Assassins’ Thwarted Jailbreak Turns into Palestinian Violence

It was billed as a quick mission to keep convicted killers behind bars, but it soon spun into a major Middle East crisis. Prompted by reports that the Palestinian Authority planned to free a terrorist squad held in Jericho, Israeli security forces struck first Tuesday, blasting their way into the towering prison compound in the ancient West Bank town.

At least two Palestinians died in shootouts as commandos tried to reach the cells of PFLP chief Ahmed Sa’adat and his five comrades. The terrorists, jailed for assassinating Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, in 2001 and for a thwarted attempt to ship arms to the Gaza Strip in 2002, vowed to fight to the death.

Israel, whose ground forces at Jericho were backed by air cover, was no less firm.

“They have a choice: Come out or die,” a military source said.

The six surrendered to Israeli troops that evening, following heavy gunfire. Israeli officials said they would be transferred to Israeli jails.

It was not so much the televised images of the siege that inflamed emotions among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world, but what was absent: the American and British wardens assigned to monitor the prison. They had been withdrawn hours earlier, after warning last week that they would leave if the Palestinians did not keep longstanding promises to upgrade the wardens’ security.

“The Palestinian Authority has consistently failed to meet its obligations” to provide security, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Tuesday at the House of Commons in London.

“Ultimately the safety of our personnel has to take precedence,” he said. “It is with regret that I have to inform the House that these conditions have not been met and we have terminated our involvement with the mission today.”

Britain and the United States were at pains to emphasize that the Jericho withdrawals were not synchronized with the Israeli raid, but some Arabs suggested a plot.

“Clearly, there is some sort of coordination,” Arab League chief Amr Moussa told Al-Jazeera television. “This raises obvious question marks.”

Israeli security sources said the foreign guards left Jericho earlier Tuesday after receiving warnings that they could come under attack from Palestinians intent on releasing the high-profile prisoners. The Israeli raid was ordered to prevent a jailbreak, the sources said.

Palestinian gunmen retaliated quickly, scouring the West Bank and Gaza for anyone of Western appearance.

They abducted nine foreigners in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including an American teacher, two South Korean reporters and a Swiss Red Cross worker, and set fire to American- and British-owned buildings, including the British Council offices in Gaza.

The United States and European Union ordered their citizens out of the territories, and an E.U.-monitored crossing on Gaza’s border with Egypt — a symbol of rapprochement hopes — was ordered briefly closed.

With Israeli general elections just two weeks away, some saw the Jericho raid as a muscle-flexing move by the front-runner, Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert, whose Kadima Party colleague Avi Dichter recently called for Sa’adat and his comrades to choose between “the cell and the grave,” had no immediate comment on the operation.

But Olmert talked tough during a visit by to the West Bank settlement of Ariel to inspect the security fence.

“We will act in every place, manner and form, with every means at hand, in order to ensure the security of the State of Israel,” he said.

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