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Israeli Helicopters Attack Arafat's Compound in Gaza

Aired December 3, 2001 - 06:40   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We have some breaking news out of the Middle East to share with you now. Witnesses for CNN are confirming that Israeli helicopter gunships have fired nine missiles near Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Gaza City, in apparent retaliation for the weekend suicide bombings by Islamic militants. White smoke is being described as rising from the air as a Palestinian security force ran away from the area under attack. Ambulance raced to the scene, sirens blaring.

We are told that advisers to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had predicted harsh military strikes in response to the attacks which, of course, killed more than two dozen people. Let's go to Jerrold Kessel, who is on the ground in Jerusalem with more information on that. Is there anything you can add to that Jerrold?

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't know whether this is the beginning of a broad-scale Israeli military attack in response to the series of suicide bombings, or a one of attack. That's not yet clear. But what is quite clear, that Israeli helicopter gunships have been firing missiles at targets very close to the headquarters of -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. This is his sea-side headquarters -- in Gaza City.

Now, I should point out that Mr. Arafat is not, in fact, in Gaza at the moment but in -- his headquarters in Ramallah on the West Bank. But we are understanding that perhaps the target, as you see some of the flares are coming up, perhaps firing at the helicopters -- at the Israeli helicopters, the target might have been the helicopter landing pad near Mr. Arafat's compound, office compound, at -- on the seashore of Gaza. And that that was the target -- this is also a place where the presidential guard of Mr. Arafat is normally located.

And there are no -- not as yet any accounts of damage or casualties, but it could be, as reports are coming in, that it was some of the helicopters which normally ferry Mr. Arafat around that may have been his target down there in Gaza City. As I say, not yet clear whether there is the start of a broad campaign that the Israelis might have decided on in response to that terror assault with the series of suicide bombings, or simply a one of action.

Prime Minister Sharon arrived back from the United States after he had met with President Bush yesterday, went into an immediate huddle with his top security officials and -- and then, may or may not have taken action in response to the plans laid out by the security officials. Paula.

ZAHN: It's extraordinary to watch this unfold live before our eyes. Jerrold, as you talk, we are hearing the blaring of sirens, of course. You reported that Yasser Arafat is in Ramallah. One would expect the Palestinians would have thought that this area in Gaza would have been hit. Is there any suggestion they moved their leadership out in advance of this?

KESSEL: No, I don't think that that is at this case -- is the case in this instance. Mr. Arafat has been in Ramallah over the last several days. He does hop between Ramallah and Gaza holding various kinds of meetings there.

Now, one of the things I think we should take into account here. There has been a gathering of momentum on the Israeli political right for at least raising the question of whether the Israelis -- whether Israel should like to target and, in fact, maybe even topple, the administration of Yasser Arafat in the wake of those suicide bombings by the Palestinian militant. That debate is very much raging, and this could factor into that debate of whether its pressure on Yasser Arafat, pressure on his administration.

Whether they were actually sending a signal or warning, that they are going to pressure very hard, and that this could be -- the factor that comes into that, rather than to the extent of actually going off to the leadership in person. Paula.


ZAHN: -- cabinet members in Ariel Sharon's government that are recommending just that, the toppling of his -- yeah.

KESSEL: The big question is now, is this really part -- sorry, I didn't get you, Paula.

ZAHN: Oh, go ahead. We mentioned that already on board are seven cabinet members of Ariel Sharon who are suggesting that you topple Yasser Arafat. Realistically, how do you topple him?

KESSEL: Well, it's a very good question, and it's a kind of question which will clearly be put to those ministers who are trying to pressure Mr. Sharon to go down that avenue, not only what do you do, do you pressure him to the extent that he has go into exile, do you actually go after him and his leading ministers, what does it mean it topple the Palestinian administration?

Now, those who are against it in the Israeli government and perhaps to the center to the left say this is a ridiculous notion, because you're not going to wipe out the Palestinian Authority, and if you do, you are only going to get a much more extreme power struggle in the Palestinian community, perhaps bringing in those very radicals who you say you are targeting. So, there is that debate unfolding in Israel, but at the same time it's true that even as they say, well, let's target Arafat, the right wing, what they mean to say is he's not a partner, he's not conceivably a partner, and we don't need to take him into account. Those are the two options that the Israeli political system is looking at at this moment, and it really is -- it will be crucial to see which side Mr. Sharon comes down on. Paula.

