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Middle East Conflict Intensifies; Is Yasser Arafat's Life at Risk?

Aired March 29, 2002 - 17:00   ET


FREDERICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Now on WOLF BLITZER REPORTS: crisis in the Middle East. Room-to-room combat inside Arafat's compound.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The situation is very dangerous. The Israeli tanks are everywhere.


WHITFIELD: Is the Palestinian leader's life at risk?

The casualties of war. A journalist is caught in the crossfire.

The latest suicide bomber, a teenage girl. Why did she do it?

And the U.S. watching from afar. What can the Bush administration do? What should it do?


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: We ask the Israelis to show the necessary restraint with respect to that activity, so that they do not put Chairman Arafat's life in danger.


WHITFIELD: Hello, I'm Fredericka Whitfield at CNN Center in Atlanta, in for Wolf Blitzer. Topping our news alert: Yasser Arafat, cornered.

Israeli ground forces rolled into Ramallah today and seized most of Yasser Arafat's headquarters there. Five Palestinians were killed, one Israeli officer was killed. Israeli soldiers also arrested as many as 70 Palestinians. Our Christiane Amanpour spoke exclusively with Yasser Arafat within the past half-hour, and we'll be going to her again live, about their conversation with Arafat.

As Israeli troops moved on Arafat's compound, a Palestinian woman set off a bomb in a Jerusalem marketplace, killing herself and two Israelis. Up to 30 more people were injured. One witness says a guard tried to keep the suspicious woman out of the Jerusalem supermarket, but he was killed.

Military extremists inside Arafat's fatah moment claimed responsibility for the attack, and identified the bomber as an 18- year-old Palestinian woman. In a videotaped statement, here she is denouncing Arab leaders and what she called -- quote -- "sleeping Arab armies who are watching Palestinian girls fight alone."

First, the big picture. Months of fighting, countless efforts to bring it to an end, and Yasser Arafat's role in all of it. CNN's Christiane Amanpour just spoke with Yasser Arafat moments ago, from Jerusalem. She joins us again this evening.

What did you make of your conversation with Arafat? He was very angry. What else did he say?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, it's really hard to conduct a conversation with this massive, as you know, satellite delay. Trying to talk to somebody who's holed up and cornered, under fire inside his headquarters.

What we know, of course, is that all day the Israelis have been in there with their tanks, their armored vehicles and their soldiers. And that there has been combat inside that compound. He is holed up, allegedly, with some of his officials.

And we did have a chance to talk to him about 45 minutes ago. We asked him about the conditions inside. We asked him about whether he was able to reign in the violence, as Secretary Powell has called for. And he is clearly under pressure and very angry.


YASSER ARAFAT, PRESIDENT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY: Still you are not following. It's aggression. Again it's the Palestinian people in all West Bank and Gaza, where they are divided --completely separated. And also the aggression and the attack in Ramallah, against my headquarters and against the Palestinian people in Berah (ph) and Ramallah and all around it. And the same time they are increasing their forces, their military activities to follow up their aggression against many other places, many other towns, many other cities, many other areas in our Palestinian liberated areas.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Arafat, can you tell me please, has your -- the rooms that you're sitting in, have they been attacked? Have any of your rooms been attacked? Are you under direct physical threat right now?

ARAFAT: It seems that you are not following the TVs all over the world. They have destroyed completely seven of our buildings, completely, around my office, and firing my office with all their armament.

What do you expect? An Arafat that -- and they have to understand it is the Palestinian people who are facing this challenge. And we are sure that our people will continue to stick fast (ph) in the face of this terrorism. This is the real terrorists of the occupation.

And especially they are using all the American weapons against us, of F-15s and F-16s and Merkava and rockets and bombs and artilleries and everything.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe, Mr. Arafat, that they are trying to kill you, trying to harm you?

ARAFAT: What do they expect by shelling us continuously in the last 24 hours? What do you think...

AMANPOUR: Mr. Arafat, what about these...

ARAFAT: ... it is by chance? They're saying that the Americans said that Arafat would not be harmed. It is a problem of Arafat or is the problem of our people, of our liberty, of our independent Palestinian state, of our peaceful agreement between me and my partner, Rabin, who has paid his life for the peace of the brave which we have signed.

