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Interview With Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat

Aired March 29, 2002 - 08:01   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Up front this morning, violence, as we said, on both sides in the Middle East. We have reports now from both Michael Holmes in Ramallah and John Vause in Jerusalem.

John, we're going to start with you. What is the very latest from there?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, I can update some numbers for you from that blast at that supermarket in south Jerusalem. We're now being told 23 people injured, one in critical condition, one serious. We're still waiting on word on the death toll, but what we're being told is that there was, in fact, one fatality, a security guard, who may have tried to stop the suicide bomber, who was also killed. And we're being told that there are reports from witnesses that the suicide bomber was, in fact, a woman.

Now, police on that scene say there could, in fact, be more explosive devices at that supermarket, the Al Aksa Martyr Brigade has claimed responsibility for this latest suicide bombing, which is the second since the start of Passover. The other one, of course, on Wednesday night here local time in the seaside town of Netanya, there killing 22 people as well as the suicide bomber -- Paula.

ZAHN: Tell us a little bit more about what investigators have learned about this female suicide bomber? Who was she?

VAUSE: Those details are still yet to come into us, Paula. The situation is just moving at a very rapid pace. The details of who this was we still don't know, but as we said, the Al Aksa Martyr Brigade, the militant wing of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party, has contacted a number of news outlets to claim responsibility.

That's pretty much all we know at this stage.

ZAHN: All right, what can you tell us, too, about the impact this might have on Gen. Zinni's mission?

VAUSE: We are being told that the U.S. envoy here, Gen. Anthony Zinni, is now meeting with the chief Palestinian negotiator. He says he still has his work to do in this region. That's the understatement of the day. He is determined to stay here. He is determined to meet with both sides to try and get this cease-fire through. He will also meet with the Israelis, as well. But obviously as this violence escalates out of control, those cease-fire talks are becoming so much more harder hour by hour.

ZAHN: All right, John Vause, thanks for that report.

We're going to quickly check in with Michael Holmes now, who joins us from Ramallah with the very latest on a gun battle you described to us just about 15 minutes ago. Does the gunfire continue?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we can hear it, we can hear it from where we are, Paula, and we're fairly close, I suppose, to it. And you can hear there quite large heavy machine gun fire just coming out from behind us here.

What we can tell you is that senior sources inside that compound tell us that Israelis bulldozers knocked down another section of wall. They had already done that. And troops went into Yasser Arafat's compound.

Now, according to sources, a tank is also there and also tank shelling is taking place. That's according to another Palestinian official inside the compound. Yasser Arafat's own office has taken fire. We are told also that his security forces are returning fire and so there's quite the battle going on.

Now, I can also tell you that it's not up to 40, the injured list, among Yasser Arafat's own security forces, and one dead. And we spoke to a couple of the injured who are in a hospital not far from here, one of them shot in the spine. He's paralyzed. Another shot in the jaw. There have also been civilian casualties, I have to tell you. A woman in a private car was shot dead, her five month old baby in the seat behind her. And also a cameraman has been shot just, not far from here, a few meters from here, in fact, was shot in the face. He will survive, however.

So there have been civilian casualties. This firefight continues, we're told, inside the compound as we speak. We hear almost constant gunfire here, and it's coming from a couple of places, too. It's coming from the compound. It's also coming from south from here, which is down near the Alamari refugee camp. We don't know that troops have actually entered that camp. We've seen them heading in that direction right past us here in numerous armed personnel carriers. And once they go past we hear gunfire. They'll come back again and then they'll go down again, more gunfire.

It's certainly not a safe place for residents here. The streets are pretty much deserted except for those carrying weapons at the moment -- Paula.

ZAHN: All right, we now know that the Palestinians are saying that they believe Yasser Arafat's life is in danger. His planning minister saying early this morning that he is calm, he is steadfast, he is sure, he is not afraid of death. The Israelis saying all they're trying to do is isolate him. Help us understand what is really going on here.

HOLMES: Well, one thing that's difficult to understand is what the term isolate means. That was what Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, said was the plan here. The strategy was to isolate Yasser Arafat. He was asked quite pointedly what that meant. And he said isolate means isolate. Well, does that mean encircling the compound? Does it mean entering the compound? It's not yet clear. Both of those things have already happened, of course.

Yasser Arafat does fear for his life. Another senior Palestinian official we spoke with just minutes ago said he fears for his life. He's in there, there's bullets flying. He's also at this moment on the phone with the king of Morocco, as we speak. He's already spoken to the Lebanese prime minister and he's also spoken with other Arab leaders in the region. He is working the phones at the moment. He spoke with the U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni about half an hour ago, we're told.

So he's working the phones and his men are firing at Israeli troops as we speak -- Paula.

ZAHN: And, Michael, he said last night on Al-Jazeera, the Arab television network, they either want to kill me or capture me or expel me. There was some analysis in some of the Israeli papers this morning that perhaps this is a first step in expelling him from the West Bank. How much speculation is there about that?

HOLMES: Well, sources told us that -- well, this incursion came after a lengthy meeting of the Israeli security cabinet and what sources have said as a result of that was there was a very spirited debate. There are ministers on the right of the cabinet who want him expelled, want him thrown out. There are those who want the compound where he is now leveled and the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority.

There are moderates in the cabinet on the left, from the Labor Party and the like in this coalition government, who do not favor such stern action. And it was thought that the encirclement of his compound was, in some ways, a compromise.

But now we hear that troops are entering the compound. What their plan is we just don't know -- Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Michael Holmes, thanks for that update.

