TEL AVIV — Israel’s takeover of the Palestinian prison in Jericho on March 14 can be seen as a microcosm reflecting developments within the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the kind of future that lies in store for the both sides under a Hamas-led P.A.
The decision to refrain from a full-scale assault to capture top detainees barricaded inside the prison, but rather to maintain a siege while chipping away at the prison walls, in order to minimize risk, was not a purely military tactic. In effect, the decision also signaled Israel’s new strategy in its dealings with a Hamas-controlled Palestinian entity: neither concessions nor a full-scale assault, but a modified waiting game.
The prison operation began Tuesday morning at 9:30 a.m., when the prison’s British and American monitors ended their shift and were not replaced. The monitors had been placed there under an April 2002 agreement to supervise the detention of six wanted terrorists, including the assassins of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi, after Yasser Arafat had refused to hand them over to Israel. Palestinian leaders had been calling for their release since February 2006, following the victory of Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections. Britain warned in early March that it would withdraw its monitors if the P.A. did not improve security. Israel took the monitors’ departure as a sign that the deal was over.
Twenty minutes after the monitors left, Israeli troops moved into the compound with tanks and bulldozers and seized key points. By 10:04, Israeli snipers were in control of the courtyard. However, instead of moving in to seize the wanted men, who were deep inside the compound, Israel decided to wait and began chipping away at the building’s walls.
By Tuesday afternoon, senior officers had begun sensing a deadlock. This was the Israeli commanders’ nightmare scenario: a standoff leading to lengthy negotiations with the barricaded detainees, as television cameras continued to roll, international pressure mounted, and riots threatened to erupt across the Muslim world.
The commander of the Israeli assault unit recommended a drastic move: a forceful raid and quick takeover of the cellblock, using firearms to capture the six wanted men. The chances of success were reasonable. His men had been practicing on a mockup of the Jericho prison for two-and-a-half weeks and were prepared for almost every conceivable scenario.
However, the raid option carried dangers. Key corridors were blocked off with concrete, and the building itself was unstable. Smashing through the walls could bring down the structure, threatening both the troops and the wanted men. Israel’s objective was to take the suspects alive and bring them to justice.
As consultations continued, top military officials were close to accepting the commander’s recommendation. At the last moment, however, the army chief of staff, Dan Halutz, decided to go on with the slow siege.
At that point, by late afternoon, the six top detainees were no longer running around the prison. They had been asleep when British prison guards left the jail that morning. By the time they were awakened by gunfire — Israeli snipers killed two Palestinian police officers during the initial assault — Israel was already in control of the compound.
Once the detainees realized the British were no longer around, they left their wing and began moving around the prison building. When journalists entered the cellblock, the senior detainee, Ahmad Sa’adat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, began issuing defiant declarations, including a pledge to fight to the end. Israeli officials feared he might deliver.
The detainees were in a position to put up a fight. They had access to Palestinian police weapons. Moreover, they might not fight alone. The prison’s inmates included suspects wanted in the lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah at the beginning of the intifada. They knew that if they were nabbed, they would be sent to an Israeli prison for life — under conditions vastly different from those they enjoyed in Jericho.
As it turned out, no one intended to offer a serious fight. Apparently they did not wish to become martyrs.
Two hours before the detainees surrendered, the only part of the prison still standing was the wing where the top detainees were confined. They promptly returned to their rooms and waited. At 6:50 p.m., when the walls around them started shaking, they stepped out and surrendered.
During defense establishment consultations over the operational plans to take over the prison, military issues were discussed along with political consequences, as is the norm in such operations. This time, however, the political aspects were pushed to the margins and their effect on the operation was minimal.
The raid in Jericho marked a turning point in terms of the importance attached by Israel to the P.A.’s stability. The operation’s likely effect on the authority of the Palestinian chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, did not interest anyone present during the deliberations. This was a first. It is a pattern that will likely be repeated in Israel’s dealings with the P.A. in the future.
In future discussions, political considerations are likely to take a back seat to security considerations. Up until now, the division was approximately 50-50. Military officials admit the new situation is more convenient for the army.
This change will affect first of all the scope of operational activity and judgment. If the army would like to assassinate someone, it will. If it sees fit to bomb, it will. If military officials wish to invade Gaza, they will do that too. The army now feels the constraints it has been facing have been removed.
The Jericho operation signals not only that Israel is willing to stand up for itself when it comes to national principles, but that Israel is also willing to break the rules should it see fit.
Defense officials sense that Israel is now headed for an unavoidable clash with the P.A. They are not certain whether it will happen in May, June or July, but they know it will happen. Unilateral moves will become the name of the game. There will be no dialogue with the other side.
However, the Jericho raid also reflected developments in the post-election P.A. Palestinian police officers at the prison, closely monitored by Israel throughout the operation, displayed two noticeable characteristics. For one thing, they showed a clear lack of desire to fight and die. At the same time, they also showed no inclination to leave the scene, flee or surrender, for fear of being seen as collaborators with Israel.
Israeli officials say they already sense a decline in the level of dialogue between Israeli military officials and their Palestinian counterparts. The two sides still talk, but the Palestinian willingness to disclose explosive devices and prevent terror attacks is evaporating.
Meanwhile, external forces are pushing the Palestinians toward violence. The Syrians, the Iranians and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia are pressing two key Palestinian groups, Islamic Jihad and the increasingly leaderless Fatah militias, to carry out attacks. A day after the Jericho operation, Israeli security authorities received a report warning of 40 terrorist cells preparing attacks, including four concrete attacks in the works.
Significantly, none of those attacks was attributed to Hamas, but rather to Jihad and the Fatah cells. Every planned operation is a suicide attack intended to cause mass casualties. Hamas, by contrast, continues to hold back, hoping to gain time to form a government and take over the P.A., according to security officials.
However, officials say, Hamas is losing patience. “Hamas has already finished biting its nails in its efforts to remain restrained,” one security official said. “At this point it’s already biting its fingertips.”
Sooner or later, the restraint will end. The Jericho operation did not boost Hamas’s prestige among its constituents. The only response it offered as the Palestinian governing party was to organize mass demonstrations. Jihad and Fatah, for their part, are doing everything they can to draw Hamas into the cycle of violence.
The continued Qassam rocket fire from Gaza will eventually lead to Israeli casualties. Israel does not intend to respond in the same measured manner it did in the past. This may lead to a reckless response by Hamas.
Overall, the Jericho prison raid settled the score with the killers of Rehavam Ze’evi, the assassinated Israeli Cabinet minister. But it also opened a new chapter — with numerous unknowns — in the relationship between Israel and the Hamas-led P.A.
Alex Fishman is the chief military correspondent of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. This article first appeared in the March 17 edition of Yediot, and is reprinted by permission of the author.