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Conflict in Israel Explodes

Aired March 29, 2002 - 12:01   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to check in now with our Major Garrett. He has got the very latest for us right now. As you may know, the United States envoy, Anthony Zinni, is still in the Middle East on this embattled peace mission there.

Let's check in now with Garrett -- Major, rather, on exactly what he's hearing this morning -- hello, Major.


We just got a briefing here at the Crawford workspace near the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. White House Officials saying the president was actively involved last night and this morning on the entire situation in the Middle East, talking to his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice twice last night. Active conversations last night and this morning with the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

The president convened a lengthy National Security Council meeting this morning via a secure video teleconference line. He here in Crawford, and his senior advisers back at the White House; among them, Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Powell. Lots of meetings, lots of conversations at the highest levels in the Bush administration, but no concrete reaction to the developments on the ground in the Middle East.

Right now the White House line is that it is continuing to monitor and assess the situation. No expressions of concern one way or the other about the military activity carried about by the Israeli defense forces. No reaction even yet, Leon, to what Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said yesterday, his willingness to implement an unconditional cease-fire.

On both fronts the White House is still monitoring and assessing the situation, and there may be more from the administration as far as reaction coming up in about an hour at the State Department briefing, we are told here in Crawford. But right now lots of meetings, lots of conversation. One thing White House officials continue to underscore is that the president and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, maintain almost constant contact with the president's personal envoy, Anthony Zinni, in the region. Mr. Zinni is getting back in touch with Secretary of State Powell trying to give him his personal on-the- ground assessment of what's happening, but that assessment has yet to yield any concrete reaction from the Bush White House -- Leon. HARRIS: Major Garrett, reporting live for us from Crawford, Texas. Thank you very much, Major, for being quick on your feet on that one.

Now let's go right to the ground there in Israel right now, where all the action is taking place in Ramallah. Israel there is taking its war on terrorism straight to Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. At last word, Israeli soldiers were fighting room to room with Palestinian troops and were making arrests inside Arafat's compound. A Palestinian official accuses the Israelis of trying to kill Arafat with all of this. But Israel says the actual target is what it calls Arafat's "terrorist infrastructure."

CNN's Michael Holmes has been there all along this morning. He checks in now once again on the telephone from Ramallah -- Michael.


Yes, I've got some new information for you too. At this moment, there are two tanks stationed just outside the stairs leading to Yasser Arafat's office. Inside that office is Yasser Arafat, a senior aide of his, Nabul Jarude (ph) and Rodane Araba (ph), and Haj Ismael (ph), who is the head of national security. They are in a two-room office and they are huddled in there. These tanks at the bottom of the stairs literally -- and I've been up those stairs -- it's literally two flights a stairs, take a left and you're at Yasser Arafat's office.

We're waiting on confirmation as to whether there is any action by the Israeli troops at the bottom of those stairs to go up them. Waiting on a call on that now. But, also, we can tell you that the damage has been fairly severe inside the compound. The jail that is in there that houses Palestinian prisoners has been severely damaged. Also the government's office and the intelligence headquarters has also been severely damaged.

Now this earlier report that was floating around about 70 officials arrested -- and I was talking to Daryn in another show, and I said I doubted that. Well, the people we're talking to inside the compound doubt it too. They say there aren't 70 people in there, let alone 70 arrested.

One senior aide to Yasser Arafat has been arrested, and he was arrested at a house next door. He wasn't arrested inside the compound. That's not to say arrests haven't taken place. But there's no confirmation of that as yet.

Now, as I said, when I left there about 45 minutes ago, there was still small arms fire and grenades and plenty of activity. But at this moment, Yasser Arafat sitting in an office with two of his closest aides and two tanks at the bottom of the stairs -- Leon.

HARRIS: Michael, any way to guess at this particular point exactly how many troops and tanks actually are right there in that compound? HOLMES: From my own observations, I saw at least six tanks inside the compound -- four to six probably. It's hard to tell, some of them were so far in it was difficult to see. But four to six tanks, and at least that number of armored personnel carriers. There was smoke rising from one building. Not a large amount of smoke, but it's a fire that had been there for much of the day still burning away. I couldn't see flames, but plenty of smoke.

There were tires damaged inside the car parked inside the compound behind the walls. And, as I said, we counted at least seven separate entry points by Israeli tanks where they had either flattened steel security gates or just gone through the perimeter wall, which is a very tall wall. It must stand in some places 10 or 15 feet tall.

Now, where these tanks are stationed at the bottom of the stairs, to get through that area, you go through one very heavy metal gate, and then you go through another very heavy metal gate to even get into a courtyard that leads to Yasser Arafat's office. Those two gates I saw with my own eyes had just been completed flattened by tanks.

So they are in the heart of the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank. And it seems that at the moment, a waiting game is underway -- Leon.