ZAHN: Jerrold, I want you to stand by and explain to the folks who are just joining us what they are looking at here. CNN is confirming that Israeli helicopter gunships have fired nine missiles near Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Gaza City. Jerrold Kessel, our correspondent on the ground in Jerusalem, confirming that, in fact, Yasser Arafat is in Ramallah, where he has been the last several days. Jerrold, let's come back to the question of this debate. It -- it seems the issue that was raised in the States was an issue posed by William Saffire in the "New York Times, " where he said, basically, his advice is let this civil war play out, and then worry about coming to a realistic political solution. Did that idea have much resonance there?

KESSEL: That -- absolutely reverberates with a lot of people on the Israeli right, because they say, listen, we've tried to make a deal with Arafat. That's their argument. And it doesn't work. He's not ever going to go down the line of a political negotiations. He doesn't want to lead to a -- to what the United States outlined as their future vision of a peaceful Palestine alongside Israel. That isn't what Yasser Arafat is intending. Therefore, let the chips fall as they may. Let's have, if it's not a civil war, but at least the unfolding of a -- events within Palestine, which cou -- within the Palestinian community, which could lead to a different kind of leadership emerging.

That's the argument being advanced by many on the right, and it comes out of this frustration, in a sense, on the Israeli side that other security measures, other security pressures that they put on to the Palestinians haven't worked, and you've had these kind of secur -- these kind of bombings over the last couple of days, with such devastating impact inside Israel. I think it's very interesting to point out the fact that this debate factors into the Israeli psyche at the moment. Israelis, to a degree, are really feeling that their whole existence is under threat. That they're facing an existential threat, if you like, by these Palestinian bombings.

But as the same time, as they say, we're under threat, they transfer that and say the argument is not over whether the future of Israel is in doubt, but whether the future of that Palestinian entity is in doubt. And that's the question, that's the -- the psychological environment in which this debate is going on, if you like, and as much of a factor as the political and military debate that's unfolding now in Israel, on how to relate to Yasser Arafat. Paula.

ZAHN: Jerrold, please stand by. We're going to continue to try to bring people up to date on what they're looking at. This is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters. We're not sure what portion of it is on fire at this hour. We know that -- some of his security personnel were seen by witnesses running away from the area under attack. Joining us on the telephone, Jerrold, stand by, because I want you to react to this, is a Palestinian cabinet member on the phone, apparently he was a Palestinian Authority. We're going to come back to him.

But Jerrold, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister of Israel, was a guest on our show this morning, and he talked about the fact that there are a number of Palestinians waiting in the wings who believe that Yasser Arafat's days are numbered politically. Are there any particular Palestinian leaders that the Israeli community is looking to as a potential successor to Yasser Arafat if he loses power?

KESSEL: That's a curious debate, but it does happen in Israel. There, the Israelis say across the spectrum, indeed, of those who say, Arafat is -- he's just not going to work. There's not going to be any kind of really serious deal with Yasser Arafat. So they say, well, there are another generation of leaders.

We've been hearing this for weeks now from the military intelligence people, from some in the political community saying, you know, there are much more moderate voices out there who are getting fed up within the Palestinian community that Yasser Arafat isn't acting. That Yasser Arafat isn't taking decisive -- decisions, that he's straddling both sides of this game, as they say. On the one hand, allowing the Intifada operations, including military operations, to go on against Israel in the West Bank, in Gaza, and inside Israel and on the other, seeking to go along with the efforts to get a cease- fire and the efforts to get political negotiations going.

And it -- there are those voices in -- among Palestinians, but whether they are at the level, to the degree that if Arafat was suddenly to disappear, would they surface and come about and adopt that kind of policy that's really reaching in a way that the Israelis sometimes do. Perhaps if -- if Yasser Arafat were literally to disappear, one day, then you might have that debate.

But the debate as it is now, is totally unrealistic. In Palestinian terms, there is only one Yasser Arafat who is capable of leading Palestinians. Not to say, of course, that he was not elected, he was. He is the elected president of this Palestinian community within the West Bank and Gaza. And to -- to embark on a policy as Mr. Netanyahu and other Israelis have -- have suggested are saying, let's shift him aside and get someone else in, it just seems to be totally unrealistic, and out of tune with the facts on the ground, even if there are some voices that differ from Yasser Arafat's strategy.

ZAHN: In fact, we had Palestinian negotiator -- legislator Hanan Ashrawi on earlier this morning that suggests it was pure arrogance on the Israelis part to be talking about future Palestinian leadership. Jerrold, I need for you provide for us now, for the folks just joining us, context for this shot we're watching. We know Israeli helicopter gunships hit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters. Palestinian security forces are now confirming that Arafat's helicopter was damaged in this attack. Describe to us, exactly how many buildings we're talking about here, and what the headquarters houses.

