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Crisis in the Middle East: Two Israeli Soldiers Killed by Palestinian Mob in Ramallah

Aired October 12, 2000 - 7:01 a.m. ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: To say that tensions right now are high in the Middle East could be putting things incredibly mildly. We are following some breaking news that has complicated diplomatic efforts to end two weeks of violent protest.

Let's go now to Jerrold Kessel standing by in Jerusalem.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The latest news, and this can be confirmed, is that two, according to military sources, two Israeli soldiers have been killed in this incident by the enraged Palestinian mob in the town of Ramallah. The unclear thing is how exactly this incident evolved.

According to the Israeli version, there were four, possibly four soldiers, reserve soldiers, who were going on to a duty in the West Bank and they had been driving in a civilian car and it's not clear whether they were in uniform or not, but they erroneously strayed into the town of Ramallah, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

They were taken by the Palestinian police to a police station in the center of that town. It was there that, according to the -- this version and according to pictures and eyewitnesses coming out of the Palestinian town, a crowd of Palestinians took over their police station, and killed at least two of those Israelis. At least one body was paraded through the streets of the town of Ramallah. Their bodies were then handed over later to the Israeli military authorities at a coordination office on the outskirts of the town. Whether they were, in fact, two others, what are their whereabouts, unclear at this stage.

Now the Palestinians are saying that they were in civilian clothes and they were believed to be, at the first instance, these are the reports coming out of Ramallah, an undercover Israeli soldiers, and that that is why they were taken into custody. There's no comment from the Palestinian side on how the Palestinian crowd got into the police station and the action that they took against these Israelis there.

But we spoke a short while ago to an Israeli government spokesman, and as before during this ongoing confrontation, the official Israeli position is to blame -- to hold Yasser Arafat personally responsible for being unable to keep the control of the Palestinian crowd once these Israelis were in the hands of the Palestinian Authority police.


NACHMAN SHAI, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: There's no doubt this is a severe development in our eyes, severe develop in the entire Middle East situation right now. There's no doubt that the mob was involved with it. And let's say if Mr. Arafat wanted to ignite the Middle East, ignite the West Bank, he did it. He can write it down. He successfully ignited the entire Middle East.


KESSEL: We know that Prime Minister Barak has canceled all his meetings and has said in a statement now issued over Israel radio that he regards this as a very grave incident, and Mr. Barak quoted as saying Israel will know what to do.

Now we are joined here in our Jerusalem bureau by a leading Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib.

Thanks very much for joining us. How do you view this development? Is it a turning point? or is it serious as the Israelis are saying?

GHASSAN KHATIB, PALESTINIAN ANALYST: It cannot be a turning point, and I hope it's not a turning point, things are extremely bad anyhow without this incident. Unfortunately, there has been the killing of the average of 10 Palestinians on daily basis by the Israeli army, which is creating a situations of anger and frustration amongst the Palestinians, and suddenly those Palestinians have found Israeli undercover soldiers inside Ramallah.

There is a big question about why are those Israeli soldiers there in this time. It cannot be by mistake because there are checkpoints all-around the town, and they were found in the very center of Ramallah.

Their presence there is responsible for aggravating the situations, in spite of the current efforts by everybody to try to convince the Israeli army and the Israeli settlers to stop the killing of Palestinians because this is the only way in which things can be calmer.

The other problem the Palestinians have an understanding is that if Israel is claiming that the Palestinians are the cause of what is happening, then why the Israeli government is refusing to allow an international investigation committee to come to the territories and to try to understand what happened?

KESSEL: Even before that commission is getting underway, there is an attempt by the United Nations has organized that the security chiefs of the two countries, together with the CIA chief George Tenet, would be meeting -- would plan to meet to discuss how to contain situation. Is the only point in that now, how will this affect those deliberations? KHATIB: I should say that this incidents, this violent developments cannot be stopped by meetings or by discussions, it can be stopped by putting an end to the causes of the continuous protests and violence. The cause is very obvious. It is the continuous overreaction of the Israeli police, which is ending by killing a growing number of Palestinians, mostly underage, which is creating furious among the Palestinians. There has been so far about 5000 families which are affected by having one of their members either injured or killed. This is enough to create strong public hostility against the Israelis who are required to stop this overuse...

KESSEL: This morning a leading minister in Ehud Barak's government, the Israeli government, said that -- accused Yasser Arafat of turning his back on accommodation, even before this incident and of saying that he was not considered by Israel a peace partner, that the region was heading towards war. Is it as gloomy as that?

KHATIB: No, I think that Arafat is the only partner for the Israelis in this peace process. The problem is that the Israelis were trying to squeeze Yasser Arafat, both in Camp David and now here on the ground. They have been putting him in a very humiliating situations in spite of the fact that he has been trying his upmost effort to calm down the situations and to be as cooperative as possible with the international efforts.

KESSEL: Thank you very much.

And so, even as this -- the details of this latest incident need to be clarified to the full, it's clear that the rhetoric on both sides is being upgraded even as the violence has stepped up.

I'm Jerrold Kessel, CNN, reporting live from Jerusalem.

HARRIS: All right, thank you so much, Jerrold Kessel -- Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as Jerrold was just reporting, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had hoped that security officials from both the Palestinian side and the Israeli side were able to me today to try to get this peace process back on track. No word yet as to what the situation with the Israeli soldiers is exactly. Annan has been trying to find out that information and he meets with leaders in Beirut.

CNN's Brent Sadler now joins us by telephone from Beirut with the latest on the secretary-general's comments -- Brent.


Well, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had hoped that a so- called breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli side would be hopefully today, first convening of that tripartite security committee might have enabled him to look at the other side of the problem here, that is tensions along the border between Israel and Lebanon, and also tensions between Israel and Syria.

And one of the sparks for that tension was last weekend's abduction by Hezbollah guerrillas of three Israeli soldiers, all of the rank of Sergeant, taken by Hezbollah in a cross-border ambush.

Now, Hezbollah refuses to give any information whatsoever about the condition or whereabouts of those soldiers, and it was while Mr. Annan was here in Beirut, talking to the Lebanese president, Emil LaHood (ph), on the issue of border security and also to capture by Hezbollah of those Israelis that news began to break of another capture of Israelis in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and the subsequent report, as heard from Jerrold there, of fatalities among Israelis.

Now, shortly after hearing that news, Mr. Annan held a press conference here in Babdub (ph), and this was his reaction to the initial report that four Israelis had been taken capture by Palestinian police.


KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: This doesn't facilitate my efforts, it does complicate the issues we are trying to resolve. And so now, if that reports proved to be correct, we are dealing with several sets of prisoners, if you wish, or abducted individuals. You have the 19 Lebanese prisoners in the Israeli jails, which has been raised and we have been trying to work on. We then have the three Israeli soldiers who are in the hand of Hezbollah, And now you indicate there are four Israelis in the hands of Palestinians.


SADLER: So a multidimensional problems there for Kofi Annan, who's been meeting with Iran's foreign minister here in Beirut, discussing the issue of those three captives held by Hezbollah. He then heads off to the border for a briefing on security there. And very quickly, Mr. Annan will returned right to the center of the storm back to Israel.

Over to you, Carol.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Brent Sadler, live from Beirut.



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