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Israeli Missiles Hit Near Yasser Arafat's Headquarters

Aired December 3, 2001 - 11:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's quickly bring you up to speed on an unfolding drama in the Middle East right now. We've been watching the pictures right now for almost an hour and a half. Israeli gunships descended on the Palestinian-controlled Gaza City. At least nine, perhaps 10 missiles rained down, maybe more. The target was a sprawling complex that houses the headquarters for Palestinian Yasser Arafat, specifically guard barracks were struck and hangars that house the helicopter fleet that Mr. Arafat uses to traverse the Middle East. Arafat was not in Gaza at the time of the attack.

Palestinian cabinet members telling CNN there was a number of dead and wounded. We have heard from Palestinian emergency officials that there were tens wounded.

The Israeli offensive comes after series of coordinated attacks against Israeli civilians over the weekend. A suicide bombing aboard a city bus in Haifa left 15 Israelis dead, just one of the attacks. Just 12 hours earlier, a pair of suicide bombers killed 10 Israelis. Hamas claimed responsibility for those attacks. We'll talk -- well, we'll have more in a minute as the morning continues.

Now let's turn it over to CNN's Jerrold Kessel who's been watching this from Jerusalem for us.

Jerrold, any word yet on the number of casualties? I know it's difficult to pin these things down in the wake of such attacks.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, still limited information coming from the relief services on the West Bank who are in contact. We haven't been able to get through to the Gaza medical relief services, the Red Crescent there, to get the exact number of causalities. But we did hear from the cabinet minister, saying that there were dead and injured, and we are hearing that at least there were several dozen hundred people hit, but they didn't say whether fatalities or wounded from the emergency services on the West Bank. But it seems to be very difficult to get an exact figures as of this time, and perhaps we'll hope, as our own correspondent Matthew Chance who's been crossing into Gaza gets to the soon, he will be able to verify the numbers more accurately.

O'BRIEN: Jerrold, we were just talking about Ariel Sharon's address to the nation coming up in about an hour and a half from now, which CNN of course will carry live, and we had -- even before the attack this morning, we were talking about the amount of pressure that is on Ariel Sharon to respond, to respond forcefully. Will this answer these calls for pressure? Or are there factions within Israel that will say this is not enough, this is more akin to a pinprick>

KESSEL: Yes, I think there will be those who will say precisely that. They'll say, no, you have to go after Yasser Arafat. We will say that again. That's what the political right is saying to Mr. Sharon very forcefully. We're sick and tired of giving Yasser Arafat a chance, or allowing others to say Yasser Arafat can move, he will move. They say he won't, and it's flogging a dead horse and proving totally illusory to go down that line.

Now Mr. Sharon instinctively doesn't really believe that Yasser Arafat is a peace partner or negotiating partner. However, he is consistently stayed away from the line of the far right and said, we will not get -- we will not conduct any negotiations with Yasser Arafat. He said -- and let's recall that Mr. Sharon met Yasser Arafat way back at the Wye meeting, when under President Clinton concluded under the then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a limited agreement between the Israelis and Palestinian on an interim peace deal.

But Ariel Sharon never shook Yasser Arafat's hand, and he hasn't met Yasser Arafat since. And Ariel Sharon seems to still believe that Yasser Arafat is not a partner, but he's not gone down that line of eradicating the possibility that he might become or become constrained into becoming a partner. Have we crossed that threshold where Ariel Sharon is now saying no, there's no way Yasser Arafat is a future partner, or is he still willing to give it a chance, albeit at the same time he takes the kind of action we've seen now in Gaza. Maybe we'll have some light throne on that as Mr. Sharon addresses the people in about an hour and a half from now.

O'BRIEN: We should tell our viewers that Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli Prime Minister, will be our guest very shortly. We will ask him some questions about this and about what we might expect to hear from Ariel Sharon.

And I'm going to put Jerrold on the spot here a little bit. Can you give us a sense, educate us in advance, if you will, as to what we should and might anticipate hearing from Mr. Sharon, what phrases might be important to listen for?

