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Explosion Rocks Tel Aviv

Aired March 30, 2002 - 18:00   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Another tense and terrifying day in the Middle East, the scene of a huge explosion, tanks and troops on the move, and more bloodshed.

We begin with CNN's Bill Hemmer. He joins us live from Jerusalem -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, good evening again.

You mentioned bloodshed, first off to Tel Aviv, when a suicide bomber hours ago walked into a popular cafe along a popular street and blew himself up. Israeli police indicating, as you mentioned, Carol, 29 people injured, right now about a half dozen in serious condition. The only fatality, police say, is the suicide bomber himself, a 23- year-old man from the town of Nablus in the northern section of the West Bank, a member of the Al Aksa Martyr Brigade. They had claimed responsibility for this latest suicide bombing.

And again it occurred in the heart of Tel Aviv along a popular street known as Allenby Street. Shops and stores and restaurants located up and down, and many of those stores with windows for facades, which could make for a whole lot of damage.

Ben Wedeman, our reporter on the scene, indicates he got inside the cafe and he says there was just a massive amount of physical damage. He remarks that he was surprised that, indeed, more people were not injured or even killed after that suicide bombing in the heart of Tel Aviv.

Elsewhere on the West Bank, getting reports of numerous clashes in a number of different areas, including one in the town of Hebron, this area divided between Palestinians and Israelis. Tanks, apparently, from the Israeli military did roll in hours ago, we're told. There was an exchange of gunfire. But where that stands right now we are unclear.

Also in another part of the West Bank, Beit Jala, a Palestinian town that sits right next to Bethlehem about six miles south of our location here in Jerusalem, another exchange of gunfire is apparently taking place there, as well.

The point in all of this, Carol, is that the violence does continue in a number of different areas throughout the West Bank. Also in the town of Ramallah, Yasser Arafat still surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks. The Israeli government now indicating to us that they will stay there and keep him surrounded for however long that takes, whether that's days or weeks, or possibly even more. The Israeli government indicating that they believe they want to force Yasser Arafat into talk of a cease-fire and this is the only way to do it.

Here's an Israeli spokesperson from a short time ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would rather have the Palestinians understand that terror will lead them nowhere and that the only way to come -- to reach a reasonable agreement with Israel is around the negotiating table. But as long as bombings go on, as long as the Palestinian Authority does nothing to stop them, there is no possibility to go back to the path of diplomacy, which eventually we will have to.


HEMMER: Talking about diplomacy there, Anthony Zinni, the U.S. envoy, still in the region, still here in Jerusalem. President Bush indicating he will not pull Zinni out or away from this current conflict.

Israelis indicating to us that there is still communication at the highest level with Anthony Zinni and there is also a scenario being developed, according to one source within the government here in Jerusalem, that if Anthony Zinni were to request a visit with Yasser Arafat inside that compound, the Israeli government says they would welcome that and allow Zinni to go visit Arafat, again, still holed up there in the three remaining rooms of that compound.

They say that that's the best way, in their vision right now, to get Arafat to agree to a cease-fire. But again, that is strictly speculation right now. It is not on the table but it's something that's being considered -- Carol.

LIN: Interesting.

On that note, Bill Hemmer live in Jerusalem.

Let's go to Ramallah, where CNN's Michael Holmes has been reporting throughout the day. He spent part of that time near Arafat's compound today.

Michael, I'm not sure if you were able to hear Bill Hemmer's report, but he's indicating that the Israelis may allow U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to visit Yasser Arafat inside his compound. I don't know if you've heard of this or if there's any reaction there. I know it's the middle of the night.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it certainly is. No, no reaction as yet. I apologize for our change of background. We've got a gunman out the back. It's been, it's actually been a very quiet evening here after a very hectic day, but there are some gunshots very close by so we've moved positions to work the angles, as it were at the compound.

No, no reaction to that officially as yet. As you say, it's the middle of night here. It's just after 1:00 a.m. local time. There was earlier much speculation that Israeli forces may move on Yasser Arafat into the office building where he is at. There has been no sign of that. We spent some time down there earlier this evening. There was some tank movement around, some armored personnel carrier activity, but there was no sign of any action against Yasser Arafat personally.

From my conversations with the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat today and this evening, he would welcome Anthony Zinni taking part in any form of discussions with Yasser Arafat at the compound if he were able to do so. Yasser Arafat says he is willing to talk peace. He's, of course, said publicly that he's willing to implement the Tenet cease-fire plan in full.

