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Israel, Bush Condemn Rash of Bombings in Mideast

Aired December 2, 2001 - 08:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get right to the heat of the situation now in the Middle East. Our Jerrold Kessel joins us now from Jerusalem -- Jerrold.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, well the agony that Israelis have felt over the last 16 or so hours is now switched from here in Jerusalem to the northern coastal town of Haifa, where for the second time a suicide bombing with devastating impact, this aboard a bus in the northern coastal port city -- a crowded bus, internal city bus.

And the reports from the area say a man boarded this bus, coolly paid his fare to the driver, stepped inside, and seconds later the most mammoth explosion which, as you see, ripped that bus entirely apart.

Indeed, according to eyewitnesses, blew it some 100 meters -- 100 yards across the road, careening into other vehicles. There was a fireball, literally. And the eyewitness account, which I want to give you on the spot really, I think tells it all.

One man said: "Such was the force of the blast that the victims didn't utter a word, not even a cry for help. There was complete silence." All that was left to do was to cover some of them up and to evacuate the others."

Well, the casualty figures, as I said, at least 12 dead. But among the 40 injured, several are reported to be in critical condition, fighting for their lives. And that casualty toll could well almost double according to hospital sources in the northern Israeli town.

Now, this second suicide bombing comes after the attack last night here in Jerusalem, a double-barreled suicide bombing in the downtown pedestrian mall. And there 10 young Israelis, aged between 14 and 20 were killed by those two suicide bombers whose explosions were followed literally minutes later by a third explosion which rocked the whole area as the rescue workers had arrived on the scene.

This we see the aftermath of a car bomb which exploded shortly after the two suicide bombers had let off their explosives. And in that, as I say, 10 young Israelis were killed. Originally 180 people were treated in hospital. This morning, 88 of them were still being treated in hospital. Now both these -- as the Haifa blast occurred, the man who had been charged by President Bush and by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to come to the area, to make sure a cease-fire was put in place and that he was to stay in the area until that mandate -- until his mandate had been met and there was a cease-fire -- retired Marine General Anthony Zinni went to the scene of last night's blast just, in fact, as the Haifa blast occurred. He laid a wreath on the site, expressing the condolences.

And Mr. Zinni using some very strong language indeed, saying this was the lowest form of humanity that had carried out this kind of action; a despicable, evil crime, he called it. And promising that he would do his absolute utmost to insure that there was no repeat of this.

Mr. Zinni has been putting the onus entirely on the Palestinian Authority. He issued a statement yesterday. By the thrust of his remarks today, he seemed to be taking exactly the same line: that it's up to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to take the necessary action.

In any statement, Mr. Zinni has been saying, not just against those who sent the suicide bombers, but against the infrastructure of the groups that support them.

Now that's a very strong statement, indeed, from the U.S. envoy, suggesting that the pressure is all on Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader has convened two meetings of his top official security and political (sic) down in Gaza. We've heard from Palestinian officials who say they expect very strong action from the Palestinian Authority against the militants.

But the Israelis are not satisfied. They say they want the action, they want it now, and they want it seen to be done.

And we're joined now here by Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner. Thanks very much, Mr. Pazner, for joining us.

When you say you want action by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority now, what do you have in mind?

AVI PAZNER, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: I have in mind massive arrests of hundreds and hundreds of known terrorists, of those who mobilized them, those who prepared them, those who sent them, those who are ready to execute, of the Islamic organization.

There is nothing short of the massive action now that can help the situation. The situation is getting out of hand. Look what is happening in the last few days. We have had, every day, Israelis killed. A total of about 50 Israelis have been killed in the last week alone. And I would like, with your permission, to put it in some proportion, Jerrold.

If we would make a proportion of Israelis killed with the number of people living here, and what happened at the Twin Tower in New York, we would have almost as many people killed here as in the terrorist attack on September the 11th. This is what it means for us. We are now victim of an unprecedented wave of terrorism.

KESSEL: Now you've drawn that parallel there. Some in the Israeli government who draw the parallel on another level are saying that the Palestinian Authority, whether it's directly responsible or not, is definitely indirectly responsible by harboring, they say, the militants and not going after them, and that therefore it is incumbent on this government of Ariel Sharon to go after the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat. Is that what this government, your government has in mind?

PAZNER: Tomorrow -- you know that Ariel Sharon is in Washington today, and he has a very important meeting with President Bush today, and then he comes back, and tomorrow the very first thing he's going to do, he's going to convene a cabinet meeting tomorrow afternoon, and I'm convinced that some minister will raise this question and will put it in the way you put it.

Others will have a different view. I think we'll have to wait now 24 hours in order to know exactly how Israel is going to react, because make no mistake we are going to react.

KESSEL: You're saying for the next 24 hours there will not be Israeli military action?

PAZNER: I did not say that. I did not say that, but the overall reaction can be decided only by the Israeli government. At the present moment, the Prime Minister is not here. Two important ministers who are part of the cabinet are not here.

The Cabinet now can decide on action, even on military action from now until 24 hours, but the overall reaction of Israel will be decided only by the plenary of the cabinet.

KESSEL: We had on CNN just a short while ago a chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, who said that even in the midst, as he condemned very -- in no uncertain terms -- the attacks carried out by the suicide bombers, both in Jerusalem and Haifa, saying that the way out of this, the only way out of this is to go for the political dividend; that the Palestinians want now to stop talking about ending the violence, about ending it right away, and getting a political arrangement.

