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Interview With Arie Mekel

Aired April 12, 2002 - 15:36   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our continuing coverage of the crisis in the Middle East, where there was another suicide bombing here in Jerusalem earlier today: six Israelis dead; the suicide bomber, a woman, also dead; some 70 bystanders injured, several of them very seriously.

At the same time, in Jenin, on the West Bank, a refugee camp, a Palestinian refugee camp, where Palestinians say the Israeli army has engaged in what they call massacres over these past several days.

Our Ben Wedeman is there. And he filed this report.


BED WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hundreds of Jenin residents respond to Israeli orders.

"They said everyone between 15 and 60 must go down to Haifa Street," says this man.

Scenes like these have been repeated throughout the West Bank: men rounded up for questioning as Israel continues its search for people it describes as terrorists. Elsewhere, the streets of Jenin are deserted. Hundreds who fled the nearby camp have found refuge in this crowded, chaotic building in the city of Jenin: the old, women, the young, the very young all cramped together, many desperately seeking news of husbands, brothers and fathers.

Ten-year-old Mujahed Suse (ph) was separated from his mother and father during the fighting. "I have been for five days without my mother or father or anyone," he says; 80-year-old Nafad Bazur (ph) says soldiers forced him to strip and leave the camp or he would be shot.

The Israeli government says Jenin is a city of suicide bombers. The camp was the scene of fierce fighting which claimed 23 Israeli soldiers. Those who are caught in the fighting say they feel abandoned and ignored by the outside world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In the camps, we will die in the camps. And God will help us only. God will help us.

WEDEMAN: Supplies of food and medicine are running low. The city water supply has been cut. Workers here say they only have enough for another day or two. Many of the people here seem to be in shock: silent, stunned and listless.

(on camera): From camp residents, we heard dozens of stories of mass graves, of hundreds dead. But the Israeli army isn't allowing any of the media anywhere near the camp.

(voice-over): Without full access to the camp, there is no way to confirm those stories. The Israeli government calls them Palestinian lies. And, at this point, it is unclear whether the full truth will ever come out.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, inside Jenin.


BLITZER: Ben Wedeman, thanks for that report.

Joining us now is an Israeli government spokesman, Arie Mekel. He works for the Foreign Ministry, a former consul general of Israel, in Atlanta.

Mr. Mekel, thanks for joining us.

Very disturbing reports coming out of Jenin -- what is the Israeli government's position? The Palestinians accuse your troops of engaging in a massacre there.

ARIE MEKEL, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTRY: Our position is very clear. We stick with the truth.

The Palestinians are now adding insult to injury. Not only was Jenin a center of the suicide bombers, and not only are they continuing to send suicide bombers to Jerusalem, like tonight; now they are also insulting everybody's intelligence by spreading a systematic system, if I may say so, of lies.

There's not one army in the world that is so careful not to harm civilians. If we really wanted to harm civilians, would we have lost 23 soldiers in Jenin? We could have used planes. And we did every effort. We lost 23 soldiers in order not to hurt any civilians.

BLITZER: You heard Ben Wedeman, though, say that the Israeli military is preventing access to Jenin for independent eyewitness accounts to see what happened. Why won't you let the international media into Jenin?

MEKEL: I also heard Ben Wedeman say that none of this can be confirmed independently.

BLITZER: Because they don't have access.

MEKEL: Not because of that, because it's not true.

But we will allow, eventually, when we are over. They're still fighting there. They're still shooting. We don't want the correspondents to go in, to get hurt, and then Israel will be blamed, like it happened in previous weeks. In due time, when the fighting is over -- but the fighting is not over. The terrorists, some of them are still there. They're still shooting. It's still very dangerous. We don't want to have any journalist who loses his life, we don't want to have it on our conscience.

BLITZER: The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, say perhaps 500 Palestinians were killed in Jenin. He goes on to say -- referring to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon -- quote -- "He's a war criminal of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Palestinian people will pursue those responsible, from the prime minister to the Israeli army to the international war crimes tribunals."

MEKEL: Well, it's a bunch of lies.

And the Palestinian leaders would do much better if they found a way to rein in the terrorists, to stop the terror attacks against the state of Israel, to stop events like the one that has happened tonight in Jerusalem. If they would have done that, instead of embarking on an anti-Israeli terror campaign 18 months ago, by now, they would have be very close to a Palestinian state, to having their own inspiration fulfilled.

But they decided that they would rather use terror to try and get from Israel what they think they cannot get at the negotiating table. And now they are lying, lying and lying, simply.

BLITZER: Speaking for the Israeli government -- and you're a government spokesman -- you work for the foreign ministry -- should the secretary of state, Colin Powell, meet with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah on Saturday?

MEKEL: Well, I don't think it's for us to make that decision. I don't think we would be presumptuous as to try and tell the secretary of state with whom he should meet or not meet.

But one thing from our point of view: If the secretary of state will be able, in Ramallah or elsewhere, to persuade the Palestinians to put an end to this monstrous phenomenon of suicide bombings and instead get back to the negotiating table, implement the Tenet plan, the Mitchell plan, plans that we have accepted. If he can do that, he will be applauded by everybody in the state of Israel. It will be a great success.

But, if the Palestinians continue to try and use there -- and we saw it tonight in Jerusalem, two days ago in Haifa -- well, it will be very sad here, and we will have no choice but to continue. This is our strike against terror. And we will have no choice but to continue it and root out the entire terrorist infrastructure.

BLITZER: So, without a meeting, though, with Chairman Arafat, there is not going to be a cease-fire.

MEKEL: Well, it's up to the secretary, really, to decide with whom he wants to meet. It's not up to us. And we won't even try and advise on that.

But the problem is not this meeting or that meeting. The problem is for the Palestinians to change their strategy. They should understand. They don't understand the psyche of the Israeli people. We cannot be defeated by terror. We cannot be defeated by anything else. We refuse to live in a country where you can't board a bus, where you can't walk the on street, where you can't enter a coffee shop, when you can't go to market, particularly when you cannot have a Jewish religious feast like the seder on Passover without 28 elderly Jews being murdered by a cold-blooded terrorist.

This is not the state we want. This is not the state we believe in. And, yes, we don't apologize. We will use our military force to change the situation if no other way is found. But, if the secretary can change it, we would be the first to applaud him. We would be very gratified.

BLITZER: OK, Arie Mekel, government spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Sharon, thank you very much for joining us.

MEKEL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

We'll take another quick break. When we come back: more of our coverage of the crisis in the Middle East. Stay with us.




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