In the sight of God, we are (UNINTELLIGIBLE) continual peace of the brave, which I have signed with my partner, Rabin. But we have to remember...

AMANPOUR: Mr. Arafat...

ARAFAT: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) my partner, Rabin, is now in the power in Israel. We are following this with the peace process, with the majority of the Israeli people.

AMANPOUR: Secretary of State Colin Powell has spoken to you, I understand. He has also spoken publicly and called on you to rein in the violence. What do you make of that statement, and can you and will you rein in that violence?

ARAFAT: Are you asking me why am I under complete siege? You're a wonderful journalist. You have to respect your profession.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Arafat, I'm asking you simply a question.

ARAFAT: No, you have to be...

AMANPOUR: Are you able to rein in the violence?

ARAFAT: You have to be accurately when you are speaking with General Yasser Arafat. Be quiet!

AMANPOUR: Mr. Arafat, what did you make of Colin Powell's statement?

ARAFAT: You are covering with such questions these terrorist activities of the Israeli occupation and the Israeli crimes. Take care (ph) not to make these fatal mistakes.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask...

ARAFAT: Thank you. Bye-bye.


AMANPOUR: So, a very angry Yasser Arafat, at any suggestion that while he is under siege and under attack, that he might be able to do something about the suicide bombings, about the violence the United States and Israel is asking him to reign in. His point is very clear,and it has made publicly and privately over the years, over the weeks, over the months, that it is not a fair and equitable situation that the Israelis are occupying and the Palestinians are resisting.

As you can see tonight, when we tried to ask him some questions, there is a lot of anger, obviously, and a great deal of emotion going on in that compound, under siege right now in Ramallah -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you very much. Christiane Amanpour from Jerusalem this evening. And of course, there's a lot of reaction coming from Israel, the government there, as well as the United States.

But first, reaction from the United Nations. And that's where our Richard Roth is now in New York. Let's go to him now. Richard, what's the reaction there?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is where the world is meeting, on a Good Friday, where the U.N. headquarters was originally going to be closed, the Security Council held emergency consultations. They've just broken up. In about 45, 50 minutes, they will return here for an open meeting with various countries giving a lot of speeches.

The Palestinians, the Arab countries, are pushing a resolution for the toughest form of legislation inside the Security Council, that would ask and request -- demand of Israel to pull out of Palestinian cities, says the Palestinian observer. Secretary General Annan, just back from the Arab summit, walked into the building with me a short time ago.

He said he didn't really think he would have anything to say. But in a statement he has said a lot. Annan has said he condemns the Palestinian suicide bombings. He says that Israel is going to destroy the Palestinian Authority by its current tactics. It will bring the region even closer to war.

And, regarding the suicide bombs, Annan said the purpose of these attack is to undermine any prospect for a political settlement. You're watching Annan a few days ago in Beirut at the Arab Summit right now. He went inside the Security Council to listen to the various debating going on -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: Richard, he is condemning the actions of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. But what might the U.N. resolve to do, as a collective body?

ROTH: Well, the Palestinian Authority says they would be a happy if a resolution was on the books, telling Israel to get out of the territory, and the Arafat compound. That would be enough for the Palestinians. The Palestinians had a big victory just two weeks ago here at the Security Council, when the body said that there's a vision of two states living side by side -- a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. That was unprecedented, for the U.S. to agree to that resolution. They don't look for that in any new resolution here.

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you very much. Richard Roth from the United Nations in New York this evening.

As we've been reporting, as many as 70 Palestinians have been arrested in Israel. The round-up is focused at Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, and that's in the West Bank. Here's more information about the compound.

It was built by the British in the 1930s. It was originally designed as a prison. Arafat has been confined there since last December. Palestinians and Israelis do agree on one thing: living day to day is precarious, at the very least.

The threat of danger is real for foreign journalists living and working on the front lines is there, too. And today one television news crew came dangerously close to death. Watch what happens when a crew for Egypt's Nile TV today gets caught in a crossfire, while the camera rolls.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaking in Arabic)


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (shouting in Arabic)



WHITFIELD: Miraculously, the injuries were not as serious as first though. A Palestinian cameraman working for Nile TV was shot in the mouth there. He was taken to a hospital, where he remains in serious condition.

The Bush administration responding quickly to the escalating violence in the Middle East. The president is at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and that's where our CNN White House correspondent, Major Garrett, is now.

