The controversial siege and capture of six fighters has underlined the weakness of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, who has been increasingly isolated following Hamas's landslide election win in January.

"What happened in Jericho and the crimes against the Palestinian people ... is a pre-planned scheme to destroy the Palestinian Authority. This is the basis of Israeli policy," Saeb Erikat, chief Palestinian negotiator, told reporters on Thursday amid continuing fury over the raid.
  
Olmert, the Israeli acting prime minister, and his centrist Kadima party have savoured boosted approval ratings in the wake of the raid, 12 days before a general election they are tipped to win.

Kidnappings

Olmert has avoided significant international criticism over the  capture of the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of  Palestine, Ahmed Saadat, the alleged mastermind of the 2001 killing  of Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, in east Jerusalem.

"The international community continues to deal with Israel even though it is a state above the law," Erikat told reporters.

Erakat spoke after the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation discussed Saadat's capture, held Britain and the United States responsible and called on them to work with Israel to return the fighters.

"We decided to call the United States and United Kingdom to put pressure on Israel to return the people who were kidnapped to the Palestinian Authority," PLO committee member Saleh Rafat said.

But Israeli state prosecutor Eran Shandar later cleared the way for a trial in Israel of Saadat and four PFLP colleagues for the minister's killing, ruling there was no legal impediment even though one has already been convicted by an Israeli court and all but Saadat were convicted by the Palestinians.

"Taking into account past agreements with the Palestinian Authority and the circumstances, they can be tried in Israel," a justice ministry spokesman said.

Planned trial

"They should preferably be judged in a civil rather than military court. A final decision on whether to proceed to trial will be taken after the completion of the inquiry."

Saadat himself refused to talk to his interrogators at a prison near Jerusalem.

"They began interrogating Saadat and his comrades yesterday but he told the Israeli officials in the prison: 'I refuse to have any dealings with you as I consider that you have kidnapped me'," his lawyer Hassan Mahmud said after visiting him.

The imminent unveiling of a Palestinian government led by Hamas could also affect the results of the Israeli election.

Hamas officially has until 28 March  - the same day as the  Israeli election - to win approval for its government line-up from  parliament and Abbas.