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Secretary of State Colin Powell Addresses Conflict in Israel

Aired March 29, 2002 - 12:42   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We are just moments away from Secretary of State Colin Powell later in the briefing room at the State Department. No idea quite yet exactly what we will hear him say, but let's check in with our Andrea Koppel, who is standing by in Washington. She's not at her post at the State Department, where she usually is, but she is in the Washington bureau right now.

Andrea, any idea what we might hear this afternoon?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Somewhat of an idea, Leon. What we have been told is that Secretary Powell is going to express U.S. concern over the developments of the last 72 hours. He is not going to get into the blow by blow, as one official put it, but he will be talking about the the events of the last several days in a somewhat general way.

The goal of Secretary Powell's eminent q&a there with reporters is to try to bring an end to the current crises. Both sides will be reading into what Secretary Powell is saying to see whether or not he is critical of Ariel Sharon's latest order of an incursion into Yasser Arafat's compound. On the Palestinian side, they will be looking to see whether or not Secretary Powell will acknowledge or embrace Yasser Arafat's unilateral declaration of a cease-fire yesterday, both sides obviously eager to claim that what they are doing, that the other side is in the wrong and that they are the right.

It is a very delicate diplomatic dance right now, Leon. We will also hear Secretary Powell say Anthony Zinni, the president's special Middle East envoy, will remain in the region. He's been there now for two weeks. He's been meeting both sides. He spoke today with Yasser Arafat. Secretary Powell himself has been the phone with the head of the Arab League, Amre Moussa. Last night, Secretary Powell spoke with Ariel Sharon. The message all around is to try to bring both sides to calm down for the Israelis to withdraw and for these terrorist attacks that have been carried out by Palestinian members of the Al Aqsa Brigade, of Hamas, to get Yasser Arafat to crack down on those. That is the key, as far as the United States sees it, that is missing from what Yasser Arafat has done thus far. He called for a cease-fire, but he hasn't spoken out specifically against these individual groups, and he has as yet to tell his security -- I should stop: Here is Secretary Powell.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS) COLIN L. POWELL, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The president and his national security team have been following very serious situation in the Middle East since last night. Early this morning, we began a National Security Council meeting which included the president via television remote, as well as the vice president, the secretary of defense, myself of course, the director of central intelligence, Mr. Tenet, National Security Adviser Rice and Chief of Staff Andy Card.

Last night also I was in a conference call with the president and Dr. Rice to review the situation, and immediately after talking to the president I also had the opportunity to talk to Prime Minister Sharon, who was in the middle of a cabinet meeting, as you know, in Israel.

In that conversation with Prime Minister Sharon, he advised me that the cabinet was meeting to decide what action the Israeli government should take in response to the recent spate of terror incidents, and he also advised me that whatever actions they might decide to take, it would not include bringing any harm to Chairman Arafat or killing him, and subsequent statements by Israeli officials suggest that it is not their intention either to capture them.

They have determined to isolate him, and as you know, Israeli Defense Forces are now operating in Ramallah, and there has been a significant call-up of Israeli Defense Forces.

I have a call in to Chairman Arafat and hope I will have a chance to reach him right after this press conference.

General Zinni remains in the region, and he and our diplomatic representatives in the region are in touch with both Israeli and Palestinian officials. General Zinni did speak to Chairman Arafat earlier today.

Once again, terrorism, terrorism that targets innocent civilians, have dealt a serious blow to the effort to achieve a cease-fire and to find a political solution to the crisis in the Middle East. Once again, terrorists have set back the vision of the Palestinian people for a state that would live in peace, side by side with Israel. The United States condemns these acts of terror and those responsible for them.

In recent weeks, there was cause for some guarded optimism. As you know, beginning last fall, the president put down his vision at the United Nations for a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a Jewish state, Israel. We also saw positive reaction to the speech that I gave in Louisville. And then just a couple of weeks ago, the United Nations passed an important Security Council resolution introduced by the United States, and went through the Security Council in a record period of time with a vote of 14-0 and only one abstention, Syria, calling for a state for the Palestinian people.

