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Bloody raid on Jericho prison shows...
No Palestinian is safe from Israel's iron fist

March 24, 2006 | Page 4

ERIC RUDER reports on Israel's abduction of a leading Palestinian political figure--and its suffocating war on Palestinian society.

FOR DAYS, Israeli troops gathered on the outskirts of Jericho, building up their forces outside the sleepy desert town in the West Bank. The target of their operation--Ahmed Saadat, leader of the Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who won a parliamentary seat in the Palestinian elections in January--sat in a prison inside the city.

Before dawn on March 14, the raid began. While helicopters strafed the building from the air, some 80 vehicles bore down on the prison, and two bulldozers knocked its walls to the ground.

After 10 hours of fighting in which two Palestinian police and a prisoner were killed and 18 were injured, Saadat and 60 others, stripped to their underwear, were paraded before the media into Israeli custody.

Palestinians everywhere felt the humiliation. The raid reinforced the feeling that no one living in the Occupied Territories is safe from Israel's iron fist.

As news of the attack spread, more than 15,000 people took to the streets in Gaza, and the next day, a general strike shut down the area. Angry crowds attacked buildings where U.S. and British officials and organizations are housed, and several foreigners were taken hostage.

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TO MAKE sense of this latest assault on Palestinian rights, it's necessary to begin with Israel's assassination of Saadat's predecessor, Abu Ali Mustafa, who was vaporized by an Israeli missile strike in August 2001 as the new Palestinian Intifada (or uprising) approached its first anniversary.

The killing of Mustafa--the leader of the second-most important political faction--provoked anger and disbelief among Palestinians, but the U.S. could only muster some bland criticism of Israel.

In January 2002, a PFLP militant killed Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in retaliation. Zeevi wasn't just a run-of-the-mill Israeli politician--he was notorious for his racist diatribes against Palestinians, referring to them as "lice" and "cancer," and he made open calls for ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Palestine.

Despite the fact that no civilians died in the attack on Zeevi--unlike the many Palestinian civilians killed in Israel's assassinations-by-missile-strikes--the U.S. suddenly "rediscovered" its outrage.

Even though Palestinian security forces arrested Saadat and four others implicated in the operation, in May 2002, Israel laid siege in May 2002 to Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound where they were being held, and Bush personally expressed his sympathy with the Israeli blockade.

The 34-day siege continued until an agreement was reached that moved Saadat and the others to Jericho--where the Palestinians would hold him under the supervision of U.S. and British guards. Any change in the status of the prisoners, according to the deal, would have to be agreed to by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Thus, the March 14 raid deepened the outrage felt throughout the Occupied Territories. With Israel's March 28 elections approaching, the operation was designed to boost the standing of Kadima, the recently formed party led by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, following the stroke that incapacitated Ariel Sharon.

Palestinians have become accustomed to an escalation in Israeli violence before events like an election--as the governing parties try to solidify their "credentials" by killing Arabs. Within days of the raid, polls showed that the "success" of the Jericho incursion had achieved the desired result--the number of seats Kadima was expected to win in the 120-member parliament jumped by five to 43.

The timing of the raid also angered Palestinians because it began within 20 minutes of the withdrawal of U.S. and British guards stationed outside the prison in accordance with the 2002 agreement. U.S. and British officials claimed that "security concerns" were the reason for the withdrawal, but Jericho has been largely quiet throughout the entire Intifada.

Despite denials, the coordination with Israeli forces was plain to see. "The Americans and British must take responsibility for their actions," said Luisa Morgantini, a member of European Parliament from Italy. "The decision to abandon Jericho prison is a serious violation of the undertakings that were made, and calls to mind the role of Sharon in the Sabra and Shatila massacre"--a reference to the 1982 slaughter of some 2,000 Palestinians by right-wing Lebanese militias that were allowed into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by then-Defense Minister Sharon.

Far from playing the role of "honest broker" or offering any check on Israel's exercise of power, the U.S. and Britain instead lent a helping hand, notifying Israel of the appropriate moment for the raid.

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WHILE OLMERT got the electoral boost he was looking for, he also accomplished another goal--further lowering the credibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, the leading Palestinian advocate for continued diplomacy with Israel, was disgraced by Israel's raid, which proved yet again that Israel only abides by its agreements when it's expedient.

The Israeli attack took place as the Islamist party Hamas, a resounding winner of the Palestinian elections in January, was forming a cabinet and taking control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas had hoped to draw Yasser Arafat's Fatah and the PFLP into a coalition government, but as Socialist Worker went to press, negotiations faltered, and Hamas appeared set to take office in the PA without the support of other parties.

Ever since the January vote, Israel has complained about Hamas' refusal to "renounce violence" and "recognize Israel"--even though Hamas has abided by a self-imposed ceasefire for a year and promised to continue a truce if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders.

Meanwhile, Israel itself hasn't renounced violence for a moment and continues to annex Palestinian land in the West Bank by expanding settlements and building its massive separation wall.

In truth, Israeli officials welcome any development that further relieves pressure on them to negotiate and make real concessions. And with Hamas at the head of the PA, Israel assumes that it will be free to use naked force without any serious international criticism.

The strategy seems to be working. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has threatened that Israel would not hesitate to target Hamas leaders, up to and including Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh--and no Western country had any criticism.

And the election of Hamas has served as the pretext for the nearly two-month closure--due to "security concerns"--of the Karni crossing, which provides the main link between Gaza and Israel.

As a consequence, wheat-flour stocks have run out in Gaza, and most bakeries have been forced to close. The United Nations (UN) is now warning of a severe humanitarian crisis for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza--60 percent of whom live under the poverty line, surviving on less than $2 a day.

"The situation is extremely serious," said UN official David Shearer. "In the next day or so, all bread supplies will dry up. There is very little else around in terms of rice, which is also short in supply. Bread is the staple diet for Palestinians. It is also the food of the poorest people, so if that's not available, people will start to go hungry."

Yet the response of the Israeli government has been to escalate the violence and repression--while its supporters in the U.S. government lead the chorus of approval.

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