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Six Palestinians to Be Handed Over to U.S., British Monitors

Aired May 1, 2002 - 13:00   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: There are significant developments today in the West Bank at this hour. We are watching our camera in Ramallah. It appears now that up to six Palestinians wanted by Israel are now being transferred, or soon to be transferred to a jail in Jericho where they will be supervised by U.S. and British monitors. That will pave the way, essentially, for Israel to lift its month-long siege of Yasser Arafat's compound. All this starting at the end of March, back on the 29th of March.

Matthew Chance nearby the scene there in Ramallah. He is off camera here, but Matthew, let's pick it up with you as to what you're observing there from your post right near that compound in Ramallah. Good evening, again.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Bill, we're just a few hundred meters or yards away, in fact, from the scenes that you can see on our telephoto lens on the camera there. Darkness has very much fallen here. You are probably seeing a much better picture than I can make out with the bare -- with my naked eyes here standing on this -- this vantage point overlooking Yasser Arafat's besieged Ramallah compound.

You can make out, of course, a lot of flashing lights, or, at least, I can make out a lot of flashing lights, a lot of Israeli military activity taking place around the compound right now. We've just seen a tank move past, there are also armored personnel carriers continuing their patrols around this tight security cordon that's been thrown around Yasser Arafat's compound and placed it under siege.

Of course, as you mentioned, since the end of March. Inside that compound, Bill, we counted 12 cars belonging to the British and American security experts that have been negotiating with the Palestinians and with the Israelis for some time now to bring an end to this siege in accordance with President Bush's proposals made a view days ago.

Those meetings came to an end about three or four hours ago, and the fine details of those -- of that was hammered out. One of the things, of course, the Palestinians were looking for is -- apart from the guarantees of their security, and a letter of guarantee that they wouldn't be handed over to Israel, the six wanted Palestinians, they are also looking for a means of transportation of these six wanted Palestinians. They seem to have got what they wanted, i.e. not Israeli transport, but transport provided by the British and U.S. negotiating team inside those 12 cars now.

We don't know how long it is going to take before the prisoners are formerly transferred to the jurisdiction of the international -- or U.S. and British team. When it does, though, when they move out of Ramallah, towards the Palestinian prison facility in Jericho, elsewhere in the West Bank, we're told by the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli military here, that they will begin their pullout of the West Bank town of Ramallah where they have been, of course, since December -- Bill.

HEMMER: Matthew, earlier today here on CNN, Saeb Erakat, one of the chief Palestinian negotiators, told us that the deal is in place, and it appears that word is indeed happening. But this took some time. Do you have a firm grip on what happened to delay this transfer, that a number of people have been talking about, literally, for days now?

CHANCE: I wouldn't say a firm grip, because these negotiations -- these meetings have been taking place behind closed doors. We did have this word from Saeb Erakat, as you mentioned, that the deal had been agreed, and it does appear that he was correct in his analysis of the situation. We also had reports from Israel radio saying that there had been some kind of hitch in that deal.

The speculation surrounding that was that Yasser Arafat was now saying that he would only hand over four of the six wanted Palestinians, the four that had already been convicted by a makeshift Palestinian court, and that he would hold back the other two, one of whom is the current political leader of the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The other Palestinian -- in an unrelated episode, was involved, allegedly, in the arms smuggling deal and is alleged to have strong links with Iraq and Iran.

That was just speculation, though, Bill, as far as we're concerned in the sense that from all along, throughout these negotiations, we've all been talking about the Israelis, the Palestinians, and us journalists about the six Palestinians being transferred. There was no mention of just four being transferred. If that is the case, then it will be news to us. We certainly have not had it indicated to us by any Palestinian officials, or, indeed from any Israeli officials.

At this stage, we can only assume that there were other fine details that were tuned in this transfer, that those will now be tuned, and that before long, hopefully, those six Palestinians will now -- will be making their way out of that compound, turning towards us, and moving along your screens here, along this road toward the Jewish settlement of Beit El and onwards then to the British built prison facility in the Palestinian West Bank town of Jericho where, in accordance with the U.S. initiative, they will be held under international guard.

As I speak to you there, you can see, in the foreground, moving along that very same road, an Israeli armored personnel carrier, a much lighter piece of armor than we have been seeing moving up and down this road, where they have been also having their heavy battle tanks. The Israeli patrols continue. The Israel military will pull out, we're told, but only once those Palestinian have been formally transferred into international jurisdiction -- Bill.

