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Crisis in the Middle East

Aired April 12, 2002 - 12:39   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Back to the incident that took place in the streets of Central Jerusalem. Just about three-and-a-half hours ago, a suicide bomber, a woman, claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Police say she was loaded with explosives trying to enter a busy marketplace. When she noticed that security was quite tight around that marketplace, she backed up, turned around and went toward a bus stop. Near that bus stop, we are told by eyewitnesses, she detonated the explosives. Six people dead right now, 65 others wounded. Again, all this happening along Jaffa Road in Central Jerusalem.

It also happens at a time when Colin Powell just completed about a four-hour meeting with Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister. Afterwards, Powell was asked once again whether the U.S. right now is demanding an immediate withdrawal of the military operation. Powell says no timetable has been set. Little else offered in terms of specifics following that meeting with Ariel Sharon.

A bit short time later, a helicopter took the Secretary of State to the northern part of Israel, along the border with Lebanon. We are told that there are some mortar blasts again taking place there, and this has been a great concern for the past 14 days now in the region about the possibility for a widening conflict. Israel has responded on Hezbollah positions there in southern Lebanon for about 10 days running now.

As for the two sides here in Israel, the Israelis say right now Yasser Arafat clearly responsible, they say, in their words, "clearly responsible" for the suicide bombing that came here earlier today.

Here is a spokesperson for the foreign ministry on how he views the attack that has left six people dead.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a double message. There is a message to Israel and there is also a message to the United States and Secretary of State Powell, because in effect, the Al Aqsa Brigades belong to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. And I think that this is a direct message coming from Yasser Arafat to Colin Powell telling him exactly how he views the situation here, what is his position. And his message, unfortunately, is a message of death and violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HEMMER: In turn, the Palestinians -- in turn, the Palestinians are pointing the finger of blame directly at Ariel Sharon. They say the military incursions, now two weeks old as of earlier today here in Jerusalem, the incursions they say are what drive these right now, the suicide bombers to head into Israel.

Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian Cabinet member, again her comment from CNN a few hours ago.


HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN SPOKESWOMAN: We need genuine intervention. Sharon's policies are bringing death to both peoples, except when it happens to Palestinians, not only doesn't the world sit up and take notice, you don't have cameramen, you don't have people in Jenin and Nablus. We need to stop Sharon. His lethal policies are growing blood on both sides.


ASHRAWI: That's what I think. That's why we need a serious intervention, international troops and we need to end the occupation as well as to be security for both people.


HEMMER: So many people right now waiting and wondering whether or not Colin Powell will indeed have that meeting with Yasser Arafat.

Andrea Koppel, now traveling with the Secretary of State, joins us now with what she is hearing from senior officials.

Andrea, hello, what do you have for us?


Well, as you can imagine, this is -- this latest terrorist attack and Secretary Powell's meetings this morning with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have dealt Secretary Powell's trip some serious setbacks. I spoke with a senior State Department official just a short time ago, and in his words he said, "we are now back looking at tomorrow." When I pressed him and asked whether or not that meant that Secretary Powell might not meet as he had planned with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he repeated, "we are looking at the whole situation."

The Israeli government, Bill, obviously asking Secretary Powell even before he had said he wanted to go, not to visit with the Palestinian leader. And now, following this attack and the claim by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the Israeli government pressure is that much steeper.

So as things stand right now, Secretary Powell and his aides are meeting. They're back in Jerusalem. You had just alluded a moment ago to the helicopter trip that we took to the border near northern -- well actually, it was in northern Israel on the border with Lebanon. I was told also by one of Secretary Powell's aides that the attack happened literally as Secretary Powell was in his helicopter sitting on the helipad here in Jerusalem. Or we were -- I was with the rest of the press and we were in a helicopter ahead of him. It had already taken off. And some of the security officers who obviously follow Secretary Powell around were in their car, received a phone call, passed it on to Secretary Powell who was still on the helipad. They lifted off, Bill, and before they headed north to northern Israel, they circled the site. They said they could see ambulances on the ground, and they made several passes over the scene of the terrorist attack before heading north.

And you know on just sort of a side note, the whole purpose of Secretary Powell traveling to northern Israel to one of these Israeli military bases there was to make yet another point about the possible second front that is opening on Israel's border with Lebanon and real U.S. concerns that the fighting there could escalate further and widen into a broader regional war.

So a very grim-faced Secretary Powell emerged from briefings that he received at that Israeli army base. Said he had just gotten off the phone with Israel's prime minister, that he condemned the terrorist attacks and in his words said that "it illustrates the exceptionally dangerous situation that exists here and the need for all of us in the international community," he said, "everyone to excerpt every effort to try to find a solution."

And that really is the theme of Secretary Powell's trip here to Jerusalem, to try to break this deadlock right now, to try to get Israeli military forces out of the West Bank and to try to get Yasser Arafat to publicly condemn terrorist acts like the ones that happened -- the one that happened today and to try to rein in militant extremists, Bill.

HEMMER: Andrea, try and give us a bit more perspective on the following angle here. Colin Powell has said that Yasser Arafat -- earlier this week he said indeed -- he said he is the only leader right now of the Palestinian people. It would be a substantial move if Powell did not go to Ramallah tomorrow and essentially one would think also that the mission would fail at that point because the mission set out to bring the two sides closer together to work toward the cease-fire. If that meeting did not happen is there any reason for Colin Powell to stay here?

