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29 Injured at Cafe in Tel-Aviv

Aired March 30, 2002 - 16:31   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: In the Middle East, all eyes are on there, where the continued violence only continues to escalate there. Earlier today in Tel Aviv, at a cafe, a suicide bomber walks in and detonates himself. The Al Aqsa Martyr Brigade is claiming responsibility, a wing of Arafat's Fatah movement. Twenty-nine people have been wounded. We want to go now to our Ben Wedeman, who is there in Tel-Aviv, and he has got some new pictures for us. Ben, what's the latest on that investigation?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fredricka. Well, they are beginning to clean up at the site of this cafe, the Mai (ph) coffee shop cafe. In this blast that took blast just about -- right after -- excuse me, 9:00 p.m. local time. Apparently 29 people injured, six of them seriously, one critically, apparently a woman.

I got a chance to get a closer look at the cafe, and it is a scene of complete destruction. There is nothing inside this cafe, which is on a corner, that is not destroyed. And in fact, it's quite amazing that there was not a higher casualty toll as a result of that blast.

Now, the suicide (AUDIO GAP)

WHITFIELD: All right, that's Ben Wedeman from Tel-Aviv.

We want to go now to Jerusalem where our Bill Hemmer is, who is keeping tabs on a perspective, much broader perspective there of the Israeli front in this war on terrorism and its response to the continued violence in the Middle East there -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, Jerusalem is essentially quiet at this time. A lot of traffic completely off the streets. Just about 12:30 in the evening, about 30 minutes past midnight, now into Easter Sunday here. And about 10 miles north of our location in Ramallah, the compound where Yasser Arafat is now holed up, still surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks.

Now we want to make clear here: Palestinian officials told CNN four hours ago that an ultimatum had been given by the Israeli government, indicating that troops on the Israeli side may storm that compound, and arrest and apprehend anyone they come across inside. We are now being told by the Israeli government that there are no orders to do that. Let's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) right now, but Gideon Meir, from spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry Office here in Jerusalem. Good evening to you, sir.

If indeed there has been the ultimatum, what is the ultimatum against Yasser Arafat inside of the compound?

GIDEON MEIR, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTRY: I am unaware of any ultimatum. Quite the country. Our forces are there, they are staying there. The decision of the Israeli government is not to harm Yasser Arafat. The decision of the Israeli government is to isolate him. And the Israeli troops have these instructions.

HEMMER: Why would the Palestinians, and Saeb Erakat, a man who has been interviewed on this network many, many times, as you well know, why would he say that if indeed that's not the case?

MEIR: There are so many things being told by the Palestinians in the past 11 months, about massacres and all kinds of things, and then, a few hours later, you found out it was all stories and no one was checking the stories. So I can tell you right now -- just before coming here I checked it, there is no intention to storm Yasser Arafat. The Israeli decision, which Israeli defense force will comply with, not to harm Yasser Arafat.

HEMMER: Not to harm him. At some point, will you arrest him, apprehend him, possibly deport him?

MEIR: There is no such decision by the Israeli government. We are democracy. In a democracy, you have to decide by law, and the Israeli government decided to isolate him. This is a decision.

HEMMER: It is a military movement also, and one knows military planners plan a lot, with several different avenues to take. Is deporting Yasser Arafat one of the considerations on the table? Maybe not the first choice, but one of them?

MEIR: The decision right now is to isolate Yasser Arafat. This what the Israeli government decided. The Israeli defense forces are getting the orders from the Israeli government. We are a democracy.

HEMMER: What does it mean "isolate?" Define that word for us.

MEIR: Isolate, from what I understand is, that Yasser Arafat will not be able to instruct his terrorist organization to activate more terror against innocent Israelis.

HEMMER: Are you saying that Yasser Arafat is responsible for ordering attacks on Israelis directly?

MEIR: The answer to your question is yes, and I'll give you one example, if I may.

HEMMER: The evidence is where?

MEIR: The evidence was on the eve of our sacred Passover, two bombers on the way to a major shopping mall in Jerusalem, who were caught by Israeli defense forces, they belong to Tadrim (ph) Fatah. Tadrim (ph) Fatah is a terrorist organization, the organization which reports directly to Yasser Arafat. I'll tell you even more. Two days before they came, we had intelligence, and the Israelis passed this intelligence to the Palestinian security organizations, and the answer -- well, the answer was that they came in order to create, to have this bomb.