HEMMER: Stay on that point, Matthew, the Israeli troops, I know it is nightfall there, just a bit past 8:00 in the evening in Ramallah, have you been able to gauge how strong the Israeli force still is in that part of the town?

CHANCE: It's pretty strong. I can say that. What that means in terms of troop numbers, it's very difficult to say. We have been seeing a number -- a handful, perhaps, seven or eight armored personnel carriers obviously filled with Israeli troops, patrolling the streets. We've also counted four or five tanks in the area around this very small, tight security cordon that's been thrown around Yasser Arafat's presidential compound here.

Obviously, the Israelis aren't giving us exact numbers about how many people are involved, and it is impossible for us to see inside the compound, and know how many infantry personnel there are on the ground. We know that there are observation positions located in the area. In fact, earlier, we saw the sandbags in one observation position, one sniper position that we were aware of, we saw them emptying the sandbags, the contents, the sand, out of the window of the tenth floor of that building, and seeing the sand sprinkle everywhere.

So, we don't know exactly how many people are in there, but their force is considerable, and certainly enough to impose security around that compound -- Bill.

HEMMER: And Matthew, what was the last public word you heard in Ramallah from Yasser Arafat? Has he given an interview lately, and what has been his message?

CHANCE: You know, I've been in Ramallah for a couple of weeks, or in the region for a couple of weeks now. I haven't heard anything from him. He's been speaking through intermediaries, speaking through his close advisers about his feelings, but you know, it's difficult, isn't it, to imagine what he must be thinking, what must be going through his mind right now.

Remember, he's a very old man. He has been holed up in perhaps only two or three rooms along with as many as several hundred other people for the best part, or rather more than a month, since the end of March, in fact. He hasn't been able to travel out there.

What his intentions are, once this siege is lifted, once the Israeli forces have left Ramallah, we just don't know either. Palestinian officials, again his intermediaries have told us that he does intend at some stage to travel outside of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza, but we're told that he does want to visit countries in the Arab world, notably Cairo in Egypt. We are also told that he intends to visit European capitals.

What the restrictions on his travel will be, though, is not clear yet. It's obviously up to the Israelis whether he is permitted to travel outside the relatively -- the areas, rather of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that are under Palestinian control -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Matthew, thanks. Matthew Chance standing by live there in Ramallah. We will continue to watch this picture.

And as we do, let's shift our focus to the White House. Senior White House Correspondent John King is now with us. And John, there continues to be more talk about diplomatic language here. King Abdullah of Jordan set to visit Washington next week. I believe the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, will stop shortly after that time. What is the take today on the multiple tracks being worked right now, relative to the Middle East?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the take today, Bill, is cautious optimism, if you will. The president believes with the implementation of this Ramallah agreement the standoff has ended.

Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, saying just moments ago that in the view of the United States, Yasser Arafat should be free not only to travel around the Palestinian territories, but to leave there, and perhaps -- and the United States expects him in the very near future to travel to other capitols in the Arab world. So the United States views this as a critical point, if you will, if things go well over the next several days, a big if from the Middle East.

But if they do, the goal is to have a conversation with Prime Minister Sharon here at the White House next week and King Abdullah about the possibility of trying to get to the next stage, which would be some form of a feeling out, if you will, if there can be peace negotiations, if there can be a broad, comprehensive dialogue toward an ultimate peace agreement. Not a great deal of optimism you can get there at this point, but they do believe at the White House now is the obligation to explore that. So that will certainly be one of the conversations with Prime Minister Sharon, again assuming all goes well over the next several days, and that's one of the things the United States has asked him, its Arab partners in the peace process not to make a hero out of Mr. Arafat as he travels into the Arab world to make clear that, yes, the siege is over. They expect him to get a very warm welcome as he travels.

They also want the Arab governments to put pressure on him now to focus on cracking down on terrorism and to opening his own ears to entering into some dialogue with Prime Minister Sharon. We've been talking about this for weeks now. These two leaders don't like each other. A great deal of pessimism that you can actually bring that about.

HEMMER: John, want to get some comment now, as we continue to watch this picture in Ramallah, relative to this report today in the "New York Times" that says essentially the U.S. side is working on the Israeli negotiations and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is working on the Palestinian side.

