Wednesday, March 15, 2006

How the walls of Jericho were breached

By Harry de Quetteville
Telegraph (UK)
15/03/2006

Britain's tiny contingent of monitors left Jericho's jail soon after 9am yesterday, telling Palestinian staff that they were taking their car to be fixed. In reality they had no intention of returning to watch over its 200 inmates, among them Ahmed Saadat, the man accused of masterminding the assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister, in 2001.

Instead, the three monitors headed out of the jail and began the uphill drive from the lowest city on earth to Jerusalem. The Foreign Office later said they were leaving because of fears for their "security" and few doubt that inside Jericho jail the inmates ran the show.

Saadat's cell was more of an office. He had telephones and television sets. The jail's Palestinian guards stayed away from his quarters, which included a kitchen and an area to receive guests.

The British monitors stayed even further back. But to Israel, which has long wanted Saadat in its custody, they guaranteed that men it considered terrorist murderers were at least serving their time behind bars, even if those bars were covered by curtains.

When the British left, that guarantee evaporated, particularly as the newly elected Palestinian militant group Hamas had hinted it might free Saadat. So as the monitors moved out, the Israeli army - long ready for its capture or kill mission - moved in.

The military operation to raid the jail truly began at the moment the British passed an Israeli army checkpoint, according to senior Israeli commanders. "One, two, three, I counted the British monitors out," said an Israeli colonel, second-in-command of yesterday's operation. "We have standing orders to act in this case, so we went in."

Within minutes, a passage of time that provoked furious Palestinian accusations of collusion between Britain and the Israelis, the mission was under way.

Gen Guy Tzur insisted that there had been no co-operation with Britain. The operation had been prompted by Palestinian hints that Saadat and five others wanted for Mr Reevi's killing might be released.

"There are no negotiations," said the colonel of yesterday's mission. "It applies to everybody in the jail. Either they hand themselves over or they will be killed."

In the Old Testament the children of Israel circled the ancient city of Jericho seven times until its walls collapsed.

Yesterday morning more than 100 Israeli combat troops arrived armed not with the ark of the covenant but bulldozers, helicopters, tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

The deployment of such firepower has not been seen in the occupied territories for many months as the wrath of the five-year Palestinian intifada ebbed.

Over the streets of what has recently been one of the most peaceable Palestinian cities, helicopter gunships hovered, with one firing a missile into the wall of the jail compound.

Amid the din of frequent explosions, the Palestinian inmates and staff inside the jail were hailed through loudspeakers and told to surrender or die.

Ordered to strip to their underwear, workers and prisoners handed themselves over to waiting soldiers as bulldozers crashed through the walls. But others, further inside the jail compound, had decided to take a stand.

"We are about 100 people, 70 staff and 30 prisoners," said prison staff member Khaled Shloun, contacted by The Daily Telegraph inside the jail where he said he was sitting in a room next to Saadat. He said the floor was "covered in blood" from those injured in exchanges of gunfire.

As a stand-off developed and tension mounted at the jail, fury spread through the rest of the Palestinian territories, where crowds and armed groups descended on British targets. In the Gaza strip, a British Council building was set on fire after Palestinian security forces were unable to restrain a mob.

No Britons are stationed at the building and its Palestinian staff had been evacuated. But the facility was very badly damaged, according to Sir David Green, director general of the British Council.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, British Council offices were also attacked. But while Britain was the focus of Palestinian fury, any westerner was a target. More than a dozen aid workers, teachers and journalists, from the US, France, Switzerland, Australia and Korea, were taken at gunpoint.

Most of those held, including an American teacher, were released before night fell yesterday. Fighters from Saadat's extreme-Left group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said they regarded foreigners as targets and promised to kill some of those taken if their leader was harmed.

In fact, with the harsh desert sun falling over Jericho, Saadat was on the point of surrendering and the siege was almost over. But inside the jail, Palestinian prisoners and staff continued their defiant posturing.

"We are united, prison administrator and prisoner," said Mr Shloun. "Not one of us is talking about surrender. Saadat is a freedom fighter. He is lifting our morale all the time, telling us God is looking after us."

But later most of the gunfire and shelling had stopped, and the jail was quiet. Then streams of Palestinians poured out. Some, obviously wounded, were being carried.

Saadat and two of the other five were in Israeli custody and checks were under way to ensure that the three others were not hiding in the rubble of the Jericho jail.

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