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Israel Attempts to Kill Hamas Leader in Air Strike

Aired June 10, 2003 - 19:01   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, ANCHOR: First, even its architects acknowledge that the path laid out as the road map to peace in the Middle East would not be a smooth one. It has certainly not been.
The latest roadblock could be two Israeli missile attacks in Gaza today. Sources say at least five people were killed in the strikes, and one of the wounded included a senior leader of the militant group Hamas.

We have two reports tonight. Kelly Wallace is in Gaza City and Chris Burns is at the White House. We'll begin with Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, it was a failed attempt by Israel to get rid of one of the most visible Hamas leaders here in Gaza. It is a move that now could lead to a cycle of attack and counter attack, and threaten a U.S.-backed peace plan that was touted by President Bush in Jordan almost exactly one week ago.


WALLACE (voice-over): In Gaza, two Israeli aerial assaults in just eight hours that could deliver a sharp blow to the already fragile Mideast road map.

The first, an attempt to kill a senior leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, left a Hamas bodyguard and a 50-year-old woman bystander dead, according to Palestinian sources. Abdel Aziz Rantissi, the public face of Hamas in Gaza, managed to escape with moderate injuries and declared that Israel will pay a big price.

ABDEL AZIZ RANTISSI, HAMAS: We are facing murderers, terrorists, occupiers, and I say to the world no peace with occupation.

WALLACE: Hundreds of members of Hamas took to the streets, calling for revenge. The group is responsible for many suicide bombings against Israelis. Now, its leaders are vowing to retaliate with more attacks, targeting all Israelis, including civilians and political leaders.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was unsuccessfully trying to convince Hamas to agree to a ceasefire, sharply condemned the Israeli air strikes.

"Such attacks obstruct and sabotage all efforts of the peace process," the prime minister said. WALLACE: Israeli military sources say the government acted now because it says Rantissi has stepped up his involvement in terror attacks against Israelis, accusing him of being the main organizer behind the coordinated attacks by three major militant groups Sunday which left four Israeli soldiers dead in the Gaza Strip.

RA'ANAN GISSIN, SHARON SPOKESMAN: Perhaps he'll have second thoughts about the action that he's taking, which are really undermining the peace process and hurting the Palestinians more than us.

WALLACE: Nearly eight hours later, more injured Palestinians are rushed into the hospital after a second Israeli attack from the air.

(on camera) Witnesses say Palestinians were firing homemade rockets from here just across the border towards Israel. That's when a lot of people came out on the street and that is when, Palestinian sources say, at least one Israeli Apache helicopter fired on this car here down below.

(voice-over) On this day, cautious optimism that a peace process could finally take hold seems to have gone away, at least for now.


WALLACE: And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remaining defiant, even in the face of some rare White House criticism, saying tonight, quote, "We will continue to fight terror as long as there's no one on the other side that does so."

But Anderson, a lot of anticipation in this region about just exactly what might happen next -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Kelly Wallace from Gaza tonight, thank you very much.

Now to the White House we go. The new Israeli prime minister calling for help from Washington to keep the plan on track. Chris Burns is here with reaction from the president -- Chris.

CHRIS BURNS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, less than a beak after all those smiles and hand shakes at the Red Sea summit, all three leaders are really being put to the test. President Bush, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, and the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

The president is being put to the test and he said in the last few days that he would be riding herd on either side to try to keep that road map on track. And today, he was riding herd diplomatically on the Israelis.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am troubled by the recent Israeli helicopter gunship attacks. I regret the loss of innocent life. I am concerned that the attacks will make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to fight off terrorist attacks. I'm also don't believe the attacks helped the Israeli security.


BURNS: So telegraph, Bush telling the Israelis, give Mahmoud Abbas a bit of a break. Let him try to rein in the Palestinian militants. This is part of even what the White House called today a full court press, a lot of phone calls burning up the lines today between Washington and with the Israelis and the Palestinians, trying to hold them to the commitments they made last week -- Anderson.

COOPER: Well, Chris, as you quoted the president saying he's trying to ride herd, what is the next step? Where does he try to bring the herd at this point?

BURNS: Well, at this point, there is a troubleshooting team headed by Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf. That has been planned and they are going to be heading to the Middle East in the coming days, perhaps as early as this weekend.

That is the next step. They will be hand holding as things go on both sides. There's also word of the Americans helping out Mahmoud Abbas, trying to reconstitute the security forces in trying to rein in those militants.

COOPER: All right. Chris Burns at the White House, thanks very much.

So how much of a roadblock will today's events be to the process of finding peace in the Middle East? A little bit earlier today, I spoke with Max Abrahms, Sauro (ph) fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Mark Perry, the Washington editor of the "Palestinian Report."


COOPER: Mark, I want to start off with you. We have a statement from the Israeli government regarding the attack today on Rantissi. And it says, quote, "The Palestinian authority has been well aware of Rantissi's activities for some time but is taking no action to stop them. Thus, the state of Israel has been compelled to protect its citizens and try to halt this arch-terrorist's murderous actions."

