- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

LONDON — U.S. and British officials acknowledge having informed Israel last week that they might withdraw their monitors from a prison in Jericho but denied having coordinated their departure with Israel.

Palestinians, infuriated by the Israeli raid on the prison just minutes after the monitors withdrew yesterday, charged that the two countries must have coordinated their actions with Israeli forces.

Nabil Shaath, deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, told the British Broadcasting Corp. he believed the pullout was planned precisely to allow the Israelis to come in and arrest some of the jail’s prisoners.

But Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the monitors left only after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was warned in a March 8 letter that the monitors might be withdrawn at any time because Palestinian security forces were failing to ensure the safety of the monitors.

A copy of that letter was sent to the Israelis as required by the terms of the 2002 agreement that set up the monitors, he said.

U.S. officials also described the March 8 letter, sent jointly by both countries, but insisted there had been no further coordination with Israel.

“You can say for sure that the U.S. did not know about the Israeli raid before it happened,” spokesman Tom Casey said at the State Department.

The monitors were established at the Jericho prison after a 2002 standoff in which then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and several militants wanted by Israel had been besieged by Israeli forces at Mr. Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.

Israel finally agreed to lift the siege and allow six of the men to be jailed in Jericho, provided the U.S. and British monitors were in place to ensure they were properly imprisoned.

Palestinian officials remained skeptical about the U.S. and British explanations yesterday, noting that the Israelis descended on the prison with bulldozers and tanks just minutes after the monitors departed.

A British reporter in Jericho and an Israeli officer speaking to the BBC offered a more prosaic explanation.

Both said Israeli military officials kept a constant eye on the jail and would have seen the monitors leaving in their British Range Rovers, with no one arriving to replace them.

After a visit to the Jericho prison in 2002, The Washington Times reported surprisingly lax security. A reporter drove through the main gates, walked into the prison through the front door, found the officer in charge asleep on a camp bed in his office, and spent two hours walking around the jail and entering empty prison cells.

The U.S. monitors were absent from the jail during most of the reporter’s visit, but later arrived in their Chevrolet SUV. They looked shocked when they found a Palestinian intelligence officer conversing with the reporter over sweet tea in his office.

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