The president, of course condemning the actions taking place there. What else is the administration saying about what is taking place in Israel right now?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredericka, President Bush has been monitoring the situation, getting regular updates from Secretary of State Colin Powell and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. And this morning from his ranch here in Crawford, he conducted an hour-long national security council meeting via secure video teleconference line.

And after that meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to the State Department to give the U.S. reaction to the events in recent hours in the Middle East. And the emphasis, decidedly, was on condemning Palestinian-sponsored terrorism against Israelis.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: The president, I or my colleagues, the United States people, condemn, in the strongest possible terms, this series of terror attacks, including this morning's Jerusalem bombings and the other acts of terrorism which have killed innocent Israeli civilians.

We have spoken out clearly, and do so again now, for Chairman Arafat to act. against those responsible for these acts, and to make clear to the Palestinian people that terror and violence must halt now.


GARRETT: The White House released this photograph taken of the president on the phone with his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. And as the administration put together its response, Fredericka, the emphasis was on denouncing Palestinian terrorism for this reason.

The White House believes it had been making substantial progress toward achieving a cease-fire between the Israelis and the Palestinians up until that Passover massacre, where the administration believes those talks have been largely derailed. Because the administration believes the Israeli government is justified in responding militarily to that attack.

And for that reason, it was the emphasis not so much on the Israeli defense forces incursion into Ramallah, but the terrorist attacks against Israelis that the president and his administration sought to emphasize -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks very much. Major Garrett, travelling with the president this evening from Crawford, Texas.

One man who knows how difficult it is to achieve peace in the Middle East is former national security adviser to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Thanks you for joining us this evening. What are your thoughts here, in terms of whether the U.S. should be sending a very strong signal? Does the U.S. need to pull out of these efforts to bring peace, given the fact that Israel has, so to speak, kind of just blown straight into Arafat's headquarters there?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, FMR. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, you have shown some very dramatic footage, and sound bytes, as well. And they give you a sense of the immediacy of the tragedy that's unfolding. But I think it's important to step back and remember that yesterday was a day of historic opportunity in the Middle East, as well as a criminal calamity.

The historic opportunity is that, for the first time in 50 years, the Arab states have indicated they're prepared to live in peace with Israel. And they've indicated a more or less equitable framework, subject to negotiation, for such peace. The calamity, of course, is the criminal act of terrorism. I find it baffling that the United States is focusing almost entirely on the calamity.

And while Chairman Arafat may be winking at terrorism, and therefore deserves to be castigated for it, and was an Israeli reaction against the perpetrators themselves, is justified. The administration can't ignore the fact that for the last 10 years, Mr. Sharon has opposed the Oslo peace process. He has contributed to the political climate in Israel, that subsequently led to the killing of Prime Minister Rabin.

He has been determined to dismantle the Palestinian Authority. And he's using every act of terrorism as an excuse to try to destroy the Palestinian Authority. That is not the way towards peace. And the absence of any meaningful American strategy and a sense of direction is part of this appalling reality that we're now watching.

WHITFIELD: You heard from Arafat earlier today. He said if he is killed, or even arrested, he would rather be a martyr in this case. If it turns out that the Israeli movement does cause the death or the apprehension of Arafat, do you think this would be a strong signal, or should this be a prelude to the U.S. pulling out of its support, since the U.S. is condemning the actions today?

BRZEZINSKI: I think the U.S. ought to be more engaged. I think there's going to be no peace in the Middle East unless the United States steps forward, moves beyond its nuts and bolts procedural approach, which has always been negotiating some tidbit agreement on cease-fire, and begins to lay out a comprehensive vision of a peace settlement, which the United States is prepared to back with its resources, its energy, its influence.

I think the absence of any sense of direction, on the part of the United States, unfortunately fuels this calamitous, unfolding tragedy that we're witnessing. And it really behooves the United States, because it is the only country that has the power to step in and to promote peace, instead of creating conditions in which the violence actually escalates.

WHITFIELD: You've been intimately involved in the Camp David accords, during the Carter administration. The Bush administration has made it very clear they want special envoy Anthony Zinni to stay in the area. If you were envoy Zinni, what would you do in this case?

