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Crisis in the Mideast

Aired July 24, 2006 - 08:31   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR Welcome back everybody. You're watching a special split edition of AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Soledad O'Brien in New York.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad. Miles O'Brien reporting live from Haifa, Israel.

About a half hour ago, we had the first airplane siren of the day. No one injured. No sort of casualties or damage to report. We'll be back with more on that in just a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: We're going to get back to Miles. He is in Haifa, Israel with an update of what's happening there.

Hey, Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Soledad.

Yes, about a half hour ago, the first siren blew here, and that was the first time today that a rocket was fired in this general direction. We're told the rocket landed north of the city, didn't hit anything, didn't hurt anybody, a big, stark contrast to what happened yesterday, when the sirens wailed at least nine times, 14 rockets came in this direction, a total of about 95 rocket or missile firings into northern Israel by Hezbollah yesterday.

For whatever reason, it is quieter today. The Israeli Defense Forces say they targeted a missile launching site in Tyre, Lebanon. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

In addition to that, Israeli Defense Forces, ground forces, continue their push on to a Hezbollah stronghold in Southern Lebanon. Perhaps that something to do with it as well.

Joining me now to talk a little bit more about the military and diplomatic aspects of this story, because it is a crescendo on both sides of that right now, is Miri Eisin, who is the spokesman for the Israeli government.

Good to have you with us, Mrs. Eisin.

First of all, let's talk about the term invasion. As we see the ground forces pushing farther and farther into Southern Lebanon, to many of us, it would look like an invasion. Is it? MIRI EISIN, ISRAELI GOVT. SPOKESMAN: No. Israel has no intention to invade Lebanon, as Israel does not see right now Lebanon as a territory that we want to return to. Israel demands that the Lebanese government, once and for all, exert sovereignty over their territory. Governments are responsible for what happens within their borders, and Israel now sees that Lebanon is not taking responsibility for what happens there.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, but Lebanon may not have that fledgling government there. Prime Minister Siniora may not have the power to do just that. And you could make a case that by going after Hezbollah, it weakens his position.

EISIN: For the last six years, after Israel withdrew from all of Lebanon and were on an internationally recognized border, Israel has seen diplomatic activity and has watched as Hezbollah has taken over Southern Lebanon. And there are governments in Lebanon, and this government is supposed to be both accountable and responsible. Where are they when the terrorists of Hezbollah took over both Southern Lebanon, built their strongholds all over the country?

M. O'BRIEN: Is there not concern in Israel that as this moves forward people in Lebanon in general will feel they're under attack and would return the fight, join the fight, the Lebanese army?

EISIN: We think that the Lebanese government is both capable and accountable for what's happening. Israel is compelled to take what we can against Hezbollah to pursue them wherever they are in Lebanon as long as the Lebanese government doesn't do so.

We've seen over the last year that the Lebanese government can do a lot. Look at the way that the Syrian troops exited Lebanon. Right now we're trying to pursue Hezbollah wherever they are in Lebanon. We're trying to isolate them, to block any way of any supplies arriving. Just in the last day, we've managed to hit some of those rocket launchers. You heard the air-raid siren; we're still under attack.

M. O'BRIEN: The question of proportionality come up. Jan Egeland, who is the undersecretary at the United Nations for humanitarian affairs, said two things yesterday that were of interest. First of all, he said that the response is not in sync with the attack, and that as a result, there's a humanitarian crisis. And he further added that Israel, the Defense Forces, are making it impossible, or difficult at least, to get humanitarian aid in there for civilians caught in the crossfire. How does the Israeli government respond to that?

EISIN: That would you have us do? We have on our northern border a sovereign country which refuses to take responsibility. And there we have terrorists who are firing rockets day to day into northern Israel. I'm here right now. I just came back from a hospital in northern Israel in Nahariya. In that hospital, they actually built the entire hospital now underground, rocket-proof. I was sitting and talking to a man, he was the first one who was injured by the rockets last Wednesday right at the beginning when this all started, because when they kidnapped the two soldier, they also opened fire all along Israel's northern border. He lost his left foot. He sat there and he said, we have to continue, because we can't have terrorists on our northern border.

The Hezbollah terrorists, what are they doing? They go behind the backs of the civilians, into the mosques, into the schoolyards, into the backyards. That's where they're firing out of. They're hiding behind the civilians and targeting the civilians all over Northern Israel.

M. O'BRIEN: Miri Eisin, spokesman for the Israeli government. Thanks for being with us.

EISIN: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, Back to you, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Miles, thanks.

We're going to have much more on the Middle East crisis in just a moment, including whether Lebanon can do anything to control Hezbollah. A top Lebanese official is going to join us live just ahead.

And then later, the aftermath of a rocket attack in northern Israel. We'll show you how folks there are picking up the pieces.

All that ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. Back in just a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says any cease- fire between Israel and Hezbollah must come with the right conditions to make sure that it's sustainable.

Joining us this morning in Nouhad Mahmoud. He is special U.N. representative from Lebanon's foreign ministry.

Nice to see you, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you for talking with us.

The Lebanese president has said if indeed Israeli troops come over the border, Lebanese troops will fight to protect their border. In essence, fight to sort of protect Hezbollah, too. Do you agree with his sentiment?

