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Hamas Claims Responsibility for Passover Suicide Bombing

Aired March 27, 2002 - 14:45   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: As we continue to monitor things out of Netanya in the Middle East, getting word, claims of responsibility at this time. Hamas is claiming responsibility. So too, the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade. You might recall this group from last week, and the White House put this group, at the State Department, on its essential hit list of terrorist groups from around the world, cutting off funding, preventing anyone here in the U.S. from allowing money to be funneled into the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades.

But they have claimed responsibility. So, too, has Hamas, for this devastating suicide bombing that took place just a little more than three hours ago, in the coastal town of Netanya. That's just north of Tel Aviv, a few miles just west of the West Bank. Word we have, 15 dead, anywhere between 70 to 100 injured. And of injured, we're told, 15 have been critically injured as well.

The suicide bomber walked into a very crowded dining hall on the bottom level of the Park Hotel in Netanya. Apparently walked through the main hallway, walked through the main lobby. Stood at the edge of the dining room when he detonated himself.

It's possible, Israeli police telling us, that there may have been accomplices involved here. They are searching nearby buildings, too, to see if indeed they can apprehend anyone else who may have had a connection to that. Again, 15, dead, anywhere between 70 and 100 are injured.

And all this coming on day one of the Arab summit, that began in Beirut, Lebanon, earlier today, a two-day summit. No official reaction from the delegates there. We were talking with Rula Amin about 10 minutes ago. But we will hold fast, and see if indeed there is anything that comes out of Beirut, regarding this issue.

Major Garrett is traveling with the president here in Atlanta. Major, welcome back. And the White House has said it thought it was making progress on the ground with these negotiating talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But what, at this point, does the White House say, when again we see images like these? Not only happening when Passover began, but also the first day of the Arab summit? Clearly, a strong message from those who do not want peace in the Middle East today.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president has often said, Bill, that there are forces within the Palestinian movement who not only use violence to achieve political ends, something the president says is untenable, but also seek to use that violence at the worst possible moments, at times where it appears there is progress being made on the substantive, security side of the talks.

The White House has often been bitterly disappointed, that exactly at the time it begins, progress is being made, something will happen. In this case, a suicide bombing of enormous magnitude, and tremendously hurtful, painful timing. The first day of Passover, I mean, honestly, the reaction from the Israeli government will have to be very strong against this.

The Bush administration, I would predict to you, will also respond very, very strongly to this, not only because the magnitude of the loss of life and those injured, but because of the very timing of it. And this has been the ultimate question for the Bush administration: how do you continue to push ahead on negotiations over security, cease-fire and political talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when there are forces within the Palestinian movement itself who are trying to undermine that very progress?

So each and every time you begin to take a step forward, something happens, which causes all sides, particularly the Israeli side, to reappraise exactly what the benefit is of these ongoing negotiations. And there are more and more critics, Bill, in the United States, who are wondering exactly where this Middle East policy of the Bush White House is heading.

Only last week, 52 senators sent a letter to the White House urging President Bush not to send Vice President Cheney to the region to have a meeting with Yasser Arafat. To do so, they suggested, might in some ways tell some members of the Palestinian movement that in fact, violence against Israeli civilians can achieve at least limited political aims. And that the vice president would meet with Mr. Arafat, even as violence continues.

So the White House is feeling intense pressure, not only from the Israeli ally, but also, domestically. Senators, members of the House, as well, wondering exactly where this Middle East policy is heading. It's not a new frustration for any White House. The Clinton White House went through this in its very last days as well.

You try work on the negotiating front, and yet violence continues. And more and more people question: what are the point of the negotiations, if all they're going to bring is more violence? Oftentimes administrations, Democratic and Republican, fall back on, well, if we just give up, violence continues and there's no prospect for talks. So its' this bitter and deeply divisive process that you go through, talking amid the violence.

If you back off and don't talk and the violence continues, then people say, well, you're not engaged. Therefore U.S. prestige diminishes. It's a very, very tough equation.

HEMMER: And a flat-out vicious cycle, too, Major. Curious to get your reaction. You're at the White House every day of the week. The Bush doctrine basically says go out and eradicate terrorism wherever you find it. The Israeli government would say, well, here's another case of terrorists, operating just a few miles from where we live, the West Bank and Gaza.

What does it do to the White House position when in recent days and weeks it's said to Ariel Sharon: you're being too strong, you're being too tough. Pull out of the West Bank, pull out of Gaza.

How now, does the White House address publicly, or even privately, the Israeli government, if indeed its military wants to go back into these territories and do what it says is the same thing the president is asking for: eradicate terrorism?

GARRETT: Well, the White House often says that it is trying to be, No. 1, an honest broker. That is, to say, deal with both sides in an up-front and direct way. But also try to create what the White House calls an atmosphere that's "constructive, productive negotiations." Now, in some people's minds, that's a lot of diplo- speak. It really doesn't say very much.

What the president has said emphatically is that Israel has the right to defend herself and itself. And in this case, I can see really no way the Bush White House would in any way criticize the Israeli government for seeking some sort of military response to this latest terrorist attack.

And yet in the last couple of weeks, there has been a decided shift in the Bush White House, telling the Israeli government: are there ways that you could take some of the pressure off the Palestinians? Are there things you can do that specifically target people in the Palestinian movement whom you believe are terrorists, but that do not unduly harm or inconvenience or humiliate ordinary Palestinians, who don't have anything to do with this wildcat violence and this terror against your civilians? Try to figure out a way if you can do that.

That's a very tough needle to thread, one the Israeli government hasn't had much success in doing. But it's the one area where the White House at least has tried to ask the Israelis to do something new -- Bill.

HEMMER: Major, thanks. Major Garrett, here in the city of Atlanta. The president is here today. He will address a fairly large crowd gathered at Georgia Tech University. And we'll certainly monitor that in a moment, here.




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