KESSEL: Yes, I think we need to see if Mr. Sharon now showing that he, too, has absolutely lost patience with the possibility that Yasser Arafat can be a partner. We'll have to read into the kind of phraseology that he uses towards the Palestinian leader. Now he hasn't been shy during the last several months, and particularly in the wake of September 11th, as you were asking from the White House of Major Garrett, who assessed the differences. Ariel Sharon has not been shy, several times of calling Yasser Arafat the head of a coalition of terror, literally a terrorist. He seems to put in that category of the bin Laden. He backed off that over the last couple of months, the last several weeks, and he hasn't gone down that line, constrained by his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to say that doesn't work calling Yasser Arafat, bin Laden or authority the Taliban. And he desisted from doing that lately. We may have him go back into that vogue. That's something to look for in what Mr. Sharon says.

I think the key beyond that is to see that Mr. Sharon, and this I rather expect him to do, to reinforce his view of things that there is a security element, a security element, a security element. The political dimension only comes later. That's the big argument he has with the left wing of government -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Jerrold Kessel in Jerusalem. Let's turn it to Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister.

Mr. Netanyahu, thank you for being with us.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FMR. ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: I can't say a good day, but I'm listening to you.

O'BRIEN: Give us a good sense of what you would like to hear, as an Israeli citizen from Mr. Sharon an hour and a half from now.

NETANYAHU: I'm sure everyone in Israel wants Israel to take resolute action against the Palestinian terror. I think we've learned something since September 11th. We have learned that we have to have more clarity, that nothing justifies terrorism, so we really don't have to count the various Palestinian grievances of why they're allowing this murder to take place.

The second thing that we've returned the only way you fight terror is by going not merely against after the terrorist, but after the regime, the terrorist regime that makes their grizzly work possible. If you are doing that in Afghanistan, you are not going after the Al Qaeda terrorist individually; you are going after the Taliban regime that harbors them, and you know that Al Qaeda at the end will fall in your lap. In fact, that's happening right now.

Similarly, I think we have to tell Arafat we will not go only after the terrorist of Islamic jihad or Hamas or, in fact, the terrorist that operate directly under Yasser Arafat's own command. We are going to go after that regime, your regime, Yasser Arafat, so we will tell you what the American have told the Taliban. Surrender terrorism or surrender power. They didn't surrender terrorism in Afghanistan. You brought them down. That will be, Mr. Arafat, your fate unless you crush terrorism immediately. Now.

O'BRIEN: What about this specific response, Mr. Netanyahu? Will there be a sense within Israel this is measured, too much, too little?

NETANYAHU: Well, I don't know if you take measured action against terrorism. You are not taking measure action in Afghanistan. You are taking, in fact, unmeasured action. You are doing everything you can do tell that regime to refuse to surrender terrorism that you will throw it out. I think you're doing the right thing.

I can't tell you about his specific actions. I see a helicopter now on the screen as we're looking at it. I can tell you from my experience as prime minister that these helicopters -- we have information that they were used to smuggle weapons for terrorists. So I wouldn't be surprised that they're attacked. Maybe there's a message here.

But I think at the end of the day, what Israel should do in the face of terrorism we face is what you are doing in the face of terrorism in Afghanistan. I think what you are doing in Afghanistan is what we should do to Arafat. President Bush is doing the right thing, vis-a-vis the Taliban, and Israel will do the right thing if it does exactly the same thing, vis-a-vis "Arafatastein."

O'BRIEN: "Arafatastein" -- I think we've coined a bit of a word there.

Mr. Netanyahu, I hope you can hear this. We're going to replay a portion of an interview that we had with Saeb Erakat a little while ago. I would like you to respond to that. Listen in for one moment.


SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: This will only complicate matters. This will only breed violence. This will only breed bullets. This will only breed more bloodshed. In order to save lives of Palestinians and Israelis, this must stop, because the only way to save lives of Israelis and Palestinians is not through this language. It can be through the language of peace and negotiations.