There have been some disputes between Israel and the Palestinians on exactly how Tenet should be implemented. Yasser Arafat's gone full circle and said let's go back to square one and we'll live with that one.

Meanwhile today there was a roundup of Palestinians aged 15 to 45 in various neighborhoods in Ramallah. We saw at one point 300, 400 who had been rounded up and gathered and were questioned individually. Some were detained, some were released and when we left after a couple of hours, some were still waiting patiently at the end of a very, very long line.

Also, overnight last night and into the morning a fierce gun battle took place in the center of Ramallah in an office building there. Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops exchanging copious quantities of munitions. The street looked like a disaster zone by the end of it, glass and bullet holes and spent shells all over. It was quite a scene.

There were a number of arrests from that, upwards of 30, and we personally saw probably four or five injured, which, given the scene, was actually quite surprising.

The death toll for the Palestinians at the moment is at six as far as we can determine, including one Palestinian security officer who was shot today and died inside Yasser Arafat's compound. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed during this campaign.

Now, when I say six dead Palestinians, I have to correct myself. It's actually 11 now, because five Palestinians were shot dead in a building today in Ramallah, not far from where that firefight took place. Four of them were part of the Palestinian security forces. One was a civilian.

So at this stage on what's been a quiet night comparatively, apart from this fellow out the back here, it's the situation normal. Yasser Arafat still in the office and isolated -- back to you, Carol.

LIN: Michael, I can't ignore your own personal situation there. What is this about a gunman outside? Who is he aiming at and how much danger are you in?

HOLMES: It's pretty dark. Hopefully he's not aiming this way, but he is close. We've become quite accustomed to the sound of gunfire over the last couple of days and we're getting reasonably good at guessing where they're at. In this case he is sort of in that direction. So if I'm here, he's not going to be able to get in through the window.

There's some troops up the road, too, Israeli troops in an armored personnel carrier. The gunfire, to me, sounds like an AK-47, which would indicate a Palestinian gunman, but I can't be a hundred percent sure. And given the troops up that end of the street, it's probably the case -- Carol.

LIN: Michael Holmes, thank you very much. Try to get further insight and please stay safe. We'll be coming to you throughout the night, though.

In the meantime, obviously the siege in Ramallah highlights a turn in the Israeli military policy.

CNN military analyst General Wesley Clark joins us with an overview of this military situation -- General Wesley Clark, obviously the military situation mixed in with the political dynamic there, when you take a look at what's happened so far, just in a single day you've got 29 Israelis injured in Tel Aviv in yet another suicide bombing. You've got 11 Palestinians now dead in the West Bank territories, troops surrounding Yasser Arafat. Where is the situation headed?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME COMMANDER, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's both sides using the weapons and the means at their disposal. With the Israelis, with the dominance in military power going on the offensive into the Palestinian areas in an effort to prevent more suicide bombings. The Palestinians with probably a long cue of people and targets and equipment ready to go in and strike Israeli civilians.

And I think where it's going to go is Israel has the initiative right now and Israel will continue this until it achieves some degree of tactical success in terms of weapons captured and operations disrupted and people arrested. And then it's a question of whether Israel can make a strategic move, whether they then say that they have done enough, they can open a dialogue, either with the Palestinians, with, or through Tony Zinni on some kind of a political track, or maybe even, as one of my coll -- former colleagues, Jim Steinberg (ph), suggested, going out to Saudi Arabia, for example, and trying to take advantage of Prince Abdullah's peace plan to bring the Saudis in to put pressure on Arafat.

LIN: But the Israel military in a pretty difficult situation, don't you think, wedged in with the political dynamic there? I mean what are their options on the ground? Don't the Palestinians, don't the suicide bombers know that the Israeli military can really only go so far right now?

CLARK: Well, I think it's a matter of how far the Israel military can go surgically, as you suggest, Carol, because there is intense international interest in casualties. But thus far the Israeli operation hasn't been marred by any significant mistakes that we know of. It's been very precisely done. They are not going in and targeting civilians and doing the wholesale damage. They're getting in, they are going through walls and knocking down walls. But when they go in they've been very precise. I think if they stay precise and if they continue to have the backing of the Bush administration, which acknowledges Israel's right to self-defense, and as more Europeans come to see it that way, then I think Israel will have the time it needs and the time it seeks inside these areas to accomplish the tactical results of throwing the Palestinians off balance.