The Arab summit in Beirut earlier this week, while it did not provide a complete solution, it laid out a vision, a bold vision, what was put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and it was embraced by all of the Arab nations. Prime Minister Sharon, in recent weeks, showed a great deal of flexibility with respect to conditions he had previously held to, with respect to what it would take to get into the Tenet work plan.

Both sides welcome General Zinni's return to get the Tenet work plan started, which would then lead to the Mitchell process and the political solution, the political discussion and negotiations that we all are hoping for.

The vice president paid a trip to the region and was prepared to see Chairman Arafat if circumstances had permitted.

So there is reason for guarded optimism, and let's be clear about what brought it all to a halt: terrorism. Terrorism on the part of those who would target innocent civilians -- innocent civilians going about their daily lives, shopping, trying to assemble in a restaurant to celebrate an important occasion in their religious life; that's what has caused this crisis to come upon us, not the absence of a political way forward, but terrorism in its rawest form.

The president and I and all my colleagues, the United States people, condemn in the strongest possible terms this series of terror attacks, including this morning's Jerusalem bombings and the other acts of terrorism which have killed innocent Israeli civilians.

We have spoken out clearly and do so again now for Chairman Arafat to act, act against those responsible for these acts and to make clear to the Palestinian people that terror and violence must halt now. All those who support peace must reinforce this message. The international community is delivering this message. I ask Arab nations to deliver this message. I ask my colleagues in the European Union and the nations around the world to deliver this powerful message.

The president and I are gravely concerned about the situation today in Ramallah. We deplore the killing and wounding of innocent Palestinians there.

While we understand the Israeli government need to respond to these acts of terror and the right of the Israeli government to decide what actions best serve the interests of the Israeli people, we call on Prime Minister Sharon and his government to carefully consider the consequences of those actions.

Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people, and his leadership is now even more central to trying to find a way out of this tragic situation. In addition to Prime Minister Sharon, I will be in touch and have been in touch already but will continue to be in touch in the course of the day and the weekend of other Arab leaders besides those that I've already been in touch with, as well as the European Union. And I will be placing a call also to the United Nations secretary general, Mr. Kofi Annan.

At this critical moment, we call upon our friends throughout the international community to condemn terror unequivocally. We cannot lose sight of our goal. Despite the tragedy we see unfolding now on this holy week, we must not lose sight of the goal. We have to achieve an enduring and comprehensive peace for Arabs and Israelis alike. This is the future. This is what we must achieve. And although things look dark now, we must have hope, and we must continue to work and work hard.

General Zinni for that reason will remain in the region. He received a commitment in principle from the Israeli government to move forward into the Tenet work plan on the basis of the proposal put down by General Zinni. I think we were close to getting a similar commitment from the Palestinian side when these acts of terror disrupted the whole process. And we will see what happens in the days ahead.

The United States government will be examining this situation in the days ahead to see what other steps we might take. And I can assure you that President Bush and his national security advisers will be following this on an hour-by-hour basis.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Secretary Powell, your comments were rather long on criticism of Chairman Arafat but rather short on what you think about the Israeli actions in Ramallah, particularly the strafing of Chairman Arafat's headquarters and, in fact, the reoccupation itself. Are you looking for the Israelis to withdraw from Ramallah?

POWELL: The Israelis have said to me that it is not their intention to occupy any of these areas, and the only area they're in at the moment is Ramallah, for some extended period. They are going in to find terrorists, to pick up weapons, and it is not their intention to occupy these places on any long-term basis.

We asked the Israelis to show the necessary restraint with respect to that activity so that they do not put Chairman Arafat's life in danger and they minimize loss of life with respect to civilians.