If he thinks, if Sharon thinks, he can intimidate the Palestinian people by doing this, I'm afraid to tell him that the only thing he's doing tonight is just the making it more impossible for those of us who want to make peace to move forward. He's hitting, you know, with missiles, with revenge. What will this do? Nothing whatsoever.


O'BRIEN: Mr. Netanyahu, the basic statement is violence begets violence, and this conundrum of violence that the Middle East is faced with is made no better by an attack such as this. How do you respond?

NETANYAHU: This is like having a Taliban spokesman say, oh, there's no point in the American attacks on the Taliban, this will only breed further violence. No, it won't. It will stop the violence the minute the Taliban regime is destroyed. It will stop the violence the minute the next one -- is next regime understands that they too will be thrown out of power.

You know something, right now there is American military action with some consequences in Afghanistan, but I'll bet you, when that regime, the Taliban regime, goes down, I'm willing to make one prediction. I don't know who will govern Afghanistan in the next, five, or 10, or fifteen 20 years, but I guarantee, there won't be a single terrorist act coming out of Afghanistan, because you have now said a very -- you have now imparted a very important lesson to anyone governing that country: You will not practice terrorism against the United States, because you will pay the price. That's the message we have to deliver to Arafat's terrorist dictatorship.

And notwithstanding these softies that have come out from their henchmen in the West, and speaking in the West, and by the way, Arafat is just like bin Laden and just like Taliban, except for one thing. He is a seasoned terrorism, and he has figured out, the way to wage terrorism is you practice terrorism in the east, or the Middle East, and you speak peace in the West. You speak English, you condemn the terrorism in the United States, always explaining that there are reasons why people do this, and Israeli oppression or American oppression or whatever. You sort of condemn tepidly terrorism in English, and you exhort your people in Arabic, where it really counts, to continue the march to destroy Israel.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Netanyahu, there's a lot of talk today about the goal that some would hold to topple the Arafat regime. Are you among those who think that's a good idea?

NETANYAHU: It's not my goal. I think Arafat has to understand, just as the Taliban have to understand, and now do, that would be the inevitable result of their actions. No country would (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for very long the kind of savagery that has been meted out on Israel or indeed on the United States. You just can't accept the fact that neighboring regime that has promised to fight terrorism, that has been given in the case of Arafat 50,000 guns to fight terrorist, is using that -- those weapons to in fact launch terrorism against, then you have to take action. It not only your right, but your obligation.

I think the moment of truth has arrived. Either Arafat -- I think this is what Israel should tell him, and I think it should be backed by the United States and the free world. Stop terrorism, surrender terrorism or surrender power, and believe me, if there is a chance, by the way, that Arafat's regime will survive as paradoxically only the -- if the United States and Israel give that message in unison, then he might get it through his head that the kind of deceptions he uses, taking in a few dozen terrorists, pretending he's actually acting against terrorism, and sending various spokesman to the west to plead his case. I think he'll realize that the jig is up, that he has got to actually do something. And believe me, if he doesn't do something; we have to do something -- we have to take him out, because it turns out more and more that Arafat is the problem. Not the solution.

O'BRIEN: Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli Prime Minister, thank you very much for your time, sir.

Let's turn it now to CNN's Matthew Chance. When Last spoke with him, he was at a checkpoint trying to make his way from Israeli- controlled territory into Gaza. We believe he's made it. Matthew, where are you? And what do you see?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In the area at the border crossing, which leads from Israeli proper into the Gaza strip, have managed to negotiate through the guards, through the barriers there. I'm standing now in the center of Gaza City, and I can tell you, it is strikingly normal here considering, or at least as normal as it can be here in Gaza City.

There's a lot of traffic on the roads, a lot of cars moving up and down the street, a lot of people on the streets as well. No sense of kind of panic following the helicopter gunship strikes from the Israeli Air Force on those positions of Palestinian presidential headquarters that we witnessed on live television.

There has been some word from Palestinian officials on the outcome of those strikes. We are hearing, of course, that at least two helicopters were destroyed on the ground, along with the helicopter pad. One of the scenes you saw involved ambulances screeching through the streets of Gaza City, implying degree of casualties, word from Palestinian officials that there are at least 10 wounded people as a result of those Israeli helicopter gunship strikes on the Gaza Strip. It's not clear at this stage, though, whether been any deaths, but certainly that's the kind of information we've been chasing up.

