A needless provocation

While Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apparently authorised the raid on the Jericho jail to shore up his political fortunes, the United States and the United Kingdom have to share much of the blame for the violence that flared up subsequently. The raid would not have been feasible had the Western powers not withdrawn the monitors they had posted in the facility under a 2002 agreement. This agreement came about because a few Palestinians who were wanted by Israel had taken refuge in the Ramallah headquarters of Chairman Yasser Arafat. With Israel threatening to raid the premises, the Western powers had worked out an arrangement by which the wanted men were to be kept in the custody of the Palestinian Authority but under the scrutiny of American and British supervisors. Over the past four years, Israel and its Western allies have complained that the detenus were being treated very leniently. However, until Hamas won the parliamentary election, Washington and London had given no indication that the monitoring arrangement would be wound up. The leaders of the Islamist movement had declared that they would release the detenus once they assumed office. Mr. Olmert would have found himself in an untenable political situation had Hamas acted on its declaration. One of the Jericho detenus, Ahmed Saadat, is alleged to have been involved in the assassination of former Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze'evi. The Israeli Prime Minister apparently calculated that his electoral prospects would be severely damaged if Mr. Saadat was set free ahead of the parliamentary election. Mr. Olmert's political opponents would have accused him of being soft on terrorism; such an accusation might have resonated among the electorate since his main campaign promise is that he will shut down the smaller settlements in the West Bank.

The claim by Israel and its Western allies that they did not act in concert lacks credibility. Mr. Olmert who has been slipping in popular ratings needed to demonstrate that he is a strongman. That the Israeli army was able to launch the operation half an hour after the last batch of monitors drove away from the jail does appear to indicate it had prior information. The U.S. and the British governments have of course already declared that they would have no dealings with Hamas. However, they have offered only a weak explanation for their decision to withdraw monitors without waiting to see whether the release of detenus was indeed ordered. While Washington and London have cited concern for the safety of their citizens as the justification, it is inconceivable that either the Palestinians or Israelis would have harmed the monitors. This has been established by the fact that most Westerners taken hostage during the riots that followed the raid were soon set free. All in all, the withdrawal of the supervisors appears to have been intended to provoke Hamas into an indiscretion.