Broken agreements, abandoned posts
Events in Jericho around the jail in which the murderers of minister Rehavam Ze'evi, among other prisoners, were imprisoned, are linked to the Palestinian decision to break another agreement with Israel. The inmates' British guards, on the job as part of that agreement, would not have left their posts had they not understood that the Palestinian Authority, and the Hamas government that is expected to be established in the PA, were planning on releasing the prisoners. The British understood that under the circumstances their lives were in danger and so they left their posts.
The outcome of the Israel Defense Forces action in Jericho is that all six wanted men, among them three who were directly involved in Ze'evi's murder, will be tried in Israel. From the outset, the intent was not to kill them, but rather to bring them to justice.
Much of the jail in Jericho was destroyed by IDF bulldozers. From the Palestinian perspective, the deterioration in Jericho will amplify the problem of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in general. This is a complex public and political problem. Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said Hamas would abduct Israelis to bring about the release of Palestinian prisons. Clearly, Israel must be aware of this from a security point of view.
The decision in principle not to ignore the abrogation of the agreement was taken a few days ago following a consultation with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and was approved by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. From time to time over the past two years the question has come up in security forums of how Israel should react if Ze'evi's murderers were released from jail in breach of the agreement.
The British and the Americans understood that the IDF would immediately fill the vacuum that would be created if their guards were to leave, but they certainly came increasingly to believe that their people were in danger.
Talk of an expected release of the prisoners escalated recently in the PA and among Hamas leaders. On March 8 the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote an angry letter to PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas noting that the guards were unable to carry out their duties.
The agreement was not a written one, but an understanding that was internationally brokered with the United States carrying out a pivotal role. The understanding was achieved after President George W. Bush assured the Saudi leadership on a visit to his Texas ranch that he would work to lift the Israeli siege of the Muqata in Ramallah, and promised that the IDF would not break in to the place with Arafat there. Israel, for its part, demanded that a number of individuals, first and foremost Ze'evi's murderers, who were also in the Muqata, would be delivered to Israel for trial. This demand was not met. Instead, Israel agreed that the individuals in question would be transfered to Jericho and that they would not be harmed on their way there. In Jericho they were to remain incarcerated, guarded by the British and the Americans.
Security officials contended long ago that the Jericho jail sentence was a joke. Except for a sign announcing the facility as a jail, there were no other trappings of such. Visitors were frequent, including Palestinian leaders. Comings and goings were almost unimpeded. The most egregious moment was when the secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmed Saadat, was suspected of masterminding from his jail cell a suicide bombing in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv.