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Middle East Crisis Escalates

Aired April 1, 2002 - 17:00:00   ET



COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Flash point: Israeli forces intensify their offensive in Ramallah and other West Bank locations, as Jerusalem is struck at its core with another apparent suicide attack.


(on camera): Hello and welcome to INSIGHT. I'm Colleen McEdwards in for Jonathan Mann.

We're all familiar with the Cold War in the East-West divide. But in recent weeks and months we have become more aware of another conflict and a different divide between West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem. On Monday, an apparent suicide bombing hit a checkpoint between the two halves. It was the sixth in as many days.

Israeli tanks rolled deeper into Palestinian areas in what Israel says is an effort to route out terrorism. We'll hear about that operation in an extensive interview with a man at the center of it. On INSIGHT today Israel's defense minister goes on the offensive. But first, let's quickly get an update of the hour's headlines for you.

An Israeli policeman is critically wounded in the aftermath of the car bomb explosion in Jerusalem. Palestinian sources say the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is responsible for the suicide attack. The Al Aqsa Martyrs is a Palestinian group linked to Yasser Arafat's fatah movement. Israeli police say the car exploded as the policeman approached it.

Backed by heavy armor, Israel widened its offensive across the West Bank, including more moves in Ramallah. Troops carried out house-to-house searches looking for Palestinian militants and weapons. All the while, engaging in running gun battles with Palestinians.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains trapped in his Ramallah headquarters for a fourth day now. Hospital officials in Ramallah say the bodies of 25 Palestinians have been brought in since the offensive began Friday.

Arab nations are pushing for a United Nations resolution that calls for Israel to withdraw immediately from Palestinian areas. On Saturday, the Security Council voted to demand that Israel withdraw from Palestinian cities. Arab members now want immediate action on that resolution. The U.N. Security Council is to meet behind closed doors to talk about the Arab proposal.

Here's what Secretary General Kofi Annan said about the obstacles to peace.


KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY GENERAL: Now that the parties are locked in the logic of war, we need to do all that we can to move them back to logic of peace. But the leaders -- the parties have to be conscious that it is even more important that they pay attention to civilians and respect international humanitarian law, which is applicable even in situations of war.


MCEDWARDS: Meanwhile, the U.S. defense secretary says that Iran, Iraq and Syria are supporting terrorism in the Middle East. Donald Rumsfeld accused Iraq of encouraging potential suicide bombers by offering their families thousands of dollars. And he accused Syria of helping Iran funnel people, money and weapons for terrorism into Lebanon.


DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Murderers are not martyrs. Targeting civilians is immoral for whatever the excuse. Terrorists have declared war on civilization, and states like Iran, Iraq and Syria are inspiring and financing a culture of political murder and suicide bombing.


MCEDWARDS: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says that his country is in a state of war with terrorists. The prime minister is well known and hated by Palestinians for his role as defense minister when Israel invaded Lebanon 20 years ago.

Now the former general is at the helm, backed by his Defense Minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Short time ago he spoke to CNN's Christiane Amanpour about this operation and where his troops are going.


BENJAMIN BEN-ELIEZER, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER: Well, we are already in Beit Jalla. If you ask me if we are going to deepen our presence in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) every place and everywhere where it's required in order to guarantee our security.


BEN-ELIEZER: Of course. The strategy, first of all, is to try and to destroy as much as possible the terror infrastructure any place, anywhere. Secondly, by that to lead to a political solution, because I as a military man -- also as a minister defense -- I do not believe that there's any possibility that through military we can reach anything.

Now it's true that there were some different views. Those who want to exile Arafat, I was against it. I was against it because I thought to exile Arafat is not exactly going to help the situation here. I was with those who think that he should remain here.

I was against those who want to -- to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to somehow to the way to -- that will destroy the Palestinian Authority. I thought that we have to do -- maybe it will happen, but we have to do everything in order to still to keep the Palestinian Authority someone to speak with. Someone to responsible, but all of the government -- I can tell you, from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) any concerns as where you cannot just sit and say to Arafat, "Thank you for the very often massacres that happen every day."

AMANPOUR: But how long do you think the isolation will last, two weeks, a month?

BEN-ELIEZER: I don't know. I really don't know. It will last as long as it's required, ma'am.

AMANPOUR: But what is required? What is your strategy? What is your end game here?

