MARK MACKINNON With a report from Canadian Press
JERICHO, WEST BANK — Foreigners fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip en masse yesterday as spasms of violence erupted in the Palestinian territories after Israeli soldiers laid siege to a prison in the biblical town of Jericho.
At least eight foreigners were kidnapped as Palestinian militants expressed their anger at the United States and Britain, which were blamed for letting the Israeli raid go ahead.
Gunmen in the Gaza Strip, where the majority of the hostage-takings took place, set fire to the office of the British Council and attacked several other foreign institutions, including a German television station and a U.S.-run educational institute providing English classes.
Israel launched the surprise attack on the prison in order to capture Ahmed Saadat, a militant leader it blames for the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister five years ago, as well as five other wanted men.
Mr. Saadat, 51, heads the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for the 2001 killing ofthen-tourism-minister Rehavam Zeevi, an act the group says was retribution for the killing of one of its own leaders.
Mr. Saadat, who was recently elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council, had been held in the Jericho prison, under Palestinian control with British and U.S. monitoring, since 2002.
The special security arrangements had been worked out under a deal between U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that saw Israel lift its siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound in exchange for the jailing of Mr. Saadat.
The monitors, however, left just before the Israeli raid began, sparking allegations from Palestinian leaders, as well as the Arab League, that the United States and Britain had co-ordinated their move with the Israeli military.
Staff trapped inside the prison during the attack said the monitors told them they were leaving to get their car fixed, and that the Israeli army arrived minutes later.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who offered during the raid to guarantee that Mr. Saadat would remain in jail if Israel suspended the military action, said he considered the United States and Britain responsible for Mr. Saadat’s safety.
Britain and the United States rejected allegations that there had been co-operation with the Israeli army. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he sent Mr. Abbas a letter on March 8 warning that the monitors could be withdrawn if security conditions didn’t improve.
When Mr. Saadat initially refused to surrender, the Israeli army began systematically demolishing the prison using bulldozers, tank fire and at least one helicopter missile. During the prolonged standoff, the calm that normally hangs over this oasis town near the Dead Sea was punctured by gunfire and occasional loud explosions.
Trapped in a small room with as many as 100 others as the Israeli army brought the jail down around them, Mr. Saadat and the other five eventually gave themselves up shortly after nightfall, emerging from the rubble of the prison with their hands raised. They had been ordered to strip by the Israeli Army. Mr. Saadat had originally vowed not to surrender, but morale inside the prison seemed to deteriorate throughout the day.
"We are in extreme danger. They are shelling us, and we don’t even have water. We are besieged," Hillel Jayyab, a prison-staff member who was trapped inside, said in a telephone interview shortly before the prisoners surrendered.
Reached on his mobile phone, Mr. Jayyab said he was in a 12-square-metre room with about 100 others, several of whom were injured. "There’s blood all over the floor," he said. Although Israeli forces said they had been fired on from inside the prison, Mr. Jayyab said none of the men inside the prison were armed.
Three Palestinians, including at least one prisoner and one guard, were killed in the operation, and at least 10 others were injured. No Israeli soldiers were hurt.
A crowd of 15,000 protesters marched through Gaza City chanting "death to the Americans, death to the British" as they attacked anything associated with Europe or the United States.
Several major international institutions, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, announced last night that they were temporarily pulling foreign staff out of Gaza.
At least four of the hostages taken yesterday were released later in the day, but most aid workers and journalists were nonetheless leaving Gaza in convoys escorted by Palestinian police. A United Nations jeep leaving the Gaza Strip came under fire late last night.
Confusion remained over the whereabouts of Canadian hostage Adam Budzanowski, who works for Atlanta-based humanitarian organization JumpStart International. A spokeswoman for JumpStart, Esther Michaels, said that her office had received a phone call saying that Mr. Budzanowski had been freed, but no one from the group had independently confirmed this.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa confirmed a Canadian had been kidnapped and released and said there were reports of another Canadian abducted who was still being held.
Spokeswoman Kim Girtel said Canadian officials had been in contact with Israeli officials about the second case and were seeking their help.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, described the raid as "reactive and defensive" since Israel was convinced that Mr. Saadat and the others were about to be released. The radical Islamist group Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian parliament, had spoken about freeing the men, and Mr. Abbas had indicated that he might not block their release.
Mr. Regev said Israel had no choice but to take action once the U.S. and British monitors left. "The fact that the monitors had to leave today was a signal that everything was falling apart very quickly," he said, adding that Mr. Saadat and the others would now face trial in Israel.
Analysts said the raid, the most high-profile incursion by Israeli forces into a Palestinian-controlled area in months, could bolster acting prime minister Ehud Olmert at the polls ahead of the Israeli election on March 28.