Prison siege over: Popular Front Secretary General Ahmad Saadat and five other terrorists involved in the murder of former Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi turned themselves in Tuesday evening following a nine-hour IDF siege.
Saadat and his men left the prison with their hands up and were handed over to IDF soldiers along with other detainees.
According to Palestinian reports, the prisoners surrendered as part of an international agreement whose details are unknown at this time.
Smoke rising over prison (Photo: Reuters)
In a briefing with reporters following the operation, IDF Central Command Head Yair Naveh said that once prisoners realized "our determination is indeed absolute and we're going through with this, they came out, and I'm glad (it happened) with a minimum number of casualties."
There was no coordination between Israel, Britain and the United States for the capture of the terrorists, Naveh told reporters. “We’ve been preparing for weeks, since the Palestinians said hey planned to release Saadat, so we were on high alert. The British sent a letter to the PA a few weeks ago addressing the matter. As soon as we saw (the British and Americans) left, we went in,” he said.
'Terror wave possible'
Responding to a question about the possibility of a terror wave in response to the Jericho operation, Naveh said: "We may experience a certain wave. I hope the fact we ended this incident with minimal casualties will end the wave."
"We're talking about the detainment of murderers, as we do every night in Nablus, Hebron, and Ramallah," the IDF official added. "In this regard there's no difference."
Ynetnews coverage of Jericho prison siege:
The IDF said Tuesday evening that about 60 prisoners remained in the prison, more than originally believed, including the murderers of Zeevi, whose impending release prompted the IDF operation. The army said 202 detainees left the prison voluntarily and 76 of them were released following an interrogation after it turned out they were not terror activists.
Earlier, senior IDF officials, including Army Chief Dan Halutz, met to discuss the possibility of storming the Jericho prison where the top detainees were barricaded.
Several structures around the prison have been razed by army bulldozers and parts of the outer wall surrounding the compound have been knocked down. As a result, the army was carefully considering whether storming the prison would be the right move in light of the structure's dilapidated state.
Army officers were concerned the prison building could collapse in the event of a raid. The six Zeevi killers did not respond to army calls to surrender and were apparently huddled together at one of the prison's corners, before finally turning themselves in.
Abbas: We'll keep detainees in jail
After launching a large-scale operation at the Jericho prison in the West Bank Tuesday morning, IDF troops continued to surround the site throughout the afternoon, demanding the surrender of Secretary General of the PFLP Ahmad Saadat as well as other top fugitives involved in the murder of Zeevi.
At one point, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas pledged that top prisoners will remain jailed in Jericho as long as Israel withdraws from the prison compound. In talks with Knesset Members Yossi Beilin and Ahmed Tibi, Abbas called on Israel to move out of the prison in order to prevent more bloodshed, in return for an "unequivocal promise that the group of prisoners found under international monitoring will remain in jail under Palestinian supervision, even if foreign prison guards do not return."
Abbas also promised to arrange a new agreement for foreign supervision of the prisoners. Following the talk, Beilin called on Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to immediately comply with Abbas' request "in order not to waste precious time and human lives."
'Surrender or die'
Troops took over the prison compound in an operation involving the use of shells, machine guns, and gun fire. Two Palestinians were killed in early stages of the operation and several prisoners were hurt. Another wounded Palestinian later succumbed to his wounds at a Jerusalem hospital, the army said. Meanwhile, an IDF chopper fired a missile at protesters near the jail. No injuries were reported in the missile strike.
Prisoners turn themselves in (Photo: Reuters)
A senior officer at the site said earlier there is no dialogue between the troops and prisoners still barricaded at the compound.
"We are not engaged in negotiations with those in the prison. Either they get out or they die," the officer said.
Hamas warns Israel
In the early afternoon hours, IDF bulldozers razed another one of the walls surrounding the Mukata compound in order to pressure the fugitives to turn themselves in.
While troops surrounded the prison, Saadat found time to hold a chat with Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal in a live broadcast on al-Jazeera.
Riots in Gaza (Photo: Reuters)
Mashaal opened the conversation saying, “This is a crime against the Palestinian people. International observers that have imprisoned Palestinian fighters – including Ahmad Saadat - in recent years, escaped at this moment of truth. We condemn Israel for this crime, charge them with full responsibility and warn them not to wound the fighters Ahmad Saadat, Fuad Shubaki or any of the other prisoners.”
While periodic gunfire and chaos could be heard in the background, Mashaal addressed Saadat personally: “I send my regards to my brother-in-arms. Hamas has promised, from the moment it was charged with establishing the government, to work for Saadat’s release and the release of other prisoners in the Jericho prison. I am calling on my brother to be patient and trust in god. A strong people – in the territories and outside of them – is behind you."
"The strength of our people will not let the Zionists commit this crime. There will be a great Palestinian and Arab response to this act. When I heard about this, I called Mahmoud Abbas and we started contacting allies in the Arab and international communities to apply pressures to stop this Israeli crime.”
After listening to Mashaal’s message, Saadat responded emotionally, “I bless the words of brother Khaled Mashaal. I am always proud of his brave positions, which support the resistance and I thank him for his encouraging message. This attack is just one of the many that our people suffer every day. Our nation has struggled with the occupation for dozens of years. We, as fighters, are fighting the occupation.”
Mashaal used the opportunity to call on “the masses to assemble in front of the Jericho prison.” In addition, he requested the international community to interfere, and specifically addressed Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he met in recent weeks. When he was asked how the Hamas would respond if Saadat were killed by the IDF, he said, “The resistance is legitimate whether he is killed or not.”
Roee Nahmias and Ali Waked contributed to the report