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Israelis Easing Restrictions

Aired April 14, 2002 - 07:43   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: To give us the latest on that ongoing meeting between the Secretary of State of the United States and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, we turn it now to CNN's Wolf Blitzer live from Jerusalem.

Hello, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you very much, Miles. That meeting began more than three hours ago in the West Bank town of Ramallah at Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority headquarters compound. A meeting, U.S. officials say had originally been scheduled for one hour. It's now more than three hours. No end in sight. Our Andrea Koppel is inside. We're getting word from her. Our Michael Holmes is outside. He's got exclusive videophone live pictures that we've been showing our viewers in the United States and around the world, exclusive pictures of what's seen just outside the headquarters in Ramallah.

Our Jerrold Kessel is also standing by following all of these developments, the meeting between Powell and Arafat as well as the results of an Israeli cabinet meeting earlier today, Jerrold, in which Israel announced it was easing some of the restrictions on the West Bank. Give us some of those details.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've had some very interesting developments even as this focus on that compound of the beleaguered Palestinian Authority president and that meeting now well over three hours between Colin Powell and Yasser Arafat.

Interesting developments on the ground to the extent that just in the last half an hour, we're hearing from Israeli military sources who say they expect there to be a formal announcement soon that they will be lifting restrictions on many areas in the West Bank where there have been action in that military offensive, a search for terror suspects, the attempt to root out the sources of terror, as the Israelis describe it and they will be lifting the restrictions. And this is -- these at restricted military zones.

Now, the importance of that is not necessarily if the Israeli troops will be withdrawn from all those positions as the United States and the international community have been demanding, insisting on, but that at least there will be access for humanitarian aid agencies and also, for news reporters and the television cameras to go in there and to get a firsthand view of getting the assistance in and a firsthand view of what might have happened.

But there is a limit on what Israelis say will be those restrictions. There are three places where they will still keep it as a military -- closed military zone. That is this area that we see here, around Yasser Arafat's headquarters, in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity where that standoff, that dramatic standoff, now almost two weeks old at the birthplace, what is to be -- believed to be the birthplace of Jesus in the town of Bethlehem and also, in that very controversial hotspot of the Jenin refugee camp where there have been allegations and counter allegations of just how many people were killed there, what kind of atrocities may have been committed as the Palestinians alleged.

The Israelis denying that and whether, how many -- just how many people were indeed killed and what will happen to the burial of those bodies in that Jenin refugee camp. But still, this is an important development as the conversation continues between Mr. Powell and Yasser Arafat in his headquarters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jerrold Kessel, as you're speaking, we're getting word that that convoy, that heavily armed convoy that brought the secretary of state to Ramallah for the meeting with Yasser Arafat, seems to be preparing to leave Ramallah.

It looks like apparently that meeting may be breaking up after some three hours of talks between the Secretary of the State of the United States and the Palestinian Authority leader, Yasser Arafat. We're monitoring that situation. We have our cameras trained on that building. We have Michael Holmes just outside. We have Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent traveling with the secretary of state inside. We're going to get more information on precisely what is going on if in fact that three hour meeting featuring Arafat and Powell is in fact wrapping up.

But I want to bring in now a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ra'anan Gissin, who joins me here in Jerusalem live.

Mr. Gissin, thanks so much for joining us. Some major decisions involving the Israeli cabinet today. I want to get to that in a moment. But first of all, your take on this three hour meeting between Yasser Arafat and Colin Powell. Do you have any hope whatsoever that they might achieve a breakthrough?

RA'ANAN GISSIN, SENIOR SHARON ADVISER: Well, it's anyone's guess, but I would hope that perhaps Secretary of State Colin Powell was able to achieve something. I don't think he should have -- he should have traveled all the way from the United States and experienced the harrowing experiences that he had on Friday and return back empty handed. Hopefully, the party that has to deliver, which is Yasser Arafat, did make some concessions, I would say, or not concessions -- did actually pledge to accept the ceasefire and perhaps accept some of the offers, which can resolve the situation. That's my hope. However, I'm skeptical because of past experiences.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about some of the decisions made by the Israeli cabinet. First of all, on the continuing standoff at Bethlehem, involving some 200 Palestinian gunmen inside the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in Christianity. You have a new proposal you're putting forward, the Israeli government, to end this stalemate.

GISSIN: Right, well, the prime minister used the occasion of the meeting of the cabinet and the government in order to inform them about some of the proposals that were handed over to Secretary of State Powell, which occurred, you know, on Friday -- in the meeting on Friday. One of them, of course, is to resolve this continuous issue, this landmine that has to be dismantled, the Church of the Nativity. We've been holding this situation because it's a hostage situation.

