Thursday, March 16, 2006

Prison Raid Shows Israel's New Freedom

By STEVEN GUTKIN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

JERUSALEM -- Israel's dramatic seizure of senior Palestinian militants from a West Bank jail highlights its new freedom of action with the internationally shunned Hamas poised to take over Palestinian government.

Tuesday's raid also undercuts the authority of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, boosts the electoral prospects of acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and sends a strong warning to Hamas about failing to honor past accords.

In one way, though, it lets Hamas off the hook. Hamas had intended to release the militants, but the raid allowed them to avoid the international outcry that almost surely would have followed had they done so.

Israel, the United States and Britain blamed the Palestinian Authority for the 10-hour siege at a prison in the West Bank town of Jericho that left three Palestinians dead and culminated in the surrender of militant leader Ahmed Saadat and four of his alleged accomplices in the 2001 murder of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Under a four-year-old agreement, Saadat and the other prisoners were held in a Palestinian jail monitored by U.S. and British guards. But the guards left Tuesday, a week after the United States and Britain warned Abbas they would go unless the Palestinians beefed up security.

Israel, the United States and Britain argued the Palestinians had failed to live up to their commitments under the Jericho accord.

The guards' departure triggered the Israeli raid and a spree of violent Palestinian protests and widespread kidnappings of foreigners.

With Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence in the wake of its surprise Jan. 25 victory in parliamentary elections _ and Israel's insistence it will not do business with a Hamas government _ many Israelis and Palestinians were wondering which agreement would unravel next.

Delicate understandings painstakingly brokered by the United States and Europe after Israel's Gaza pullout last summer _ including a new Gaza-Egypt border crossing monitored by European inspectors _ could meet the same fate as the Jericho accord.

The prison raid "shows the new thrust, the new aim which is complete (Israeli) unilateralism, forget that there's anybody on the other side," said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas' victory, added outgoing Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, "has stopped any international pressure on Israel, and thus Israel feels it has a free hand to do anything it wants."

Israel rejected Palestinian claims that Olmert ordered the Jericho raid to curry favor with hawkish voters before March 28 elections. Israeli officials said they had no choice but to act in light of recent statements by Abbas and Hamas leaders that the jailed militants would be freed.

Still, the raid was almost certain to help Olmert, whose show of force was a well-timed counterbalance to his recent statements outlining plans to withdraw from most of the West Bank. Israeli analysts agreed that had Olmert not moved against the prison _ and had the inmates gone free after the British and Americans left _ he could have nose-dived in the polls.

"The most important thing is that he was successful," Israeli pollster Camil Fuchs said.

One who did not come out ahead is Abbas, who appeared weak before his people amid his current struggle to sort out a power arrangement with the incoming Hamas government.

Abbas' relationship with the Americans and the British also has been bruised, hurting efforts to channel aid to the Palestinians through Abbas' office as a way to bypass Hamas.

After the Western guards withdrew from Jericho, Abbas took the unusual step of publicly accusing the United States and Britain of abdicating their responsibilities.

The United States and Britain took the unusual step of leaking a March 8 letter to Abbas warning they would leave Jericho unless the Palestinians increased security.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday defended the British departure, saying the move came after careful consideration and months of warnings about problems at the jail.

"The idea that this was either precipitate or uncalled-for or not thought-through is simply wrong," he said in his weekly House of Commons question session.

Israel, too, sent a strong message about life in the new Hamas era.

"Hamas, I think, has to see this as a preview of things to come," Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said. "If they are involved in breaking agreements with Israel, Israel is going to respond very aggressively."

Yet at the same time, the Israeli raid appears to have saved Hamas a major headache. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the radical PLO faction headed by Saadat, is expected to join a Hamas-led government coalition, and Hamas had promised to free the PFLP prisoners.

That almost certainly would have antagonized the West at the very moment the United States and Europe are debating whether to cut off life-sustaining aid to the Palestinians in the wake of Hamas' rise to power.

Steven Gutkin is AP chief of bureau in Jerusalem.

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