JERICHO, West Bank (AP) – Israeli forces burst into a jail Tuesday in the West Bank town of Jericho, demanding the surrender of prisoners, including the mastermind of the killing of an Israeli Cabinet minister.
The operation sparked a shootout with Palestinian police that killed one Palestinian officer and a prisoner, Palestinian security officials said. Several hours into the raid, the first Palestinian prisoners came out, were blindfolded and ordered to strip to their underwear, but the top wanted man was not among them, witnesses said.
The operation was the most high-profile Israeli incursion into a Palestinian town in months and came just two weeks before Israel holds hard-fought national elections. Palestinians condemned the raid as a campaign stunt, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed the United States and British governments.
U.S. and British observers who had monitored the jail for the past four years withdrew early Tuesday morning, just before the raid, citing security concerns. The Israeli government ordered the raid because the monitors were withdrawn, the army said, blaming the Palestinians for violating the agreement regarding the prisoners.
Dozens of prisoners in their underwear came of the prison building, where they were being searched and blindfolded by Israeli troops. Some of them were taken away. None of them appeared to be the six targeted men.
Israeli forces entered the town Tuesday morning and surrounded the prison, calling over loudspeakers for prisoners to give themselves up. The troops then burst through the front gate of the jail with a bulldozer, drove inside in armored personnel carriers, and engaged in a shootout with the Palestinian police, said Akram Rajoub, the local security commander.
One policeman standing near the gate was killed in the shootout and a prisoner was also killed, security officials said. It was not clear if the prisoner was one of those wanted by Israel.
Two large explosions were heard at the prison and thick smoke filled the sky. Children in the town threw rocks at the Israeli soldiers and burning tires were put in the roads. Troops were later heard calling for all the prisoners and guards to come out of the jail.
The prisoners said they would not surrender. “Our prison is surrounded on all sides by Israelis. They are asking us over loudspeaker to come out,” Ahed Abu Ghoulmi, one of the targeted prisoners, told The Associated Press by telephone. “We will not come out under any circumstances.”
Among the targets of the raid is Ahmed Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical PLO faction. Saadat, who was elected to the Palestinian legislature in January, is being held for ordering the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.
Israel was also demanding the surrender of four other members of the PFLP, including the gunman who killed Zeevi, and Fuad Shobaki, the alleged mastermind of an illegal weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority several years ago.
Zeevi’ son, Palmach, told Israel’s Channel 10 TV that the raid was “an extraordinary and very important decision” by the government of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is running for prime minister at the head of the new, centrist Kadima Party.
The six men were being held at the jail under the supervision of British and American wardens in accordance with a deal worked out between U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2002. The agreement allowed the prisoners to be transferred from Yasser Arafat’s besieged compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where they were holed up during Israel’s operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. Israeli hard-liners chafed at the deal, believing it allowed an assassin to escape justice. Palestinians also criticized the agreement, which forced them to jail one of their top militant leaders under Israeli pressure. After Hamas won the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary elections, some leaders of the militant group said they planned to free Saadat.
The British and U.S. observers left the prison Tuesday morning. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw issued a statement Tuesday to the British parliament saying the observers were withdrawn because the Palestinian Authority had ignored repeated British requests for guarantees regarding their security.
“Ultimately, the safety of our personnel has to take precedence,” Straw said.
Abbas lashed out at the Americans and the British, saying they withdrew the monitors without telling him, violating the 2002 agreement. He said he would hold them responsible if anything happens to the prisoners. “The authority denounces this aggression and calls on the Israeli government to withdraw immediately from Jericho and to stop all the military acts, and it calls on the American and British observers to return immediately,” he said in a statement.
Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, called the raid “a dangerous escalation against the Palestinian leaders and freedom fighters.” “We warn against the continuation of this destructive attitude, especially harming the lives of freedom fighters. The Palestinian blood is becoming material for the competition of the Israeli election,” he said. Dozens of gunmen from the PFLP fired in the air in the Gaza Strip to protest the raid.