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CNN Sunday Morning

Interview with Hanan Ashrawi, Mark Sofer

Aired May 12, 2002 - 07:02   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go now to the Middle East. There are new developments this morning concerning the anticipated Israeli military operation in Gaza. Our Wolf Blitzer is monitoring the situation and joins us now live from Jerusalem -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's official now, Kyra. That Israeli planned military operation is now on hold. Israeli officials decided this is not necessarily the best time to go after what they regard as terrorist targets in Gaza, or targets involving Hamas, Islamic Jihad or some of the other radical Palestinian groups.

Only a few minutes ago, I interviewed the Israeli defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and he made clear that the Israeli military operation is off at least for now.


BINYAMIN BEN-ELIEZER, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER: I am ready to say at this state of the game that I'm willing to give a chance.

BLITZER: To give peace a chance right now?

BEN-ELIEZER: I am willing to give a chance and to wait. That does not mean that if tonight or something like this will happen, I will keep quiet. But I -- as we made all away our scale, we are ready to give any chance to the peace forces if someone in the other side with all his counts, then, we'll constitute us again.


BLITZER: Other Israeli officials say that the Israelis were very concerned about two potential developments that could result from a military operation in Gaza given the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in that tiny sliver of land along the Mediterranean. One, there would be extensive Palestinian casualties in those refugee camps in Gaza, civilian casualties and two, there probably would be extensive Israeli military casualties given the fact that the Palestinians over these past several days have had a long time to prepare. There was concerns of booby-traps, landmines, explosives.

They also say that some of the Palestinian suspects have already gone underground and it would be very difficult to find them at least for the time being. As a result of those factors and others, the Israeli government has decided to put on hold the operation. I want to bring in a representative of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ambassador Mark Sofer joins me now live here in Jerusalem. You heard what Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the defense minister says. Is this a postponement or a complete cancellation?

MARK SOFER, POLICY ADVISER TO ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTRY: Well, I think it would imprudent and unwise to go into details of any operational activity we may or may not do. I think what is most important of all is that the infrastructure of the terrorism within the Gaza Strip and elsewhere really must be uprooted once and for all. Ideally, of course, the Palestinian -- the security organization, should them themselves, but we've seen in the past that not only have they not done so, but they've actually been implicated and involved in some of these activities.

So right now, I think, as you heard the minister of defense say just recently, just now, that we should be moving forward now, hopefully into a political process. We've seen certain moves in the last few days and weeks and hopefully, we will be able to extricate ourselves from the violence perpetrated against us and into a new mode.

BLITZER: Well, when you say Israel's ready to move into a new political process, are you talking about this regional peace process that's been discussed? Is that still a viable option right now?

SOFER: Well, certainly. It is a viable option. It's been proposed, as you know, by Prime Minster Sharon in his discussions with President Bush and other areas as well. It certainly is an idea, which is a very good one and one which will bring the parties together to discuss how to move forward and how to extricate ourselves from where we are. Yes, that's one of the proposals on the table and I think perhaps the most actual.

BLITZER: But you know your prime minister doesn't want to sit down with Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority. So who would represent the Palestinians at that conference?

SOFER: Well, there is an enormous amount of recognizance and I think skepticism about Arafat's particular role within the Palestinian terrorism that we've seen recently, that we see that not only from the documentation that we've uncovered, but also from much of the evidence we've got from Marwar Baguiti (ph) and others who have been speaking to us quite openly.

BLITZER: Marwar Baguiti (ph) being?

SOFER: Being the head of the Tanzam (ph), the fatah military wing, those -- that armed grouping answerable to Arafat himself.

BLITZER: Which you've captured....

SOFER: Who has been -- who has been arrested and is now in Israeli custody and is being questioned by the Israeli security forces and other officials. But I think what is important now is that the Palestinian leadership really is -- makes -- ready to make these -- see change that is so crucial to move us out and to realize that once and for all violence cannot be means, cannot be method to obtain political gains, only around the negotiation table, only through diplomatic processes.

BLITZER: All right, Ambassador Sofer, stand by. I want to bring in Hanan Ashrawi. She's in Ramallah close to the Palestinian Authority president.

Hanan Ashrawi, thanks for joining us. I don't know if you heard, but only a few minutes ago, the Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer told me in an interview that we'll air later today on "LATE EDITION" that he is now putting on hold -- the Israeli government is not going to launch a military strike in Gaza. In his words, he's ready to "give peace a chance." Will the Palestinians at this point use this opportunity to go after some of those terrorist suspects the Israelis say are still roaming around Gaza?

HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN CABINET MEMBER: Or the thing is the Palestinian people are still trying to put their life together again. I mean everything has been destroyed. There has been such massive devastation and killing and we are still in a state of siege. And there are still daily incursions. So the fact that they put on hold another escalation doesn't mean that now the onus is on the Palestinians. We are trying our best to maintain some sort of sanity in this situation that has rapidly regenerated into endless violence.

