Six Palestinian militants holed up inside a Palestinian prison surrendered to Israeli forces Tuesday, almost 10 hours after soldiers using helicopters, tanks and bulldozers raided the compound to seize militants who killed an Israeli Cabinet minister.
The militants who surrendered included Ahmed Saadat, leader of a radical PLO faction and mastermind of the 2001 assassination of the minister, the Israeli military said.
Israel’s West Bank commander, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, said 15 other militants also were arrested in the raid.
As the militants surrendered, some 15,000 Palestinians led by dozens of gunmen firing in the air marched in Gaza City to protest the raid. The demonstrators, chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, marched toward the Palestinian parliament building.
Palestinian security forces rounded up foreigners for their protection throughout the day after Palestinian gunmen kidnapped nine foreigners to protest the raid.
A police-escorted convoy of vans carrying 15 foreigners sped through Gaza City on Tuesday, heading to the Gaza-Israel border crossing.
Some journalists were in the vans, along with an American couple and their three children. Three Palestinian police vehicles led the way.
Accused of killing cabinet minister
Saadat, accused by Israel of involvement in the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister, was among a group of prisoners who walked out of Jericho jail with their hands up, officials said.
Earlier, an American teacher kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen — who threatened to kill him if Saadat was injured — was freed, militants and the school that employed him said. Elsewhere, furious Palestinians attacked offices linked to America and Europe, torching the British Council building in Gaza City.
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.
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.
Observers leave citing security concerns
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 out 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 had to 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 elected to parliament
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.
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. 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.
British gave advance warning
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.
Incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, called the raid “a dangerous escalation against the Palestinian leaders and freedom fighters.”