Q&A WITH ZAIN VERJEE
Aired April 1, 2002 - 11:30:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIIP)
ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The state of Israel is in a war.
YASSER ARAFAT, CHAIRMAN, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY: What did they have done with our people? We have done the same, which is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for them.
VERJEE: A war of words, as action intensifies on the ground. Israel expands its military offensive into Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
DANIEL SHEK, ISRAELI SENIOR GOVT. SPOKESMAN: This effort will continue until we reach the successes that we need.
VERJEE: What's the ultimate goal of this operation?
SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Sharon's end game is to destroy the peace process, is to destroy the Palestinian Authority and is to kill President Arafat.
ARIEL SHARON, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Yasser Arafat is the head of a coalition of terrorism. He operates an infrastructure of terrorism.
VERJEE: On Q&A, war in the Mideast.
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VERJEE: Welcome to Q&A, I'm Zain Verjee.
Israeli tanks in Palestinian territories, gun battles, suicide attacks in Israel, retaliation, counter-retaliation. The cycle of violence in the Middle East is at its bloodiest in 18 months of fighting. CNN's Bill Hemmer joins us now live from Jerusalem.
Bill, is it clear what the ultimate goal of the Israeli military operation is?
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Zain, good evening.
If you listen to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last night in his address to the Israeli people, he says quite simply, "This is an operation that has been dubbed by the military's Operation Protective Wall to uproot," in his words, "the terrorism infrastructure that the Israeli government believes is operating in various parts of the West Bank and Gaza." That is the stated end game here in the Middle East, but how they get there and how long that lasts is really a wide open question.
In speaking with the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, just a short time ago, he says this operation may take as long as two months. And if that's the case, Zain, this is only day one. And for the past several hours, I'd say 13 hours, 14 hours running now, we have heard about clashes throughout the West Bank just about every 15 to 30 minutes. Clearly, with the military action, there has been a strong response on both sides. And, really, if this is day one, there is no telling what may unfold here in the Middle East over the next couple of weeks.
VERJEE: These sorts of incursions, though, haven't worked before. If anything, they've contributed just to more violence, more targeted killings of Israeli civilians in Israel proper. What's the argument that the Israeli government is giving as to what makes this any different and what makes this something that they won't feel the inevitable backlash to?
HEMMER: Here is what the Israeli government says regarding that, Zain. They say they have tracked a sophisticated terrorist network that's operating right now in the West Bank and Gaza and that it will take some time to uproot that network. Now they talked about guns and weapons and people hiding out in the bottoms of schools and the basement floors of hospitals. They talk about wanted terrorist suspects taking refuge right now in the compound of Yasser Arafat.
It is that infrastructure, that network that they are targeting right now. And if you listen to the Israeli argument, it sounds a whole lot too like the Bush doctrine coming out of the White House in Washington. It says that this is a war against terrorism, not against the Palestinian people. And terrorism is the target here. Much like President Bush has said in the current war on terrorism regarding the U.S. and al Qaeda throughout Afghanistan and other parts of the world.
Now the White House dismisses that. They say there is not a similarity here. They say they still want to negotiate with Yasser Arafat. But, clearly, with regard to a cease-fire, it's anybody' guess. I mean that's not being talked about today. All that is getting the attention today, Zain, is the violence again that we have seen throughout the West Bank here.
VERJEE: Has there been any direct contact at all or at any level between Israeli and Palestinian officials?
HEMMER: It appears on some level there has been. Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine General, is still here. His third trip here. And the White House insists that it will not pull Zinni out. It says that it is very important for him to stay here. To pull him out, they say, would be an absolute failure.
But in speaking yesterday, on Sunday afternoon, with some Israeli government officials advising Ariel Sharon, they indicate that there has been some contact, and they did not rule out the possibility that Israeli officials have been talking with Yasser Arafat inside that compound. Now we can't say for certain if that's the case, but that's what we have been led to believe.
What's been the result of that? At this point nothing.
VERJEE: Bill, just briefly, what are the Israeli civilians that you've been speaking to since you've been there saying to you? Do they believe that this sort of escalation will bring them more security?
HEMMER: What they are saying, Zain, with the recent wave of suicide bombings -- as of yesterday, five in five days time -- and, really, Palestinian militants have been picking their -- really picking their targets wherever they want. Last Wednesday in Netanya, Friday in Jerusalem, Saturday in Tel Aviv, yesterday in Haifa. It is that recent wave of suicide bombings that has really thrown a lot of support from the Israeli people behind Ariel Sharon in the current action area.
It appears, speaking with Israelis, that they support the movement right now. Now it's not lockstep, it's not an overwhelming majority. But to this point, it appears that Israelis right now are sick and tired and fed up, essentially, with the violence that's hit them. So if we use that as a barometer, it does appear that there is support behind this action.
VERJEE: Bill Hemmer in Jerusalem, thanks a lot.
Now let's go to CNN's Michael Holmes. He joins us now from Ramallah.
Michael, what's happening in Ramallah right now?
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well right now, Zain, there's two fierce fire fights going in the background; one from my left and one from my right. The one to my right is involving very heavy machine gun fire. The one to my left sounds like M-16s being exchanged.
It's the story of Ramallah, I have to say. We've been here the best part of a week, and since the Israeli tanks came into this West Bank city, the head quarters of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, gunfire is the order of the day. Today, in particular, we filmed as Israeli troops poured fire into an apartment block which was housing some gunmen, Palestinians. We don't know yet whether they were security officers or militias or whatever.
It was a fearsome affair, and vehicle-mounted anti tank -- anti aircraft guns were used, also several tank rounds. And since that fire fight took place we've heard several other tank rounds in the area, some quite close to us here. And in hand in hand with all of that, there has been house-to-house searches here, men taken from their homes searched thoroughly. Some of them have to take their shirts off to show that they're not wearing explosives or carrying arms. And blindfolded in some cases, handcuffed and taken away.
Now, Israel, of course, says that they have -- using this sort of tactic -- have several what they call hard-core terrorists doing it this way. Ordinary Palestinians are seeing, however, ordinary Palestinians as well being taken away and treated in this manner. And we talked to a couple of people today who just call this a -- one woman said to me it's a "ritual humiliation," and is creating just increased resentment here against Israelis -- Zain.
VERJEE: How are the Palestinians in Ramallah, then, living under this occupation of (UNINTELLIGIBLE)? Do they have enough food, do they have enough medicine? Have they stocked up?
HOLMES: In short, no, they're not faring well in those regards. Ordinary Palestinians, they're very hard to find on the streets of Ramallah, because everyone is behind closed doors and they have been for three days, as gunfire echoes down their streets and tank shells go whizzing by. It's a pretty terrifying thing for ordinary families.
And the Israelis are capturing people that they say are terrorists, and that's part of the plan, to break down what they say is a terrorist infrastructure. But I think you have to understand this is a city of ordinary people as well. Families with children, and they've been essentially locked up in their houses. There is a curfew in place here, and they've been locked up for over three days now.
And shops are closed. It's been difficult for us to get food, let alone locals with families. And it's a pretty tough situation for the average ordinary Palestinian on the streets of Ramallah.
VERJEE: And probably adding to that as well, there have been reports also that Israeli troops have taken over private residences to use as military outposts. What can you tell us about that, and how widespread is that?
HOLMES: I don't know how widespread it is. I can certainly tell you it has happened. We've seen two private dwellings that have been occupied Israeli troops. We were driving along yesterday, I think it was, and there was a taxi on the side of the road that had been run over by a tank. And there are dozens and dozens of vehicles in that shape. And we were going to stop and get out and just get a quick shot of that. And as we started to get out, two Israeli soldiers came running out of a house just literally next to us and came out in a crouched position with their weapons at the ready and said, "Go, go, go."
And so we quickly left, of course, but that was a private dwelling. There were obviously Israeli soldiers in there using it as a form of base. That is happening. Israeli troops are searching Palestinian police stations. The municipal office here was searched the night before last. And so, yes, there's a lot of tension here for average people -- Zain.
VERGEE: And have you heard anything about what's going on in Yasser Arafat's compound? I know you haven't had access to it, but -- in recent hours -- but what have you heard about what's going on in there?
HOLMES: Yeah, that's true. The military has blocked off most roads to Yasser Arafat's compound. We actually couldn't get there today. And other news crews that we spoke to also haven't been able to get there today.
I can tell you that we did speak to one of the activists who walked in there past Israeli troops yesterday when we actually got access to Yasser Arafat ourselves. We spoke to one of them and they said that last night there -- that is, getting on for 18 hours ago -- was comparatively quiet. There was some shooting at the compound, but not a great deal. People actually got some sleep, she told us.
Food is there. Water, however, is not. They're in critical shortage of water, she told us. And you can -- I don't know if you can hear, the gunfire is sort of ringing out behind us. This is Ramallah at night.
She also told us that Yasser Arafat is apparently saying that he does not have a good supply of medicines, just personal medicines, for his own use. What types of medicines I can't tell you. But they're still in there and they are still, she told us, defiant, both the activists and Yasser Arafat and his security forces.
One thing I think is interesting to mention, Zain, is over the last 24 hours or so, we have seen a growing number of activists from two particular groups. International people, a lot of French, a lot of Italian, some American. They are the ones that are inside Yasser Arafat's compound at the moment, of course. But they're also elsewhere throughout the West Bank, and they are here in numbers.
