GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Palestinian militants on Wednesday released the last four foreigners they had seized a day earlier to protest an Israeli military raid on a West Bank prison. Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the raid an "unforgivable crime."
Palestinian security officials escorted the four hostages - a South Korean journalist, two French citizens and a Canadian - into the headquarters of the Palestinian preventive security agency in Gaza City. Security officials had worked through the night to secure their release.
Palestinian gunmen originally seized 11 foreigners after Tuesday's raid in the West Bank town of Jericho. Most of the hostages were quickly released unharmed.
In the raid, Israel seized six wanted Palestinians, including the mastermind of the 2001 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeeviof. Israel said Wednesday it is determined to try the detainees for the killing.
Palestinian anger over the raid lingered Wednesday as a protest strike was held. Palestinians closed shops across the West Bank and Gaza amid an outburst of anti-Western sentiment. In Gaza, schools opened, but most students left early. Nablus residents observed a general strike.
The raid set off unprecedented Palestinian reprisals against foreigners because U.S. and British wardens, who 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 an American university professor.
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 Palestinians and critics at home that the operation, which involved some 1,000 troops, including elite commandos, was timed to win over hardline voters.
"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.
Abbas cut short a European tour and was en route to the West Bank. In an unusually harsh statement, he blamed the United States and Britain for the Israeli raid, which made him look weak to his people. The blow to his authority comes at a time when he is wrangling over the division of powers with the Islamic militant Hamas, which is poised to form a new government this month.
"The Americans and the British wanted to help Kadima in the election," said former Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath, an Abbas ally.
On Wednesday, Abbas called the raid an "unforgivable crime" and an insult to the Palestinian people.
Israeli forces took the Palestinian Authority by surprise when they ringed the Jericho prison Tuesday morning and demanded the surrender of all prisoners, including Saadat and four accomplices in the .
Throughout the day, groups of prisoners emerged from the lockup, their hands raised and forced to strip to their underwear. Helicopters and tanks shelled the building and jackhammers tore down walls to force the others to give up as well. Saadat, leader of a radical PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), held out until after nightfall, then walked out in a single file of prisoners and Palestinian police.
In all, more than 300 Palestinians were detained, and about 100 have since been released, the Israeli military said. Saadat and other top prisoners were questioned overnight at a small army base near Jericho. In addition to the PFLP prisoners, Israel seized Fuad Shobaki, the alleged financier of an illegal weapons shipment to the Palestinian Authority several years ago.
Israeli officials said Wednesday they are determined to try Saadat and four other PLFP activists for the assassination of Zeevi but will first have to overcome some legal hurdles. The four believed to be directly involved in the assassination were convicted in the past by a Palestinian court, and legal experts said they'd have to sort out first whether they can be tried again.
Despite the legal questions, Israel intends to keep Saadat and the others, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio. "I have no doubt that they will stay with us for a long time," Livni said.
Zeevi, an ultranationalist who advocated the expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory, was shot dead in the hallway of a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001, and the PFLP claimed responsibility at the time.
Saadat and four PFLP activists directly involved in the killing were eventually arrested by Palestinian police. In April 2002, a makeshift court hastily convened in then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank compound and sentenced the four to prison terms ranging from one to 18 years. Saadat was not charged, with Palestinian officials saying they did not believe he was involved in Zeevi's death.
At the time of the trial, Israeli forces were besieging Arafat's compound, in part to seize the PFLP suspects. Under an internationally brokered deal to end the siege, Saadat and the others were transferred to Jericho, where U.S. and British inspectors were to supervise their imprisonment.
British and American officials said they had complained repeatedly about security conditions at the prison and threatened in a letter last week - a copy of which was sent to Israel - to remove the monitors if things did not improve immediately.
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 free 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. "That's why we acted the way we did."
Israeli politicians, from Benjamin Netanyahu of the hardline Likud Party, to Yossi Beilin of the dovish Meretz Party, accused Kadima of trying to lure hardliner voters.
"I wouldn't say that this was the main reason but if elections weren't happening, maybe the decision would have been different," Beilin told Army Radio Wednesday.
Mofaz denied political concerns motivated the raid, saying the timing was determined by the departure of the monitors. "We knew a week before that it could happen any day but did someone plan this timing?" Mofaz said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said conditions at the prison were so bad that the observers had to work from the roof rather than the inside of the prison. Guards were allowing prisoners to use mobile phones in violation of the agreement and failing to enforce rules limiting visitors and phone calls, he said.