After Israel's grab of top Palestinian prisoners from a West Bank jail, Palestinians staged protest strikes yesterday, their embarrassed president rushed back from Europe and Israel said it was determined to put the detainees on trial for the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.
"Got 'em!" gloated one banner newspaper headline, above a large photo of blindfolded, handcuffed Palestinian militant leader Ahmed Saadat being led away by Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Jericho.
Tuesday's daylong siege came just two weeks before Israel's general election and boosted acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's image as a tough-minded leader. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a member of Olmert's centrist Kadima Party, dismissed allegations by Palestinian officials and critics at home that the operation, which involved some 1,000 troops, was timed to win over hardline voters.
The raid triggered unprecedented Palestinian reprisals against foreigners, because British wardens -- who along with American monitors had supervised the Jericho prisoners under an unusual 2002 arrangement -- left their posts just before Israeli troops arrived.
Gunmen vandalized Western offices and kidnapped 11 foreigners, including a US university professor. By Wednesday afternoon, all had been released.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas cut short a European tour and was to return to the West Bank yesterday. In an unusually harsh statement, he blamed the US and Britain for the Israeli raid, which made him appear increasingly weak to his people.
Later yesterday, Abbas toured the ruins of the Jericho prison and was to visit those wounded in fighting.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the UK's withdrawal of monitors from the prison just before the Israeli raid, saying they were pulled out for their own safety.
Speaking in parliament's lower House of Commons, Blair dismissed the notion that the withdrawal was uncalled for.
"For the past three months we have been warning the Palestinian Authority that the security of these monitors was at risk, that the procedures at the particular detention center were not adequate and proper," he said.
"That culminated last week on March 8 with both the UK and US consuls general jointly writing to President Abbas, making it clear that unless the the Palestinian Authority met its obligations, we would have to terminate involvement with the mission with immediate effect," he said.
Israeli officials said that once the monitors left, they were forced to act in light of recent statements by Palestinian officials and Hamas leaders -- including incoming Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh -- of plans to release the prisoners.
"As soon as Haniyeh said that he is going to free them, why should we give them any time?" Mofaz, the Israeli defense minister, told Army Radio Wednesday.
In Strasbourg, European parliamentarians roundly criticized Israel yesterday for the prison raid that forced Abbas to cut short his visit to Europe.
Deprived of a long-awaited address by Abbas, whose impoverished Palestinian territories receive vast amounts of EU aid, the deputies condemned the attack and the wave of revenge kidnappings it fueled.