The target of the raid, Ahmed Saadat, surrendered after Israeli bulldozers, backed by helicopters overhead, entered the prison grounds. Saadat, leader of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine, was imprisoned for ordering the 2001 assassination of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi. Saadat had earlier told Al-Jazeera television he would rather die than surrender to Israeli soldiers.
As the more than 170 prisoners surrendered, some 15,000 Palestinians led by dozens of gunmen firing in the air rallied in Gaza City to protest the raid, which left two Palestinians dead. The demonstrators, chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, marched toward the Palestinian parliament building.
The protestors also lit fire to the British Council building in Gaza City and kidnapped at least nine foreigners, including an American professor, a Red Cross worker, two South Korean journalists and two Australian teachers at an American school.
Saadat and four other PFLP leaders have been guarded by British and American soldiers in the Jericho jail since 2002. Their incarceration was part of an agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli forces that ended a month-long military siege of the headquarters of the late Palestinian president Yassar Arafat in Ramallah in 2002.
Israeli officials said they ordered the raid after Hamas leaders, recently voted into power during Palestinian parliamentary elections, said they wanted to release Saadat. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week he would not oppose freeing the six men.
U.S. and British officials sent a letter to Abbas last week, accusing the Palestinians of repeatedly violating the 2002 agreement and saying the security situation at the prison needed to be improved immediately or the monitors would leave. British officials said they had repeatedly told Abbas they would remove their monitors if security was not improved at the jail.
The agreement collapsed Tuesday morning when the monitors pulled out. Minutes later, Israeli troops raided the prison.
Hamas Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh said Tuesday the Israeli action was a get-tough measure by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in advance of March 28 elections. Olmert’s Kadima Party is expected to win those elections.