JERUSALEM (AP) – After Israel’s grab of top Palestinian prisoners from a West Bank jail, angry Palestinians staged a protest strike Wednesday, their embarrassed president rushed back from Europe and Israel said it is determined to put the detainees on trial for the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister. “Got ’em!” gloated one banner newspaper headline, above a large photo of blindfolded, handcuffed Palestinian militant leader Ahmed Saadat being led away by Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Jericho.
Tuesday’s daylong siege came just two weeks before Israel’s general election and boosted acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s image as a tough-minded leader. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a member of Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party, dismissed allegations by Palestinians and critics at home that the operation, which involved some 1,000 troops, including elite commandos, was timed to win over hardline voters.
The raid triggered unprecedented Palestinian reprisals against foreigners, because British wardens, who had supervised the Jericho prisoners, along with American monitors, under an unusual 2002 arrangement, left their posts just before Israeli troops arrived.
Gunmen vandalized Western offices and kidnapped 11 foreigners, including an American university professor.
Palestinian security officials said three hostages, including a South Korean journalist, were released Wednesday and were en route to security headquarters. A Canadian man remained in captivity.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas cut short a European tour and was to return to the West Bank on Wednesday. In an unusually harsh statement, he blamed the U.S. and Britain for the Israeli raid, which made him appear increasingly weak to his people. The blow to his authority comes at a time when he is wrangling over the division of powers with the Islamic militant Hamas, which is poised to form a new government this month.
“The Americans and the British wanted to help Kadima in the election,” said former Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath, an Abbas ally. Israeli forces took the Palestinian Authority by surprise when they ringed the Jericho prison Tuesday morning and demanded the surrender of all prisoners, including Saadat and four accomplices in the 2001 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. Throughout the day, groups of prisoners emerged from the lockup, their hands raised and forced to strip to their underwear. Helicopters and tanks shelled the building and jackhammers tore down walls to force the others to give up as well. Saadat, leader of a radical PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), held out until after nightfall, then walked out in a single file of prisoners and Palestinian police.
In all, more than 300 Palestinians were detained, and about 100 have since been released, the Israeli military said. Saadat and other top prisoners were questioned overnight at a small army base near Jericho. In addition to the PFLP prisoners, Israel seized Fuad Shobaki, the alleged financier of an illegal weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority several years ago.
Israeli officials said Wednesday they are determined to put Saadat and four other PLFP activists on trial for the assassination of Zeevi, but will first have to overcome some legal hurdles. The four believed to be directly involved in the assassination were convicted in the past by a Palestinian court, and legal experts said they’d have to sort out first whether they can be tried again.
Despite the legal questions, Israel intends on keeping Saadat and the others, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio. “I have no doubt that they will stay with us for a long time,” Livni said.
Zeevi, an ultranationalist who advocated the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory, was shot dead in the hallway of a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001, and the PFLP claimed responsibility at the time.
Saadat and four PFLP activists directly involved in the killing were eventually arrested by Palestinian police. In April 2002, a makeshift court hastily convened in then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s West Bank compound sentenced the four to prison terms ranging from one to 18 years. Saadat was not charged, with Palestinian officials saying at the time they did not believe he was involved in the Zeevi killing.
At the time of the trial, Israeli forces were besieging Arafat’s compound, in part to seize the PFLP suspects. Under an internationally brokered deal to end the siege, Saadat and the others were transferred to Jericho, where U.S. and British inspectors were to supervise their imprisonment.
British and American officials said they had complained repeatedly about security conditions at the prison and threatened in a letter last week, a copy of which was sent to Israel, to remove the monitors if things did not improve immediately.
Israeli officials said that once the monitors left, they were forced to act in light of recent statements by Palestinian officials and amas leaders, including incoming Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of plans to release the prisoners.
“As soon as Haniyeh said that he is going to free them, why should we give them any time?” Mofaz, the Israeli defense minister, told Army Radio Wednesday. “That’s why we acted the way we did.” Israeli politicians, from Benjamin Netanyahu of the hardline Likud Party, to Yossi Beilin of the dovish Meretz Party, accused Kadima of trying to lure hardliner voters. “I wouldn’t say that this was the main reason but if elections weren’t happening, maybe the decision would have been different,” Beilin told Army Radio Wednesday. Mofaz denied political concerns motivated the raid, saying the timing was determined by the departure of the monitors. “We knew a week before that it could happen any day but did someone plan this timing?” Mofaz said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said conditions at the prison were so bad that the observers had to work from the roof rather than the inside of the prison. Guards were allowing prisoners to use mobile phones in violation of the agreement and failing to enforce rules limiting visitors and phone calls, he said.
U.S. officials said there were no American monitors at the prison Tuesday, just Britons. On Wednesday, Palestinians closed shops across the West Bank and Gaza to protest the raid, amid an outburst of anti-Western sentiment. Late Tuesday, about 15,000 Palestinians, led by dozens of gunmen firing in the air, marched through Gaza City chanting anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans.