- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

JERICHO, West Bank — Israeli troops using tanks and bulldozers burst into a Jericho prison yesterday and seized Palestinian prisoners held in the five-year-old assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

The prisoners were held by the Palestinian Authority under U.S. and British supervision as part of a deal worked out by the two Western powers, Israel and the Palestinians.

The prison was stormed by Israeli special forces just minutes after British monitors abandoned the compound, fueling Palestinian accusations of collusion with Israel.

The Israeli assault, undertaken after a 10-hour standoff, ignited an unprecedented spasm of violence against foreigners across the Palestinian areas.

Aid workers, teachers and journalists took refuge at the Palestinian security headquarters in the Gaza Strip as militants attacked offices linked to the U.S. and Europe, burned cars and torched the British Council building in Gaza City.

Gunmen kidnapped at least 10 foreigners, including an American professor who was held at an abandoned cemetery. After nightfall, three remained in captivity — two French citizens and a South Korean journalist.

Aid agencies pulled foreign staff out of Palestinian areas.

The events yesterday sparked the first major crisis since Hamas took control of the parliament last month and indicated it would free the prisoners.

The successful Israeli raid boosted the standing of Israeli acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with two weeks remaining before parliamentary elections, but security forces were put on high alert after Palestinian militants threatened retaliatory attacks.

“We couldn’t have allowed the murderer of an Israeli minister to go free,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Ha’aretz newspaper.

At about 9 a.m., a team of British monitors left the jail after the United States and Britain, concerned about the safety of the observers, walked away from an agreement with the Palestinians and the Israelis to guarantee the incarceration of five militants accused in the killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze’evi.

Worried that the Palestinian Authority would free the militants and Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine militia who is accused of ordering the assassination, Israel ordered the jail surrounded by tanks.

In addition to the five men implicated in Mr. Ze’evi’s death, Israel seized Fuad Shobaki, the mastermind of an illegal weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority at the outset of the five-year-old uprising, and 15 other militants, said Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, the chief of Israel’s central command.

After calling out to the militants over loudspeakers that they would be captured dead or alive, Israeli bulldozers began demolishing the outer walls of the compound and tanks fired shells to drive the message home.

The dramatic standoff ended when Saadat, the other fugitives and dozens of Palestinian policemen emerged from the building in a single file, some with their hands over their heads. Saadat is expected to be tried in Israel.

“The message of the operation is clear. Whoever murders an Israeli minister or civilian … will be pursued anywhere,” Gen. Naveh said. “If the Palestinians break the agreement … we will also enter the jail.”

Israeli officials said the operation was made necessary after Hamas’ ascension to power. The Islamic militant group had said it wanted to release the high-profile prisoners, including the Palestinian official accused in the weapons shipment nabbed by Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was in Austria yesterday, reportedly had said that he wouldn’t oppose the release.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the raid a “massive provocation” that could spark major unrest. Saadat’s seizure would weaken Mr. Abbas and other moderates, Mr. Erekat added.

“I cannot begin to understand why Israel would want all-out war. Today’s military assault would seem to suggest that intent,” he told Reuters news agency.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament that the Palestinians had systematically violated the terms of the incarceration over the four years since the pact was reached.

U.S. diplomats denied any coordination with Israel. They, with the British, warned the Palestinians repeatedly of shoddy security for the monitors, most recently in a March 8 letter to Mr. Abbas, which was made available to the Israelis. Israel reportedly had planned the incursion for weeks.

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