There's a curfew imposed here, and we have witnessed this as members of this group today, Italians, trying to intervene as Israeli troops were conducting these searches of suspects and carrying out those operations. These people were actually trying to get in the way. At this gunfight that went on at this building, a Palestinian man jumped out of the building from the second floor. He was lying there injured on the street.
Now when the firing died down, about half a dozen of these people actually ran to try to help this man. A very dangerous situation -- Israeli troops, one of them threw a stone at these people to tell them to go away. And Israeli troops actually took the man away. They said they were going to treat him. And, of course, having jumped from that building he was very much considered a suspect.
So these activists are playing a curious role here in a city under curfew. And it's a pretty dangerous game, as a tank shell goes off in the distance there -- Zain.
VERGEE: Michael Holmes, thanks a lot.
VERGEE: Just some minutes ago, U.S. President George W. Bush made some comments about the crisis in the Middle East. Let's listen to what he had to say.
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GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well Chairman Arafat has agreed to a peace process. He's agreed to the Tenet plan. He's agreed to the Mitchell plan. He has negotiated with parties as to how to achieve peace. And of course our hope is that he accepts the Tenet plan.
That's what General Zinni is in the Middle East doing. Working to get this Tenet agreement in place, which is a series of concrete steps to reduce the violence in the Middle East.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VERGEE: Joining us now from Washington is Judy Barsalou, a Mideast Analyst with the U.S. Institute of Peace. In Jerusalem, David Horovitz, the Editor of the "Jerusalem Report." And in London, is Abdel Bari Atwan , the Editor in Chief of "Al -Quds Newspaper."
Judy, you first, just off the back of what President Bush was just saying. Do you think that there is any hope that the Zinni mission can pull anything together, can salvage anything at this point?
JUDY BARSALOU, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE: I think it's not looking good. Clearly, both sides are, you know, taking extreme positions at this point. I think the Palestinians have made it clear that they're not just willing to step back from the use of violence in order to, you know, improve their negotiating position. They also need to have some hope of a political negotiation with -- a series of possibilities of improving their political position.
VERGEE: Well let's put that to David in Jerusalem. The Palestinian position has been, "Look, we can't have a cease-fire if there's no political process for us to move towards." The Israeli position has been, "No, there's got to be a cease-fire first before anything can happen." How is that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) going to be broken?
DAVID HOROVITZ, "JERUSALEM REPORT": Well because the international community has to tell the Palestinians that those are outrageous demands. That, of course, the violence must stop, and then you resume a negotiating process. I mean this dreadful crisis has come, as far as most Israelis are concerned, because Yasser Arafat is inciting terrorism, having rejected the best terms Israel can ever offer two years ago at Camp David.
If he's not prepared now even to cease-fire, he's not prepared to call off the suicide bombers -- I mean he's talking himself about wanting to join the martyrs now, then of course there can be no negotiating with him.
VERGEE: But the Palestinians say that what do you expect Yasser Arafat to do right now? He's holed up in a few rooms in his compound, has no medicine, can't barely do anything or even make a cell phone call. How can you expect him to do anything right now?
HOROVITZ: Yasser Arafat has probably the largest armed force per capita of any regime anywhere in the world. What he has to do is set the tone. That's what the Israelis are saying. Tell his people who are still armed and who are still out there and who are not holed up in two offices in Ramallah to stop arresting Hamas bomb makers, those who train the suicide bombers, to send the signal. Not to talk about, as he does, a million martyrs marching to Jerusalem and his aspiration to be one of them.
VERGEE: Abdel Bari Atwan, your reaction to that. It's all Arafat's fault and he's in a position to reign in the militants. That, according to the Israelis.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "AL-QUDS NEWSPAPER": Honestly, I'm horrified with such talks, because, you know, you are characterizing and the Palestinian people as if they are occupying and starving the Israeli people to death. And it is completely the opposite. Arafat is starved now, his people are starving, bombarded. We had the worst Easter ever. Our Christian community, instead of celebrating Easter like everybody, they were under siege and shooting.
Many people were killed, many people -- children terrorized by the Israeli tanks. When you see and you scream these tanks, you know, lining up in the cities of the West Bank and Gaza strip, what do you see, what do you think? The occupation -- real occupation of -- the occupation and humiliation of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Palestinians. And, again, President Bush asking the victims, people who are, you know, victimized, asking Arafat, asking the Palestinians to do more. How can they do more from his room in his compound where he can't find food, he can't find water, he can't find medicine?
So how -- and his police forces were bombed, killed, humiliated, their arms were collected by the Israelis. And in spite of that, President Bush blaming Arafat, blaming the Palestinian people. This is the worst type of hypocrisy I ever watched in my career.
VERGEE: Judy, as it is quite clear, the two sides are so far apart. For Israel it's a black and white campaign to eradicate terrorism. It appears for the Palestinians it's a legitimate resistance struggle to end the occupation. Is this, the point where we've reached, a point of no return?
BARSALOU: No. I think what we see here is a real crisis of leadership on both sides, where both sides believe that violence is the answer and both sides believe that they can eradicate the threat that the other poses through violence. And we've reached a point of no return in the sense that both are now fully committed to that course of action, I think.
Clearly, outside parties are going to have to make a move, I think at this point, to try to break this impasse. Because neither side seems to be capable of taking the necessary steps on its own to ratchet down the level of violence and create the conditions in which not only cease-fire can be adequately discussed, but also the return to the negotiating table, which is, you know, an imperative precondition I think for the Palestinians.
VERGEE: It's also a crisis, though, Judy, of American leadership here. Because there perhaps to need to be, as some people are arguing, much higher level engagement by the U.S. administration. So that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Secretary of State Colin Powell, because this is a kind of explosive situation that needs that sort of attention.
BARSALOU: Frankly, we've been hearing some mixed messages from the U.S. administration. I mean on the one hand, they support the U.N. Security Council resolution this weekend, calling for a withdraw of Israeli troops from these areas that they've reoccupied. And on the other hand, over the weekend, President Bush was saying that he understood the Israeli need to respond militarily.
So there's really been some confusion, just in the very recent comments that President Bush just made that we just heard. Really kind of mixed messages here. There hasn't been a high level commitment. General Zinni is not considered to be a high level envoy by either side. There has been growing pressure, I think, on the American side to put, you know, higher level power out there to try to negotiate an end to this crisis.
BARI ATWAN: Can I step in, Zain, here?
VERGEE: Yeah, just briefly. I need to get a question to David.
BARI ATWAN: Please, can I step in?
VERGEE: Yes, briefly.
BARI ATWAN: You know, why President Bush doesn't behave the way he behaved in Kosovo to send troops to protect those innocent Palestinians and those unarmed Palestinians from the Israeli tanks and from the Israeli missiles. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) also human being or not? Are they -- you know, they have children. Sharon never accepted any peace deal. He voted against Camp David, he voted against Oslo. It's a difficult -- it is impossible to make deal with somebody who actually rejected all the peace deals with the Palestinians, with the Egyptians, with the Syrians, with everybody.
So this is -- this is the truth. When there is U.N. Security Council resolutions, why the Americans don't send the heavy military equipment and, you know, to force (UNINTELLIGIBLE) resolution to be implemented exactly the way they did in Kuwait and they did in Kosovo.
VERGEE: OK. I'll have David respond to that.
HOROVITZ: Yeah, I think that the Israelis are very puzzled, in fact, that the world doesn't recognize the absolute parallels between the Palestinian Authority and the Taliban, who the Americans had no hesitation in wiping out. Just like the Taliban, the Palestinian Authority is a regime that is fostering terrorism. That refuses to stop inciting terrorism. That refuses to hand over terrorists.
And Israel, with really no other choice, has now gone in to try to prevent the attacks on its civilians that are taking place every day. And deserves...
VERGEE: OK, but...
HOROVITZ: ... actually, international support.
VERGEE: David, the key question that's being asked over and over again to the Israeli government -- which is also, incidentally, reflected in the editorial of yesterday's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- however necessary the Israelis may feel the military operation is, what is its value if it's only going to bring more violence and more suicide bombings to the Israeli people?
HOROVITZ: Well the Israeli operation is intended to try to prevent further suicide bombings, have no doubt about that.
VERGEE: But it's triggering more.
HOROVITZ: Whether or not...
VERGEE: It's triggering more.
HOROVITZ: it succeeds will depend -- will depend on how much international support there is for pressure on Yasser Arafat to make him change tone. Now Bari can interrupt all he likes and say, "It's the occupation. Why are the Israelis attacking the poor Palestinians?" Israel offered to end the occupation two years ago at Camp David. Yasser Arafat refused that.
At the time, Israel was not present in Palestinian cities, there were no military blockades, there were no water shortages and innocent people were not suffering. Yasser Arafat has stirred up his people to violence against Israel, failed to tell his people that Israel offered very reasonable terms for peace. Sovereignty on all the territory, almost all the territory they've purported to be seeking. He has misled his own people and he is bringing disaster into this region. He needs to change his tone.
VERGEE: David Horovitz, Abel Bari Atwan and Judy Barsalou, I'm sorry, we're out of time.
VERGEE: I'm sorry. We're out of time. There's more Q&A in just a few hours at 20:30 GMT. Apologies for that, but we're going to continue this discussion on Q&A.
That's Q&A for now, the news continues on CNN.
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