A tense 10-hour siege of the Palestinian Authority prison ended Tuesday night when Ahmed Sa'adat, the mastermind behind the 2001 assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, walked out and surrendered to troops who were poised to burst in and seize him.
Security forces, led by the police's elite counterterror unit, also apprehended four others involved in Ze'evi's murder, along with Fuad Shubaki, the Karine A weapons ship paymaster.
In an operation called "Bringing Home the Goods," IDF forces, tanks, artillery and helicopters pounded the jail Tuesday morning, after US and British monitors stationed there withdrew. Two PA security men were killed in the initial fighting. There were no Israeli casualties.
Well over 100 prisoners came out in the early stages of the operation, were ordered to undress to ensure they were not wearing explosives, and were taken into custody. The standoff regarding the rest of the inmates lasted all day, before Saadat and the others capitulated.
In the planning for several days, the operation was only launched after the foreign monitors left, leaving Sa'adat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the others potentially free to go.
"Regrettably the Palestinian Authority in the last four years has never met all its obligations despite repeated requests to do so - our monitors faced increasing danger," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Parliament
in an explanation for the monitors' departure.
After winning the Palestinian Legislative Council elections on January 25, Hamas leaders insisted they wanted to release Sa'adat
, and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said last week he would not oppose freeing the six men.
Security officials stressed that weeks ago, based on reports that the PA intended to release the six, the army began planning for the possibility that it would be required to act.
At 9 a.m., soldiers stationed at a checkpoint outside Jericho spotted the foreign monitors leaving the city. Special forces, backed up by tanks, immediately converged on the prison, situated next to the PA government building, in an effort to force the wanted men out.
The operation proved to be more difficult than might have been expected, partly because some inmates took control of an armory in the prison. Troops encircled the building while bulldozers knocked down nearby walls and helicopters fired missiles in an effort to turn the prison into a "pressure cooker."
Earlier in the day, senior officers vowed to apprehend Saadat alive or dead. "We want to take them out alive, but if they threaten us, we won't hesitate to kill them," a senior officer told reporters on the outskirts of Jericho. "We won't agree to any change in Saadat's prison status."
At first, Sa'adat vowed to stay put and defiantly told Al-Jazeera in a telephone interview, "We are not going to give up, we are going to face our destiny with courage."
Ultimately, however, Saadat, apparently realizing he would eventually be caught or killed, ordered his men to put down their weapons and surrender.
Soon after nightfall, the six, stripped to their underpants, surrendered and were questioned by security officials in the jail compound. In addition to the six wanted men, troops also arrested 67 Palestinians who were still holed up inside the compound, a third of which was demolished by IDF bulldozers.
Apart from the two PA security men who were killed during the fighting, another 28 were wounded.
"The message of the operation is clear," OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh told reporters following Saadat's capture. "The blood of an Israeli minister will not be forfeited and the perpetrators will be hunted down."
The operation sparked clashes and disturbances throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where gunmen abducted at least 10 foreign nationals, among them reporters, teachers and aid workers, and set fire to the British Council headquarters in Gaza.
The international monitors deployed at the Rafah border crossing left the site and PA shut down the crossing between Gaza and Egypt, in addition to the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan.
British nationals were advised to refrain from entering areas under PA control
due to the rising tensions.
Israel denied that it had coordinated the operation with the UK and US and noted that the operation was launched only after the foreign monitors had left.
The PA's failure to uphold its side of an agreement, a senior officer said, prompted the international monitors to leave the prison.
"Israel maintained its commitment to the agreements reached with the PA and decided to take action only when the PA violated its side of the agreement and the terrorists were no longer under the supervision of American and British monitors as the agreement specifies," an IDF statement said.
There were no negotiations with the fugitives regarding their surrender, security officials stressed, and there was no intention to enter any dialogue with them. "They have a choice to surrender or be taken alive or dead; it is as clear cut as that," one officer said earlier in the day.
In May 2002, Sa'adat, Shubaki and four cell members involved in Ze'evi's murder were transferred from Ramallah to the Jericho jail. The handover was part of a deal brokered by the US, and allowed Israel to lift a month-long siege of Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, with the understanding that US and British agents would monitor the jail to ensure that the six would not be set free.
The four cell members who actively participated in Ze'evi's murder are Hamdi Koran, who pulled the trigger, Basel al-Amar, Majdi Rimawi and Ahed Gholami.
In April 2002, in a quick military trial in Ramallah, headed by Brig.-Gen. Ribhi Arafat, the four involved in Ze'evi's murder were sentenced to hard labor. Koran was sentenced to 18 years, Asmar to 12, Rimawi to eight and Gholami to one year. Saadat was never placed on trial.â€¢