We offered to resolve it by offering safe passage to the -- both to the clergymen as well as to the gunmen who are holding them there, the terrorists. And the terrorists will have two choices -- either they stand trial in Israel and serve a sentence here as the result, those who, of course, are found guilty. Those who are not will be set free. Or they will be -- if they so desire, they will be expelled from Israel forever and from the charter, they will have to sign a document to that effect.

That was the proposal that was offered to the secretary of state and we're waiting to see what with the counterproposal from the Palestinian side.

This is -- by the way, will be brokered by a third party, probably the International Red Cross or some other -- to the choice of the -- by the choices of the Palestinians in order to ensure safe passage, in other words, they leave without their weapons and no harm will be done to them.

BLITZER: So what you're saying specifically is those 200 or so Palestinian gunmen inside the Church of the Nativity are now being offered two choices -- they can either face an Israeli military tribunal, a court here in Israel and see if they are guilty of any crimes or they can have safe passage, leave this part of the world forever and never be allowed to return here. And they will be guaranteed safe passage by the Red Cross.

GISSIN: Another element that I could add to this, you know, this is not a fully confirmed matter, but some of the reports that we got, that the negotiators inside the church were willing to accept it, but they refused to sign any kind of an agreement of this sort, until they get the final approval from the Palestinian Authority or from the chairman -- Chairman Yasser Arafat, which was holding his decision on that probably until he met with the secretary of state.

So there is -- there are chances. Maybe Arafat really wants to move towards a ceasefire, there are chances that this situation will be resolved.

BLITZER: And so, basically, after this point, no decision yet, no word from inside the Church of the Nativity.

GISSIN: That's true.

BLITZER: A second decision that your cabinet made today, to ease restrictions on the West Bank. What does that specifically mean?

GISSIN: Well, I want to make it very clear and I think it's important to make, that there are two sides to the equation, the proposal initiative offered by President Bush and carried by Colin Powell, because on the one hand, immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops, but also there was requirements from the Arab State to renounce terrorism, to condemn suicide bombing and to take real steps by Palestinian Authority against terrorism. None of that has been done.

On our part of the equation, we have withdrawn from over 40 towns and villages. And every town and village that we withdraw, with the exception of those three areas -- Jenin, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Mutaka (ph), the headquarters of Arafat in Ramallah, all the rest of them, we will ease the restriction, in other words, we leave the closed military area. We tried to leave and allow life to return back to normal.

BLITZER: Has that been implemented already, the lifting of all of these...

GISSIN: In some places -- in some places, yes, but I think what will happen today, that even in those places where we still maintain closure outside of the city, let's say Tukarem, Qalqiya, that will also be eased provided of course that we see development on the other side.

BLITZER: This other proposal that you are now floating, the Israeli government, for some sort of international conference along the lines of what happened in Madrid in the early 1990s that set the stage for the Oslo Agreement, the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian accord in 1993. What precisely is the prime minister proposing now for a new international conference?

GISSIN: Well, clearly, along the lines of the Madrid conference, this kind of -- not a conference that would impose a solution, but a conference in which -- the prime minister already alluded to that. He said, in interviews where the Israeli position on the peace process and what the peace plan will be put on the table. He will discuss the Saudi proposal or the Arab proposal. And this will be a sort of discussion between the Arab leaders, the Arab leader and Israel with the exclusion of Arafat at this stage and both sides could exchange, you know, in a peaceful atmosphere. But of course, that can only happen and that has been clear, only after there is a sensational hostility or a ceasefire in place.

By the way, may I remind you that in 1991, the Madrid conference convened after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, after there was actually a ceasefire and the acceptance -- and that's what, of course, ensured its success.

BLITZER: Mr. Gissin, stand by because I want to ask you some questions about what has happened in Jenin, in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. A lot of accusations that the Israeli military engaged in what Palestinians say was a massacre, but stand by. I want to go back to Ramallah. Our Michael Holmes is standing by just outside the Palestinian Authority headquarters. We've been looking at those exclusive videophone pictures.

Michael Holmes, what are you seeing? What are you hearing right now? This meeting now well underway over three hours and 15 minutes.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I can report to you that the meeting is now over or it's, certainly from our vantage point, appears to be. The SUVs have driven out. A media convoy came out just a couple of minutes ago. They're now queued up at the exit gates, waiting to get out. Colin Powell's vehicles have now left the compound. It is not quarter past two your time. It's quarter past one -- territories, actually nobody changed the time here. There was no one to do it, we are told.

