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Explosion in Port City of Haifa; Interview with Wane Owens

Aired March 31, 2002 - 07:07   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We have reports just coming in to CNN of a fairly serious explosion in the port city of Haifa in Israel. There are reports that dozens have been injured. Ambulance service says the -- say the explosions or explosion happened in a restaurant near a shopping center there. Details very sketchy at this juncture. We will turn it now to CNN's Jerusalem bureau chief, Mike Hanna, who may have more for us on that -- Mike.

MIKE HANNA, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Miles, indeed, details very sketchy at this stage. Reports of the explosion coming just within the last few minutes. What we know at this stage is that there has been a very large explosion in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, a port city. Initial reports indicate that the explosion took place in a restaurant very near a shopping center.

And police are saying at this stage that there are dozens of casualties. They use that word, "dozens of casualties." Ambulances reported to be rushing on their way to the scene. No indication yet on the nature of this explosion, whether it is in fact another terror attack, which is likely considering the wave of terror attacks that have taken place in Israel in recent days.

We're still waiting for further details of this explosion in Haifa. We do know -- or according to police that dozens of people have been wounded. No reports yet of any casualties, but this is very, very earlier in terms of these developing events. We're waiting for more details.

What we can confirm at this stage is the fact that there has been an explosion in a restaurant near a shopping center. Dozens of people injured in this last, according to Israeli police -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Mike, let's -- obviously, we don't want to get too deep in the world of speculation here, but if in fact this bears out to be yet another suicide bombing attack, how does the change the situation? Is there a certain numbness to all of this violence at this juncture or does this put this into a whole new realm?

HANNA: Well, a numbness would be the wrong word. There's an intensity about this ongoing violence that is absolutely unprecedented. We have this wave of terror attacks against Israeli targets. There was one overnight in Tel Aviv. There was one in a Jerusalem supermarket. There was that massive attack in Netanya that killed 20 Israelis. At the same time, as well, we have these massive Israeli military actions in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israeli troops having assaulted the compound of Yasser Arafat. We've got reports of Israeli tanks on the move in very other -- many other parts of the West Bank. So certainly, if this does indeed prove to be yet another terror attack, then we -- in the situation, yet another in a chain of events that is contributing to and intensifying what has already been a very grave situation indeed.

We've just receiving more details now of what has been happening. Ambulance services, we just have a report from them, say it is a very severe attack. Already more than 20 people have been treated. There are still a large amount of injured on the scene that are still receiving treatment.

Once again, Miles, to repeat here. These reports came within the last five minutes. We are correlating everything as it comes into us. We do have the police confirming the fact that it was an explosion. We are still awaiting confirmation that it was in fact an intentional explosion, that it was another, in a long chain of terror attacks.

We have the ambulance services saying now that there are a large amount of injuries, confirming those original police reports. The ambulances services do have a specific figure at this stage, that more than 20 people have been treated. That means that there are, the ambulance people on the ground already and they do get to these scenes of attack very speedily indeed.

And -- but they say, too, that there are still people at the scene who are waiting for treatment. So a very, very serious development here in an already untenable situation, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Mike, give us just a quick geography lesson. How far is Haifa from where you stand? And tell us a little bit about that city.

HANNA: Well, Haifa is in northern Israel. It is a matter of a few hundred miles away from Jerusalem here, where we are at the moment. It is a bustling port city. It is very Mediterranean type area. Many fish restaurants. Very much a favored place to go spend the weekend in normal times. Very much a cosmopolitan type atmosphere, lots of coffee bars, lots of fish restaurants. Very much a laid back, easy go, happy port type town. But that's not the case on the course of the days. It's -- does by all accounts appear to be a town that has now been hit by an explosion.

The nature of the explosion, Miles, we're still waiting hear exactly what caused it, waiting for confirmation of what does appear to be the likelihood of yet another terror attack, Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Mike Hanna, our Jerusalem bureau chief, thanks very much.

Let's continue our discussion now. Joining us with some more perspective is Wayne Owens of the Center For Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. Mr. Owens, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: I assume you were able to hear us talking about this latest bit of news.

OWENS: Yes, I was.

O'BRIEN: All right. How does this -- if in fact this does bare out to be yet another suicide bombing attack or an attack linked to that whole regime and that cause...

OWENS: It's another devastating blow to say the least. The Israelis very properly doing everything they can to try to defend themselves, but the process not seeming to work. They can't seem to protect themselves from the bombing.

O'BRIEN: What -- given the fact that the violence has reached this terrible crescendo, does that in any way pose perhaps an opportunity for peace? In other words, when they get to the brink of violence at this level, is it possible that both sides may come back down and reach some sort of...

OWENS: Well, I...

O'BRIEN: ... ability to talk?

OWENS: I do believe that there is an opportunity for peace and that the increasingly devastating activities going on not only in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but in Ramallah, are bringing the people down, hopefully. There are some who can pull back and be objective and say, now, wait a minute, there's got to be a way to stop this. What we're doing now is not working.

The Americans, I think -- Admiral -- General Zinni very, very actively involved this afternoon over there in trying to figure out how. As he met last night with the Russians, the United Nations and the European Union special envoys, his counterparts, trying to figure how they can do more. In fact, it is the Americans who have the opportunity, that if there is any light here, which can be seen down the road, it is a light showing the Americans the way.

It is our government, which has both the political and the moral opportunity here to say now, wait a minute. We have to pull back. We have to -- we have to discuss not only a ceasefire and implement one at whatever cost, we've also got to talk about providing some hope for the Palestinians who are overwhelmingly anxious, decent, good people trying to figure out to live their lives and to win their freedom. We have to figure out how to give them some hope while providing some security to the Israelis.

I hope that General Zinni is being given additional mandate responsibility with some political opportunity to discuss how, in the end, this thing can be resolved and not just trying to talk about how to implement a ceasefire because it's not working and they're not able to do it.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Owens, as we've been talking, CNN has confirmed that a restaurant there in Haifa is completely destroyed as a result of that explosion. We'll keep providing you details as they become available to us.

Just -- let's talk a little bit about Ramallah and the siege of Arafat's compound. What's the likely end game there, the way you see it?

OWENS: Well, Arafat, of course, very properly or very understandably feels that he's in total -- under total siege and that his life is threatened. I was there 10 days ago in the very room in which he's holed up, meeting with Arafat and I know his mentality. Arafat is a sad case. Arafat has great opportunity.

And a year-and-a-half ago when the second -- the Fatah began, moved back to his basic instincts, which are to embrace a violence and to wink at violence. But he has not -- he's become the victim of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad people whom he failed to control. And now, he is, unfortunately, without the kind of resources that the leader of the Palestinian really needs. And yet, he is the leader. He is the only -- he is the only man of power there.

Limited as it is, he still is the icon. He is the hopes and the aspirations of the Palestinian people and must be dealt with. And I hope to God he is not injured and he is not killed because with all of his weaknesses, he is what we have to work with and he does have an opportunity, if the Americans will lead the way. The Americans cannot only impose almost -- they must almost impose a ceasefire. But they must show politically down the road, there is hope and there is opportunity for the Palestinian people.

The Israeli people are in grave danger. They are five million Jews and they are surrounded by 250 million Arabs. And those Arabs now hate them and distrust them in ways that had -- wasn't true in the past. The Holy Land has seen many wars over the ages and you have to worry, as you sit back and watch, that a new war, a serious -- a serious regional war is happening.

O'BRIEN: Wayne Owens is with...

OWENS: Or about to happen.

O'BRIEN: Wayne Owens is with the Center For Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. Thank you very much for being with us on CNN SUNDAY MORNING.

OWENS: Thank you.





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