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Israeli Strikes Palestinian Security Offices

Aired December 14, 2001 - 11:32   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Once again watching the temperature rise in the Middle East, specifically in Gaza. A few moments ago, we saw a picture of nightfall, of another explosion. We are told that Israeli airstrikes have continued on certain targets there in Gaza.

Matthew Chance, by telephone, is in Gaza City, with us now.

Matthew, what are you seeing from your perspective right now?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Bill, within the last few minutes or so, we have been seeing a resumption of the Israeli airstrikes on various installations here in Gaza City, the kind of airstrikes we have been witnessing from opposition here in Gaza for the last three consecutive nights. The first reports we're getting out of the area where that explosion was seen are that the Arafat police headquarters in the center of Gaza City have been struck again, for the third consecutive night. As we speak to you now, there are Israeli warplanes flying high, flying on the skies.

You can hear another explosion has just gone off. I don't know whether you can hear what I can hear, on this telephone line, but another explosion has just shaken the city here in Gaza. All of the children out on the streets began cheering as that explosion went off, cheering in defiance. Over the past three nights, we have been seeing the Israeli security forces striking at targets and installations associated not just with the Palestinian National Authority, but also with Yasser Arafat himself.

Many of the people we've spoken to here in Gaza said they are extremely frightened about the nighttime coming, the prospect of more strikes. It looks like the people of Gaza tonight will have to brace themselves perhaps for another sleepless night -- Bill.

HEMMER: Matthew, as we are talking, we can see the video image. We saw that explosion quite clearly back here.

Can you tell us, based on your knowledge of the city, about possibly what's being targeted?

CHANCE: Well, it's a very densely populated city. There are a lot of government institutions, institutions of the Palestinian National Authority, very close to civilian residential areas. But certainly, the pattern of the targeting that we have been seeing over the past week or so since these Israeli airstrikes began, following that weekend of suicide attacks in Jerusalem and in Haifa -- if you remember that was the weekend before last -- what we have been seeing is the targets that have been singled out for destruction by Israeli warplanes have been installations, buildings, that have been the property of the Palestinian security forces. We have been seeing police stations hit, naval installations. So targets linked closely to the Palestinian Authority.

We have also been seeing Yasser Arafat's presidential compound being struck repeatedly, several times, many buildings in that simply laid waste to the ground -- Bill.

HEMMER: Matthew, based on your experience in the Middle East, you may quite remember here in the past sometimes when there was military action by the Israeli government, sometimes the Israeli military called in advance to let Palestinians know what they were going to hit, to get people out of the building and not cause any injury or harm. Is that the case now, or has that been completely overlooked?

CHANCE: I don't know whether there were any contacts at the highest levels between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.

Certainly, the people on the streets here in Gaza are unaware. When these strikes come, they seem to come unexpectedly, out of the blue. Certainly, that's been the pattern of the past three nights or so.

What we have been seeing, though, is the members of the security forces evacuating their buildings as a matter of routine over the past week. None of them stay inside the buildings they're supposed to be in. The police are all out onto the streets. The army units have come out and have left their buildings behind, simply because, they say, it is too risky for them to stay inside the buildings with these airstrikes or possibility of airstrikes hanging over them constantly -- Bill.

HEMMER: Matthew, quickly, do you know the whereabouts of Yasser Arafat? Has that been reported in any circle?

CHANCE: I think it is no secret that Yasser Arafat is still in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Certainly, he's has not come back to Gaza in the last week or so, since the Israeli airstrikes started happening here in Gaza. So he is still very much holed up in his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, to the best of our knowledge.

HEMMER: Matthew, thanks. Matthew Chance by telephone in Gaza.

Let's continue to look this image and bring in Rob Sobhani, a professor of Georgetown University, with us live in Washington. He was with us yesterday also at the conclusion of that Osama bin Laden videotape.

Professor can you hear me?


HEMMER: Good morning to you.

SOBHANI: Good morning.

HEMMER: We are seeing another explosion. It is still live. The explosions continue here.

Professor, about an hour ago, President Bush said Yasser Arafat, now is his time to perform. How do you see this going forward right now, knowing that the attacks continue on behalf of the Israeli military and knowing there are retaliation strikes on both sides against citizens?

SOBHANI: I think, Bill, as this cycle of violence escalates and Arafat becomes increasingly marginalized, the fundamental danger here is that the vacuum will be quickly filled by Islamic fundamentalists. Keep in mind, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are all supported financially, morally, and otherwise militarily by the government of Iran. A few weeks ago, the Iranian government met with these groups. Their goal is to create an Islamic form of government in the West Bank and Gaza. That's the danger with this escalating violence.

HEMMER: As we continue to look at this picture, we saw another explosion there in Gaza. We are going to stay on this as long as we can here.

If no one is talking to Yasser Arafat from the Israeli side, who is, professor?

SOBHANI: I think the Israeli calculation is that they lost a partner in Yasser Arafat and are looking beyond Yasser Arafat, frankly. I think as far as Sharon and the Israeli government are concerned, they need to find another partner. Their calculation is that Arafat is not a partner. The danger, however, with that, as I said, is that to the extent that Arafat becomes marginalized, the street takes over, and the street, for the most part, could possibly be controlled by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That could be an even greater danger for security of Israeli and Israelis.

HEMMER: You know it is a boiling pot. The temperature rises daily now. We have seen the past two weeks go in that direction. Can Gen. Zinni do anything a U.S. envoy on the ground there?

Another explosion. We are seeing it again.

SOBHANI: I'm afraid not, Bill. I'm afraid this cycle of violence is so entrenched, the hatreds are so embedded, that Mr. Zinni will not be able to do something constructive at this point. The question at this point becomes how do we work out a framework where Arafat is part of the solution, even though is he part of the problem. As I said, the danger is that it could escalate into a vacuum filled by more radical elements. That is something the United States cannot afford at this point.

HEMMER: Will you reflect for us a moment on the impact of 9/11, the effect of 9/11 on what is happening right now in the Middle East?

SOBHANI: I think 9/11 created opportunities and challenges. 9/11 created enormous opportunities for people in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, where the Palestinian issue does not resonate at all. 9/11 was a signal to the people of Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq the United States will finally go after states that sponsor terrorism.

With the Arab world, however, 9/11 is viewed differently, because, for them, 9/11, while it was a sad event, still does not resonate over and above the core issue that resonates with them, which is the Palestinian cause and Palestinian issue.

HEMMER: Professor Sobhani, thanks for coming in today. We wanted to talk about completely different matters, but you are so versatile and so knowledgeable about the region we wanted it pick your brain about what we are seeing on the ground there.




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