In your opinion, was the attack today justified?

MARK PERRY, WASHINGTON EDITOR, "PALESTINIAN REPORT": I don't think so. This was, in my view, and I think in a lot of the views of the Palestinian government, an attempt, a purposeful attempt to undermine the peace process.

COOPER: Why do you say that?

PERRY: It's a real escalation. They have targeted Hamas activists before but it's always been in the military wing. This is a political leader of Hamas. And he's known as being a practical politician. Yes, he's condemned Israel. Yes, he's no friend to Israel. But he's the one person who -- whom the Palestinian authority can negotiate with a ceasefire. Targeting him is a real escalation and it's bound to spark bloody responses, I'm afraid.

COOPER: Max, your take on it? Mark has said that...

MAX ABRAHMS, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: I completely disagree. It's a very common opinion to present a dichotomy between the political and military wing of Hamas. In fact, they're interrelated. He was the leader was very much one of founders of Hamas in 1987 and during the 1990s, he was one of the greatest advocates against the peace process.

COOPER: As you know, Mahmoud Abbas has issued a statement, calling the Israeli strike that wounded Rantissi as well as killed two others, quote, "a criminal and terrorist attack."

Max, was it that?

ABRAHMS: I don't think so. I think it very much was a legitimate military attack. As I've said, Rantissi has a history, not just in the political wing of Hamas, but very much in the military wing, as well. And it was Hamas, after all, that rejected the ceasefire that Israel was looking for.

COOPER: Mark, where does the peace process go from here?

PERRY: I don't think it goes. And that's the problem. Whether or not you think those strikes today were legitimate, this really kills any attempt at a peace process. Just yesterday, Hamas said that they would reenter talks with Mahmoud Abbas, that they would try to act in good faith, that they might come to an agreement with him. Less than six hours later, we had the attack on Rantissi, and it didn't kill him.

COOPER: Mark, do you take them at their word, though? Because, I mean, just the day before, Hamas was saying they rejected what came out of Aqaba, and in fact took part in this attack on an Israeli base.

PERRY: They killed five Israeli soldiers. There was no question about that.

But it's not matter of whether I take them at their word. President Bush does. When President Bush left Aqaba, he gave Mahmoud Abbas a vote of confidence. It was clear that he was hoping these ceasefire talks would take place and that they would be successful. They were going to be with Rantissi. Contacts had been made.

We can't expect Hamas to praise what happened in Aqaba, but the talks were going forward. Now they're stopped.

The question is, where do we go from here? No one who knows this region understands where we can go from here, because this attack was really a major, major escalation. No one knows what the next step is and it may be that Mahmoud Abbas will be forced to resign now that the promise of Aqaba, made in good faith by our president, has been short circuited by the Israelis.

COOPER: Max, let me get your vantage point. In your opinion, is the process dead?

ABRAHMS: I don't think the process is necessarily dead, but today's strike really tested, certainly, the problems that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to have in terms of coming forth with the road map.

The fundamental problem is my opinion is that Abu Mazen, while he's praised and embraced by the west and by Israel, simply does not have authority on the Palestinian street. He's unable to crack down on rejectionist groups such as Hamas. And these groups simply don't take him seriously.

COOPER: And he's not even really talking about cracking down. He's talking about negotiation.

ABRAHMS: That's right. What he's trying to do is absorb them. Now, this could possibly work if Hamas were a fringe group within the Palestinian public, but in fact polls suggest that upwards of 60 percent of the public associates with Hamas.

It remains to seen how a contingent group that supports Abu Mazen will be able to absorb the majority opinion while respecting Israel's territorial integrity.

COOPER: Mark Perry, the final thought. Do you believe Abu Mazen, or Mahmoud Abbas, as he's known here as the prime minister, is able to run his territory?

PERRY: Colleague's comments are amazing to me. For a year, we heard about how we couldn't deal with Hamas, how we couldn't deal with Arafat. We needed a man of peace to go forward. And they banged the table for Abu Mazen for a year. We finally got him. Now they say he doesn't really have any legitimacy.

But guess what? He's the person picked by the Israelis. He's endorsed by Yasser Arafat. He's not undermining this process. He proved his worth at Aqaba. He said he would give it his best shot. And the Israelis have attempted to kill the leader of Hamas. That's what undermines him, not his legitimacy on the ground. It's the Israeli actions on the ground. I think it's going to very, very difficult to go on with the peace process from here.

COOPER: All right.

ABRAHMS: Anderson, if I could respond really quickly, it's not Israel who says that Abu Mazen is illegitimate. It's not the United States who says Abu Mazen is illegitimate.

PERRY: His name is Abu Mazen.

ABRAHMS: What is a fact is that the Palestinians themselves don't think that Abu Mazen is legitimate.

COOPER: All right. We're going to leave it there. Mark Perry, Max Abrahms, appreciate you joining us. Thank you very much.

PERRY: Thank you.



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