BEN-ELIEZER: Listen, my strategy is to try and to reduce as much as possible the very often terror activity to calm the situation. That's why it probably will cause us entering every place in the territories. But it does not mean that we are going to capture. No. I want to say that very clearly. We have no any interest to keep (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And if we will be there, we will be there in order to fight and to destroy the terror infrastructure and then to pull back.

AMANPOUR: So you're saying that you will probably enter every city, town, camp...

BEN-ELIEZER: Any place.

AMANPOUR: ... in West Bank?

BEN-ELIEZER: Any place required that I am sure that it is required, I will do that.


BEN-ELIEZER: I don't know. I don't know yet. But I am telling you, I'm not happy to do that. I'm doing that because this is the only thing that remains to at mind. I have to guarantee the security of my people. I have to guarantee the security of (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

It's impossible to keep the situation as it is. I think that Arafat is making for the, I don't know, third or fourth time a very bad -- bad mistakes. Again, he thinks that by adopting the Lebanese example or model, that through terror he can reach a political solution. He will not reach that. He will not reach that.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that humiliating and isolating Yasser Arafat will reduce terrorism in Israel or increase it, as it has been over the last several weeks or months?

BEN-ELIEZER: Well, right now maybe there is a chance. This is not going to solve the problem, no. But it might reduce -- I mean, by putting somehow -- by disconnecting Arafat from the other organizations, maybe there is a slight possibility that the situation will be reduced. As much as possible, at least we can work free in the ground and try to do our job. And maybe this can help the situation.

AMANPOUR: In the past three days, four days since you've invaded Ramallah and tried to isolate him, it's got worse.

BEN-ELIEZER: It's too early.

AMANPOUR: Every single day there is a suicide bombing attack.

BEN-ELIEZER: It's too early. It's too early to judge it. I think we need it to -- in terms of time, we need one week, two week's time to see what will be the consequences.

I mean, from such operation like this, you cannot take it from today until tomorrow, no. Don't forget one thing, we are fighting what? Suicide bombers, suicide shooters, those that have been prepared and sent in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) what we call, all right?

AMANPOUR: How will you stop suicide bombers with tanks? How?

BEN-ELIEZER: No way. No way to stop it with tanks. But with those that have been recruited -- I mean those kids that have been recruited, I hope that while we are dealing with the commanders, with the leading figures, those who are attracting those kids that I feel are really sorry about them, those will stop to do that, I hope.

AMANPOUR: You know very well that the March operation invasion into the territories was essentially derided by your own people. There were plenty of politicians, plenty of military people who briefed the press that the last operation was essentially for show, that it didn't work. That even now people are saying this current operation was, quote, "a stupid decision."

I've read where Israeli generals or people in charge of units are saying, "I don't even know what to tell my soldiers. What are we here to do?"

BEN-ELIEZER: Well I can tell you that the people that I'm meeting -- I mean the soldiers, the commanders, they are free to say to me, at least, whatever they feel. I just finished a discussion, a big one, where everyone had the feeling that he can say everything he want. And we have gone through very important discussions through what's going to happen, how things will develop, what next, what we are going to do in case of escalation, et cetera, et cetera. And I must tell you that I'm proud that I'm surrounded with people that are able to say whatever they think.

I didn't ignore the fact that there is a change of views between -- in the Israeli society and the Israeli leadership. But I can tell you one thing. Today, there's a consensus when it comes to the Israeli people.

AMANPOUR: What is next? What if there is escalation? What if this policy doesn't work?


AMANPOUR: Well you've just been discussing it, so what is next?

BEN-ELIEZER: Well I hope -- I hope for the better, because we are trying. You know once you know what can be -- what can escalate a situation, then you can just go and take some measures and means in order to try to avoid that as much as possible.

AMANPOUR: But what if there are more suicide bombings inside Israel? What do you do next?

BEN-ELIEZER: Listen, even if I will tell you that we are going for the separate operation, where they could just put fences, I don't think that this will really close the way from those who want really to penetrate to Israel. As I have said, we have to work very, hard simultaneously to what to our operation. We have to convince the Palestinian people as much as possible that our intention was and still to live with them together, to coexist with them together for a better future for the kids.

I am ready to say more than that. I am one of the few in the country that has accepted, for example, the Saudi proposal as a basis.

