JERICHO, West Bank – Israeli soldiers using helicopters, tanks and bulldozers burst into a Palestinian jail Tuesday to seize militants wanted for the assassination of a Cabinet minister, triggering a 10-hour standoff that ended when the prisoners gave themselves up.
Furious Palestinians rampaged through the West Bank and Gaza Strip attacking offices linked to the United States and Europe and torching the British Council building in Gaza City. Palestinian gunmen also kidnapped nine foreigners, including an American university professor, and some aid agencies pulled their foreign staff out of Palestinian areas.
The Palestinians blamed the Jericho raid, which left three Palestinians dead, on Britain and the United States. Britain removed its monitoring mission from the jail minutes before the soldiers went in, targeting militants wanted for the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.
It was the highest profile Israeli incursion into a Palestinian town in months and came just two weeks before Israeli elections. Palestinians condemned the raid as a campaign stunt.
The raid came amid a breakdown in a four-year-old deal between the Palestinians, Israel, the United States and Britain over the guarding of the prisoners, and it underscored the wider collapse of relations between Israel and the Palestinians since the Islamic militant group Hamas won Jan. 25 Palestinian elections.
Israeli officials said recent statements by Palestinian officials and Hamas leaders of plans to release the prisoners, combined with the withdrawal of the monitors, forced them to act.
"We couldn't have a situation where murderers would be walking around free instead of being behind lock and key," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
Israel was targeting Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat, who ordered the 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, and four other militants accused off carrying out the killing. Saadat was elected to the Palestinian legislature in January. A sixth militant also was taken.
The troops surrounded the prison for nearly 10 hours, smashing down walls with bulldozers, shooting tank shells at its walls and engaging in gun battles. Dozens of prisoners and Palestinian police were pulled out of the building in their underwear, searched and blindfolded by Israeli troops. Smoke poured from the scene.
The wanted prisoners, who insisted they would not be taken alive, were among the last to surrender. Saadat and the others walked out of the prison in a single file line.
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 others did.
Israel also seized Fuad Shobaki, the mastermind of an illegal weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority several years ago, and 15 other militants, said Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, the chief of Israel's central command.
Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin said the men would be put on trial.
Zeevi's son, Palmach, hailed the raid as "brave."
"If dad was alive today ... he would have said this is the right thing to do," he told Israel TV.
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.
Naveh said troops were outside Jericho for days, waiting for the monitors to leave. Minutes after the withdrawal, troops rushed in, he said, denying there was any coordination with the monitors.
Hundreds of soldiers burst through the jail's front gate with a bulldozer and engaged in a shootout with Palestinian police, local security commander Akram Rajoub said.
One policeman and a prisoner were killed, security officials said. A third Palestinian was wounded and later died in an Israeli hospital, the army said.
Explosions shook the prison throughout the day as Israeli tanks fired shells at the walls, and thick smoke filled the sky. Diggers tore down parts of the compound as helicopters flew overhead.
Palestinians in the town threw rocks at the soldiers and burned tires in the roads.
The six wanted men were being held at the jail under the supervision of British and American wardens in accordance with a 2002 deal between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. 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 that year.
Israeli hard-liners chafed at the deal, believing it allowed an assassin to escape justice. Palestinians disliked jailing a popular militant leader.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said conditions at the prison were so bad the observers worked from the roof rather than inside the prison. Guards allowed prisoners to use cell phones in violation of the agreement and failed to enforce rules limiting visitors and phone calls, he said.
British officials had been in contact with the Palestinians four times since Friday to convey their concerns, Straw said. After their requests were ignored, the observers left the prison Tuesday morning, he said.
"Ultimately, the safety of our personnel has to take precedence," he said.
U.S. officials said there were no American monitors on duty at the prison Tuesday, just Britons. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Palestinians had been repeatedly informed of the American and British concerns about conditions.
McCormack said U.S. officials had contacted both sides "to urge calm and restraint."
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Channel 2 TV that Israel did not inform the United States in advance or coordinate the raid with Washington.
Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said the upcoming Israeli elections were one of the reasons behind the raid, but the main catalyst was concern Hamas would free Saadat, who was elected to the legislature in January.
Soon after the election, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal said the group planned to release him. On March 7, Palestinian leader Abbas said he was willing to release Saadat, but only if the PFLP accepted responsibility for his fate.
Abbas lashed out at the Americans and the British, saying they violated the agreement by withdrawing monitors without telling him. He said he would hold them responsible if anything happens to the prisoners.
Abbas also called on Palestinians to refrain from attacking foreigners, yet the raid cause an unprecedented spasm of violence against foreigners.
About 15,000 Palestinians, led by gunmen firing in the air, marched through Gaza City on Tuesday night chanting anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans.
Earlier, about 300 demonstrators, including dozens of gunmen, broke into the European Commission building and raised the PFLP flag on the roof. They also torched the British council offices and burned cars there. Police protecting the building left after a brief shootout.
Some protesters chanted: "Death to the Americans! Death to the British!"
In a series of raids, gunmen kidnapped three journalists — two South Koreans and a Frenchwoman — from an upscale Gaza hotel and a Swiss Red Cross worker in Khan Younis. Two French aid workers also were kidnapped in Gaza and two Australian teachers at an American school there were abducted but later freed.
An American who taught English at the American University in the West Bank town of Jenin also was seized briefly. The Red Cross worker was released Tuesday night.
Palestinian security forces rounded up foreigners for their protection, and a police-escorted convoy of vans carrying 15 foreigners sped through Gaza City toward the Gaza-Israel border crossing.
Some journalists were in the vans, along with an American couple and their three children.
Foreigners in Gaza took refuge at an office of the Palestinian security services, awaiting a police escort out of Gaza.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which gives food and other aid to Palestinian refugees, temporarily pulled its foreign employees out of Palestinian areas.
The PFLP warned it would target Britons and Americans throughout the region.
In Jenin, two dozen Palestinian gunmen fired in the air and warned that they would target Americans and Britons.
The last time Israeli troops forced a large-scale surrender was in April 2002 during a massive Israeli sweep through the West Bank that captured eight fugitives and dozens of Palestinian security officers.