Why not take them at their word? Why not test Yasser Arafat and say "let's get to the table right away." Scrap all those avenues leading up to negotiations. Get there and put Yasser Arafat on his mettle. Test him. Is he ready to make a deal?

PAZNER: I think this is the height of hypocrisy, what the Palestinians just said. First they kill our children and then they say, "now let's negotiate." This is exactly what they are doing.

I mean, this negotiation -- we were there. Fourteen months ago we were at Camp David. We offered them a Palestinian state. They refused it. Where were they then? Where was Mr. Saeb Erakat then?

Now in that wave of killing, while our dead lie before us, this is what he has to say? He will not say that they are doing whatever they can in order to clamp down on those organizations and prevent that kind of terrorism?

We cannot negotiate as long as our people are being killed in our streets.

KESSEL: Thank you very much, Avi Pazner the Israeli government spokesman.

And there you have it, a very bleak assessment of just where this confrontation, now a very bloody confrontation seems to be heading.

For now, back to you Kyra, as we await that meeting between Mr. Sharon -- Prime Minister Sharon and the president -- President Bush at the White House. Noon it's set for in Washington. Back to you for now.

PHILLIPS: Jerrold, you mentioned a bloody confrontation. I can't help but remember last night, and watching the rolling coverage and seeing the pictures and the emotion and the people affected. Can you just give us a small overview of what did happen on the ground?

We have the pictures rolling now. But just for people tuning in today, just to get a sense of what it was like when this first started happening yesterday at the first two suicide bombings.

KESSEL: It was just before midnight, about 10 minutes to midnight here, at the end of the Jewish Sabbath. This is a time when many young people come out for a post-Saturday evening get-together with friends at restaurants and a small cafe.

This is an area, a pedestrian walkway, a mall -- open-air mall in the heart of West Jerusalem; and it was a crowded area. Many Israelis have resisted going to such crowded places in the wake of the ongoing attacks that there have been in their city.

And I was quite surprised when I drove past the area. It's just about a half an hour or so, as I was on my way home from here in the CNN bureau, seeing there was quite a crowd downtown. And, indeed, the bombers had chosen a time, clearly, when there were (sic) the kind of crowd that they could have the most devastating impact.

And there it was. Not only did the enormous number of casualties occur after the two suicide bombers let off their powerful, powerful bombs, but within minutes after that there was another explosion as the rescue workers were on the site, trying to ferry away the casualties in ambulances. That third explosion from a car bomb, and that proved to be even more lethal.

Back to you, Kyra, for now.

PHILLIPS: All right, Jerrold Kessel, live from Jerusalem. Thank you so much -- Martin.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush is condemning this latest wave of terrorist attacks. He is leaving the Presidential Retreat at Camp David to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House. Now that meeting had been scheduled for tomorrow.

CNN White House Correspondent Major Garrett joins us with more -- Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Martin. Let's go over the schedule. The President due to arrive here at the White House about 11:30 this morning Eastern time.

At noon, he will sit down and meet with Prime Minister Sharon here at the White House. There is no immediate White House reaction to the latest attacks in Haifa.

But on Saturday, the President condemned the attacks in Jerusalem, calling them acts of murder that, in his words "no cause can ever justify" and you can bet the administration will react to the attacks in Haifa with similar revulsion and condemnation.

But it's clear, Martin, that this massive wave of violence against the Israelis is seen by the administration as a crucial and possibly the ultimate test of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's ability to exert control over Palestinian militants.

In his statement yesterday, the President said this and let me quote him directly: "Now more than ever, Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must demonstrate through their actions and not merely their words their commitment to fight terror."

As Jerrold Kessel just reported, this wave of attack comes as the United States has stepped up its efforts to reconnect the Israelis and the Palestinians in security talks. That is the entire mission of retired Marine General Anthony Zinni.

And even before this wave of attacks this weekend, on Friday he accused Palestinian militants of trying to undermine that very mission. Now why are security and cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians so important? The Bush Administration believes until there is some level of calm, you can not get to this political dialog that they believe is so important to achieving a final resolution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

So right now at the White House, the key question is, can Yasser Arafat exert the control necessary over the Palestinian militants, and if he can't, what should be the Israeli reaction? What should be the U.S. reaction? What should be the international community's reaction? Martin.

SAVIDGE: Major, this has to be extremely frustrating for the Bush Administration. They have been making overtures to the PLO, and there was this envoy that was in Israel at the time of these attacks. It just must really be frustrating for them.

GARRETT: Well you can bet, Martin, that a good number of senior officials here at the White House are experiencing the same level of sadness, the same level of frustration that so many of their predecessors have felt here at the White House. You know, when the President took office, he did not take a hands-off approach to the situation. He was involved but he did not want to direct himself or envoys as personally in the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The word from the White House was over and over again, it's up to them to make the hard decisions to move toward peace. But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, there was a good deal of conversation with this White House by top Arab leaders saying "look, you need to be involved more directly."

The Bush Administration heeded that advice and has now involved itself more directly, and what does it find? More violence, more direct challenges not only to Israel's sovereignty, but possibly direct challenges to Yasser Arafat's ability to control and lead the Palestinian movement, all of which make the situation on the ground perilous, dangerous, very violent and incredibly volatile, and a very difficult situation indeed for this president as he tries not only to deal with the situation in Afghanistan in the global campaign against terror, but now more directly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- Martin.

SAVIDGE: It's every bit all of that. Thank you, Major Garrett reporting live from the White House.




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