And I agree that there is no military solution. No matter how much Israel deploys a massive army and how many it kills, there isn't going to be any security for anybody unless we deal with the causes other than with the outcome or the symptoms.

BLITZER: But the Palestinian security operation, apparatus, in Gaza unlike in the West Bank was not touched this Israeli military incursion into the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority still has a robust capability in Gaza, isn't that true?

ASHRAWI: Well, they have some capability. Remember, for the last 18, 19 months, the -- all security forces were being shelled and bombed. Most of the headquarters in Gaza also were bombed before the latest incursions. So the fact that the -- in the West Bank, they were all completely destroyed doesn't mean that in Gaza, they didn't survive severe damage in addition to the fact that Gaza is still closed -- it is imprisoned. There is a fence around Gaza. There is no communication or freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank.

But I think ultimately, really, basically what we need is to be able to generate a political process that will drop the process of violence from its momentum and its motivation. And we need to put an end to these escalations, to the land confiscations, to the assassination policy by Israel and we need to give the Palestinians a way out that says there is a political way, a peaceful way and it is working. But when you close off all options except that, then it becomes inevitable.

What we need right now is a political program, which Israel lacks, that says they are willing to deal with the imperatives of peace in a responsible way and that they're not going to go on bashing and battering the Palestinians into submission. That's not going to happen. The occupation is a source of violence. That has to stop.

BLITZER: Let me let Ambassador Sofer respond to that.

What do you say to her main point that your military has done so much damage to the Palestinian security apparatus in the West Bank and in Gaza that it's difficult for them to do what you want them to do?

SOFER: Well, as you mentioned earlier, Wolf, the security apparatus is in the plethora, the multitude of security apparatus operating within Gaza that have largely been untouched and they within them the wear-with-all to continue or to take the necessary efforts against terrorism.

I think one of the big problems the Palestinian society is facing is indeed this magnitude or this multitude of Palestinian security organizations. There are so many of them. They are completing one with another. Arafat is playing with them a little bit like puppets. Some of them are actually implicated and totally involved in terrorism. And I think it's necessary, this reform that I'm hearing more -- that we're hearing more and more about within Palestinian society will take root not only to uproot the corruption within the society but also, and perhaps most important of all, from our point- of-view, is to unify the security apparatuses there, to have one head, one grouping that will act against the terrorism, which is doing so much damage to Israeli civilians and ultimately, to the Palestinian society too.

BLITZER: Well, lets' get Hanan Ashwari to deal with that issue.

Hanan, the president of the United States, as you well know, in recent days, has been calling for increased democracy, reform and this issue -- unifying the Palestinian security services under one control so they're not all these various organizations that supposedly compete with each other and are less effective in fighting terrorism. I wonder if you'd want to deal with those issues.

ASHWARI: Yes, well, Wolf, I'm sure you remember that as far back as 1994, I said at the Commission For Citizens' Rights -- as a watchdog authority. And you know we belong to a coalition called A Man For Accountability and Integrity In Government. And we have also been calling for respect for the rule of law -- for safeguarding human rights and of course, for an active, vibrant democracy that respects separation of power. And we've been calling for reform -- administrative, financial, structural, even personal reform -- and for respect for legislation and the adoption of the basic laws.

So this is nothing new. This is something we've been calling for many years. Unfortunately, Israel, the U.S., everybody else was perfectly happy to look the other way when it was only a Palestinian demand and an effort at self-reform because they thought that so long as the Authority did their bidding when it came to Israeli security, it didn't matter what Palestinian security and democracy needed. Now that they understood the implications for everybody, they're trying to impose an external -- sort of a new kind of patronage reform on the Palestinians.

We want it to be home grown as part of our own exercise of responsibility and we will deal with it. shouldn't be an artificially imposed, external, program as a sort of neo-colonial approach to the Palestinians. We have the capability. We have the ability. We have the will and we will continue to do this. And we will challenge the Authority whenever it violates our rights and whenever it acts in a way which is not accountable, non-transparent or which contravenes Palestinian rights.

So that is something that we're calling for. It is not new. And we will continue to work for it. And if the Authority doesn't listen, I think we need real elections. But to have elections at the legislative level and the local government, we are going to need the conditions to carry out these elections, which means Israel has to lift the siege, has to stop its policy of incursions and assassinations and land confiscation and we should be able to have the freedom to carry out real and fair elections. The Palestinian people deserve them and we really want them.

BLITZER: Hanan Ashwari, we have to leave it there and Ambassador Mark Sofer. Thanks to both of you very much for joining us. And so, that's it, Kyra and Miles. The situation here in the Middle East, perhaps a little bit calmer right now as a result of this Israeli government decision to put on hold, for the time being, a military incursion into Gaza.