So anyway, the meeting appears to be over. The troops that were keeping us from getting any closer have now asked us to leave the area. But the vehicles have departed, Wolf.

BLITZER: And so, apparently, at least as far as we can tell, Michael, no formal public statements made by either the Secretary of State Colin Powell or the Palestinian leader, is that right?

HOLMES: Certainly not from our vantage point, Wolf. Actually, through binoculars and our lens, we were able to see even Andrea Koppel walk out and get into a media vehicle. And she's departed as well.

It's been difficult in the last half hour or so to get a telephone signal out and in fact, our videophone signal somehow crashed as well, which is why you're not seeing live pictures at the moment. But Andrea will probably be able to tell you better on that score, but we did see the departure happen in a bit of a hurry. And given Andrea's last report, if there was a statement made, it would have been a very brief one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Just want to report to you, Michael and to our viewers in the United States and around the world, a Reuter's bulletin that just flashed on the wire service, Secretary Powell, according to Reuter's, saying the meeting with Yasser Arafat was in his words -- quote -- "useful and constructive." Diplomatic speak for what usually means a relatively good meeting. But so far, we have no official confirmation, no official word from the secretary of state. We're standing by. Our Andrea Koppel is there and she's been monitoring these developments as well.

Michael, as you look at the images, the -- we don't have a live picture right now, but we are seeing this videotape of that videophone of the pictures that we saw earlier, the live pictures of what's happening at the compound, as you see the scene right now, has the entire convoy, Secretary of State Powell's convoy, left the area?

HOLMES: Yes, they have, Wolf. I think they're probably on their way back to (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Geographically, as you know, it's not far. It's about 10 miles and given the escort that he will have, he'll probably get there fairly quickly. But he left the compound only minutes ago, maybe three minutes ago, certainly indicating that meeting is over. And in fact, before the media convoy even departed, the tanks moved back into position alongside one of the buildings near Yasser Arafat's office. I see no other troop movement.

There are troops standing inside a shed at the back, a large shed at the back overlooking Yasser Arafat's building. It's a position that they normally take as a defensive position, as they have done in recent days. So we see one tank going back in. There's still one tank about 10 feet from me. But inside the compound, I see just the one tank. But it would appear that they've moved back into position, Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you can see, if you take a look at the Israeli troops just outside that compound, are they still there in the some numbers as was the case when the secretary of state and his delegation were inside?

HOLMES: Yes. Yeah, they are, Wolf. They are there in the same numbers. They've backed off into a building, however, And as I'm talking to you right now, I see another probably seven or eight soldiers come around the corner to what you would consider to be defensive positions. It looks like they're going back to where they were before Colin Powell came to the compound.

And as I say, at least one tank has moved back into position inside that car park. And they were there when Colin Powell was here. So yeah, the troops are still very much inside the compound. There's no sign of any departure there. The cark park, once again, looks very empty. Now, the SUVs have gone, Wolf.

BLITZER: And one more question before I let you, Michael Holmes, any indication that any Palestinians, any official representatives from the Palestinian Authority president, they've left the compound, some of his aides, for example, Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator?

HOLMES: It was very difficult to tell. It was -- by the time you got Colin Powell's convoy out and then the press convoy, you're looking at perhaps 14 or 15 SUVs. Whether Saeb Erakat got in the queue is very difficult to tell. I would assume from our conversations with Palestinian representatives in the past, he's probably going to stay there and go over whatever has been discussed or decided on in that meeting. I would expect that Saeb, Arafat and others would stay put for a while and basically have a debrief about how things went.

And that tank, I mentioned, has now moved back to a position I've seen it in before, right in the center of the car park facing the exit to the compound. So the heavy armory moving once again inside the compound. We're actually been ordered to leave the area now, Wolf, so I'll check back in with you later.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Michael Holmes, our man on the scene in Ramallah just outside the headquarters of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. I want to bring back in Ra'Anan Gissin. He is the spokesman and an adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Why are forcing Yasser Arafat to remain inside that small compound in Ramallah?

GISSIN: Well, first of all, isolated, he can do less harm than when he is at large. That was the assessment of our security forces and our intelligence forces. And the second is that Arafat is hosting, harboring, terrorists, which are wanted in Israel, the murderers of Rechavan Ze'evi and Fuachu Akeem (ph), the man responsible for the terrorist connection with Iran, with the Korean aid ship.

Whatever will be the final status of Yasser Arafat, as a result of negotiation or whatever, there's one thing that Israel is not going to compromise and the prime minister made it very clear at the cabinet meeting, those murderers and Fuachu Akeem (ph) will be turned over to Israel.

