monitors. Dozens of prisoners and Palestinian police were pulled out of the building in their underwear and searched and blindfolded by the troops.
Israel had agreed to allow the Authority to keep Saadat in Jericho prison under international supervision in a deal to end an Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah in May 2002. Saadat and five other militants were the focus of the Israeli assault.
The wanted prisoners, who insisted they would not be taken alive, were among the last to surrender. The gray-haired Saadat, wearing a light-colored jacket, looked down as he slowly walked out. He did not raise his arms in surrender as many of the other prisoners had done. Israeli officials claimed recent statements by Palestinian officials and Hamas leaders of plans to release the prisoners, combined with the pullout of the monitors, forced them to act.
One policeman standing near the gate was killed in the shootout and a prisoner was also killed, security officials said. A third Palestinian was wounded and later died in hospital, the army said. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the raid and the withdrawal of the U.S. and British monitors. "President Abbas strongly condemns this Israeli attack and holds the American and British sides fully responsible for any harm that befalls Saadat and his colleagues," Abbas’ office said in a statement.
Hamas warned Israel against harming the prisoners and accused interim Premier Ehud Olmert’s government of "trying to use Palestinian blood to win the Israeli election." Asked about the raid, Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad told Reuters: "Escalation on both sides will not serve any purpose … both parties should avoid escalation."
But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied charges that his government had colluded with Israel by withdrawing its three monitors, saying they were pulled out for their safety. Speaking to lawmakers in the House of Commons, Straw did not condemn any side by name but said the "appalling acts of violence" were "totally unwarranted," adding: "We urge all sides to show restraint." British officials had been in contact with the Palestinians four times since Friday to convey the urgency of their concerns, Straw said. With the request ignored, the observers left the prison Tuesday morning, he said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials had been in touch with both sides "to urge calm and restraint." Arab League chief Amr Moussa accused Israel of coordinating Saadat’s capture with Britain and the United States. Moussa said he was in touch with Arab and international leaders, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to "bring a swift and complete end to this dangerous and strange (Israeli) intervention." Abbas called on Palestinians to refrain from attacks on foreigners, but the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine vowed that the siege will not go unpunished. "It will not pass without retaliation," politburo leader Kaid al-Rul told AFP.
"These are dangerous events – Israel is not respecting agreements. We will discuss our response," he added. The PFLP also warned it would target Britons and Americans throughout the region. Two French women doctors, a Swiss who headed the Red Cross mission in the depressed town of Khan Younis and four other foreigners were grabbed at gunpoint from a luxury hotel in the Gaza Strip.
A French reporter and a French photographer were also kidnapped, the Foreign Ministry in Paris said.
Two Australian nationals were briefly kidnapped in the Gaza Strip. PFLP militants also snatched a U.S. citizen briefly in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun before Palestinian security forces recovered the man.
Hundreds of furious Palestinians mobbed the British cultural center in Gaza City and set fire to the building after an angry protest in which gunmen pumped a volley of bullets into the air. Protestors also swarmed into the British Consulate in Gaza City, while other furious Palestinians attacked the British Council office and a branch of the HSBC bank in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Palestinian gunmen also broke into an American office used to teach English in Gaza and smashed up furniture. – Agencies