Now there have of course been consultations throughout the course of today with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister and senior figures in his administration. There is an address to the nation scheduled by Ariel Sharon in about two hours from now. So hopefully, that will spell out exactly what he has in mind for this latest military action. But clearly, what we've been seeing over the course of the past few hours is an indication that this is serious, that the military action will continue to be strong -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: For the benefit of our viewers, CNN will carry that address 12:30 Eastern Time. I've got to ask you, Matthew. You said there's no panic. I suspect there must be a fair amount of anger. Have you had a sense of that?

CHANCE: Well, I've already managed to speak to a couple of people in the few minutes in the city. Certainly there is anger that the Israelis would do this, would yet again strike using helicopter gunships on Gaza City. There is also a degree, though, that this has happened so many times in the past that they are simply not scared in anymore. This is the kind of normality that the people of the Gaza Strip have learned to endure, they've seen strikes on their installations, on their military installations, on their police installations, several times in the past, and it doesn't appear to have shaken them at this stage, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Matthew, perhaps the most provocative statement I heard all morning was the head of Palestinian emergency services, making the very stunning allegation that Israeli attack helicopter actually aimed at civilians in the streets around the compound. Do you have any way of verifying that independently one way or another?

CHANCE: Well, it's difficult for us to say at this stage, because we haven't actually got to the presidential compound itself. Having said that, from the images that we've been seeing, from the reports we're getting from Palestinian officials as well as journalist in the scene. It does appear that what were targeted and what was struck were installations, the helipads were destroyed next to the presidential headquarters compound. Helicopters themselves were mentioned, were destroyed, too, as well as a number of guard houses surrounding those installations, that may have resulted in the casualties. Certainly, I haven't seen any evidence at this stage that civilian areas were being targeted, although I haven't seen any evidence otherwise either. I'm checking that out as we speak. O'BRIEN: Matthew, might be worth pointing out as we are talking about some of the logistics here and your locations, give us a little a sense of the geography, this narrow strip of land we call Gaza, and how it is juxtaposed against Israel, how close it is to everything, and how far away you are from this compound.

CHANCE: Well, the Gaza strip, of course, a very isolated stretch of land along the Mediterranean Coast of Israel, of the Palestinian territories. It's an isolated strip of land. It's isolated from the other Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank. It's about 75 kilometers from Jerusalem, about 60 miles or perhaps less, and it is constantly subject to -- sealed off the Israeli authority. They controlled all the exits from the Gaza Strip. It has a border with Egypt. That's sealed off at times as well, by the Israelis, as well as the main exit and entry points into Israel proper, of course, crucial for the Gaza Strip to survive. A lot of its population or employees inside Israel proper. There is not a great deal of employment in the Gaza Strip itself. It's economy has been shattered over the years, since it was given -- handed into the authority of the Palestinian Authority.

And so it's a very vulnerable strip of land, really just the western corner of Israel proper.

O'BRIEN: Matthew, you spent a lot of time in the region, and those of us who haven't spent as much time as you know that Yasser Arafat is a bit itinerant. When we say it is his headquarters and his residence, he's apt to be any number of places on any moment. Let me just throw this one supposition at you. Do you have the sense that Israel knew full well what it was attacking, what its targets were in this case, and that Yasser Arafat was not there?

CHANCE: Yes, I think it's pretty clear. I don't think there is any secret, in fact, that Yasser Arafat was not in Gaza City. He's made no secret of the fact that he's currently in Ramallah in the West Bank some distance from the Gaza Strip itself. Also remember that Israeli intelligence services also have very detailed information about the movements of senior figures in the Palestinian Authority. They would have known for sure that Yasser Arafat wasn't in this building. So I don't think we can interpret this attack as some kind of an assassination attempt on Yasser Arafat. But clearly, as the Israeli government has spelled out, in the last few hours, this was meant to send a very clear message to Yasser Arafat, that unless you get serious about arresting members of militant Islamic groups, like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, that he will be held accountable, Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Matthew Chance in Gaza on his way to what you're seeing right there, which is the burning portion of compound headquarters, residence of Yasser Arafat, Palestinian Authority. According to Israel, the targets there, the helicopters, and the guards surrounding that area around the helicopter pads. A bit of symbolism around that. Those helicopters mean free and easy travel in and around the Middle East for Yasser Arafat. As soon as he gets closer with more information for us on the casualties and extent of damage, we will check back in with him.