To use President Bush's words, either we bring them to justice or we bring justice to them. And in a sense, to resolves this situation, that stumbling block has to be overcome. There's no other solution but to give - bring them to trial to Israel. They committed a crime on Israeli soil. They murdered an Israeli minister. They should be tried on Israeli soil.

BLITZER: So what you're saying is that the man responsible for the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister is being protected inside Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah?

GISSIN: Exactly. Him and another three people and Fuachu Akeem (ph), the man responsible for the Iranian terrorist connection, the Korean aid ship, the weapons ship that was smuggled and was caught by Israel.

BLITZER: And as you're speaking, we're getting another news alert coming in. Secretary Powell calls the meeting with Yasser Arafat useful and constructive, but indicates that no progress was achieved toward a ceasefire. You don't seem to be surprised.

GISSIN: No, I - no, I was skeptical at the beginning because I didn't think that Yasser Arafat would make really a clear-cut step to renounce and to discard his strategy of terror. And what we are looking for is really for him to turn to his people, to tell them to stop suicide bombing, to take real steps. And by the way, in Gaza, he can take real steps. He still has security forces there. Mohammed Declan (ph), Rasi Jabali (ph) and the forces are intact. This is his moment of truth. He can prove himself and prove to his people that he wants to take a different road, but it's up to him.

BLITZER: Ra'Anan Gissin, I want to get to the situation in Jenin in a second, but one final question, you say that assassins - those responsible for the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister are being protecting by Yasser Arafat inside that compound right now. The Palestinians say that Israelis were engaged in what you call targeted killings or assassinations of Palestinian political leaders. That set the stage for the retaliation against Rechavan Ze'evi, the tourism minister. What do you say to their charge that you started this round of assassinations?

GISSIN: Well, if you know, there's more equivalency. When you are trying to defend yourself and protect yourself against killings, indiscriminate killing by terrorists that are sent and unsighted to become martyrs, even the United States changed the terminology. They call them now homicide bombers rather than suicide bombers. And we were just defending ourself.

And by the way, all those targeted killings were only those who were ticking bombs on the way to conduct terrorist activities. Had we not stopped them, we would have had a score of casualties, you know, much higher than what we had before. So you talk about something who had conducted a premeditated murder, a preplanned murder on Israeli soil in Jerusalem and therefore, they have to stand trial in Israel.

And with regard to the Jenin question...

BLITZER: I want to get to the Jenin question because our viewers are very interested. You, your government, the Israeli military is preventing independent observers, Red Cross personnel, U.N. humanitarian workers, the international news media from going into that refugee camp to see firsthand what may have occurred.

The Palestinians say you, the Israeli Army, massacred hundreds of innocent Palestinians there and now, are trying to engage in cover-up, removing bodies. The Israeli Supreme Court today deliberating on whether or not you should be allowed to remove those bodies. What do you say when journalists say, well, why -- if you have nothing to hide, why not let those journalists go in?

GISSIN: Well, you know, on a personal note, I'm a veteran of 20 years of the problem gated, recycled lies where you try to build a scene like they did in Lebanon and create a massacre where there was no real massacre. There was fierce fighting house-to-house.

You know, Jenin was the center -- or the international center, if you want to, of suicide bombers. It used to crank 10, 15 suicide bombers in a week. And it was traditionally a stronghold of Islamic Jihad and Hamas even before the state of Israel existed. I mean there was a terrorist infrastructure there.

This was house-to-house fighting. And what we're doing now is trying to dismantle the rigged and booby-trapped and some of the bodies, which are booby-trapped. When it's safe enough, we will allow free access. Right now, there are pools of -- reporters are being taken by the IDF spokesman to tour the area just to prove that there was no massacre, yes.

BLITZER: Pools of Israeli reporters...

GISSIN: No foreign as well, ABC, FOX News. They are being taken in. I know because I just spoke with the IDF spokesman there. And just to show, yes, there was great destruction there because it was house-to-house fighting. In an environment where you have a hostage situation, the terrorists were holding civilians in one story, the bottom floor was rigged with explosives and they were shooting from the top.

Now, we're not sure yet that all the area has been cleared. Even some of the bodies have been booby-trapped and we prevented our soldiers from approaching them. Once the situation, the security situation, on the ground is resolved, there will be free access and the world could see that what the Palestinians are claiming, it's sheer lies.

BLITZER: Ra'Anan Gissin, he's an adviser to the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon and a spokesman for the Israeli government. Thanks so much for joining us.

GISSIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: We appreciate it very much.




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