BRZEZINSKI: If I were the envoy Zinni, I'd tell the president that my mandate ought to include an immediate discussion of a political settlement, along with an effort to obtain a cease-fire. But simply concentrating on a cease-fire means that the existing status quo, including the occupation, continues. And then the process can be dragged out. And we have seen the results of that over the last several years.

The fact of the matter is, at this stage, there is not enough of a voice among the Palestinians, and not enough of a voice among the Israelis in favor of peace. The Palestinians are not prepared to make the necessary compromises. Neither are the Israelis. Only we can try to promote that, and we're not doing it.

WHITFIELD: How disappointed are you? How personally do you take this defeat, that the violence has only escalated in the past 20 years or so? That it doesn't seem to be getting the -- the bridge between the two sides just doesn't seem to be getting any closer?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, I worry about it from a moral point of view. I also worry about it from the sort of American national interest point of view. From a moral point of view, it's a tragedy. The Jewish people, who have suffered so much, and who had the moral upper hand in much of this conflict, are now losing that position in the eyes of most of the world, because they're stronger, they're tougher.

They kill many more Palestinians than Palestinians kill Israelis. I feel sorry for the Palestinians, because they don't have the kind of political leadership that is prepared to make the necessary compromises. So each side makes the other worse.

In addition to it, I worry about the American national interests. I can see two major jeopardies ahead if we don't step into the breach. If the tragedy between the Israelis and the Palestinians degenerates into total violence, if Arafat is killed, we'll probably see major uncertainty, major instability in the Middle East.

We'll become more isolated in the war against terrorism, because the Arabs will then unite against us. And we could even get an oil embargo, with the Saudis, the Iraqis and the Iranians joined forces, despite their disagreements.

WHITFIELD: All right.

BRZEZINSKI: That's a very ominous scenario.

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you very much, Zbigniew Brzezinski, for your perspective this evening. Appreciate it.

Our Web question of the day asks: is America doing enough to quell the violence in the Middle East? Tell us how you feel. Vote at While you're there, let us know what you're thinking. There's a "click here" icon on the left side of the Web page. Send your comments and we'll read them on the air.

More assessment of the crisis in the Middle East at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, 4:00 Pacific, in "THE WAR ROOM." Join Andrea Koppel, who is in for Wolf Blitzer.

Then, a special hour of "LIVE FROM JERUSALEM." Join CNN's Christiane Amanpour. That's at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 Pacific. In a moment, what really caused the Twin Towers to collapse? A report that points to failures on September 11th.

The pope's health. What he is not able to do this Easter weekend.

And why is Oprah turning down a presidential invitation to Afghanistan?


WHITFIELD: Welcome back. We turn now to Daniel Pearl, that case. The suspected mastermind behind the kidnapping and murder of the "Wall Street Journal" reporter made an appearance in a Pakistani court today. CNN Islamabad bureau chief, Ash-Har Quraishi, is in Karachi.

ASH-HAR QURAISHI, CNN ISLAMABAD BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Fredericka, the suspected mastermind in the kidnapping and murder of "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl appeared in a Karachi court once again today. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh arrived amongst heavy security, smiling as he was led to the courthouse.

Now, he was taken behind closed doors in the judge's chambers, where the final charges were issued today by the prosecution. Now, these final charged included what was said last week in court. Those three charges include: kidnapping for ransom, acts of terror, as well as murder.

Now, Saeed said last week that he would defend himself in court, that he did not trust his lawyers. However, this week we see that he has been assigned new counsel, something that we hear has come about because of his father's intervention. His father, appearing at the courthouse today for the first time, says he believes his son is innocent and that he hopes justice will prevail in this case.

Now, next week the judge has assigned a date, April 5th, for these four men accused to appear in court, at which time it's expected that indictment will be handed down, and a trial possibly beginning. Now, if these men are convicted, the maximum penalty in this case is the death penalty.

Ash-Har Quraishi, CNN, Karachi. Back to you, Fredericka, in the studio.

WHITFIELD: U.S.-led forces might be making headway in the are against terrorism, but at a very hefty cost. Military commanders warn some of their forces are overextended. And some Pentagon officials wonder if the U.S. can afford to take on another major military mission while in Afghanistan. Here's CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.


BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When joint direct attack munitions, J-DAMs, hit this enemy compound southeast of Kandahar in November, the satellite-guided 2,000-pound bombs scored a direct hit. J-Dams and other weapons have been so heavily used that stocks are low. Not for Afghanistan, but for any next conflict, including possible future action against Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists the military is ready for anything.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: You can be absolutely certain that -- to the extent that the United States of America decides to undertake an activity, that we will be capable of doing it.

STARR: Two senior military officers offered a much different view to Congress earlier this month. Admiral Dennis Blair, head of operations in the Pacific, says he does not have adequate forces to carry out our mission in the Pacific, if the war continues. For example, there was no carrier battle group available to him in the early stages of the war.

General Joseph Ralston, head of operations in Europe, said if asked to undertake new operations, he would need to ask for more forces, leading to a critical decision: where are they going to take them away from? The military is now increasing stocks of the premier weapons of Operation Enduring Freedom, weapons that will be needed in significant numbers if there is a new battle front.

The Pentagon wants $400 million to increase J-DAM production. Production would rise to 2,800 bombs a month by August of next year. That's nearly twice current production rates. The Air Force is also boosting funding for the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. An additional $125 million to build 24 drones a year, three times the pre-September 11th production rate.

Predator has been vital for conducting surveillance over hostile territory. But 22 have crashed, and one official said we need all we can get, especially if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq.


And, Fredericka, special operations forces, which have proved so vital in the war in Afghanistan, are also reporting shortages of ammunition. Their critical stocks are running low, all leading to continuing questions about whether the U.S. military needs more time to get ready for the next phase in the war on terrorism -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: And, Barbara, while military officials are testifying on the Hill that in fact they do need more time to restock, more resources, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is saying the military is ready. So how significant is this discrepancy?

STARR: Well, a lot of it revolves around the fact that generals and admirals always, of course, want more before they go to the next war. But, clearly, there is a need to replenish some stocks. Overall, the Pentagon is asking for another $14 billion to get to the end of this fiscal year for more weapons, for continued operations in Afghanistan and other areas in the war on terrorism -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks very much, Barbara Starr, from the Pentagon this evening.

Well, if you're just joining us, the compound of Yasser Arafat has become a battleground. Coming up: pictures of the Israeli-led assault. How should the United States handle the crisis? And later: the pope's health setback on Holy Week.


WHITFIELD: Let's get an update now on the latest developments in our "News Alert": Israeli troops have taken over most of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah on the West Bank. Arafat is holed up in an office on the second floor of the building. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says this is the beginning of an operation against Palestinian militants, and it could last weeks.

As the Israelis moved into Arafat's headquarters, a female suicide bomber blew herself up at the entrance of a Jerusalem supermarket. The explosion killed her and at least two Israelis. As many as 30 people were injured.

It's been a day of nonstop action in the Middle East. We would like to take a moment now to show you how the fighting unfolded, as Israeli troops stormed Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank.

Take a look.


ARIEL SHARON, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: We regard Chairman Arafat as an enemy, because he decided on a strategy of terror and formed a coalition of terror and, therefore, is going to be isolated.

NABIL ABU RUDEINEH, ARAFAT SPOKESMAN: They knocked down a wall, a western wall of the compound. There is an exchange of fire right now. And the situation is very danger and very explosive.

YASSER ARAFAT, CHAIRMAN, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY (through translator): They either want to kill me or more capture me or expel me. But I say no, I will be a martyr.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: As long as he is here, as long as his regime is here, there can't be an opening for other Palestinians to come to the fore, because he is a ruthless dictator. He knocks out anyone who wants a genuine peace with Israel and a rapprochement and an end to terror.

HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN LEGISLATOR: Asking Ariel Sharon to exercise restraint is like telling a fire not to flame. He is bringing death and destruction on both sides. He should be stopped. This is madness.

RUDEINEH: The Israelis are still pushing their tanks inside the compound. The situation is very serious and very complicated. And we urge the American administration to move quickly in order to stop this war. COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: We deplore the killing and wounding of innocent Palestinians there. While we understand the Israeli government need to respond to these acts of terror and the right of the Israeli government to decide what actions best serve the interests of the Israeli people, we call on Prime Minister Sharon and his government to carefully consider the consequences of those actions.


WHITFIELD: Well, joining us now to talk about the day's events in the Middle East from the Israeli perspective is Alon Pinkas, consul general to Israel in New York. And he joins us now.