AMANPOUR: So if you as defense minister believe that, and Prime Minister Sharon as prime minister does not believe that...

BEN-ELIEZER: OK. Then I will move with this government until the minute that I will feel that I am prevented to do something that can be achieved. I hope that I -- you understand me. I will continue to be a partner in this government, in this coalition until the minute that I would realize that the breakthrough is possible and the fact that I am there I can do that. Then I will quit; we'll go.

All the labor party, we'll move out of this government. I want you to know that I, through my service -- I used to be the minister governor of the West Bank and government coordinator. I know hundreds of families and I feel sorry about them, really sorry. I want you to know that I care exactly as I care about our kids, I care about their kids as well. But someone has to come from the other side and listen to us and try to find a way how to sit and to find a solution.

AMANPOUR: Do you care that your soldiers go house to house and arrest little children's fathers and humiliate them? Do you care that your soldiers went into hospitals and separated nurses and doctors and kept patients unattended while they even removed injured people from their beds to check? Was that right?

BEN-ELIEZER: No, that's wrong. That's wrong. First of all, no one have prove it to me. I know my people, I know my soldiers. I think they are the most moral soldiers. But in such operation, such big operation, I cannot ignore that some accidents happen from them. It's a war.

It's happened, it is not right. And I can assure you more than that. The first indication that someone makes something wrong, we stop it. We just stop it.

AMANPOUR: And what would happen if it was proved right?

BEN-ELIEZER: Someone would have to be punished.

AMANPOUR: You warned Syria and Lebanon not to make any, I think you said adventure, in the north.


AMANPOUR: Do you believe that's a possibility?

BEN-ELIEZER: Well, they're trying. They're trying every day. I mean the one who tried to escalate the situation is Hezbollah. I think they cannot do that without the blessing of Syria.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe this will lead to a wider regional war?

BEN-ELIEZER: Well, potentially yes -- potentially yes. I mean if they will continue to try to so far -- I try to isolate that and to respond locally and not to let this happening go for more escalation.

AMANPOUR: You and your government have said publicly that Mr. Arafat is not personally going to be harmed or killed. And yet one of your commanders said, "This is a war. We can't guarantee his safety."

BEN-ELIEZER: Well let me just put it in my way. I spend hours and hours on putting clear-cut instructions, briefing people, briefing the commanders, briefing everyone. We have no interest, not any interest to harm him. In the country, we want to keep him alive. Why? We don't think that this is the way to deal, although I realize that he is the troublemaker.


MCEDWARDS: All right. Tomorrow on INSIGHT Christiane will have an extensive interview with Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat. We'll be right back. Stay with us.



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's very important for the prime minister to keep a pathway to peace open. To understand that on the one hand, Israel should protect herself, and on the other hand, it ought to be a pathway, a capacity to achieve a peaceful resolution to this issue. It's important for Israel to understand that.

First of all, there will never be peace so long as there's terror. And all of us must fight off -- fight terror. And you asked about Chairman Arafat. I'd like to see Chairman Arafat denounce the terrorist activities that are taking place, the constant attacks. We've got a plan that will lead to peace.


MCEDWARDS: The Palestinian leadership has made no secret about its disappointment with the U.S. president's recent comments criticizing Yasser Arafat. They feel victimized by the Israeli offensive and the international communities in action.

Earlier, CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva spoke to Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat about the crisis, starting with a response to Ariel Sharon's speech to the nation Sunday night.


SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Well, I think that part of the speech that slammed the door in the face of all those who are trying to stop the deterioration. Actually, three minutes ago I received a news item that the Israeli tanks have stormed the city of Tulkarem. They stormed another city of Tulkarem, the city of Qalqilia, the city of Bethlehem. I'm sure the reoccupation of towns and villages is taking place.

I think that's their intention of Mr. Sharon. Sharon is destroying everything. He's destroying the Oslo accords, the peace process. He's destroying the Palestinian Authority, and he will kill President Arafat.

At this stage, I think President Bush must move and must put a sense of direction and must take some action instead of inaction in terms of finding a way to de-escalate (UNINTELLIGIBLE) conflict.

RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Erekat, you may have said something very serious. You said that you think that the Israelis want to kill Chairman Arafat. The Israelis have said they have no intention to harm Chairman Arafat, they are just isolating him. What they want to do at this point is uproot the terrorist infrastructure, which they say the Palestinians -- the Palestinian Authority has failed to do, and they need to protect their people.

