Prison raid sparks unrest

first_imgJERICHO, West Bank – Israeli troops using tanks, helicopters and bulldozers pounded a Palestinian-run prison in the West Bank on Tuesday to seize a Palestinian militant leader and his accomplices in the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister. The dramatic 10-hour standoff ignited an unprecedented spasm of violence against foreigners across the Palestinian areas. Aid workers, teachers and journalists took refuge at Palestinian security headquarters in Gaza as militants attacked offices linked to the U.S. and Europe, burning cars and torching 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 were still in captivity – two French citizens and a South Korean journalist. It was the most widespread violence since Hamas militants swept Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25 – and could foreshadow broader confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE‘Mame,’ ‘Hello, Dolly!’ composer Jerry Herman dies at 88 Angry Palestinians blamed the British and Americans for the raid: British monitors left the jail 20 minutes before the Israelis arrived Tuesday morning, citing concerns for their own safety. Three Palestinians were killed in the assault. Israel denied coordinating the attack with the U.S. or Britain. It said recent statements by Palestinian officials and Hamas leaders of plans to release its most-wanted prisoners, combined with the withdrawal of the monitors, forced it to act. The assault on the jail came amid a breakdown in a 4-year-old deal among the Palestinians, Israel, the United States and Britain over the guarding of the prisoners, and it underscored the collapse of relations between Israel and the Palestinians since Hamas’ victory at the polls. British and American officials said they had complained repeatedly to the Palestinians about security conditions at the prison and threatened in a letter last week – a copy of which was sent to Israel – to remove their monitoring teams if things did not improve. By chance, the U.S. team was not on duty Tuesday, the State Department said. “The monitors worked on a rotation basis and the Americans did not happen to be on this morning,” said spokesman Tom Casey. Another State Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, said the United States did not know of the raid in advance. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, cutting short a European trip to deal with the crisis, blamed the Americans and the British for violating the agreement by withdrawing the monitors without telling him. Incoming Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, called the raid “a dangerous escalation against the Palestinian leaders and freedom fighters.” Other Palestinians condemned the prison siege as a campaign stunt by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just two weeks before Israeli elections. Israel was targeting Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat, who ordered the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001, and several other militants accused of carrying out the killing. Saadat was elected to the Palestinian legislature in January. “There were clear indications these killers would be set free,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. “We had to act to make sure these killers would stay under lock and key.” The troops smashed down walls with bulldozers and shelled its walls. Dozens of prisoners and Palestinian police were pulled out of the building in their underwear and searched and blindfolded by Israeli troops. The six wanted prisoners, who insisted to Arab media that they would not be taken alive, were among the last to be taken. The gray-haired Saadat, wearing a light-color jacket, left the prison in a line with his peers. He looked down and did not raise his arms in surrender, as many of the other prisoners had done throughout the day. In addition to the five men implicated in Zeevi’s slaying, Israel 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, said his father “would have said this is the right thing to do.” The Popular Front, or PFLP, has claimed responsibility for the assassination of his father, who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israeli land. One policeman standing near the gate was killed in the shootout and a prisoner was also killed, security officials said. A third Palestinian was fatally wounded, the army said. Explosions shook the prison throughout the day as Israeli tanks fired shells at the walls, and thick smoke filled the sky. Helicopters flew overhead. Youths in the town threw rocks at the Israeli soldiers and protesters placed burning 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 deal worked out between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2002. Israeli hard-liners chafed at the deal, believing it allowed an assassin to escape justice; Palestinians disliked having to jail a popular militant leader. Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said the March 28 Israeli elections were one of the reasons behind the raid, but the main catalyst was concern that Hamas would free Saadat. Soon after the Palestinian election, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal said the group planned to release him. On March 7, Abbas said he was willing to release Saadat, but only if the PFLP accepted responsibility for his fate. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said security 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. In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Palestinians had been repeatedly informed of the U.S. and British concerns about conditions at the jail. In New York, the U.N. Security Council expressed serious concern about the upsurge in violence and sought the release of the three remaining foreigners. “Israel’s violent incursion – as well as the Palestinian actions carried out in response – risk destabilizing even further the already tense situation in the Middle East,” Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, told the Security Council in an emergency meeting. About 15,000 Palestinians, led by dozens of gunmen firing in the air, marched through Gaza City chanting anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans Tuesday night. Earlier, about 300 demonstrators broke into the European Commission building and raised the PFLP flag on the roof. They also torched the evacuated British council offices and burned the cars of employees there. Gunmen also briefly stormed the offices of AMIDEAST, a private organization that provides English classes and testing services. In Gaza, gunmen went from room to room in hotels, looking for foreigners. By midafternoon, they had taken a Swiss Red Cross worker, two Australian teachers, two French medical workers and three journalists – one French and two South Korean, Palestinian and foreign officials said. Also kidnapped were a Canadian aid worker and American professor Douglas Johnson at the American University in the West Bank town of Jenin. Johnson, who teaches English, said he was unharmed and understood his abductors’ actions. “They are angry over what is going on in Jericho. I feel sympathy with them,” he told an Associated Press reporter at the cemetery. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more