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Israeli Military Strikes in Gaza

Aired July 23, 2002 - 17:00:00   ET



RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Gaza's pain. An Israeli missile strike finds its mark in a crowded Gaza neighborhood. A top Hamas militant is killed. Along with him, 14 civilians, mostly children, and any hope for an easing of tensions.


VASSILEVA: Hello and welcome to INSIGHT. I'm Ralitsa Vassileva, sitting in for Jonathan Mann.

The Israeli fighter jets struck in the middle of the night. It killed and injured scores of Palestinians, reduced an apartment building to rubble, and left a tattered peace process on life support.

Israel's prime minister said he regretted the civilian loss of life, but praised the strike for achieving its primary mission. He was alone.

Nearly every other country was critical. The attack came just as the two sides appeared to be making steps towards easing tension and rebuilding confidence. There were even hints of a possible agreement to end Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

Not any more.

On INSIGHT today, the Gaza missile strike.

But first this look at some other stories making headlines at this hour.

The United States Justice Dept. has announced criminal charges against several members of the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group. The terrorists have been linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, which is blamed for the September attacks on the United States.

Justice officials say the terrorists must face justice.


LARRY THOMPSON, U.S. DEP. ATTNY. GEN.: With today's indictment, the United States sends a signal: we will work to track down and prosecute all those who commit barbaric acts of terrorism against Americans here, at home, and abroad.

The Justice Dept. is committed to working with the government of the Philippines to bring the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group to justice.


VASSILEVA: Philippine authorities say Abu Sayyaf members are clearly responsible for last month's killing of United States missionary Martin Burnham, held hostage by the group. Burnham was killed and his wife wounded during rescue efforts by Philippine troops.

A Filipino hostage nurse, Deborah Yap, was also killed.

Police say a grenade attack killed a young girl and wounded at least 18 people in a crowded Kashmiri market in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Authorities say the grenade was thrown at a police detail accompanying an armored car. Police are blaming suspected Islamic rebels who escaped the scene. More than a dozen militant Muslim groups have been fighting to free Jammu and Kashmir from Indian rule or merge it with Pakistan.

Canadians welcomed Pope John Paul II as he arrived in Toronto for World Youth Day celebrations. The 82-year-old pontiff who suffers from Parkinson Disease is taking a leading role in the youth jamboree, despite concerns about his failing health.

More than 200,000 young Catholics are expected to attend the event. The Pope's 11-day tour will also include visits to Guatemala and Mexico.

There is a new leader of the world's 17 million Anglicans, and he has plenty to talk about. Rowan Williams was named Tuesday as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

He has been labeled as both theologically orthodox and a liberal. Among his more controversial opinions: opposition to the United States-led war on Afghanistan and the sanctions and threats of war against Iraq.

He also alarmed some conservative Anglicans by admitting he ordained a priest he suspected was gay.

Williams was appointed to his new post by British P.M. Tony Blair, an appointment confirmed by Queen Elizabeth II.

The target was a Hamas militant topping Israel's most wanted list, a man Israel holds responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths.

An Israeli missile did kill Salah Shehadeh at his home in a crowded Gaza neighborhood, but the strike also killed civilians, many of them children.

We begin with CNN's Mike Hanna.


MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Volleys of gun firing out in the streets of Gaza City, a gesture of defiance and also a threat.

Being buried in the afternoon, more than 10 people, among them a number of children, one a baby of less than three months.

(on camera): The mood of this crowd is grim. There's deep, deep anger. And the words on everyone's lips: revenge.

(voice-over): Crowds gathered at the scene of the Israeli attack throughout the day. This man, who was one of the first on the scene, says it was like a horror movie.

"I saw dead people on the ground," he says. "If you saw animals in this state, it would break your heart. So what about when it is human beings?"

The stated target of the Israeli attack was the apartment of the leader of the military wing of the Hamas movement, Salah Shehadeh.

(on camera): Israel contents Shehadeh was responsible for numerous terror attacks against Israeli civilians and describes this operation as one of self-defense.

Palestinian leaders insist that nothing can justify so many Palestinian civilians being killed and wounded.

(voice-over): The Israeli prime minister expressed regret about the loss of civilian life, but describes the killing of the Hamas leader as a major success.

RA'ANAN GISSIN, SHARON SPOKESMAN: Salah Shehadeh has become a real ticking bomb. He would discharge suicide bombing after suicide bombing.

In the past two years, he is responsible for the death and injury of over several hundred Israelis, and it left us with no other choice.

HANNA: The question asked here, why did this attack come at a time when Palestinian militants, including Hamas, were discussing a possible suspension of attacks against Israeli civilians.

YASSER ABED RABBO, PALESTINIAN INFO. MIN.: We believe that such a crime will encourage once again the cycle of violence and rage and we think that Sharon knows very well that there will be a response, and he wants the continuation of the bloodshed, because he wants to prevent any possibility of a new political process.

HANNA: In the streets of Gaza, the Israeli attack is seen as a challenge. Those burying their dead insisting that blood begets blood.

Mike Hanna, CNN, Gaza City.


VASSILEVA: Assassin, terrorist, mastermind military field general. Israel says Salah Shehadeh was all of those things and had to be stopped before he struck again.

Here's CNN's Chris Burns.


CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "The enemy has opened the door to hell," he told his supporters. That was shortly after peace talks foundered and the latest Palestinian uprising began nearly two years ago.

"Our people are not in need of a new compromise," he said, "they are in need of a new rifle."

Since then, Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, head of Hamas's military wing in Gaza, rose to the top of Israel's Most Wanted List.

According to the Israeli government, he plotted dozens of attacks that killed scores of Israelis. Among them, the Dolphinarium disco bombing in Tel Aviv in June last year that killed more than 20 people, the Sbarro Pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem two months later that left 15 dead, and the so-called Passover bombing at a Netanya hotel in March this year that left 29 dead, sparking Israel's crackdown, called Operation Defensive Shield.

The Israelis say Shehadeh played a key role over the years in producing the rudimentary kasan (ph) rockets fired at Jewish settlements in Gaza as well as Israel proper.

And Israelis say he developed closer ties, including financial ones, with Hamas in Syria and Lebanon.

Shehadeh was 49 years old, a sociology graduate and former social worker. He was born in a Gaza refugee camp five years after his parents fled Jaffa for the Gaza strip during Israel's 1948 war for independence.

In 1987, shortly before the first intifada against Israeli occupation began, Shehadeh helped found Hamas's military wing. The Israelis twice jailed him for terrorist activity. He became a close confidant of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Many Palestinians saw him as an effective freedom fighter, and now as a martyr.

Several times, Israel demanded the Palestinian Authority arrest Shehadeh, but the Authority either could not or would not do so. Calling Shehadeh a ticking time bomb, charging he was plotting an eminent attack, the Israelis say they could wait no longer.

Chris Burns, CNN, Jerusalem.


VASSILEVA: We will take a break now. When we come back, why now?

Stay with us.


YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN LEADER (through translator): I ask the whole world, how can you be silent and not stop such crimes against our people, especially at a time when we had resumed our positive contacts in all aspects, including the last meeting that took place between five of our ministers and Israeli officials, including Foreign Min. Shimon Peres?



VASSILEVA: Condemnation for Israel's missile strike has been swift from around the world.

The U.N. Sect. Gen. Kofi Annan said Israel clearly failed in its legal and moral responsibility to avoid hurting civilians.

The European Union called Israel irresponsible.

Egypt's foreign minister went even further, accusing Israel of deliberately targeting civilians.

CNN's Andrea Koppel reports on the reaction from Washington.


ANDREA KOPPEL CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): While the Bush White House did not condemn the Israeli attack, it was sharply critical.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECT.: The president views this as a heavy-handed action that is not consistent with dedication to peace in the Middle East.

KOPPEL: The United States rejected Israel claims it did not know Palestinian civilians were also in the targeted apartment building.

FLEISCHER: This was a deliberate attack against a building in which civilians were known to be located.

KOPPEL: Although critical of Israel's policy of targeted killings of suspected Palestinian terrorists, administration officials dismiss any comparison with targeted United States strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan, including what the Pentagon says was an accidental attack on an Afghan wedding party earlier this month.

Monday's attack comes on the heels of a week of intense Mideast diplomacy, led by the United States, focusing on Palestinian reform, and weeks of quiet diplomacy by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority appeared on the verge of a breakthrough.

On Monday, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, said his group would consider a cease-fire if Israel, among other things, withdrew its troops from reoccupied West Bank times and cities.

ROB MALLEY, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP: The timing was certainly quite unfortunate, not only, obviously, for the children who were killed in the attack itself, but for the diplomacy in the region, for the United States, which was hoping that its latest approach, which is raising some skepticism, causing some skepticism in the region and elsewhere, might have some traction.

KOPPEL: Publicly, United States officials refuse to speculate what collateral damage the attacks will have on ongoing United States efforts to jumpstart the peace process. But privately, a State Dept. official said it is a setback. But after so many months of violence, he added, most in the Bush administration are taking this in stride.

Andrea Koppel, CNN, at the State Dept.


VASSILEVA: Daniel Taub, the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, joins us now from Jerusalem.

Mr. Taub, thank you very much for joining us.


VASSILEVA: Tell us why did Israel -- tell us about the timing of this. Why did Israel decide to carry on this attack even though there was a secret deal that might have resulted in a halt of the assassination and suicide bombings? Why did Israel decide at this time, at this sensitive time, to carry out this attack?

TAUB: Well, unfortunately this sort of decision isn't in our hands. Nobody presented us with a menu of options or timetables.

Salah Shehadeh was not just any terrorist, but as you've show, the major terrorist operating in the Gaza Strip, and hiding within civilian areas, going underground. When an opportunity to try and stop his terrorist activity became available, we have to in real time try to weigh up, on the basis of operational assessments and intelligence, whether we can take advantage of it.

But I think it's also important to note that rumors that this was a time that some sort of cease-fire was imminent are really quite out of the question. Only yesterday, we saw that Yasser Arafat's Fatah was publicizing a new flyer which was calling for an escalation in terrorist attacks.

And as far as the Hamas is concerned, we know that Salah Shehadeh was the most extreme element of this extreme organization, who was opposed to any sort of stopping the cease-fire, under any circumstances.

VASSILEVA: But there were steps being taken. The European Union says that they were close to a deal, it was very close to a deal, in which several militant organizations, including Hamas, were expected to half the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

TAUB: As you know, we've been having high-level talks with the Palestinians, the aims of which have been to achieve our two primary aims in the near future.

The first is to try and increase Israel's security, to provide some sort of leadership that will stop the terrorist activity. And the second is to try and ease the hardship of the Palestinians, to find a way of easing the hardship, without making life easier for the terrorists.

Unfortunately, the fact that we don't have a Palestinian leadership that's prepared to take any measures whatsoever to comply with its obligations to stop the terrorist activity make it hard to achieve either of those two aims.

VASSILEVA: What about -- but what about the condemnation? What about the 14 civilians that were hurt, nine of them children? Did Israel consider that? It was a very densely populated area of Gaza. It was a residential neighborhood.

TAUB: This is absolutely shocking, and obviously we, unfortunately, through our costs, know what it means to lose children and innocent family members.

But this tragedy really begins with the question what was this terrorist doing operating freely in the middle of a civilian zone? Why is it that the Palestinian leadership, which came into control of these territories -- you'll remember, we handed all of these territories over the Palestinians eight years ago in return for very specific obligations, that they would arrest terrorists, confiscate illegal weapons, stop the incitement, do all of the things which, unfortunately, they haven't done.