HEMMER: And you're saying you're trying to isolate him, he still has a cell phone? So clearly the isolation is not complete, it's not 100 percent seal.

MEIR: So -- but we -- you know that with cell phones there's little you can do. Hopefully, this will also be dealt with, but our intentions is that he will not be able to instruct his people...

HEMMER: Are you trying, sir, to wear him down, to make him tired?

MEIR: No, we are trying to protect our people. We are a grieving country today. We are trying to protect our people, and what we are doing is to isolate him, to make sure that he cannot send all his instructions, and also part of the incitement. You know, suicide bombers are not born. They are created. And they are created by the whole Palestinian educational system. And we have to stop it. And part of it is also the symbol of Yasser Arafat who is creating this incitement.

HEMMER: Explain something to me. There are checkpoints set up on the border of what's called the green line, that separates the West Bank from Israel proper. This suicide bomber, claimed by the Al Aqsa Brigade, came from the town of Nablus. How is it that a person like this -- and this has happened so many times -- can actually get through those checkpoints, penetrate places like Netanya and places like Tel-Aviv?

MEIR: Not necessarily they are penetrating through the checkpoints. They can come through other places. We cannot control, obviously, to seal off the state of Israel totally. So they find the ways how to enter the state. It is very difficult to seal it. Therefore, what we are doing now is we are going after the heads of the terrorist organizations. It takes time. We need a lot of patience. We need a lot of perseverance. It's not a job we can do in one day, but we learn from some countries how to fight terrorism.

HEMMER: Those countries being whom?

MEIR: United States, Britain, other countries. I think there is no one country in the world who will -- who would tolerate such bombarding and suicide bombers exploding themselves among families and sometimes erasing whole families from the face of the earth.

HEMMER: How long will the tanks stay in Ramallah?

MEIR: As long as it is necessary for the Israeli defense forces to route out terror.

HEMMER: Is that days, is that weeks, is that months? And how much is Israeli government willing to stand if indeed more suicide bombers come into your country, Israel proper meaning here, on a daily basis?

MEIR: I said I don't know how long it will take. As long as it will take for forces to route out terror.

HEMMER: The tanks will stay there?

MEIR: They'll stay there as long as it will take for us to defend our people here.

HEMMER: Anthony Zinni, you said earlier to me that he is the only game in town. What's going on with that game? Is Anthony Zinni being effective, in a manner of speaking, is he winning in any degree with his negotiations between the two sides?

MEIR: I would like to share with you some facts. General Zinni arrived the third time here in the region on March the 14th. Since his arrival...

HEMMER: Please, I'm sorry. We are running out of time. I am sorry, quickly.

MEIR: OK. So General Zinni -- Israel did everything possible for him to succeed in his mission, to reach a cease-fire. We wanted him to reach a cease-fire. Once there will be cease-fire, Israel will pull out from all the areas.

HEMMER: Gideon Meir, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry here in Israel, thank you for your time tonight. Apologize for cutting you off at the end, but we have to go back to Atlanta.

Once again from Tel-Aviv, Fredricka, 29 injured, one dead, that dead being the suicide bomber. Back to you in Atlanta.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks a lot, Bill. We want to go to Ramallah, where our Michael Holmes is now -- Michael.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fredricka. I can tell you that from our observations and our contact that the headquarters of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, there does not appear to have been any sort of activity there in the last couple of hours. We were there for about 15, 20 minutes, half an hour nearly, and there was absolutely no activity despite these reports of an imminent storming of the building in which he is holed up at the moment, confined to just two rooms in an office. No action at all I can report to you.

And there were some pretty wild reports going around about rockets being fired in and things like that -- absolutely no evidence of that. All seemed remarkably quiet there. There had been shooting there earlier in the day; in fact, a Palestinian security guard was killed during the day by Israeli gunfire.

Around the city tonight, it is remarkably quiet after two days of almost continuous gunfire around the city. Today was very active morning at least. Major gun battles in the middle of the city, which left a length of a main street in Ramallah just littered with glass and thousands of bullet casings and 20-odd prisoners and about a dozen wounded. As we saw, it was a very serious firefight. During the afternoon, it quieted down a bit, and we saw extraordinary scenes for Ramallah, which was children playing in the streets, a very unusual sight. And tragically for this part of the world, at the same time there was still gunfire in various parts of the city.

However, it has reduced a lot. It's been, for us, a remarkably quiet evening. And I am sure the residents of Ramallah who have been locked behind closed doors for nearly two days would be pleased about that, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you. Michael Holmes reporting from Ramallah. And you heard just moments ago Israeli Foreign Ministry's Gideon Meir saying that tanks will be staying in Ramallah. He would not indicate for how long, though.

