By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press Writer1 hour, 55 minutes ago
Israeli forces driving bulldozers and firing tank shells burst into a Palestinian prison Tuesday and removed dozens of inmates in a raid targeting prisoners convicted of killing an Israeli Cabinet minister.
Furious Palestinians attacked offices linked to America and Europe, torching the British Council building in Gaza City and kidnapping a foreign employee of the Red Cross in Gaza. Gunmen also seized four guests — including two South Korean journalists and a French woman — from a Gaza City hotel.
The Palestinians blamed the Jericho raid on the British and Americans, who removed their monitors from the jail just before the Israeli raid. There were a total of 200 prisoners and guards in the jail at the time of the raid.
Israel forced 170 prisoners out of the jail wearing only their underwear. But one of the main targets of the raid, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat, held out inside.
“We are not going to surrender. We are going to face our destiny with courage,” he told Al-Jazeera television from the jail.
The operation was the most high-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, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed the United States and British governments.
American and British observers who had monitored the jail for the past four years withdrew just before the raid, citing security concerns. The Israeli government ordered the raid because the monitors were withdrawn, the army said. Israel said the Palestinians were to blame for violating an agreement on detaining the Palestinians accused of killing the Israeli minister in 2001.
Saadat told Al-Jazeera, which broadcast the raid throughout the Arab world, that he held Abbas partly responsible, saying he should have gotten him out of prison sooner. As he spoke, an explosion was heard in the background, and Saadat said: “I can’t continue. The situation is very difficult.” Then he hung up.
In Jericho, dozens of prisoners in their underwear came of the prison building and were searched and blindfolded by Israeli troops. Some of them were taken away. Israeli officials said a number of prisoners were being targeted for arrest, including the five involved in the assassination.
A senior Israeli military official said the inmates must surrender or face death.
Hundreds of Israeli troops entered the town Tuesday morning and surrounded the prison, calling over loudspeakers for prisoners to give themselves up. The troops then burst through the front gate of the jail with a bulldozer, drove inside in armored personnel carriers and engaged in a shootout with Palestinian police, said local security commander Akram Rajoub.
One policeman standing near the gate was killed, as was a prisoner, security officials said.
Two large explosions were heard at the prison and thick smoke filled the sky. Helicopters flew overhead.
Youths in the town threw rocks at the Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians burned tires in the roads. Troops were later heard calling for all the prisoners and guards to come out of the jail.
Saadat is being held for ordering the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001. Saadat was elected to the Palestinian legislature in January.
Israel also demanded the surrender of four other members of the PFLP, including the gunman who killed Zeevi, and Fuad Shobaki, the alleged mastermind of an illegal weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority several years ago.
Zeevi’s son, Palmach, told Israel’s Channel 10 TV the raid was “an extraordinary and very important decision” by the government of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is running for prime minister at the head of the new, centrist Kadima Party.
The six men were being held at the jail under the supervision of British and American wardens in accordance with a deal worked out between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2002. 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 in April 2002.
Israeli hard-liners chafed at the deal, believing it allowed an assassin to escape justice, and Palestinians disliked a deal that forced them to jail one of their top militant leaders under Israeli pressure.
Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said the upcoming Israeli elections were one of the reasons behind the raid, but the main catalyst was fears that Hamas, which won Jan. 25 parliamentary elections, would free Saadat. Soon after the election, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal said the group planned to release Saadat.
On March 7, Abbas said he was willing to free him but would not take responsibility for any action Israel would take against him later.
Britain said it had repeatedly warned Abbas, who was in Europe Tuesday, that it would withdraw its monitors from the prison.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a written statement that Britain and America had repeatedly told the Palestinian Authority about security problems at the prison and urged it to do more to ensure the monitors’ safety. The authority is responsible for security at the jail under a 2002 agreement.
Straw said Britain and America wrote to Abbas on March 8 telling him the countries would withdraw their monitors unless security improved immediately.
Israel’s Channel Two television reported that the Israeli troops began the raid 20 minutes after the foreign monitors left.
Abbas accused the Americans and British of withdrawing the monitors without telling him, violating the 2002 agreement. He said he would hold them responsible if anything happens to the prisoners.
“The authority denounces this aggression and calls on the Israeli government to withdraw immediately from Jericho and to stop all the military acts, and it calls on the American and British observers to return immediately,” he said in a statement.
In Gaza City, 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 the cars of people who work there. Police protecting that building left after a brief shootout with the gunmen.
Gunmen also briefly stormed the offices of AMIDEAST, a private organization that provides English classes and testing services.
Some of the protesters chanted: “Death to the Americans! Death to the British!”
The PFLP issued a statement warning that it would target Britons and Americans if Saadat or the other prisoners are hurt.
“Any attempt to harm our comrades will make all British and Americans a target by our cells,” the group said.
In Jenin, two dozen Palestinian gunmen fired in the air. Their leader, Zakariya Zubeydi from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, said he and his followers would now target Americans and Britons.
“We will fight against every American and British person in the Palestinian lands,” he said. “We will fight against the American and British interests everywhere because of what happened at the Jericho prison.”
Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, called the raid “a dangerous escalation against the Palestinian leaders and freedom fighters.”
Source: AP via Yahoo! News