And if they're not going to do it, unfortunately it's left to us to do it.

VASSILEVA: I want to ask you to clarify a statement by the Israeli Justice Min. Meir Sheetrit, who says that those who support terror are also targets. What does he mean by that?

TAUB: We are -- unfortunately, no country has found a satisfactory way of dealing with terrorism where terrorists shamelessly hide behind civilian population. It places any democracy in the most fundamental dilemma, because on the one hand, as an absolute value, we want to try and protect the lives of civilians, whoever and wherever they are.

But, on the other hand, it has to be made absolutely clear that people who are plotting terrorist attacks will not get immunity to carry on planning to blow up innocent civilians just because they hide in civilian areas.

VASSILEVA: But does that mean that Israel will, in the future, take action, even when civilians lives are at risk?

TAUB: It is our hope that it won't be necessary. As you know, Israel has been wholly supportive of President Bush's plan, as we were of the Mitchell plan and the Tenet recommendations and so on. And all of those carry with them a very strong path that can hopefully lead us back to negotiations and toward peace.

But all of them also start with the Palestinian leadership taking responsibility, trying to impose some sort of security, trying to do some of these things, which in theory they could do so much better than Israel. But if they don't do anything, Israel cannot sit still and simply let terrorists prepare to blow up our families and our children.

VASSILEVA: Mr. Taub, you referred several times to efforts at dialogue, for peace, what is your response to the statement by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Erekat, who says, this is Sharon's effort to torpedo any effort to revive the peace process. Is that the truth?

TAUB: No. I think it's absolutely ridiculous. I think you have to look at Israel's actions over the past two years, in the face of an unprecedented wave of terrorism, terrorism which you will recall started when Israel had put the most generous peace offer ever on the table, which the Palestinians rejected, walked out of the negotiations, and deliberately started a policy of terrorism against Israel.

In the face of this wave of terrorism, Israel has repeatedly shown remarkable restraint. There have been shocking terrorist attacks, like the attack on the Dolphinarium discotheque, when 21 people died, where Israel had no military response whatsoever, and all we got in response to that, when we were trying to allow the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table, was more suicide bombers, and if you remember, the Karin-A ship, loaded up with heavy weaponry from Iran.

Unfortunately, in the war against terrorism, doing nothing is simply not an option.

VASSILEVA: Mr. Taub, thank you very much for giving us the Israeli perspective.

TAUB: Not at all.

VASSILEVA: A quick break, and then anger on the Gaza Strip. We'll hear from the Palestinian side in a moment.

Stay with us.



VASSILEVA (voice-over): An outpouring of grief and anger in Gaza as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians join the funeral procession for the military commander of Hamas and 14 other Palestinians killed in the Israeli air raid on his home.


(on camera): Welcome back.

A political leader of Hamas is quoted in the press as saying, "every Israeli is a target now." Hamas is vowing to take revenge on Israelis in buses, restaurants, and even their homes.

Diana Butto, legal adviser to the PLO, joins us now in Jerusalem.

Ms. Butto, thank you very much for joining us.

DIANA BUTTO, PLO LEGAL ADVISER: Thank you for having me.

VASSILEVA: Israel says that if the Palestinian Authority had taken action it wouldn't have come to this, it wouldn't have had to carry out this attack, which also cost so many civilian deaths. What is your response to that?

BUTTO: Well, in fact, the Palestinian Authority had in the past carried out very extensive efforts to arrest and prosecute individuals who were suspected of carrying out attacks against Israel.

In fact, between the period of 1997 until the year 2000, there wasn't a single Israeli who died of a suicide bombing or of a terrorist attack inside Israel.

That all stopped when Israel unilaterally ceased security cooperation with the Palestinians. And since that time, Israel has bombed the very police stations and killed the very police officers who are supposed to be arresting Palestinians suspected of committing attacks against Israel.

