Israelis pounce as monitors slip away
By Harvey Morris in Jericho and Sharmila Devi in Jerusalem
Published: March 15 2006 02:00 | Last updated: March 15 2006 02:00
Palestinians vented their anger on British, US and other western targets yesterday after the Israeli army laid siege to a West Bank jail within an hour of the unannounced departure of British monitors supervising six high-profile detainees held there.
The nine-hour siege in which Israeli tanks blasted the walls of the Palestinian compound in Jericho ended last night with the six surrendering to the army and being taken into custody for possible trial in Israel.
They included Ahmed Sa'adat, a leftwing political leader wanted for murder by Israel, who won a seat in January's Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power. His secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a potential partner of the victorious Islamists in the next Palestinian cabinet.
His surrender came after Mr Sa'adat had told an Arabic television station by telephone from the jail: "The occupation is planning a mass massacre. Our morale is high and we will die as men."
As Palestinian officials accused Britain and the US of colluding with Israel to provoke the Jericho crisis, militants in the Gaza Strip and West Bank retaliated by briefly abducting at least nine foreigners.
Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, said events in Jericho were the full responsibility of the UK and US.
Mr Abbas last night flew back to Ramallah following the developments in Jericho, cancelling plans to address the European Union parliament and EU officials today.
"We have to condemn the action by Israel today," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU external relations commisssioner.
In Gaza City, a British cultural centre was set ablaze and demonstrators attacked a US teaching centre. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, a branch of HSBC bank was targeted.
As foreigners in Gaza sought the relative safety of PA security headquarters, Britain responded by urging its citizens to leave the Palestinian territories while the EU announced the withdrawal of its monitors manning the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah.
In London, Jack Straw, foreign minister, told parliament the British officials were withdrawn from Jericho out of concern for their safety after the Palestinian Authority "consistently failed" in its obligations under a 2002 agreement in which UK and US officials monitored the jail.
The three Britons who left yesterday morning were part of a 12-strong Anglo-American unit whose task was to supervise the operations of the Palestinian prison authorities. They quit their posts unannounced at about 9am and were spotted by Israeli officials leaving town through the main checkpoint.
The rotating force was posted in Jericho in 2002 as part of an agreement that ended the Israeli siege of the late Yassir Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, where the six detainees were previously being held.
Mr Sa'adat and three other PFLP men were wanted by Israel for the 2001 assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, an Israeli cabinet minister. Also detained at Jericho was Fuad Shobaki, a financial adviser to Arafat who was implicated in an allegedplot to smuggle arms into Gaza.
Palestinians saw the foreign monitors as an insurance policy for the safety of the six. Israel threatened in the past to assassinate Mr Sa'adat and his fellow PFLP detainees if they were released.
However, a Palestinian human rights group said it last week filed a suit in a British court claiming their detention and the monitoring was illegal.
London and Washington last week addressed a joint letter to Mr Abbas, Arafat's successor as Palestinian president, threatening to end supervision of the jail if there was no improvement in the security of the monitors. The warning came after Mr Abbas indicated he was prepared to consider freeing the detainees.
Although the immediate motive of the withdrawal was security, the crisis was evidently accelerated by a Hamas election victory that has led the international community to seek ways of isolating the Islamists.
Western diplomats acknowledged that Hamas' threats to disregard existing agreements between Israel and the PA - such as the Jericho prison deal - had contributed to UK and US concerns.
During Arafat's lifetime, the Palestinian Supreme Court ordered the release of the six Jericho detainees but the Palestinian leader said they must remain in jail, if only for their own safety.
British officials denied any collusion with the Israeli authorities. A senior Israeli officer said the army had standing orders to move in immediately the monitors left.
About 170 prisoners, security and civilian personnel surrendered to the army and were taken off for interrogation before those still holed up in the smoke-shrouded compound finally emerged at sunset.
Israeli officials dismissed suggestions the Jericho siege was part of a strategy by the government of Ehud Olmert, acting prime minister, to flex its muscles ahead of Israeli elections in two weeks' time.
Additional reporting by Fidelius Schmid in Strasbourg