British 'wardens' to guard killers in Jericho jail

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The British policeman's lot has never been a happy one, and this is unlikely to be any different for those who sign up as "wardens" in the latest British-American peace move in the Middle East.

The British policeman's lot has never been a happy one, and this is unlikely to be any different for those who sign up as "wardens" in the latest British-American peace move in the Middle East.

They will be unarmed, stationed in the sweltering desert, and guarding a group of men regarded by Palestinians as heroic guerrilla fighters and by Israelis as ruthless killers.

The Government is to recruit up to a dozen security officials with a background in the police, prison service, or military to dispatch to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to act as "supervisory wardens" at a prison containing six Palestinians on Israel's most wanted list.

In return, Israel has agreed to end its military siege of Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters, where he has been confined by tanks and troops since December.

Palestinian workmen were yesterday sprucing up a tatty whitewashed security compound in Jericho. The two-storey building, built when Britain ruled this part of the Middle East under a mandate, is overlooked by the Mount of Temptation, where Christ is supposed to have fended off the devil for 40 days. True temptation, however, is these days non-existent in Jericho.

The town's only serious attraction for sinners – apart from binging wildly on bananas and dates – is its Austrian-managed casino, just a few hundred yards down the road from the prison. But that has been closed for months.

Temperatures in the summer rise to 40C. The barman of the nearby and now deserted 180-room Intercontinental hotel – testimony to the town's dreams of becoming a tourist destination – claims not to have sold a beer for a year and a half.

The commander of the prison, Brig Mophammed Thabet, said curtly yesterday that "wine and spirits are not allowed in the compound – and nor is sex." He pointed out that the Israeli army, whose helicopters have twice before damaged the compound, might strike at any time. "I expect that every day and every moment."

As they sit in the prison alongside a similar team of Americans, the British wardens will, unlike almost everyone else in the surrounding landscape, be without guns.

Their immediate safety will be in the hands of the Palestinian Authority's security services, whom they will be supervising. The record of the latter is far from good: in the past 18 months, albeit when they have been under regular attack from Israeli forces, the same forces have routinely let prisoners go, and have often failed to prevent alleged Palestinian collaborators in their charge from being lynched.

Israeli forces are nearby, overlooking the town from the hilltops, and around the edge of Jericho.

Four of the six men whom the British-American team will be watching over have been convicted of assassinating the Israeli tourism minister, Rechavam Ze'evi, on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – a revenge killing following the assassination of their own leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, by Israeli armed forces last August. The other two are the new head of the PFLP, Ahmed Saadat, and a senior Palestinian official, Fuad Shobaki, accused by Israel of bankrolling an arms-smuggling operation.

There will be concerns within the Foreign Office that wardens will be at risk of being taken hostage by other Palestinian guerrillas in the hope of forcing the release of inmates.

That subject is sure to be on the list of issues of a team of three British officials – a Foreign Office Middle East expert, an academic and an ex-military officer. Two of the three arrived yesterday and were in Ramallah in talks with the Palestinian leadership. The wardens – who are expected to be drawn from those who have been on peacekeeping duties in Kosovo – could be in place by the end of the week.