Days before the military assault on Jericho prison, Israel warned Britain and the US that it would seize Palestinians held there under an international agreement for killing an Israeli cabinet minister if the two countries withdrew their monitors.
Dov Weisglass, the most influential of the Israeli prime minister’s advisers, a man who recently sparked controversy by suggesting that Palestinians be "put on a diet" at a time when 40% of Palestinian children in Gaza already suffer from malnutrition, told Britain and the US last week that it would be better for international supervision at the prison to continue. But he said that if Britain and the US carried through with a threat to pull out their monitors because of "security concerns", then Israel would act to bring the wanted men to justice.
The last of 11 foreigners kidnapped by Palestinian groups in response to Israel’s destruction of the prison with tanks, bulldozers and missiles were released yesterday.
But there remained anger and suspicion among Palestinians and their leaders that Britain and the US colluded in the Israeli attack to seize Ahmed Saadat, accused of masterminding the 2001 assassination of Israel’s tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi in a Jerusalem hotel, and five other Palestinians held in the Jericho jail under international supervision.
British sources said Wednesday that the monitors were withdrawn after a "specific and credible threat" earlier this year against their lives. The sources said it was the most serious of concerns that included fears of roadside bombs, kidnappings and being caught up in a riot inside the jail.
But the Palestinian leadership accused Britain and the US of using security as an excuse to pull out of the agreement to monitor the jail because it does not want to deal with a Hamas government, and of cooperating with Israel in its attack on the prison.
Touring the wreckage of the jail on Wednesday, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, called the raid an "unforgivable crime" and suggested Britain and the US had coordinated their withdrawal so Israel could send in tanks as soon as the monitors left.
"I’m giving the facts. They [the monitors] left at 9:20am and the Israelis came in at 9:30am. How can we explain that?" he asked.
Israeli sources say that on Friday the British and Americans told Israel that the monitors would be leaving but did not specify a date. Israel immediately put its forces on alert, ready for an assault on the jail.
Over the weekend, the British consul general, John Jenkins, said he contacted Mr. Abbas’s office four times pressing him to act on a letter sent a week ago by the US and Britain demanding that their security concerns be addressed. Mr. Jenkins was unable to talk to Mr Abbas directly because the Palestinian leader was in Gaza negotiating with Hamas over a new government and then travelling to Europe. But British sources say the Palestinian president’s office assured Mr. Jenkins that Mr. Abbas understood the gravity of the situation.
The monitors were pulled out on Tuesday morning and Israel began its assault on the prison minutes later. British prime minister Tony Blair defended the timing and manner of the withdrawal of the monitors on Wednesday. "The idea that this was precipitous or uncalled for or un-thought through is simply wrong," he said. "For the past three months we have been warning the Palestinian Authority that the security of these monitors was at risk, that the procedures at this particular detention centre were not adequate and proper."
But Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian cabinet minister, said the British pullout was not about security but to avoid the embarrassment of Hamas carrying through a pledge to release Mr. Saadat and his men.
"We are going to have a Hamas government and I don’t think Britain felt able to continue these arrangements. But Britain didn’t say that. They tried to accuse the Palestinians of not fulfilling their obligations on security," he said.
The timing of the raid was also questioned in Israel by opponents of the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, ahead of a general election in a fortnight.
The strongest challenge to his Kadima party comes from the rightwing Likud party. Israeli commentators speculated that after Mr. Olmert pledged to remove Jewish settlers from some parts of the West Bank he needed to appear to be tough on the Palestinians. They also said the acting prime minister could not risk Mr. Saadat walking free just before the election. Indeed, since the prison raid Tuesday the Kadima party has gained six points in the polls, lending credibility to Palestinian accusations that the raid was an ‘election stunt’ staged to gain support for the ruling Kadima party in Israel in the March 28th elections.
European legislators harshly criticized the Israeli prison raid, which forced Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas to cut short his visit to Europe.
Deprived of a long-awaited address by Abbas, whose impoverished Palestinian territories receive a percentage of their budget from European Union contributions, the deputies condemned the attack and the wave of revenge kidnappings it fuelled.
Party group leaders and even the president of the assembly, Josep Borrell, condemned the action and questioned whether it had really helped Israel or if it was a ploy before the elections on March 28.
"It was a useless and unfair military operation. How could an operation of this kind, with its humiliating images, reinforce Israel’s security?" he said. "The future of this region has been sacrificed," said Greens bloc leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit for a "tactical manouevre" motivated by the general elections. "If this is what Israel’s domestic political goals are, it will be fatal," said the head of the Socialist group, Martin Schulz.
For his part, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the captured Palestinians would be put on trial for Mr Zeevi’s killing. "They will be indicted according to Israeli law and they will be punished as they deserve," he said.
US/UK write to Palestinian leader saying they will withdraw monitors unless concerns are addressed.
Israel says it wants monitors to stay but if withdrawn it will capture men wanted for killing Israeli minister. UK and US tell Israel monitors will withdraw, but do not specify time.
British consul calls Palestinian leader four times seeking commitment to act on the UK and US warning.
UK monitors pull out of Jericho jail without telling Palestinians. Minutes later Israeli troops move in.
*this article was sourced mainly from the Guardian newspaper in London