VASSILEVA: But Israelis say that the security apparatus in Gaza, where this man was, were intact, and that the Palestinian Authority could have done something.

BUTTO: Well, this is precisely the point, is that Israel keeps saying that it's intact, and the Palestinians have said that it is not, and the Palestinians have repeatedly called for international involvement, both to oversee what measures we can overtake, and at the same time to provide protection to a civilian population which has now seen 2,000 people die over the past two years, over 500 of whom are children.

VASSILEVA: Israel says that Shehadeh had planned hundreds of attacks against Israeli civilians; he was in the process of planning more, and they had to do this to stop him.

BUTTO: Well, you know, it's ironic that inside Israel there is no death penalty. A person can only be convicted and sentenced to prison for life. But when it comes to Palestinians, Israel not only is the judge, it is the jury, and literally, the executioner.

And, sadly, it's not only this individual that the Israeli army ended up committing a massacre against, but also children, tens of them, whose bodies I ended up seeing when I was in Gaza just today.

VASSILEVA: Ms. Butto, the idea that the Israel Defense Force says that they regret the loss of civilian life, but they say they had no choice, that this was a case even of militants using civilians as human shields.

BUTTO: Well, you know, this is a very, very sad comment on the part of Israel.

Repeatedly when suicide attacks have been carried out inside Israel, the Palestinian Authority has been very quick to condemn terrorists and condemn the loss of civilian life. We have never heard a condemnation on the part of Israel for the loss of civilian life, and instead we hear these very lame excuses on the part of Israel, trying to place blame on the very victims, the people who have been victimized.

VASSILEVA: Well, we did hear the P.M. Ariel Sharon, the IDF, expressions of regret for the loss of civilian life. We did hear that.

BUTTO: We certainly heard lots of regret for the loss of live, but we've never heard a condemnation. And if Israel is so regretful of the actions that it has carried out, why hasn't it learned from these lessons in the past?

Just three weeks ago, we saw children in Jenin trying to go out to get bread after curfew was lifted, also targeted and brutally massacred by the Israeli army. When is it that regret finally starts turning into action to in fact do something to stop the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians?

VASSILEVA: Ms. Butto, looking ahead at the next hours or the next day, we have Hamas saying that every Israeli is a target, even in their homes, whether at restaurants, whether on the street, even in their homes, there will be a series of retaliatory attacks. What is your reaction to that? Do you condone that?

BUTTO: Absolutely. I condemn the loss of all civilian life, and I would love to hear just simply one Israeli official repeat the very same words that I have simply stated.

But the question then becomes, how is it that this is actually going to stop? The key is now in Israel's hands. The key has always been in Israel's hands. Israel -- Sharon was a man who was elected in a time of crisis. He is only sustainable in a time of crisis. And he has shown time and again that he is willing to do everything in his power to insure that that crisis is sustained, including killing civilians.

VASSILEVA: What is the Palestinian Authority going to do if Hamas really carries out this threat, saying every Israeli, whether they're in their home or whether they're in a restaurant, whether they're on the street, are a target?

BUTTO: Well, this is a very important question, in fact, and it becomes a question of what is it that the Palestinians can in fact do, given that all of their police stations have been bombed, given that 8,000 of their police officers have either been arrested or killed.

And it's not only a question of what can the Palestinians do, but who is actually going to be judging the very ability of the Palestinians to do this? Is it going to be Israel? Because if it is, we sadly know that Israel will never be pleased, whether it's in fact three years of silence, as they had from 1997 to 2000, whether it's 30 days of silence, or whether it's 60 days of silence.

Because Israel is simply not interested in silence. Israel, and particularly Sharon, is only interested in fueling this conflict, not in resolving it.

VASSILEVA: Ms. Butto, thank you very much for giving us the Palestinian perspective.

That is it for this edition of INSIGHT. I'm Ralitsa Vassileva. The news continues.





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