JERUSALEM – After Israel's grab of top Palestinian prisoners from a West Bank jail, angry Palestinians staged protest strikes Wednesday and their embarrassed president rushed back from Europe. Israel said it was determined to put the detainees on trial for the 2001 assassination of a 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 Palestinian officials and critics at home that the operation, which involved some 1,000 troops, was timed to win over hardline voters.
The raid triggered unprecedented Palestinian reprisals against foreigners, because British wardens — who along with American monitors had supervised the Jericho prisoners 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. By Wednesday afternoon, all had been released.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut short a European trip and called the raid an "unforgivable crime" and "an insult to the Palestinian people" as he toured the demolished complex.
Abbas suggested there was close coordination between British and American inspectors at the prison and Israeli forces. Abbas said the foreign monitors left Jericho at 9:20 a.m. Tuesday, and that Israeli forces entered town 10 minutes later.
Pressed to elaborate, he said: "I'm giving the facts. They (the monitors) left at 9:20 a.m., and the Israelis came in at 9:30 a.m. How can we explain that?"
The Israeli raid made Abbas appear increasingly weak to his people.
"This was a severe blow to the Palestinian Authority and to Abu Mazen (Abbas) personally," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who was accompanying him.
The raid came at a time when Abbas is wrangling over the division of powers with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which is poised to form a new government this month. In the West Bank city of Nablus, hundreds chanted anti-Abbas slogans during a protest.
Israeli forces took the Palestinian Authority by surprise when they ringed the Jericho prison Tuesday 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, including many policemen who had been stationed at jail. 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.
Olmert said Wednesday the six "will be indicted according to Israeli law and they will be punished as they deserve."
The four believed to be directly involved in the assassination were convicted in the past by a Palestinian court, and Israeli legal experts said earlier Wednesday it was unclear whether they could be tried again.
Despite the legal questions, Israel intends to keep 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," he said.
Outgoing Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa said Israel would violate international law by trying the six, but did not explain.
Zeevi, an ultranationalist who advocated the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory, was shot to death in the hallway of a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001, and the PFLP claimed responsibility.
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.
Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the withdrawal of British monitors, saying it came after careful consideration and months of warnings about problems at the jail.
"The idea that this was ... uncalled-for or not thought through is simply wrong," he said in his weekly House of Commons question session.
Al-Kidwa said the letter was confusing and never made clear the foreigners were planning to leave their post.
Israeli officials said that once the monitors left, they were forced to act in light of recent statements by Palestinian officials and Hamas 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 told Army Radio on Wednesday.
Israeli politicians, from Benjamin Netanyahu of the hard-line Likud Party to Yossi Beilin of the dovish Meretz Party, accused Kadima of trying to lure 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.
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.
On Wednesday, Palestinians closed shops across the West Bank and Gaza to protest the raid, amid an outburst of anti-Western sentiment. In Gaza, schools opened, but most students left early in a show of protest. Nablus residents observed a general strike.