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Israel Storms Prison, Sparking Riots and Kidnappings

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Israeli forces stormed a prison in the West Bank town of Jericho today, and after a ten-hour siege they detained half a dozen Palestinian militants, including those accused of murdering an Israeli Cabinet Minister in 2001.

British and American officials had been posted at the prison under an international agreement to monitor the detainees. But the monitors left Jericho early today after complaining about lax security at the prison. A short time later, Israeli troops and tanks moved in.

NPR's Linda Gradstein spent much of the day in Jericho. She joins us now on the line from Jerusalem. Linda, tell us what you saw and heard as this Israeli operation unfolded today.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Well for most of the day there was the boom of Israeli artillery, which fired shells, tank shells, at the prison walls. Palestinians said that the helicopter also fired a missile. There was a big plume of smoke reaching pretty high into the sky from both burning tires and from the Israeli fire, and Israeli bulldozers had surrounded the prison. they had knocked down two of the walls.

Israel said that the target was Ahmed Sadat, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and he was at the top of Israel's most wanted list. They said he was the man behind the killing of the Israeli cabinet minister.

Once the British guards left, Israel was afraid that he would be freed. They said they could not let that happen.

NORRIS: And the rest of the prisoners there, what was the scene after this raid outside that prison?

GRADSTEIN: Well the prisoners came out with their hands above their head, wearing only their underwear. They were seized by the Israeli troops. They were blindfolded and taken away for questioning.

And Israeli military officials said anyone who was wanted by Israel would be sent to an Israeli jail and that some of the others, some of the other prisoners, for example, were criminal cases, or, you know, having nothing to do with Israel, that they would be freed.

NORRIS: Sadat has said that he had no plan to surrender. What made him change his mind?

GRADSTEIN: Well it's not clear, but it did happen fairly suddenly. What Israeli military sources say they believe happened is they arrested a Palestinian Brigade commander who had been a liaison between the Palestinian prisoners and the Israelis, and he apparently told his security men inside the prison that they could choose to surrender to Israel or stay, as they wanted.

Most of them chose to surrender, and when Ahmed Sadat and the other men with him saw that they didn't really have any shield anymore, they surrendered. And Israel had said that they would just collapse the entire prison on top of them, that they were simply not leaving until Ahmed Sadat either surrendered or was killed.

NORRIS: Now the events in Jericho sparked violent protests in many parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. What happened there?

GRADSTEIN: Well, at least nine foreigners were kidnapped, mostly in Gaza. Gunmen went from door to door in the seafront hotels along the Gaza beachfront and just sort of grabbed foreigners. Several buildings, the British counsel and a couple of other buildings belonging to the Europeans, were burned by an angry crowd. And the British government recommended to its citizens to leave the West Bank in Gaza.

NORRIS: Quickly, before we let you go, Linda, Israel's parliamentary elections take place in just two weeks. Is this operation likely to have any effect on that campaign?

GRADSTEIN: Well a poll published by Israel television tonight found a jump in support for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He had been slipping in the polls, he is seen as not quite as strong on security as his predecessor, Ariel Sharon. And this could give Olmert a boost in the polls.

NORRIS: Thank you Linda.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you.

NORRIS: NPR's Linda Gradstein speaking to us from Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.