KESSEL: Well -- well, what -- what, if I can gauge from the pictures, of course, we're not down there, so we don't know exactly where they've hit. But Yasser Arafat had this -- has this complex right on the Mediterranean, a very impressive position right on -- overlooking the Mediterranean. He has his own main headquarters, his own offices. Alongside that, there are some subsidiary offices of the Palestinian administration. The Palestinian television center down in Gaza. And just about 100 yards up the -- up the hill, it's a little hill, there is this helicopt -- helipad where Mr. Arafat's helicopters are normally stationed. And just beyond that, there's an area where some of the members of the personal guard of the Palestinian Authority president are normally billeted (ph). And, from what we are gauging, it could be they were aiming at the helicopters and literally to take them out of commission.

Now, that in itself is a significant act. If it proves to be so, then this will be something that the Israelis have often hinted they may go -- the line they may go down, the threat that they have -- that they have often made, we will prevent Yasser Arafat the kind of freedom of movement that he has had throughout -- not just the last 14 months of the disturbances and the violence, and the -- during the Intifada, but ever since he came back with -- at the head of the Palestinian administration back in the mid 90's.

And that is, to travel with his helicopters, which were provided to him, originally, by the Egyptians, to go around to neighboring Arab states, travel beyond, and so forth, and provide him with the freedom of movement, not only to go between Gaza and the West Bank at will, but to travel around and to broaden the kind of scope of support and backing and consultation that Mr. Arafat has always tried to do in building up his position and his strategy, and this could be a very significant move. If they have stopped him flying by taking out his helicopters, it will take an international move to provide him with more to enable him to go on traveling. If not, Arafat will be stuck, perhaps now, even in Ramallah.

ZAHN: Jerrold, we are going to take a short pause here and re- rack our tape to just about ten minutes ago when we got the first indications that Israeli helicopter gunships were firing on the headquarters. We have yet to get any information on the number of casualties and the number of potential deaths. Give us a sense on any given day how many people might be working here at the headquarters?

KESSEL: Well, Gaza City, of course, is a very, very big place. It's a sprawling -- a sprawling metropolis almost. The whole of the Gaza Strip has around a million-plus people. And -- at least half and more are in Gaza city itself. Now this seaside area that I described, which was the complex of the Palestinian Authority premises, Mr. Arafat's offices, his own personal residence and many residences of the top officials in the Palestinian administration, are mostly there in this area of, I would say, probably 20 square blocks in the city sides on Gaza City.

It's a rambling sea-front area. Very beautiful, by the way. And it is that area where the main headquarters, you could say, the Palestinian authority in Gaza is located with all the offices of the different administrative arms of the Palestinian authority. And if the kind of number of people who have been working there, well, it's a guess of thousands, perhaps, at most. Officials and so forth and support staff. And, as I say, that area just beyond where some of the members of the presidential guard are billeted (ph).

ZAHN: Jerrold, stand by. We're going to try to get on the phone right now. Nabil Sha'ath, who is a Palestinian cabinet member. Sir, where are you right now?

NABIL SHA'ATH, PALESTINIAN CABINET MEMBER: I am very close to where the bombing is taking place now. Apache helicopters have just attacked all the compound of President Arafat, destroyed his two helicopters and plowed under his helipad here. His only mode of transportation that the Israelis will allow in between here and the West Bank and the rest of the world. They have destroyed also barracks of his personal guard. And actually, there are many killed and injured. They were just -- they were just actually preparing for the Iftar meal, the break of the Ramadan fasting, which is the sun has just set and many of his guards were around the tables waiting to have their only meal of the day.

ZAHN: How many people were inside the headquarters at the time of this attack?

SHA'ATH: I don't know. And the headquarters itself of President Arafat has not been bombarded, but his guard residences and his helicopters and his helipad and all the area around it, including -- encampings for his guards.

ZAHN: So what you are saying, as far as you can tell, the headquarters themselves have not been touched?

SHA'ATH: No, no, but a lot of destruction in support services for the President including his only helicopters.

ZAHN: Sir, this doesn't come as any surprise to you, does it?

SHA'ATH: Unfortunately not, because this is the cycle of violence that the Israelis have led every time, and going through the cycles of violence really produces absolutely no solution, nothing but agony for the two sides. And unfortunately, some of our people were drawn into these cycles, and that's what we have been trying very much to restrict and stop. It will be very difficult to continue.