It's a very difficult situation. Israel is trying to defend itself. We had a process moving forward. We had some success over the past week or two. And then suddenly the bombing of the night before last, the bombing again today, the random shootings, the murder of Israeli citizens, all -- all -- all done by terrorists who do not want to see peace. They don't want to see a solution to this problem. They are determined to destroy this process, and we must not let them. We have to keep working and work hard.

QUESTION: Do you suppose any of the accomplishments of General Zinni in the past few days are salvageable or does he have to start from scratch?

POWELL: I don't know. We'll have to wait and see. General Zinni was quite encouraged by the progress he was making up until we had the massacre the other night. And so we'll have to wait and see what the days ahead bring. But we're going to continue to work hard to see if we can bring some stability and order to this and then move forward. People are always asking, "Don't you need a political answer to this? Don't you need a political process?" The political process is there, staring us in the face. It's contained in the Mitchell plan. It's contained in a commitment on the part of both sides to enter negotiations on the basis of 242 and 338 as you go through Mitchell. But nothing can get started, no political process can take hold in the presence of this kind of continued terrorist activity.

POWELL: One more, then I have to...

QUESTION: Sir, some might say that extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, and what you've outlined today seems to be keeping your envoy in the region and making phone calls from here.

I wonder if you can describe whether anything beyond that -- what is being contemplated, what kind of steps? For example, buffer forces, troops, peacekeepers? A more physical, personal diplomacy; a trip to the region by yourself, for example?

POWELL: Well, there is nothing we are not considering. I mean, personal diplomacy -- we just had the vice president out there, talking to everybody in the region and trying to help in this difficult situation. We're not ruling anything out, but not prepared to make any announcements right now. I'm willing to go when there is a reason to go and a purpose to be served.

Thank you.

KAGAN: We have been listening to a quick briefing by Secretary of State Colin Powell on the day of incredible violence in the Middle East, Secretary of State Powell saying that he has been speaking on a teleconference throughout this with President Bush, who is in Texas, talking to Prime Minister Sharon last night.

Let's bring in our Andrea Koppel.

First of all, listening to Secretary of State Powell, it sounds like the United States had a heads-up that something was going to happen in Ramallah today. Also interesting to go hear Secretary of State Powell's comments that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a lot stronger in his criticism to the Palestinians than they were to the Israelis.

KOPPEL: Yes, Daryn, I think what we just heard from Secretary Powell in a nutshell is this: The United States doesn't like what Israel is doing, but it understands that Israel had to respond.

Secretary Powell had much stronger words for Yasser Arafat. He did not mention him by name, but what he did say was that the U.S. government condemns these acts of terrorism. Well, who is behind the acts of terrorism? Palestinian groups, the United States saying that Yasser Arafat needs to arrest these terrorists, he needs strongly to speak out against them in, both in English and Arabic.

But on the Israeli side, you heard Secretary of State Powell use much, let's say, more delicate language, calling on Ariel Sharon carefully to consider the consequences of his action. In other words, the United States recognizes that this is an untenable situation for the Israeli government, to have three acts of terrorism conducted against Israeli citizens in the last several days -- what else was Israel going to do?

One important point, Daryn, and that is Secretary Powell clearly got an assurance from Ariel Sharon that they were not targeting Yasser Arafat and that they were not going to hurt him. That is important because the United States believes that Yasser Arafat is the recognized leader of the Palestinian people, and if any harm were to come to him, the United States sees that as a very grave situation. So that reassurance from Ariel Sharon to Secretary Powell very important, something in addition the Arab world was looking to see.

KAGAN: And on the day when people can see there are grievances on both sides, the U.S. secretary of state very clear on who the United States, at least, blames for the latest incident, saying let's be very clear as to what brought the peace process to a halt and that, as he said, terrorism in its rawest form, and not referring at all to what is happening in Ramallah today -- rather to, as you were saying, the recent suicide bombing.

