Leading article: Return to the discredited old methods

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The shock waves generated by the stunning victory of Hamas in January's Palestinian elections are still rippling outwards. The unrest that broke out in the West Bank and Gaza yesterday is merely the latest consequence of that profound shift in the balance of power. What lay behind the Israeli army's raid on Jericho, and the angry response by Palestinians, was the announcement by the incoming Hamas leadership that the jailed militant Ahmed Saadat would be released.

The Israeli government claims that Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is responsible for the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, five years ago. Since 2002 Saadat had been in the custody of the Palestinian Authority, guarded in a Jericho prison by British and American international monitors. When these monitors were withdrawn yesterday, the Israeli army took its chance to roll into the Palestinian town and extract Saadat by force.

The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has pinned responsibility for the raid on Britain and the US for withdrawing their monitors. The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw maintains that, since the Palestinian Authority ignored concerns over the security of these monitors, they had no choice but to leave. Whoever is right, the upshot is that Britons working in the Palestinian territories are now at greater risk than they have been for some time. The burning of the British Council office in Gaza was a depressing sign of how low Britain's reputation has sunk in the Palestinian territories.

It is also clear from yesterday's events that the Israeli government has made a strategic blunder. The heavy-handedness of the operation is likely to dispel some of the international sympathy built up by the Israeli government as a result of the Gaza disengagement. The fact that Israeli forces swept into Jericho the minute the international representatives had gone showed an arrogant contempt for the security arrangements of the Palestinian Authority. It was also a slap in the face for the authority of President Abbas.

There are worrying signs that the acting Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has failed to recognise the vastly changed political circumstances of the region. If this operation was an attempt by Mr Olmert to demonstrate strength in the run-up to the Israeli elections later this month it misfired. The failure to capture Saadat cleanly was an embarrassment. More disturbingly, the raid was reminiscent of the days when Israel engaged in state assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders. But now Hamas has a democratic mandate. Unless the Israeli government sheds its discredited old methods, it is liable to find itself even more internationally isolated.

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