Mr. Pinkas, the Bush administration, specifically Secretary of State Colin Powell, have expressed disappointment in the developments for today.

Why does Israel feel like it had no other choice but to make its move on the compound of Arafat?

ALON PINKAS, ISRAELI CONSUL GENERAL: Because there is a critical mass of murders and terror attacks that no free society, no society of any kind, for that matter, can tolerate, can accept and can live with.

The idea, the notion that we have tolerated, unfortunately, for the last several years, according to which there supposedly is a peace process, and parallel to it, there is some immutable law of nature called a level of violence that we need to accept, is no longer acceptable. We have reached the point of zero tolerance to any and every kind -- or any and every kind -- I'm sorry -- expression of violence from the Palestinians.

This has been going on for 18 months, ever since Camp David. Enough is enough. You are talking about a bankrupt political leadership led by a corrupt and incapable and unwilling man called Arafat, with which we had an ongoing dialogue, whom we thought was a viable, credible, trustworthy partner.

We have reached the conclusion that he is neither of the above. And we have decided to do all those things that he was supposed to have done, according to the agreements that he signed.

WHITFIELD: Well, your government said today that the actions are a result of self-defense in response to the most recent suicide bombings, shootings, etcetera, just within the past 48 hours. So, if the objective is not to kill or arrest Arafat, then what is the objective by moving into the compound?

PINKAS: The objective -- well, first of all, Fredericka, you have to understand, the compound is not one building. It is 10 buildings. And in those buildings, there are dozens of people who have been involved or perpetrated or have been complicit in planning terror attacks.

These people find refuge in that compound. And that compound has to be cleared. That compound has to be mopped up. And we need to flush those people out, the same way you are doing it in the mountains over Kandahar and Afghanistan. The purpose of this entire military operation is to root out all the terrorist activity, to root out all terrorists.

I can tell you that we will be successful 100 percent. But we need to do what we need to do. This is -- we are facing a people, a leadership whose role models are homicidal maniacs.

WHITFIELD: Are you not concerned that this is the start of a regional war?

PINKAS: Well, I hope other powers in the region have the common sense and the understanding not to be dragged by Arafat, who is a self-proclaimed agent of destabilization, not to be dragged into this quagmire, and not to allow this to escalate into a regional conflict.

There is no reason in the world why this should escalate into a regional conflict, bar one development. And that is our mutual friend -- mutual being America's and Israel's best friend -- Iran, who is out there to disrupt everything we are trying to do and is in this game in order to incite and inflame the region, yes.

WHITFIELD: All right, Alon Pinkas, counsel general to Israel in New York, thanks for joining us this evening.

PINKAS: Thanks.

WHITFIELD: Now for the Palestinian perspective on today's developments, we are joined from Washington by James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute.

Thanks for joining us this evening.


WHITFIELD: Your initial reaction when you started to see the pictures this morning of the Israeli tanks making their way past the concrete cinder block walls of the compound.

ZOGBY: You know, it brought back 1982, when Ariel Sharon led Israeli troops into Beirut. When you know a city and you know its streets and you know its people, and you see those tanks and bulldozers rolling down the streets, going after people you know, it is very painful. You feel almost like you are being raped. And that is the feeling I got.

I spoke with a number of folks in Ramallah, Palestinian leaders and others, some people who have worked for me. You know, Ramallah is the home of one of the largest segments of the Arab-American community. And it is a Christian city. And it is Good Friday. And I found, actually, quite distressing that no one mentioned that, on Good Friday, that population cannot worship. And it was -- it is a very painful day for all of us.

WHITFIELD: But how can the Palestinians be surprised that there is going to be this sort of aggressive movement from the Israelis, especially when Prime Minister Sharon said very clearly that they are about to send a very serious message as a result of the most recent suicide bombings and shootings?

ZOGBY: Look, no one accepts the suicide bombs. No one in a leadership position does. And the shameful rhetoric of the Israelis aside -- Ambassador Pinkas ought to be ashamed of himself -- these actions are neither sent by Yasser Arafat, nor are they condoned by Yasser Arafat.

But this is a population distressed and literally out of control. Young people are murdering themselves. And evil people are sending them to murder themselves because there is no hope and there is only despair.