HARRIS: Well, Michael, I'm not sure if you heard Rula Amin's report about a little over an hour ago, where she had just finished speaking with the Saudi royal prince -- the Crown Prince Abdullah. And he had told her that he had been in touch with U.S. officials who said that Yasser Arafat is not going to be harmed. With the Palestinian officials that you have spoken to there, or the representatives you've spoken with, do they believe that?

HOLMES: Well, it depends who you talk to. There is certainly -- on the public record, they will say that Yasser Arafat fears for his life. And having heard the -- and seen the fire fights that were going on there today, anyone in side that compound would be crazy not to have feared for their lives, that's for sure. But the Israelis have said all along they do not intend to harm Yasser Arafat, they do not intend to do him any grief at all in a physical sense.

Now Palestinians, on the hand, Yasser Arafat himself on Arabic language television today, said he fears that he will be either arrested or expelled or killed. So they publicly are stating very much that fear. But Israel saying that's not their intention, Leon.

HARRIS: All right, it's not their intention. But do you know whether or not -- or is there any way to tell right now if their intention is to bring more troops there?

HOLMES: I don't know that. I don't know the answer to that, Leon. There's certainly plenty here already. The place where I am now, we just had about 10 armored personnel carriers go past us and two tanks. It's now dark here in Ramallah. Not a time to be in the streets, and there is no one on the streets. There hasn't been all day unless they were armed to the T. It's -- whether more tanks are brought in is probably unlikely, I should imagine. But the Israeli army would feel it's got the better of this fight so far, even given the street battles that have been continuing into this evening. So some estimates were very high on the number of tanks that were brought in. I heard estimates of 80 tanks. I don't think that's accurate. I think it's probably more in the range of 30 tanks, and probably maybe double that in terms of armored personnel carriers.

Also, massive Israeli army bulldozers -- the armored bulldozers, if you like, which were doing a lot of the work of knocking down most walls today, Leon.

HARRIS: Michael, let me ask you something, and I know -- I don't want to keep you out there too long, because as you mentioned, it is nightfall there now, and that means things are going to get even more dangerous. But I have to ask you've been there for sometime now. Would you say that right now this is the heaviest activity that you have seen since you've been there?

HOLMES: Absolutely, yes. Absolutely without a doubt, Leon. We've witnessed several shooting incidents. One at a checkpoint just a couple of days ago, but absolutely nothing like this. It's absolutely fair to describe the events of today certainly at times as out and out combat; there's no doubt about that. I'm hearing shots as I'm standing here now probably a mile or two away. And I just heard two shots coming from different directions.

So there's still shooting going on around Ramallah, not just at the Palestinian Authority headquarters. I'm hearing shots now coming from the direction of a refugee camp here in Ramallah, and it's in the opposite direction to the Palestinian Authority headquarters. And as I think I said to you just a short time ago, too, there was a fairly severe fire fight at a hospital about three or four hundred yards from here. It lasted for four or five minutes of sustained gunfight. That's now died down. But, yes, still a very tense place, Leon.

HARRIS: Well, listen, Michael, you and the crew there please be careful. My friend you've been from one hot spot to another. You just left Pakistan and Afghanistan, that region, that theater. Now you find yourself in another hot spot, and a lot of us here in the studio in the news room here, hoping for the very best for you and the crew. So please be careful there.

Michael Holmes, reporting live for us.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And, of course, what's happening in Ramallah today happening on the same day of yet another suicide bombing; this one in Jerusalem at a supermarket. This time, the suicide bomber, a teenage Palestinian girl.

For more on that, let's go to Jerusalem and our John Vause -- John, hello once again.

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello once again, Daryn. I want to bring us up to date with some news about the arrest of those more than 60 Palestinians who were arrested, according to the Israeli defense force, inside the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Of course the Palestinian Authority saying they know nothing about this. But the Israeli defense force insistent that they have, in fact, arrested more than 60 people. They say, quote, they were "suspicious" that they all had been taken away for questioning. They're not saying what the charges are, but they're not saying where, in fact, they were taken.

This, of course, at odds with what the new -- with what the word is from the Palestinian Authority, that that compound had, in fact, been evacuated before the tanks arrived, and that there simply just weren't 60 people there to begin with. So once again, the IDF insisted that it has, in fact, made those arrests, but just who those people are and what they've been charged with we don't know.

Also, let's go back to that suicide bombing in Jerusalem. We know that at that shopping center at least two people killed, more than 20 injured. Also, we know that the suicide bomber was in fact an 18-year-old girl from the Al Aqsa Brigade. She came from a Palestinian town, Deheisheh -- it's a refugee camp near Bethlehem. And it came just hours after the tanks did roll into Ramallah.

This latest blast in southern Jerusalem, it's the third attack on Israeli citizens since the beginning of Passover. And that is -- those attacks is one that has prompted this massive military response by the Israeli army -- by the Israeli military over the last 12 hours or so -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And, of course, though, what would also make this latest attack stand out, a teenage girl. I believe she made a videotaped statement before she went and carried out what she believed was her mission.