KOPPEL: Absolutely. This is an unmistakable message from the Bush administration to Yasser Arafat, as the leader of the Palestinian people, that while it recognizes this is a horrible situation for Yasser Arafat and his people, to have Israeli troops in his backyard, if he doesn't speak out against the acts of terrorism and stop them and arrest these people, the United States is going to be restrained in what it does. Secretary Powell says he is not going out to the region until he feels there is something more to be done.

He's going to keep Zinni on the ground there, the president's special Middle East envoy, to work the two sides, try to get security meetings going on again. But you heard Secretary Powell say he's going to stay here, he's going to work the phones. And that is pretty much it right now until Yasser Arafat does more.

All right, Andrea Koppel, in our D.C. bureau. Andrea, thank you very much, appreciate you being here on a holiday.

HARRIS: We should also say we are still working the phones here our selves.

KAGAN: Trying to get Yasser Arafat.

HARRIS: We're still trying to get a phone call through to that compound, so that we can talk to Yasser Arafat.


KAGAN: A little difficult because no electricity, but as we heard the Palestinian cultural minister say earlier, they still have cell phones.

HARRIS: Still have cell phones.

KAGAN: So we are working on that as well, talking to representatives from the Israeli government.

We continue with our coverage with the latest from the Middle East. Our Christiane Amanpour is live now from Jerusalem.

Christiane, I don't know, were you able to hear Secretary Powell's comments that he just made live from the State Department in Washington D.C.?


We've been monitoring those comments here, as you can imagine many people in this region will have been doing. Everybody's waiting to hear what the United States administration is going to say about this latest round of violence and retaliation. And now we've had the statement from Secretary Powell.

You were referring to an assurance that Secretary Powell got that Yasser Arafat himself was not a target and would not be harmed. Or, in the words of Powell, killed. Of course, Palestinians who are watching what's going on around Yasser Arafat's compound right now, or when we're hearing that there is continuous shooting that's going on, that the main walls have been breached, according to a Palestinian leader, there are bulldozers -- army bulldozers inside that compound -- apparently, according to this Palestinian leader, tearing down the walls and the buildings around the central part of that compound where Yasser Arafat is hold out with a couple of aides.

We've been told that machine gun bullets from the tanks have penetrated Yasser Arafat's bedroom and office. He is actually not in those two rooms that have been under fire, he is somewhere else in that compound. But in terms of what they think the Israeli plan is, we were told by a senior Palestinian tonight that when the prime minister of Israel declares someone an enemy of the state, that is a license to kill. So they are very clear, they believe that Yasser Arafat is being directly threatened and may be indeed harmed.

Arafat himself has said that on television earlier today, he spoke to Al Jazeera. And, of course, remember that the Israeli prime minister himself is now on record as twice having regretted that when he had the occasion he did not bring harm to Yasser Arafat personally. So all of this is going on amid this backdrop of violence, suicide bombings and retaliation from Israelis.

Here is a quick sound from one of these Palestinians who we've been talking to, who is in telephone contact with Arafat hold up in that compound now in Ramallah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Arafat is sitting at his table and he is trying to follow up all contacts with different people, whether here, nationally and locally, or abroad with different Arab leaders, international and others.

AMANPOUR: Now the Palestinians are saying that they believe, you know, when they are being called on to stop the violence and reign in the terrorists again, as they always have done, they say that their arms are being tied every time this kind of Israeli retaliation takes place and Palestinian security officers, security buildings, military officials, intelligence and bodyguard are targeted. In any event, this we must not forget, has come amid a backdrop of suicide bombings in Israel. Not only the one on the Passover eve in Netanya, the coastal resort, but just today in Jerusalem itself, another suicide bombing in a supermarket in downtown Jerusalem -- southern Jerusalem.

This caused the death of two people, including the bomber. And it wounded some 20 others. It was a Palestinian woman who is responsible for this. Having -- this having been claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is a militant group associated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization. She apparently was 18 years old, comes from the Deheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank, and these are the claims that have been going on about who, in fact, was responsible for today's suicide bombing.