LIN: Do you believe the Israeli government when they say that they're only meaning to isolate Yasser Arafat and not harm him in any way?

CLARK: Well, I believe them for now. It doesn't mean that at some point they wouldn't change their perspective on this. But right now he's of more utility where he is. Perhaps, as you mentioned, maybe Tony Zinni will go in and talk to Yasser Arafat. Maybe that'll be the break that the Israelis need. I would be skeptical of that. But he's of more use in that position than he would be if he were dead.

LIN: All right, thank you very much.

Always good to see you, General Wesley Clark joining us this evening on a very violent day in the Middle East.


LIN: As we follow developments in the Middle East, a third suicide bombing in three days. President Bush had officially announced that it was going to be a day off on his ranch At Crawford, Texas. Well, as developments continued in the Mideast, he had no choice but to come out and state an opinion or at least a position.

CNN's Major Garrett traveling with the president and he joins us with more -- Major, it was an unusual circumstance when you all were gathered suddenly to hear from the president.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Carol. A very chaotic day here at the western White House in Crawford, Texas. This morning White House aides reassured us repeatedly that there would be no public event for the president, that he would have no public statement on the crisis in the Middle East. And after the president spent a good part of his morning on the telephone with world leaders, many of them key players in the Arab world, he and his top aides huddled via telephone and he decided to come out and make a statement here.

And among the questions that were confronting the president as he prepared to make that statement was would there be any U.S. protests registered against the Israeli Defense Forces' incursions into Ramallah and would the siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in any way change the emphasis of Bush administration policy in the Middle East, which has been to say that it is Palestinian acts of terrorism that are at the root of the current crisis.

The answer to both questions were no. The Bush administration still considers Palestinian terrorism the root of the problem and the president in no way issued a protest against the Israeli incursion. He said it was up to Chairman Arafat to do more to stop terrorism before any progress could be achieved toward reaching a cease-fire.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think Chairman Arafat can do a lot more. I truly believe that. I believe he needs to stand up and condemn in Arabic these attacks. He's got a security force, admittedly somewhat one the defensive right now, but nevertheless there is a security force. There's a security apparatus. We've been dealing with the leaders of this security apparatus. And they have got to do a much better job of preventing people from coming into Israel to blow up innocent people.


GARRETT: Carol, even as the president was speaking, stretchers were ferrying the wounded from the latest suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv. The president was asked about that. He said that only underscores the administration position on exactly what the real problem is in the Middle East, right now at least.

When asked about the Israeli Defense Forces's actions in Ramallah, the president said look, Israel is a democratically elected government. It is responding to the will of the people. The president did make a glancing reference, however, to a U.N. Security Council resolution which the United States supported that calls for an eventual withdrawal from Israeli Defense Forces from Ramallah. But there's no date certain for that and one of the reasons is the United States demanded that that be excised from the resolution -- Carol.

LIN: Well, I suppose the only good news out to Mideast today is that we are hearing that Israeli and Palestinian security forces still continue to talk to one another. And just a few minutes ago, I spoke with Bill Hemmer in Jerusalem and he's hearing from Israeli sources, Major, that Anthony Zinni may try to meet with Yasser Arafat in his compound as he's surrounded by these tanks and that the Israelis may allow him to do just that.

Are you hearing anything at the ranch there, reaction from the administration as to how that, whether that conversation is going to go forward and what's likely to be on the table?

GARRETT: No specific confirmation, Carol, as to whether or not that conversation will take place. But we have been told time and again, and the president said this repeatedly in his remarks at the ranch today, that Anthony Zinni remains his point man, his personal point man in the region. And grievances and negotiations expressed by the Israelis and the Palestinians must first go through Mr. Zinni, then through Secretary of State Powell and then to the president. And the president said Mr. Zinni will remain in the region, will talk to anyone under any set of circumstances about achieving a cease-fire.

One note on this, Carol. As Bill has talked about earlier today and I've mentioned in previous reports, the president was very optimistic that a cease-fire could have been achieved, optimistic as recently as Wednesday when the Passover Massacre basically derailed those talks. The president hoes they can be rebuilt and soon -- Carol.

LIN: We'll see how resilient the peace process is going to be.

Thank you very much.

Major Garrett reporting live, traveling with the president in Crawford, Texas.




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