Eyewitness: Jericho's prison walls come tumbling down

Israel waited almost five years to get its hands on Rehavam Ze'evi's killers, and on Tuesday it finally got its chance. While the Palestinians and parts of the international community accused Israel of launching an unnecessary military operation in the sleepy and relatively quiet town of Jericho, the IDF claimed that it was only doing what any country would do - seeking justice. If anyone was to blame for the operation, senior officers said, it was primarily the Palestinian Authority, which failed to ensure the safety of the British and US monitors at the prison, but also those foreign monitors, who fled the city without coordinating the move with their Israeli counterparts, potentially giving Ahmed Saadat the opportunity to walk away unhindered. Despite the lack of coordination, the army was not completely taken by surprise and had been preparing for the operation for the last several days. While forces were not deployed at Jericho's front door, they were on standby and arrived at the prison compound within minutes after the foreign monitors withdrew. Senior officers, including OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, told reporters Tuesday night that Israel only made its final decision to act after soldiers stationed at the IDF checkpoint at the entrance to the city saw the monitors pass through. "We saw them pass through the checkpoint and then realized that the prisoners, including Saadat, were left unguarded," a senior officer told The Jerusalem Post on the outskirts of Jericho. "At that point, knowing that the PA would not behave responsibly, we were left with no choice but to invade the city." The operation that ensued was long and complicated and put the army under international pressure to back down and give the PA a chance to retake the prison and independently lock up Saadat and the other wanted men. Israel stood firm and, as Naveh later explained: "The blood of an Israeli minister [Ze'evi] will not be forfeited and the perpetrators will be hunted down." The operation also clearly showed the world and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would not stand idly by as anarchy and Hamas begin to sweep through the PA territories. With Hamas set to form a new government soon, some IDF officers predicted that Jericho-like operations may need to be carried out more frequently. Overall, the army was happy with the operation's results. There were no Israeli casualties and only a few on the Palestinian side. While on the outside the operation appeared to be dragging on and the army seemed to lose control as helicopters launched missiles and artillery cannons fired shells at the jail compound, senior officers said everything was done with one goal: forcing the wanted men out and preventing the need to storm the building. An armory in the prison, the officers said, had been taken over by the wanted men, and a raid on the building would have most likely drawn additional casualties and possibly ended with a dead Saadat, which would not be in Israel's best interest. The army turned the PA prison into a "pressure cooker," firing missiles and shells at lots surrounding the building, while bulldozers knocked down nearby walls. In the end, the tactic succeeded and forced the wanted men to surrender without having to send the elite police SWAT team into the prison building. Even with the operation deemed a success, the army is far from reaching the stage where it can put up its feet. Repercussions of the operation were already felt Tuesday afternoon as Palestinian gunmen took nine hostages in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and set ablaze the British Council offices in Gaza. So, while Ze'evi's killers are finally behind Israeli bars, the army will now need to brace itself for retaliatory attacks and a possible escalation on the Palestinian front.