Joining us now, I am told, on the telephone is one of the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiators, Saeb Erakat. Mr. Erakat, I understand that you were in meetings earlier this morning with Gen. Anthony Zinni. What was accomplished?

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Yes, Paula. I met Gen. Zinni about an hour ago, we concluded a meeting. Gen. Zinni informed us that he will continue his mission, that he will not leave and that we, he will continue exerting every possible effort to have a de-conflicting and de-escalation process.

I think that he is going to, going now to meet the Israelis. Gen. Zinni also called President Arafat and told him that he is continuing his mission. It's a very grave situation. I think Gen. Zinni realizes that. And, Paula, you should keep in mind that the Israeli attack and the aggression that's happening now against the president's compound in Ramallah came after the historic decision by the Arab League to offer Israel a comprehensive peace, it came after President Arafat offered to have unconditional implement of Tenet, including a cease-fire. And after Gen. Zinni reported to President Bush that there is significant progress that was achieved.

And I think we were almost there with Gen. Zinni when this thing happened. I don't think that Sharon does realize the consequences of this. I think he's throwing Palestinians and Israelis deeper and deeper into the cycle, the vicious cycle of violence and counter- violence.

ZAHN: All right, Mr. Erakat, before you go any further, the Israelis, of course, argue this is in retaliation for the brutal killings that took place on the first evening of Passover. Are you suggesting that the Israelis aren't entitled to react in any way when their own innocent civilians are being slaughtered?

ERAKAT: Paula, you should keep in mind also that President Arafat was one of the first to condemn this suicide bombing that claimed the life of many innocent Israelis. And I think there are those who are trying to sabotage our efforts to put the peace process back on track.

But does Sharon find the answer in such attacks? I don't think that the answer will be in the suicidal bombing or the incursions. I think that there is no military solution to this problem and I think we should work very hard with Gen. Zinni in order to ensure the success of his mission.

What Sharon is doing at this stage is really pushing Palestinians and Israelis into vast bloodshed and confusion and chaos. And I'm afraid to tell you that if we're going to go and declare that our efforts to revive the peace process are down and finished, it will be the -- what we are witnessing out there will be the tip of the iceberg of what's to be expected.

This must stop and we've really been urging the Americans, the Europeans, all those who have influence to stop this madness by the Israeli government.

ZAHN: All right, you're saying this must stop, but even shortly before you met with Mr. Zinni this morning there was another suicide bombing attack, this one carried out by a female bomber in a supermarket, where it has now been confirmed more than 25 Israelis have been injured, one of them gravely.

ERAKAT: Well, that's precisely the point, Paula. Violence will be violence, bullets will be bullets, extremism will be extremism. I think it's time for the high ground. It's time for wisdom. It's time for courage. It's time to exert every possible effort in order to de- conflict and to deescalate the situation. I'm afraid to tell you that if Sharon thinks by killing Arafat he will achieve his goal, he will not bring any security and any stability to the Israelis. He will not bring anything other than a series of escalation and counter escalation, retaliation and counter retaliation. And what's the dividing line here? This must stop. Gen. Zinni was almost there. He made significant progress. And he reported this to President Bush...

ZAHN: Mr. Erakat...

ERAKAT: He must be given the chance.

ZAHN: Mr. Erakat, do you think the Israelis are trying to kill Yasser Arafat?

ERAKAT: Absolutely. I think when you have all this gunfire being fired at Arafat's office and Arafat's compound, yes. I know that Sharon's end game is to destroy the peace process, destroy the Palestinian Authority and to kill Yasser Arafat. But the question to Sharon and to the Israeli government, can they walk me through tomorrow? Can they walk me through the day after? If this happens, what hope will be left in the minds of Palestinians that peace is doable? And peace is not doable. Isn't Sharon telling them to go and take the actions in their own hands? How many Palestinians must die and Israelis must die in order to convince Sharon that there is no military solution for this problem?

ZAHN: All right, but the Israelis say that Yasser Arafat is the enemy, that he is a terrorist, that they have the right to protect their citizens from terrorism.

ERAKAT: Well, this is a broken record, Paula, you know? President Arafat is an elected leader of the Palestinian people and we all know that Sharon is not Mother Teresa. We all know that this man has done nothing in his life but to sabotage the peace process. But nevertheless, all I can say now, there is Gen. Zinni here. He's come a long way. We can exert every possible effort in order to ensure the success of his mission. Sharon must be stopped immediately. Sharon is declaring Arafat irrelevant for the past few months, tying him, keeping him prisoner in his compound, and then asking him to be accountable.

This ridiculous logic of Sharon must stop and we must give peace the chance it deserves. We must give Gen. Zinni the chance he deserves.

ZAHN: Mr. Erakat, you say Mr. Sharon must stop immediately. Is Mr. Arafat capable of stopping future suicide bombers from killing more Israelis? Can he stop that today?

ERAKAT: Give him the chance. How can you -- you know, such questions. Look at the picture. Arafat is surrounded with Israeli tanks. He's been surrounded in his compound for months. The Israelis have done nothing but to destroy Arafat's communications centers, command centers, security vehicles, headquarters. And then they ask him to do this.

What President Arafat told Gen. Zinni in a letter last night and in a phone call this morning, that OK, we will carry out all our obligations provided that we are given the chance to do so.

ZAHN: Mr. Erakat, we're going to have to leave it there this morning. And I know you have spoken with Mr. Arafat, and Mr. Arafat has spoken with Mr. Zinni. We have been actually trying to get to Mr. Arafat at his headquarters in Ramallah. If and when that happens, of course, we will share it with our audience. As always, thank you very much for joining us on AMERICAN MORNING.




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