In the meantime, as we've heard, the U.S. special envoy remains in the region and tries against all odds here to come to some kind of agreement and cease-fire mechanism between the two parties -- back to you.

KAGAN: Christiane, there has been a call over the last day from the Arab world for the United States to get more involved. And now here we finally see the highest ranking U.S. official that we've heard from so far, Secretary of State Powell, finally come out and make comments. And yet they are comments that were incredibly critical of the Palestinians and not as critical of the Israelis and today's action in Ramallah. How do you think that will play in the Arab world?

AMANPOUR: Well, they are -- they're no doubt used to these kinds of comments. And, of course, the United States has expressed what many will agree, that when a country is under this kind of attack and its civilians are killed in bombings, there is obviously the urge to retaliate. The question many people will be asking is, what kind of retaliation is wise? And is this retaliation wise? We've seen this now steadily escalating for the last 18 months, for the last over a year of Prime Minister Sharon's government, and it hasn't brought a calming to the situation, it has done quite the reverse.

So that, of course, is what the Arab countries are going to be saying to the Americans. But more than that, they're going to be urging -- in the strongest of terms -- the American administration to get properly involved. They feel that this administration has been sitting on the sidelines for the last year and watching this conflict spiral into an unprecedented abyss that we see today. And that message, I have been told, will be taken to President Bush by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia when he visits President Bush in the United States in April.

Of course, remembering that all of this comes against a historic offering from the Arab countries, whether or not Israel or the United States thinks it's significant. The Arab countries have for the first time collectively declared that they are ready to reach out the hand of normal relations to Israel in a return for land. The classic land for peace scenario as outlined by U.N. resolutions. So this is the backdrop of where we find ourselves right now -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Christiane Amanpour, joining us from Jerusalem. Christiane, thank you very much. We'll be hearing more from you throughout the day and the evening from that region.

Well we've been mentioning much of Ramallah, and our own Michael Holmes was in Ramallah quite near the compound when those tanks came rolling down the street. Here's his report.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dozens of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers entered Ramallah in the early hours of Friday, heading straight for Yasser Arafat's compound.

(on camera): By 6:30 AM, Israeli tanks were well in place, literally, at Yasser Arafat's front door. There were repeated gunshots being fired in the streets around here. We've seen both armed Palestinians and also Israeli soldiers on foot.

(voice-over): Not far from the compound, armed Palestinians tell us to stop and turn around. It's too dangerous, they say. The fighting wasn't just at Yasser Arafat's compound. There was street- to-street fighting too, and there were casualties. Initially, ambulances unable to reach the injured because of the fighting.

In the center of Ramallah, more tanks, more armored personnel carriers, more evidence that Israel was hitting hard at the Palestinian Authority. Apart from men with guns, the streets deserted. At the compound itself perimeter walls were crushed by Israeli bulldozers, and then the impact of what appeared to have been a rocket. Later, smoke from a small fire and more casualties. From inside his besieged headquarters, Yasser Arafat spoke by telephone with the Arabic language television station, Al Jazeera.

YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN LEADER (through translator): They either want to kill me or capture me or expel me. But I say, no, I will be a martyr. I hope I'll be a martyr in the holy land. I have chosen this path, and if I fall, one day a Palestinian child will raise the Palestinian flag above our mosques and churches.

HOLMES: Later, it went a step further. Palestinian sources saying that Israeli troops had actually entered the compound, along with a tank firing on Yasser Arafat's own office. His security personnel responding in time.

At a local hospital, meanwhile, some of the victims, a man who didn't yet know the tanks were in the city, shot 100 meters from is home as he walked to a store early in the morning. Also here security officers from inside that compound. This man paralyzed by a bullet. This man shot if the face, he told doctors, by an Israeli sniper.

Throughout the day, more sporadic shooting, cars pushed aside, and the occasional sound of a tank shell. Anthony Zinni's hope for a cease-fire seemed a long way away.

Michael Holmes, CNN, Ramallah in the West Bank.






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