KOPPEL: Well simply because Secretary Powell would not, and obviously the decision hasn't been made yet, but might not go forward with a meeting with Arafat tomorrow, wouldn't mean that he might not meet with him on Sunday or on Monday or on Tuesday. Secretary Powell had already said that he would be here at least through Monday and really left his return date open.

But having said that, Secretary Powell, as you know, made a swing through the Arab world before arriving here in Jerusalem and was told by every Arab leader that he met, the Egyptian president, the Moroccan king, the Saudi Crown Prince and also from the Jordanian king, that it would be a non-starter if the U.S. were to try to engage in any kind of significant way with any other Palestinian official other than Yasser Arafat. In other words, to treat another Palestinian official as the spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority that that is just not something that is going to -- that is going to fly in the Arab world and they will lose U.S. support for any move in that direction.

And so you're absolutely right, it would -- it would not bode well for this mission, which already had very low expectations for any kind of a -- of a modest breakthrough, if Secretary Powell did not go forward with meeting Yasser Arafat tomorrow or at any point during this trip, Bill

HEMMER: All right, Andrea, thank you.

Andrea Koppel, again here in Jerusalem with Secretary Powell.

But we had made mention yesterday that Colin Powell landed in Tel Aviv. And when he landed, he did not, frankly, fly into this country with a whole lot of hope behind him. And as Andrea pointed out, clearly the situation on the ground once again shows just about everybody, not just here but around the world, just how difficult the situation has grown here on the ground.

It was two weeks ago today when the military incursions began. Two weeks ago earlier this morning Jerusalem time when the tanks and the troops surrounded Yasser Arafat's compound, bulldozed, frankly, a number of buildings there. And what remains of that besieged compound, oftentimes without any running water inside there, however Yasser Arafat remains there. And now the question is will there be a meeting that takes place tomorrow, and certainly we'll continue to track the latest on that.

The White House is saying that Yasser Arafat has never earned the president's trust. They're also saying right now the suicide bomber should be considered homicide bombers.

For the latest on that, to the White House now and Kelly Wallace.

And, Kelly, clearly the language has changed. What does that tell us about the White House's position right now given the events on the ground here?

KELLY WALLACE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well definitely, Bill, the language certainly has changed. The administration reacting to events in the region.

And I just really wanted to pick up on your conversation with Andrea, because as you listened as well to Ari Fleischer's briefing, the Bush spokesman's briefing with reporters, he was asked repeatedly if this administration happened to be considering canceling that meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Yasser Arafat on Saturday. And if you look at how Fleischer answered that question, he kept it very vague. He said that Mr. Bush has given the secretary maximum flexibility to carry out this mission as he sees fit. But he said that Mr. Bush is deeply troubled. And he used that podium -- Ari Fleischer used that podium to call on Yasser Arafat to publicly condemn the suicide bombing attack today. So clearly, Ari Fleischer leaving it open about whether there will be a meeting tomorrow and, of course, as we heard from Andrea, clearly that meeting is under review.

Picking up, though, on your question, the language -- the administration now is calling these homicide bombings instead of suicide attacks. Ari Fleischer was asked that question if this is the administration responding to criticism from conservatives in the United States Congress who think this White House has been too hard on Israel and not hard enough on the Palestinians and the Arab states. Fleischer saying the president and the administration choosing that new term basically because they believe it accurately reflects what is going on the ground.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: These are not suicide bombings. These are not people who just kill themselves. These are people who deliberately go to murder others with no regard to the values of their own life. These are murders. The president has said that in the Rose Garden. And I think that is just a more accurate description of what these people are doing. It's not suicide, it's murder.


WALLACE: And, Bill, taking you behind the scenes a bit, President Bush was getting his normal National Security Council briefing this morning when he was handed a note alerting him to the latest suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem. Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, then coming out with a statement from the president. Let me read that to you.

Fleischer saying "The President condemns this morning's homicide bombing in Jerusalem, there are clearly people in the region who want to disrupt Secretary Powell's mission. The president will not be deterred from seeking peace despite this attack. There are people who don't want peace. The president wants peace, and he'll make every effort to seek peace and that's why the secretary is in the region."

Fleischer also taking questions about Israel and Israel's refusal to end its military offensive in saying after this suicide bombing attack that offensive will definitely continue. Fleischer again using the bully pulpit there to say that the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Arab states all have obligations here to take steps to somehow, somehow get back to the bargaining table -- Bill

HEMMER: Kelly, thank you.


HEMMER: It has been very difficult here on the ground for several weeks now, and clearly the events of today once again emphasize and highlight just how difficult and well-mired both sides have become. People say the complexities of Middle East process are essentially a labyrinth and they are incredibly complex. Whether or not Colin Powell can chew through that is a wide-open question right now. But again, what we have seen with more violence today, the killing has not stopped, almost on an hourly basis.

Once again, Andrea Koppel reporting here in Jerusalem, the State Department spokesperson, Richard Boucher, is saying and quoting now "Colin Powell is looking at the whole situation. He's considering what he wants to do in terms of where we are and where we stand relative to the meeting tomorrow in Ramallah with Yasser Arafat." No indication given whether or not Secretary of State will make up his mind tonight or tomorrow. But we are learning that Palestinian sources do say that some of the leading Palestinian negotiators, including Saeb Erakat, have a meeting scheduled for tonight, Friday night, with Anthony Zinni, the U.S. mediator who has been here weeks on end.

Another suicide bombing today, 6 dead, 65 others injured. It is a large question as to where the Middle East goes from here.

Our coverage continues in a moment live in Jerusalem.




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