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IDF Chief of Staff Halutz: 'Jericho operation was not political - it was necessary after Palestinians drove out international observes and threatened to free terrorists'

Acting PM Olmert has sent message to both Palestinians and Israelis

the jail in Jericho

The IDF was ready and waiting. Only minutes after British and American monitors evacuated the Jericho prison where the Palestinian Authority had jailed wanted terrorists, Israeli tanks and troops moved in. Five of the terrorists, including Popular Front leader Ahmed Saadat, were believed responsible for gunning down Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi in a Jerusalem Hotel in 2001. Not only had the Palestinians been threatening the international monitors, Hamas talked about freeing the terrorists. IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz says the military strike was not political although it comes in the midst of the Israeli election campaign. However, there are various ramifications.

One of the killers - Ahmed Saadat

In Israel, there has been nearly wall-to-wall support for the IDF operation into Jericho to apprehend the Popular Front leader Ahmed Saadat and five other terrorists involved in the assassination of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi. After tracking down the terrorists to Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, Israel thought it had a deal. The Palestinian Authority would guarantee the six would be jailed in Jericho under the watchful eye of British and American monitors. But now the new Hamas administration was talking about freeing the killers. Moreover, the U.S. and Britain also warned the PA that if Palestinians continued to harass their monitors they would be pulled out. When they were, the IDF was ready moving in force to surround the Jericho.

There were two options: to risk high casualties (mainly Palestinian) by storming the compound or to lay siege and smoke out the hundreds of prisoners and guards. The latter was selected, and the six terrorists will now face an Israeli court. This time they can be expected to serve out their sentences behind bars (Israel has no death penalty for murder only for genocide and treason in the time of war). As for the legal aspect, critics of Israel's targeting killing of Palestinian terrorists in the terrorists often that Israel should apprehend the terrorists and bring them before a court of law. This is surely the case this time. But the Jericho operation also illustrates the risk of innocent Palestinians being hit in such ground operations. Three Palestinian policemen were killed and several dozen wounded when they opened fire on the Israeli forces. How many innocent Palestinians would be harmed if the IDF launched ground operations into heavily populated areas which the terrorists deliberately use as cover for planning their suicide bombings? It is a case of 'bringing terrorists to justice' as in Jericho or of 'bringing justice to the terrorists' i.e. - targeted killings.

But if the Palestinians thought Olmert or any other Israeli PM would acquiesce in Hamas freeing the terrorists, they were mistaken. And it's not solely because of the current election campaign. Israeli public opinion riles at the very idea that Palestinian terrorists could walk into a Jerusalem hotel, gun down an Israeli cabinet minister, flee to sanctuary in the Palestinian headquarters, broker an international deal and then have them go Scot-free after four years of pampered imprisonment.

PM Olmert

Disengagement & Engagement: Olmert talks openly of a second withdrawal on the West Bank after he wins the March 28th election. His right wing critics have lambasted him contending that territory relinquished to the Palestinians is territory to the terrorists for more deadly raids. They point to the Gaza Strip where the terrorists have moved into the settlement areas evacuated by Israel last summer to launch Qassam rockets at Ashqelon and other Israeli targets. But Jericho shows Olmert is planning the pullback from a position of power; that the IDF will conduct counter-terror operations at will and in force against terror threats anywhere in Palestinian areas on the West Bank.

Palestinian Hybrid: Israeli officials believe Hamas has been trying to use Palestinian President Abbas as their 'front man'. Abbas talks peace while Hamas prepares for war. Hamas needs time to build its strength and that requires the inflow of international aide to run the Palestinian administration. Without it, Hamas will soon be in hot water with Palestinian public opinion. But the Israeli intelligence assessment is that fundamentalist Hamas will not shift from its ultimate goal of exterminating Israel, no less than the fanatic regime in Iran. Hamas can be expected to bide its time while preparing for the next round against Israel when the time is ripe. Kadima's Shimon Peres has just met Abbas ostensibly to discuss economic affairs. But is it conceivable that Peres did not raise Israel's demand that Hamas recognize Israel, halt terrorism and honor prior agreements? Peres and his former Labor colleagues as well as Meretz are about the only ones that still believe Abbas has any clout among the Palestinians. After first vetoing a Peres-Abbas meeting, Olmert then gave the green light, apparently to humor Peres. But the Jericho operation elucidates that Olmert is not falling for 'a good guy, bad guy routine' if that's what Hamas has in mind.

Last month, Olmert took on the settlers and the right wing parties in the election campaign by ordering the forcible eviction of the illegal outpost of Amona. In Jericho, the Kadima leader launched his first foray into the new Hamas reality on the West Bank. Hamas totally misread the situation by planning to set free the terrorists in Jericho. (Maybe they had no choice as declared terrorists themselves who have been democratically elected to power). But in so doing, Hamas acted like a tennis player at the Wimbledon finals, gently serving the ball over the net to the opponent who smashed it back for a big point. That's what Olmert did in Jericho and the polls show he is soaring in the opinion polls.

David Essing

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