Let's turn it back now to Israel, to Gideon Mayer, who is an official at the Israeli foreign ministry.

Mr. Mayor, thank you for being with us.


O'BRIEN: If you could just give us a sense, this frequent talk we're hearing equating Yasser Arafat with terrorism. It seems to up the level of rhetoric, the rhetoric on both sides being very heated at the moment. Is it a mistake? Is it a good idea for Israel to be equating Yasser Arafat with the likes of Osama bin Laden?

MAYER: You didn't hear from us this equation.

I mean, Yasser Arafat must make a strategic decision: whether he is on the side of those fighting terrorism, or he is on the side of those who are really encouraging terrorism. Until now, Yasser Arafat proved to us and to the world that he's actually on the side of those who are encouraging terrorism by the fact that for the past seven years, since the Oslo process started, the man is inciting again and again and again, and he's not making the real strategic decision, which is expected from him, to join the forces who are fighting terrorism. He must understand -- and maybe he does not -- that on September 11th, the world has were no patience and tolerance for those who are terrorist, or harboring terrorists.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Mayer, would this attack not have happened if it were not for the attacks on September 11th? Has that changed fundamentally Israeli tactics and strategy?

MAYER: I don't think it changed Israeli strategy, because Israel is fighting terrorism from the day of its inception. For the past 54 years, we have been fighting Palestinian terrorism. Palestinian terrorism didn't start in 1967 after the six-day war. Palestinian terrorism started from the day one that Israel was created. Palestinian terrorism was there before '48 and '67, when Israel not in territories at all. There was no occupation. There was no settlement. There was nothing there that could have created a Palestinian state, but instead they decided to launch terrorists attacks on Israel, and you know why, because at the end of the day, for them, it is all or nothing, and all or nothing mean all of the state of Israel.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Mayer, the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the series of attacks, the suicide attacks which killed 26 people in Israel, rounded up 110 suspected Hamas militants, Islamic Jihad militants. That to me sounds like a crackdown on the face of it. Is it not?

MAYER: Can you repeat the second part of question.

O'BRIEN: The question is, it sounds like a crackdown to many of us here in the U.S. Was it a crackdown? Why is it not enough?

MAYER: What Yasser Arafat is actually doing, he is winking and arresting, arresting and winking. This is a fairy tale Arafat style. He is not really arresting. If he wanted to arrest, there's a will. There is also a way to arrest the people. You don't do it in front of cameras. This was a show to the world, because he wanted a two-day quiet after the massive terrorist attacks in Israel. He knows after two days of -- two days after this kind of terrorist attack, the world political opinion against him, but about 24 hours, 48 hours, it all settles, and then he will return to normal.

We must make clear to him, as well as Europe, as well as American administration, that this will not be tolerated, that he must make this arrests immediately, and the sooner the better.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Mayor, before you get away, I've got to ask you this one point which keeps sticking in my head. Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, saying that more violence similarly leads to more violence. How do you respond to that, this cycle of violence continues on?

MAYER: I don't think it's a cycle of violence. I think it's a violence which started for one side after committing the interest of Arafat to have the violence, proving this day after day. It's against our interests. I don't see any interest -- what violence -- what Israeli interests does violence serve? For us it is to one thing: to go back to negotiating table. Our prime minister already stated that Israel will make very painful decisions, concessions to the Palestinian, but you know, when we talk about negotiations, compromise is from two sides; you need two sides for tango.

O'BRIEN: Gideon Mayer, is an official with the Israeli foreign minister. Thank you very much for spending some time with us, sir. We appreciate it.




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