ZAHN: Well, it obviously -- it obviously didn't work over the weekend. How would you characterize the slaughter of innocent Israelis in three separate attacks?

SHA'ATH: Equally. Equally. I look at it equally. And I say, after the assassination of Minister Zeevi of Israel, the Israelis killed 150 Palestinians. And as a result of that, 27 innocent Israelis were killed. Where are we going from here? If the Israelis today are going to avenge those killed at the same ratio they used to kill Palestinians after the Zeevi assassination, we really are going to have a catastrophe on both sides.

ZAHN: So, what is your explanation for how Islamic Jihad and the other terrorist groups operating out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are carrying these off? Why hasn't Yasser Arafat been able to stop them? SHA'ATH: If you have been in a country that has been occupied by another, this is something the United States has never experienced, I pray to God it will never -- never do, you'll see that the dynamics of fighting off an invasion of another country involves a lot of people, and to act as a policeman between those that are fighting with you, even when they use wrong tactics, it's a very difficult matter when you are attack from an occupation force. And this is the political dilemma Mr. Mitchell wanted to stop by producing a document that would ask the two parties to stop, therefore giving us the political empowerment to arrest everybody and anybody that defies our cease fire and defies our orders and that --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello? Matthew Chance is coming. Hello?

ZAHN: We just lost Nabil Sha'ath on the phone. Is Jerrold Kessel with us as we close out this hour? Is he still with us from Jerusalem?

KESSEL: Yes, yes --

ZAHN: Jerrold, just some --

KESSEL: Yes I am, Paula.

ZAHN: -- final thoughts as I hand this next hour over to Miles O'Brien, on the significance of what we are witnessing. I don't think you or I have had the chance to talk about what Colin Powell said over the weekend, or President Bush. What is significant is this time they did not urge the Israelis to practice any kind of restraint.

KESSEL: Well, you took the words out of my mouth. I think that was, perhaps, the most significant thing that happened over the weekend. In terms of the responses that there might be to the horrendous attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa, that in the past, over the 14 months, when there have been such attacks, even inside Israel, even with the enormous loss of life, the United States has not always said to Israel you can't do anything, but it's cautioned them and said restraint, restraint, let's have a degree of restraint, a more measured response. It came after the bombing of that discotheque down in Tel Aviv back in the middle of the year, in which 20 young Israelis were killed.

Even after the assassination of the right wing tourism minister, there was an element there of allowing the Israelis for a time -- because they went in and reoccupied six Palestinian towns on the West Bank -- there was a degree of acquiesce by the United States, but, very quickly after that, the international community said you must move out of those towns quickly.

This time, at least what we heard from the Israeli side, was that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Powell were not saying to the Israelis restraint. It is what you decide to do, and it will be accepted.

We should see if this is acceptable in the United States' vision of things given the nature of the horrendous attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa and the fact that, at the same time, there is the pressure on Yasser Arafat to act, and is the acting enough? We are really in the midst of a process, rather than almost not even at the beginning of one and seeing whether this is just a one-time action that the Israelis are doing, and with significance of going after the helicopters, or is part of a pattern and there may be many more kind of military actions to the degree that they will be really trying to pressure Mr. Arafat, if not even to try to topple his administration -- the start of a very delicate military maneuver, I think.

ZAHN: It is interesting that you should say that, because we are being handed a piece of information from CNN where they are saying that the Israelis do not want to destroy or crush his Palestinian authority, but as you just saw, I think Nabil Sha'ath, who is a Palestinian Cabinet member, probably gave us our best description, because neither you nor I are on the ground there, and he's not far from where this happened. He said it is his understanding that headquarters weren't hit, but it was some of the surrounding buildings that housed the guards, the helipad was hit; the helicopters, as we know, he said, were destroyed.

So we are just getting our first sense of the significance of this attack. Jerrold, he was confirming that there have been deaths, casualties. That was once again Nabil Sha'ath. But we have no independent confirmation of that.

Before I hand this over to Miles, do you have any word on potential casualties or death here?

KESSEL: No. We are trying to get people in Gaza, but we haven't been able. A number of the phones apparently are down in that particular area where we have contacts, where we had difficulty establishing the contact. As soon as we do have any authority of word, even on the extent of the damage or of casualties or fatalities, we shall certainly update you with that.

ZAHN: Jerrold Kessel thank you so much for reacting so swiftly to what we are watching on live television.

Miles, we are going to stay with you on this shot as I hand over the program to you. These are not live shots right now. We have reracked the tape from about 12, maybe 15 minutes ago, when the first reports came through of the helicopters gunships striking this area in and around Yasser Arafat's headquarters -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you very much, Paula.