So, the next question is, what is the next military strategic move? Coming up after this break, we will talk about that and we will explore whether the U.S. will in any way be involved, when we come right back.


WHITFIELD: We continue to keep an eye on the developments in the Middle East there, where the Israeli Foreign Ministry's official says that they have no intention of pulling back Israeli tanks in Ramallah. Specifically, near the compound of Yasser Arafat, his headquarters there. We have got on the phone with us now the head of the Palestinian security in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoob. Can you hear me OK?


WHITFIELD: OK. Explain the scene there. You are apparently surrounded by Israeli tanks?

RAJOOB: Please -- I beg your pardon?

WHITFIELD: Give me a sense as to where you are in the relation to the Israeli tanks that have surrounded the area there?

RAJOOB: I myself am in Ramallah, but you are talking about the president. Now, the Israelis are just a few meters far from his office.

WHITFIELD: And what is the activity? It sounds pretty quiet there right now. But what is the intent as you understand it?

Well, it looks as though we've lost that transmission, that telephone conversation with the Palestinian security leader in the West Bank, Jabril Rajoob. We of course will try to resume contact with him. If we're able to do that -- so instead now, let's bring in our own General Wesley Clark to give us a better sense about what is going on there right now or what could be the next military move.

We heard from the Foreign Ministry there who said Israel has no intent on pulling out those tanks, so it seems as though all bets are off for any kind of diplomatic reasoning to try and bring these two sides together. So, the next military move could be what on the Israeli part, and would it involve the U.S.?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I don't think it will involve the U.S., Fredricka, but I do think that what you will see is that the armored forces and the other Israeli forces that are in these Arab areas and the Palestinian areas are going to stay there for sometime. Israel is going to have to produce the bona fides to prove that its operation was a tactical and a strategic success. To prove it was a tactical success, it is going to have to find the weapons caches, the explosives, the terrorist documents, the planning, the communications, and it is going to have to arrest a number of Palestinians who were involved in this. It is a matter of time and diligence on the part of the Israelis, and I am sure that they will be able to have some of these.

To prove it's a strategic success, there will be two measures. First of all, has it had any impact on the level of terrorist activity directed against Israel. That will be an important question to be answered. Obviously, if the terrorist activity stops, the Israelis will claim success. If it does not stop, the Israelis will probably be able to explain how they've disrupted other potential activities that would have occurred.

WHITFIELD: But the answer to that is already, no. It is not a success, because earlier today we had an explosion in Tel-Aviv at a cafe there. So, obviously, this strategy is not working if the final intent, the only intent is to stop anymore terrorist attacks.

CLARK: It has not worked yet. Now, if it does begin to work, then I think the Israelis will go then to the next phase of making it a strategic success by then trying to move and suggest some kind of a diplomatic move. What that might be remains to be determined.

But they are in a position where they are not going to be able to engage in a diplomatic dialogue until they can reverse the feeling that they are negotiating under pressure and under the weight of terrorism. So they are going to have to have some breathing room before they can start a diplomatic dialogue. This move is an effort to gain it.

WHITFIELD: Last you and I spoke, you talked about what you believed might have been a miscalculation on the Bush administration's part by expressing optimism as General Zinni has been in the Middle East region trying to bring the two sides together. Then just days after their expression of optimism, you have got more suicide bombings, and now an Israeli response such as this. Do you see that the Bush administration has to be completely exhausted or fatigued with frustration that these efforts don't seem to be bringing the results that they were expecting?

CLARK: Well, I think the expression of optimism was a tactic. It was designed to set up a momentum in which the sides were encouraged to take the next step. But it was a tactic that did not work. And I think the administration is -- understands what's at stake here. After all, as the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir just stated, this is Israel's effort to defend itself, and they are looking at other nations' efforts and learning from those efforts. So the United States has said it is going to take the fight to the terrorists. It is not going to wait to be struck again.

And I think the Israelis have used that argument with good affect in the United States. I think Americans do understand the analogy here. And I think that that has brought Israel some breathing room from American pressure. It is not clear that the Europeans and certainly not those in the Middle East are sympathetic to that line of argument.

WHITFIELD: All right, thank you very much, General Wesley Clark, for your insight and helping us to better understand that next military moves or diplomatic moves as it pertains to the Middle East crisis. Thank you very much.




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