NOUHAD MAHMOUD, LEBANESE FOREIGN MINISTRY REP.: It's a defensive position for the country, not for Hezbollah. But this is the bad policies of Israel. Put people together, and that's what would happen.

S. O'BRIEN: So you're saying, by nature, Israel has now made Lebanon protect Hezbollah?

MAHMOUD: They are rallying people around Hezbollah in this way.

S. O'BRIEN: So the word we've heard now is that Israeli troops are in Lebanon, that in fact they already have control of Maroun al- Ras and that they are working on getting control of Bint Jubail. Does that mean Lebanese troops are now amassed on the border, ready to -- for lack of a better term -- take back those two cities?

MAHMOUD: Well, the presence of the Israeli army is not as heavy in that part of the south. And that was part of the problem, because Israelis that were asking for (INAUDIBLE) of the army in the south, and the army doesn't have presence in the south. We have unison (ph) there, and the unisons (ph) are not able even to move between their position.

S. O'BRIEN: So the -- as the Israeli forces move further into Lebanon, we will or will not see Lebanese troops do as was promised by the president?

MAHMOUD: Well, they will have to do their job, anyway. Even -- you don't have to compare the Lebanese army to the Israeli army, but they have to do something.

S. O'BRIEN: When will we see, since we're getting word that these Israeli troops are already in those -- well, at least in one of those cities and making its way to another, if not in full control already -- when will we -- I guess what I'm asking is, when are we going to see Lebanese troops fighting Israeli forces? Even if they're woefully outnumbered and outmatched by the Israeli forces. Because that's what's been promised, so to speak, by the president.

MAHMOUD: Well, they are engaged in many situations against Israeli air force (INAUDIBLE) since the very beginning. So they're not that passive.

S. O'BRIEN: The Saudi foreign minister, who I spoke to on Friday, and also -- I'm sorry, the Israeli foreign minister spokesman who I spoke to on Friday -- and we just heard a government spokeswoman a minute ago -- said the heart of the problem is this. Lebanon has not done enough to control Hezbollah. That, at the end of the day, is really where the fault lies in Lebanon.

MAHMOUD: Right, right. Well, the (INAUDIBLE) of Hezbollah is one of the main issues on the agenda of the national dialogue. And I believe that although we are late and -- maybe some people think. But by peaceful means, by dialogue, is much faster than by military means. Because, with the military means, they are not going to shoot much.

S. O'BRIEN: You don't think Israel is going to make headway against Hezbollah in this round of violence?

MAHMOUD: I don't think they will have big success in this. They were there for about 20 years, and they were facing Hezbollah for all this time, and they were the ones who withdrew.

S. O'BRIEN: You have blamed Israel for what we have seen to a large degree in Lebanon, which is the economic destruction and the developmental destruction and the humanitarian crisis we're seeing there right now. Do you blame Hezbollah, as well? I mean, we know that they firing rockets out of civilian homes. I mean, to some degree, they're exploiting their own civilians in order to aim those rockets at Israel.

MAHMOUD: Well, they provoked this time the whole event, maybe. But the Israeli response was disproportionate and it was collective punishment for the whole Lebanese population. Now we have a fifth of the population are displaced, and they are everywhere in Lebanon, in Syria and everywhere.

S. O'BRIEN: The Israeli government has maintained it wasn't disproportionate, that, in fact, they trying to protect, as any nation would do, their nation.

MAHMOUD: Well, this is a misconception of the international law and of their rights, also.

S. O'BRIEN: The two Israeli soldiers who have been kidnapped, what exactly is Lebanon doing right now to push for their release?

MAHMOUD: We are asking for cease-fire. The cease-fire will guarantee many things, among that, a start in dialogue about this issue. And there were many swaps between Hezbollah and Israel in the past. So why not this time?

S. O'BRIEN: Israel says, and others have said, there's not going to be a cease-fire. I mean, it's going to be the opposite of the way you want it. You want a cease-fire then dialogue. They say, no, dialogue, then maybe cease-fire. A cease-fire that doesn't actually last is meaningless.

MAHMOUD: Well, the civilian (ph) population now is under fire, and they are the ones who are suffering this time. And I don't know if the price is worth it. And I don't know if, with more fighting, they will achieve more political gain.

S. O'BRIEN: You blame Israel for all that suffering solely or do you blame Hezbollah for that suffering?

MAHMOUD: They are the ones who choose to escalate from the very beginning. Even Hezbollah, they said, we want the swap from the very beginning. And this didn't happen. The Israelis choose the war and choose escalations. Unfortunately that's not productive in Lebanon, and you see casualties on both sides.

S. O'BRIEN: But you don't blame Hezbollah at all for their role in firing out of homes and basically...

MAHMOUD: No. For us...

S. O'BRIEN: ... mixing in with the civilian population?

MAHMOUD: Yes, in Lebanon now, it's not the time for -- to blame.

S. O'BRIEN: But you're blaming Israel.

MAHMOUD: We're under fire and later on, many questions will be addressed to Hezbollah. S. O'BRIEN: Ambassador Nouhad Mahmoud is the special representative from Lebanon's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It's nice to see you, sir.

MAHMOUD: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: Thank you for coming in and talking to us. We certainly appreciate it.





S. O'BRIEN: Stay with us. We're back in a moment.



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