This regime of Ariel Sharon's -- and I'm not going to launch into the rhetorical excesses of my Israeli counterpart -- but this regime of Ariel Sharon has sucked the life out of the West Bank. There are no jobs for young people. There is no hope for young people. As brutal as the terrorism has been -- and it is brutal and it is condemnable -- listen, the occupation has gone on for 35 years. And it has been brutal and it is condemnable. And it has taken the life out of people, so much so that it is ignored by our own country.

I mean, the secretary of state condemned the acts of terror, but has not condemned the root cause of it all, which is the occupation, and what it is doing to the young people of that country.

WHITFIELD: Shouldn't, though, the responsibility be on the shoulders of Yasser Arafat, given he is the leader?

ZOGBY: Of course. Of course. And he would love the responsibility, if he had the ability to deal with it. But, as Prime Minister Rabin...

WHITFIELD: He said very clearly during a conversation with Christiane Amanpour that -- he got very angry when asked whether he should bear the responsibility of reining in the violence.

ZOGBY: Of course. And I understood. And that interview was unfortunate and probably shouldn't have taken place given the circumstances that he is under right now.

But understand one fact: The guy is holed up in a room with no windows. Power is cut and his phone lines are down. He is speaking on a satellite phone. And he is under siege. His people are being arrested. And he is afraid for his very life. And it is very difficult to have a conversation under those circumstances.

But understand another thing: The fact is, is that, as Rabin used to say, we have to help our partner be strong so that he can help make peace. And Ariel Sharon, for the last 18 months, has done nothing but try to make this man weak, to delegitimize him, to humiliate him, to literary imprison him in the town of Ramallah, and to bomb his police headquarters. And then he says, "Control the terror." The simple fact is, they have done everything they could to make it impossible for Arafat to control terror. And the most disturbing thing is, our own administration has not taken it seriously enough, that it is not just an Israeli and Palestinian interest; it is an American interest. And we have Zinni there twiddling his thumbs and we are not helping him be able to do the job to control the terror.

WHITFIELD: That is going to have to be the last word. Thanks very much, James Zogby...

ZOGBY: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: ... founder and president of the Arab American Institute. Thanks for joining us this evening.

A programming reminder: Watch a special hour of "LIVE FROM JERUSALEM" with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. That's at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 Pacific.

They were enemies in the Gulf War, and now Iraq wants to be friends with Kuwait. Later, the pope's struggle this Easter as well on this Holy Week.


WHITFIELD: Federal prosecutors have announced that they will seek execution of the man suspected of being the 20th hijacker. In response, the French government has issued a statement of regret, saying it views the death penalty as inhumane. Zacarias Moussaoui is a French citizen and of Moroccan descent. He is the first person to be charged in connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks.

And joining us now is Francois Bujon de l'Estang, the French ambassador to the United States. He joins us now this evening.

Thanks for joining us.


WHITFIELD: Well, the French have made it very clear that you condemn the death penalty. Moussaoui is now facing it. How does this impact, if at all, with the French cooperation in the U.S. war on terrorism?

DE L'ESTANG: Well, the issue here is, as you said, the death penalty. And it is the Moussaoui case, for that reason, will be a complex legal issue that I believe we need to put into perspective.

The first thing I would like to say is that it must be very clear that France has offered full support and solidarity to the United States in its war against terrorism. President Chirac came here right after the attacks of September 11. And he ensured President Bush of the total solidarity of France.

And since then, we have, of course, demonstrated that this was really our intention. Militarily, we have 4,500 people in or around Afghanistan taking part, for instance, in the bombings in the Anaconda operation, and also troops on the ground in the international force that is ensuring security in Kabul. But in terms...

WHITFIELD: So in no way would these French efforts be altered in any way as a result of the Moussaoui case?

DE L'ESTANG: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I will come to that in a second.

So, that is for the military assistance. But, on the front of law enforcement and intelligence, I think we have an excellent and very close cooperation with the United States. And I have myself been thanked many times by high authorities in the United States for the quality of that cooperation.

Now, the Moussaoui case, in itself, was actually, so far, an excellent example of this very close cooperation. Even before Moussaoui's arrest, and, of course, since his arrest and since September 11, we have exchanged a great deal of information on the Moussaoui case.