It's probably worth recapping at this moment for our viewers who may be just joining us from around the world. The cycle of violence continues in the Middle East, as we see these pictures which aired live on CNN just moments ago. Some breaking news out of the Middle East, Israel, using helicopter gunships, fires in and around the headquarters of Yasser Arafat in Gaza City, on the coast of the Mediterranean. These pictures brought to you just moments eye go. At least nine missiles fired at the compound, perhaps more. No word yet on casualties. And CNN's Jerrold Kessel has been tracking this with us.

Jerrold, do we know the whereabouts of Yasser Arafat?

KESSEL: Yes, Miles, Yasser Arafat is, as he has been for the last several days, in the West Bank town of Ramallah. That's just about 10 to 15 miles north of Jerusalem. He has his headquarters there when he is in the West Bank this. The area here that was targeted is that compound on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, right on the shoreline, where Mr. Arafat has his own personal office, the main administration buildings of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian television broadcasts out of Gaza, and just about 100 yards or so to the north, along the sea shore and up a little bit of an incline, there's a helicopter pad, from where Mr. Arafat was wont to take off and fly to surrounding areas or surrounding neighboring countries, or to the one airport in Gaza, the southern part of Gaza strip, or across to the West Bank, where is he now.

As we were saying before, if this is a strike -- and pointedly, we've had just one one-time statement from the Israeli military spokesman saying a confirmation that Israeli helicopters struck out and hit one helicopter. That was all of the Israelis, in a very bland statement, would confirm, not elaborating on that, not saying anything further on that.

But the significance of the fact that, as Nabil Sha'ath, a Palestinian planning minister and one of the top officials in Mr. Arafat's administration was stressing, this is a very important strategic move of cutting, literally, Mr. Arafat's wings. Israelis, in a sense, have threatened to do so several times in the past 15 months, limiting the degree of travel he could go into. But this might be the practical way of saying Yasser Arafat, you're stuck; you cannot move around -- go operate from the territory where you are.

O'BRIEN: Jerrold, as you have you been talking, we have been seeing videotape on the ground there, in Gaza City, and you get a sense from seeing this, at the gates for compound, that it is a rather sprawling compound, indeed. Do you get the sense from the preliminary reports that these attacks were very directed at a specific location within the compound?

KESSEL: I think so. From what I could gauge, my knowledge of the area, I think this does seem to be that area to the north of the main office of the Yasser Arafat, that helicopter pad area around that; that's on a little hill, and there are some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) where some of the presidential guard of Mr. Arafat are billeted. That does seem to be the area, from what I can gauge. It is difficult to see. And now it's getting dark down there in Gaza as well. It is difficult to see exactly where those fires are and the smoke is coming out from. But it does seem to be a specific area those Israeli helicopters -- and we understand from the reports there that there were nine or ten missiles in all that were fired -- that that was their target.

That one-line statement from the Israeli military suggests that was their target, that was there objective. Their overall purpose maybe we shall hear from Prime Minister Sharon. He is due to address the Israeli people in a nation-wide, televised address in just about 2 1/2 hours from now, which we hope to be carrying also on CNN. And perhaps that's in advance of a full-blown Israeli government meeting, which Mr. Sharon, at least as it was billed to us, would lay out the openings the military laid out for him this morning, on his return from the United States, of what might be the policy that the Israeli military were advocating in terms of handling the challenge thrown out by this spate of suicide bombings by the Palestinian militants.

O'BRIEN: Jerrold, a lot of anticipation about what the retaliation might be. Certainly, it was swift, and certainly it takes things to a new level. In the past, Israel has struck Palestinian targets and certainly sent messages on the outskirts of where Arafat frequents. This is the next level, I guess. Is this something that many had predicted inside Israel in advance of this attack?

KESSEL: Certainly, closer to the bone, you can say that. Predicted, I don't know, but certainly, there has been a considerable debate that has raged for the past year. In a way, all that has been an undercurrent, and now it has begun to rage in the last few days, in the wake of the suicide bombings. But with many Israelis, particularly on the real right of the political spectrum, saying we ought to be done with Yasser Arafat, and advocating to Mr. Sharon to go in with a real military plan that either makes Yasser Arafat and his immediate administration unimportant or leads it his toppling.

That has been an argument, whether that is the strategic objective now of the Sharon government or of Mr. Sharon himself, or implemented by the Israeli army -- another matter; we shall have to wait and see. It's too early to say whether that is a strategic objective that the Israelis have now firmly latched on to.




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