Palestinians hold Britain and the European Union responsible for the abduction of Ahmed Al-Saadat, writes Graham Usher
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A Palestinian police officer kneels in shock against the backdrop of the rubble of the prison damaged during an Israeli army raid in the West Bank town of Jericho
As night fell on Tuesday the last remaining police officers exited the ruined compound of the PLO prison in Jericho. They were followed by six Palestinian prisoners, including the recently-elected Member of Parliament and General-Secretary for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Ahmed Saadat. The officers had their hands raised: Saadat's head was slumped in defeat.
He is now in Israeli custody, awaiting trial. He will probably be sentenced to life imprisonment for his alleged role in the PFLP's assassination of Israeli cabinet minister, Rehavam Zeevi, in October 2001, itself a reprisal for Israel's assassination of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa, the previous August. "The account is closed," crowed Israel's largest selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, on Wednesday.
Saadat's capture concluded an extraordinarily violent day, even by the standards of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It had begun soon after dawn when British security officials monitoring the prison abandoned their post. Within 20 minutes Israeli army soldiers, tanks, bulldozers and helicopters had encircled the compound.
For the next 10 hours they shot, strafed, pounded and bulldozed the prison in a graduated assault intended to extract Saadat and his co-detainees. Two Palestinian police officers and a prisoner were killed: 18 Palestinians were injured. Speaking to Al-Jazeera television by mobile phone, Saadat said he was "ready to meet [his] destiny". At around 6.30pm a Palestinian Authority Brigade commander mediating between him and the army told him what it was. Fifteen minutes later Saadat surrendered.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas -- then in Europe prevailing on EU countries to maintain aid to the PA -- slammed the British monitors' abandonment as a gross violation of the agreement made between them, the PA, the US and Israel in May 2002. This had been a basic trade in which Saadat and the five other prisoners would be detained in a Palestinian jail under British and American supervision in return for their and Yasser Arafat's release from an Israeli siege in Ramallah.
The British Foreign Office (FO) said that the PA had been in violation of that agreement for the last 10 weeks. It complained that the prisoners had mobile phones and that visitors had unrestricted access. "British officials had been in contact with the Palestinians four times since (last) Friday to convey the urgency of their concerns," said a FO statement. The monitors decided to leave Tuesday due to the "uncomfortable atmosphere" in the prison, said one.
Maybe so, but if the situation in Jericho had reached crisis point in the last few days why had Israel's acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, approved an army operation to abduct Saadat and the other prisoners nearly three weeks ago? And why had the army been building up its forces around Jericho since Friday? And why did the British monitors decide to leave not only without informing Abbas but while he was out of the country, precluding all possibility of a negotiated solution?
For Palestinians and others all these questions spelled collusion and, outside Jericho, they vented their rage less on Israel than on all things foreign, and especially European.
In Gaza City several hundred armed men torched the British Council, took over the European Commission headquarters and trashed an American educational centre. Clashes broke out between Palestinian militias and PA police outside the offices, leaving one PFLP activist dead. Nine foreigners were abducted, including several journalists. Six have been freed but three are being held hostage by the PFLP and Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Khan Yunis: their freedom is dependent on Ahmed Saadat's, says the PFLP. Elsewhere in the occupied territories a general strike is being observed.
Israel denies the raid on Jericho has anything to do with the proximity of its general elections. It has everything to do with the outcome of the Palestinian elections and the prospect that Saadat would be freed from jail, says Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. There is substance to the fear.
"I would gladly release them (the prisoners) from jail," Abbas told Palestinian TV last week. His only caveat was that if he did so Israel would almost certainly assassinate them. Hamas too has said it will recommend Saadat's release to the president once it forms the next Palestinian government. This may be a violation of the agreement reached between the PA and Israel, the US and Britain. But it is fully consistent with Palestinian law and most international conventions governing political prisoners.
Unlike the five other prisoners -- who were given a dubious legal trial in May 2002 -- Saadat has never been charged, tried or convicted of any offence, including the Zeevi assassination. In June 2003 the Palestinian High Court ordered his immediate release, holding the US and Britain in violation of international law by guarding an "illegal" prisoner. Amnesty International too has said Saadat's detention is an "extra-legal arrangement" in which he is held arbitrarily by the PA, Britain and the US. In other words, "the UK government monitored an imprisonment that had no legal process and then stepped out, leaving (Saadat) at the mercy of the Israeli army," said Daniel Machover, a lawyer for Saadat.
It is this double collusion that outraged Palestinians. It is unclear what the fall-out will be, though the fact that the PFLP has sworn revenge and Israel is on high alert suggests violence. It is clear who are the winners and losers.
In the short term, Olmert and his Kadima Party have gained, since Israeli "voters like operations like these, where the enemy is humiliated and our forces return safely to base," says veteran Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea. Abbas has been weakened. The abduction has again demonstrated that agreements he reaches with the US and EU countries like Britain, the very signature of his diplomacy, are not worth the paper they are written on. But the real losers are Britain and Europe.
The cartoon controversy in Denmark, Brussels' threat to terminate aid to an elected Palestinian government and now the perceived British collaboration in Israel's abduction of the PLO's second most important factional leader have convinced many Palestinians that Europe is now less an ally in their struggle against occupation than an adversary. One, perhaps two, of these actions was intended to "moderate" the incoming Hamas government. It remains to be seen if that is the outcome. They have certainly radicalised the Palestinians. (see p.6)