The new element is the decision by the attorney general that the United States, in the Moussaoui case, would seek the death penalty. As you said yourself, France has abolished the death penalty back in 1981. And, actually, every Western European country has abolished the death penalty. Therefore, we have to accommodate the differences in our respective rules of law in the way we address the Moussaoui case.

WHITFIELD: OK, well, we have a lot to try and get to in a short amount of time.

Moussaoui's family in France has asked for the cooperation from the French government, or least some empathy, given the fact that the country condemns the death penalty. If the family were to turn to the government and ask for some kind of cooperation in the way of defense in the U.S., would that happen?

DE L'ESTANG: No. I think that is not the point.

We are not taking part in the defense of Mr. Moussaoui. We have, actually, a legal assistance treaty with the United States. And we have been cooperating with the law enforcement agencies and with the Department of Justice. The issue is not whether we are cooperating with the defense. We are not.

WHITFIELD: OK, all right, thank you very much, the ambassador to the -- French Ambassador to the U.S. Francois Bujon de l'Estang. Appreciate it very much. Thanks for joining us tonight.

L'ESTANG: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Well, checking some stories on the international front now: Iraq's foreign minister says Baghdad wants to reestablish relations with Kuwait, the oil-rich neighbor it sought to annex 12 years ago. Kuwait reacted with caution to the Iraqi official's statement to a Kuwaiti newspaper. His comments follow some friendly gestures between Iraq and Saudi Arabia at the Arab League summit.

Christian fervor in Mexico: Near Mexico City, Easter celebrants demonstrate faith through suffering with a procession through the streets. The ancient rite mixes Christian tradition with pagan customs. It is not supported by the Catholic Church, but not forbidden either.

As millions of Roman Catholics around the world prepare to celebrate Easter, they are closely watching the state of health of their spiritual leader. A knee problem has forced Pope John Paul II to reduce his Holy Week activities. The 81-year-old pontiff heard the confessions of ordinary Catholics in St. Peters Basilica today as part of a Good Friday tradition. He was taken inside the church on a wheeled platform so he wouldn't have to walk.

Failures on September 11: ahead, new findings on what caused the collapse of the Twin Towers. And Oprah Winfrey turns down an invitation from the White House. We'll have the details straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: Some stories now from our CNN "Newswire": Oprah Winfrey declined a request from the White House to join an official delegation to Afghanistan, the tour to celebrate the recent return to school of Afghan girls. A spokeswoman says Winfrey is too busy to commit to the trip.

A report blames the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on searing fires from burning jet fuel. The report says the towers withstood the immediate jolt from the hijacked planes and the initial explosions, but says the heat from the jet fuel fires reached 2,000 degrees, that according to "The New York Times."

In Southern California, three American soldiers were killed today in mortar explosions during a training mission. An Army spokesperson says an artillery shell exploded prematurely on the way to being loaded. The soldiers were part of the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Brigade based at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Your turn is coming up: "Is America doing enough to quell the violence in Middle East?" We will tally the results of our "Web Question" coming up next. And a viewer casts blame for the violence.


WHITFIELD: Recapping our top story: Tensions in the Middle East reach a boil today. Israeli ground forces storm Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, arresting dozens of Palestinians. At least five Palestinians and one Israeli officer are killed, this as a Palestinian suicide bomber detonates a bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket. She killed herself and at least two Israelis.

Our "Web Question of the Day" asks: "Is America doing enough to quell the violence in the Middle East?" Thirty-eight percent of you say yes, while 62 percent of you say no. Remember, this is not a scientific poll.

Time now to hear from you. As you might expect, we received a lot of feedback regarding the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

Graham asks in this e-mail: "Why are we not hearing what the Arab nations are doing their wealth to help the Palestinian population? It appears that they are quite able to supply arms and explosives, but are they providing any humanitarian aid?"

And Sam also thinks poverty is a problem: "Maybe the Palestinians would not succumb so easily to terrorist groups if their basic needs were taken of. The international community has to improve the living conditions of these people to stop these terrorist acts."

But Dave has a different point of view: "How many more Israeli civilians must be murdered? Arafat is the problem. He should be eliminated."

These are the sentiments coming from you through the e-mail.

I'm Fredericka Whitfield in Atlanta. Join us for more in-depth coverage on the unfolding situation in the Middle East at 7:00 p.m. Eastern in the "War Room."

"LOU DOBBS MONEYLINE" begins right now.


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