VAUSE: That's right, Daryn. She did make that videotape. All -- it seems most of these suicide bombers do put themselves on videotape before heading out. They make their declarations, they say their plans. In this case, this particular girl, believed to be 18 years old, she condemned Arab leaders for not doing enough for Palestinian women to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Those were her words. That was the reason why this women felt a desperate need to go out and blow herself up.

We're also being told by authorities that police did, in fact, find -- may have even found another explosive device on her at the time. That one did not detonate, but we know that from what the police are telling us, that she walked into that shopping center, she was approached by a security guard. And it was at that point that she blew herself up -- Daryn.

KAGAN: John Vause, reporting to us from Jerusalem -- John, thank you very much.

Of course, the State Department back here in the U.S. a very busy place today. And Secretary Colin Powell on the phone constantly trying to talk with leaders. Let's go to our Andrea Koppel at -- I believe you're in the bureau today, though, Andrea, instead of at the State Department, with the latest on the secretary of state and his efforts to try to calm what is taking place in the Mideast today -- hello.


Yes, in about 15 minutes, Secretary of State Powell is going to be coming into the State Department briefing room in a rare appearance to take questions from reporters, and we're also told, to make a statement about the recent actions in the region. Secretary Powell earlier today had been over at the White House, we're told, along with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. They participated in a teleconference with President Bush, who is out at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Behind the scenes, Daryn, as you mentioned, lots of phone calls. Lots of meetings going on among senior U.S. officials trying to craft and be very precise and careful in what they say and how they respond to this latest Israeli incursion. As we've heard both Michael and John report from the region, it's difficult for the U.S. to come out in a very strong way to criticize Israel, because in the last 72 hours there have been three suicide attacks against Israeli citizens.

So for the U.S., they're in a tight corner, because at the same time that they want to de-escalate what's happening and to calm things down in the region, they are under tremendous pressure from the Arab world. Secretary of State Powell today spoke with the head of the Arab League. He was urged by Amre Moussa to get more actively involved in trying to force the Israelis to withdraw from Ramallah and end this dangerous situation as they see it.

Just yesterday, the Arab League came out for the first time with a declaration, saying that in exchange for peace and a withdraw from the 67 borders that Israel -- land that Israel occupied after the 1967 war, the Arab world would declare full peace with Israel, which is something unprecedented. They are furious in the Arab world right now, Daryn.

I just spoke with an Arab foreign minister who himself was involved in trying to craft that statement from the Arab League. And he said in his words, he said, "This is against everything we are trying to do in the region, what is Israel is doing right now." And so Secretary Powell, we'll hear from him now in about 14 or so minutes, is working with his other colleagues within the administration to try to figure out exactly how they're going to end this horrible situation right now that is just going from bad to worse every day.

KAGAN: Well, and I can assure our viewers we'll be bringing those comments live from Secretary of State Colin Powell when they take place. You said about 15 minutes from now it is expected to start?

KOPPEL: Exactly. KAGAN: Meanwhile, I want to ask you a question, Andrea, about the level and the rank. So far leading the way has been envoy Anthony Zinni. But as things have escalated, is this going to call for somebody at a higher rank to actually enter the area and try to calm things down, perhaps Secretary of State Powell?

KOPPEL: Well that's certainly what the Arab world would like to see right now. We can say at least up until this moment, President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have made very clear that they see Anthony Zinni as being the right man for the job right now. He has spoken with Ariel Sharon today, as well as other Palestinian officials.

He has been meeting as well with Palestinian security officials, and they feel right now that he can handle matters. But having said that, Daryn, there is a reason why perhaps Secretary of State Powell or others within the administration don't want to back to the region. It has to do with U.S. credibility, and you only have so many chits in the diplomatic game, if you want to call it that.

You don't want to send your big guns in there, if you think that you're setting them up for failure. You only want to send them in when you feel that you can be assured of success. Secretary Powell himself had been out to the region, had met with both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat several times since the Bush administration took office, and not much came out of those meetings. And so he is not exactly eager to go back there.

The situation as it stands right now is so delicate. And really everything seems to be on a hair trigger. It would be unusual and I think unlikely that you would hear Secretary of State Powell would go back. And remember Vice President Cheney himself was just out in the region meeting with officials and had offered to back out to Egypt to meet with Yasser Arafat if he declared a unilateral cease-fire. He did so yesterday, but we're hearing privately from officials they're not entirely satisfied with what they heard, Daryn.

KAGAN: Yeah, it didn't quite have all the words that everybody was hoping and expecting to hear.

KOPPEL: Exactly.

KAGAN: Andrea Koppel, in Washington, thank you very much. And as you mentioned, Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking at probably the bottom of the hour. When he does speak, you will see his comments here live on CNN.




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