A suicide bombing yesterday -- just yesterday -- killed 15 people.

EREKAT: That's precisely the point, Ralitsa. If he's uprooting those who are going to suicidal bombing by destroying the Palestinian Authority, by destroying our infrastructure, by destroying and killing the Palestinian police, by confining President Arafat to one room without electricity, water, medical supplies or food supplies, and then why these suicidal bombings are happening. Maybe Sharon must understand that he will not succeed any more with the language of the guns, the siege, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the incursions, the assassinations, the killing fields.

We have Security Council resolution 1402. We fully abide by this resolution and we believe President Bush must have a sense of direction in order to implement this resolution that embodies the element of a cease- fire or withdraw from implementing Tenet and Mitchell.

VASSILEVA: Mr. Erekat, you mention...

EREKAT: As I'm talking to you, Ralitsa, now, there are 25 bodies in the streets of Ramallah. In the hospital of Ramallah we cannot even bury them. There are scores of dead people and wounded people we cannot get to ambulances.

What do you mean when -- you know, when speaking about terror? Terror is being exercised by the state of Israel against 3.3 million Palestinians caged -- caged like animals in their homes and their towns and their villages and their refugee camps with food shortages, with medical shortages...

VASSILEVA: Mr. Erekat, it's on both sides innocent lives are being lost. Let us look ahead. What is the political diplomatic way out of this situation so that more lives are not sacrificed?

EREKAT: I believe we have to de-escalate to the conflict by helping General Zinni in order to begin the implementation of resolution 1402. It embodies all the elements. It mentions General Zinni's name, the resolution. It talks about a cease-fire, it talks about withdraw, it talks about implementing Tenet and Mitchell, and talks about the political horizon.

VASSILEVA: But we have been seeing so much talk, so many proposals, and nothing has been implemented. Tenet, Mitchell, they have all been on the table and there has been no agreement on them, there has been no implementation of them. What is it going to take to stop the suicide bombings?

We have the Bush administration calling on Chairman Arafat to go to his people and say in Arabic, "Stop the suicide bombings." Why won't Chairman Arafat do that?

EREKAT: Ralitsa, I cannot even talk to Yasser Arafat. I have been trying for the past six hours. The phone lines have been cut. And I believe this is ridiculous. Sharon is rounding up security of Arafat and killing them in the streets, destroying our infrastructure, destroying our communication centers, our command centers. And then you are telling Arafat, "Why don't you do this?"

I believe this is ridiculous. You asked me a question: What's the way ahead? The way ahead is through a sense of direction, through some reaction, through some resolve of President Bush and other Security Council members by implementing resolution 1402. Imposing it on Sharon, because we as Palestinians are willing to fully abide by this resolution unconditionally.

VASSILEVA: Yes, but we see -- yes but we see...


VASSILEVA: Yes, but we see the suicide bombings, the loss of life (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We even have a statement from a meeting of Islamic states in Malaysia, where we had the Malaysian President Mahathir Mohamad, who said that suicide bombers are terrorists.

EREKAT: Ralitsa, we don't condone the killing of Israeli civilians. As a matter of fact, President Arafat condemned the recent suicidal bombing. But that's the point. I think Sharon has hijacked Israelis and Palestinians and put our lives in a great danger. And he's deepening the cycle of violence and counter-violence.

If we want to stop this madness, this craziness out there, if we want to start saving lives of Israelis and Palestinians, I think we should have a sense of direction. And to your question, I tell you the escalation and the conflicting (ph) is found in resolution 1402. This can be implemented immediately.

Because the Israelis must understand at one point or another they have to live and let live. They cannot sustain and maintain their occupation of the Palestinian people and say that they want peace and security. The shortest way to peace and security is not going to be through incursions, banks, bombardments, assassinations. It's going to be through resuming a meaningful peace process that will end the Israeli occupation.

For the time being, I urge President Bush, I urge the international community to put into effect implementation -- to immediately implement resolution 1402. Every ingredient that we look for from the cease-fire, the Tenet implementation to the withdraw, is in that resolution. And we should not allow the situation to deteriorate further.

VASSILEVA: Mr. Erekat...


MCEDWARDS: CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva talking Saeb Erekat. We're going to have much more on this story in the days ahead.





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