The lawless attack launched against the Palestinian prison in Jericho
Tuesday marks a further provocative escalation in the offensive launched by
Israel against the Palestinian people in the wake of last January’s election
victory for Hamas.
The nine-hour siege, which left three Palestinians dead and dozens
wounded, is of a piece with countless acts wanton violence and aggression carried
out by the Israeli state, from the storming of the al-Aqsa mosque, to the siege
of Yassir Arafat’s headquarters to the ever-increasing number of “targeted
assassinations” of Palestinian leaders.
What distinguishes this episode from those that have preceded it, however,
is the brazenness of US and British collaboration in what can only be described
as a war crime.
The Israeli attack was coordinated with Washington and London, which
withdrew their monitors stationed at the facility only minutes before Israeli
troops backed by tanks and armored bulldozers stormed into Jericho and attacked
the prison, knocking down walls with the dozers and cannon fire and ultimately
demolishing the jail.
Israeli commanders threatened to kill everyone inside the prison unless they
surrendered, finally forcing some 200 to strip down to their underwear and exit
the building. While releasing most of the inmates to Palestinian authorities,
they held some three dozen, including six high-profile political prisoners whose
capture was the immediate objective of the raid.
The six include Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation
of Palestine (PLFP), and four other PFLP members, as well as Fuad Shubaki, a
Palestinian wanted by Israel on charges of arms smuggling.
Saadat and the other PFLP members were wanted by Israel in connection with
the October 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The
PFLP took responsibility for the killing of Zeevi—an extreme right-wing
Zionist who referred to Palestinians as “lice” and called for their
forced expulsion from Gaza and the West Bank—declaring it an act of retaliation
for Israel’s own “targeted assassination” two months earlier
of the organization’s secretary-general, Abu Ali Mustafa.
Saadat was elected from prison to the Palestinian parliament in the elections
held in January.
The US and British monitors were stationed at the Jericho prison to oversee
the Palestinian Authority’s custody of the six prisoners. Their deployment
was worked out as part of a US and British-brokered deal for lifting the month-long
siege of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah in 2002. Arafat refused to
turn them over to Israel, but agreed that his administration would prosecute
and jail the six.
Both US and British officials claimed that their decision to withdraw the monitors
did not represent collaboration with Israel’s plans to storm the prison,
but rather was motivated by concerns for the security of their personnel. What
threat was posed to their security—outside of the danger of becoming caught
in the crossfire of the Israeli siege—was not made clear by either government.
The Israeli attack ignited a firestorm of Palestinian anger. Over 15,000 marched
through the streets of Gaza, after news of the attack, and the next day the
territory was shut down by a general strike. A similar protest strike was launched
in Nablus. Crowds attacked buildings housing US, British and European-linked
organizations and there was a brief flurry of hostage-taking against foreigners.
A significant share of the popular anger was directed against Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas, who acknowledged that he had been warned by the US and Britain
of their intention to withdraw the monitors, but said he was given no indication
when it would take place.
There are strong reasons to believe that this effect—the further undermining
of Abbas, who is in political conflict with Hamas—was included in the
calculations of the Israeli state. The Jericho action makes a mockery of the
Palestinian president’s arguments that progress is to be made through
recognizing Israel, pursuing negotiations and counting on the benevolence of
the major Western powers.
The Israeli government has welcomed the election victory of Hamas—itself
the product of the seething frustration and anger of millions of Palestinians
over the unending devastation and humiliations inflicted upon them by Israeli
policy and the seeming inability of the PLO-led administration to do anything
about it. The Israeli regime invokes Hamas’s designation by Washington
as a “terrorist” organization as a license to eschew any form of
compromise and negotiations in favor of naked force.
In the first instance, it sees Hamas’s ascension as giving it a free
hand to redraw borders, unilaterally seizing huge tracts of the West Bank and
securing it behind a massive militarized wall.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is pursing this unilateralist policy, proposing
to abandon some isolated Zionist settlements in the West Bank, while annexing
territory without negotiations or international sanction.
Nonetheless, he faces opposition from the right in Israel’s March 28
elections, in the form of the Likud Party and its candidate, former prime minister
Binyamin Netanyahu, who opposes giving up any of the settlements, charging Olmert
with planning to “hand land over to Hamas terrorists.”
Within Israel, it was widely believed that the Jericho siege was initiated
in large part with the aim of deflecting this right-wing opposition with a show
of force. As the Israeli daily Haaretz put it, the raid represented the embodiment
of “a favorite expression” of former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s
advisers: “To return territory and kill Arabs.”
During a tour of police headquarters in Jerusalem staged for the media, Olmert
declared, “We are proud that we have imposed justice on these killers.”
He affirmed that the Palestinians who were abducted by the Israeli military
“will be indicted according to Israeli law and they will be punished as
The fact that some of these same men have already been indicted, tried and
convicted under Palestinian law for the same crime—making a second Israeli
prosecution illegal under international statutes—is obviously of no concern
to a government that considers itself immune from far more basic considerations
of international law.
Indeed, the Israeli government has made it clear that it will observe no legal
constraints whatsoever. Last week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz indicated that
if new terrorist attacks are carried out against Israel, the response could
well include the Israeli assassination of the incoming Hamas prime minister
Ismail Haniyeh. “No one there will be immune,” he said when asked
if such a killing was in the cards.
The Israeli regime acts with complete impunity because of the unconditional
support it receives from Washington. Olmert himself made this clear, gloating
that the assault on Jericho enjoyed backing from both the US and Britain. “I
refer you to the statement made by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the State
Department that all responsibility for the decision made by the US and the British
governments to pull the inspectors from the jail, and thus to make the Israeli
operation inevitable, lies on the shoulders of the Palestinian Authority,”
he told the Israeli press.
Meanwhile, sources at the United Nations indicated that a resolution put forward
by Qatar, the sole Arab state sitting on the United Nations Security Council,
condemning the raid and demanding that the prisoners be returned to the Palestinian
Authority would be either buried by the council or vetoed by Washington.
The official reaction in Washington to the siege of the Jericho prison was
an obscene exercise in hypocrisy and double talk. White House spokesman Scot
McClellan told the press Wednesday that Washington was appealing to all sides
“for calm and restraint,” a phrase meant to demonize the Palestinians
for protesting against the act of aggression by Israel, upon which the US urged
no restraint whatsoever.
He went on to declare that “Hamas has a decision that they need to make...
They need to renounce violence and terrorism, they need to recognize Israel’s
right to exist, and they need to disarm.”
Israel, on the other hand, has carte blanche to employ the methods of violence
and state terrorism against the Palestinians, whose rights they are in no way
bound to recognize.
The Jericho operation has once again exposed all the talk of a “two-state
vision,” “land for peace,” and a “road map” as
a cruel farce. The reality is that of a continued illegal Israeli occupation
that leaves Palestinians subject to military raids, assassinations, abductions,
bombings and curfews imposed by Israeli military might, which is in turn financed
and politically backed by Washington