Ari Fleischer said quite directly about 30 minutes ago that is an oversimplistic way to say that we're dividing up the countries in this region. What is your sense from the people you talk to about the White House strategy relative to that?

KING: Well, you will remember when you were in Jerusalem anchoring about two and a half or three weeks ago, I think we had a conversation about this, the administration believes one of the tactical mistakes of the Clinton administration was that President Clinton almost single-handedly tried to negotiate the agreement between then-Prime Minister Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David. And then when they got to the edge, where Barak had a deal on the table and Arafat wouldn't accept it, only at that point did President Clinton reach out to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, to Jordan and say I need your help, you must tell Mr. Arafat to accept this.

The Bush administration believes that was a dramatic tactical failure on the part of the Clinton administration. So this administration wants the Arabs involved up front. What is most different about this -- this strategy has been under way for months -- what is most different perhaps is that over the years, Saudi Arabia has generally been more private in its dealings with the Middle East peace. It has usually been -- the first calls from any White House have been to Egypt or to Jordan in seeking help.

This Saudi regime now, under Crown Prince Abdullah, has decided to be much more active publicly because it is such a rich country in the region, the No. 1 oil producer, because it has such religious importance and the guardian, if you will, of Mecca and Medina, the holy sites. This administration believes there's something to be gained from that, that the Saudis can be quite influential, so a new partnership in public sense.

Certainly though, it has been this administration's strategy for some time to keep the Arabs in lockstep, so that if you get to that key moment where you have to make or break, sink or swim, if you will, everyone will be involved so that nobody can say, I don't know anything about this. I'm not putting pressure on anybody.

HEMMER: As we continue to look at this picture, just so viewers know, we've taken a different angle. This the Al Jazeera, the Arab- language network out of the Middle East, the country of Qatar. So we will continue to watch this.

And it's quite obvious that we do not know what's happening here, but we do believe that there will be a transfer of at least six Palestinians to Jericho sometime very soon. Before I go back to Matthew Chance in Ramallah, John, we are going to have the former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, with us on the air live next hour.

I'm curious to know this from the White House position. Israel has said for some time that Yasser Arafat, they believe, is irrelevant. At what point and how do you bring the Palestinian leader back into the fold after such strong public comments against him, a month-long siege in Ramallah? And at some point, one has to figure if he continues to be the leader of the Palestinian people, there is going to reach a point where the two men will have to sit down at a meeting if there is some sort of peace that goes forward. Has the White House talked about this and how this may be caressed in the near future?

KING: That is one of the most difficult items to deal with. On the one hand, Mr. Sharon says he won't deal with Mr. Arafat. Mr. Arafat makes clear he has no inklings to deal with Mr. Sharon. What the White House is saying and the White House is promising Arab leaders it will make this case very bluntly to Prime Minister Sharon when he is here, is that like him or not, he is the leader of the Palestinian people. Like him or not, he is your neighbor. Like him or not, you must make peace with him right now if you are to have peace right now.

That is the administration's message, telling these two parties they must put their personal grudges aside and they must sit down and talk with one another. A very tough sell though, especially after the events of recent months and especially recent weeks to get Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat to talk to one another. That is why there is some talk that perhaps the first step, if there is to be any conference, would be at the foreign minister level to keep those two personalities out of it directly.

HEMMER: OK. John, thanks. Stand by at the White House. Matthew Chance, stand by in Ramallah. Also in Ramallah by telephone now is an adviser to Yasser Arafat. Nabil Abu Ruddeineh joins us by telephone. And, sir, we appreciate your time. Have the six been loaded now into the convoy of vehicles and will they be heading out some time soon, sir?

NABIL ABU RUDDEINEH, ARAFAT SPOKESMAN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It shows that once the Americans are involved, seriously involved, things can move. First, that (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

HEMMER: All right. That's a shame. We are going to try and establish a stronger telephone signal. If you can hear me still, sir, let's try it again. Want to know what's happening right now relative to the six said to be transferred to Jericho?

All right. We clearly have a difficult time here really establishing that telephone signal there. But Nabil Abu Ruddeineh is an Arafat adviser. He is inside the Ramallah compound. It is my understanding he has been there for the greater part of the past month. And as soon as we can reestablish that signal, we truly would like to find out what's happening inside of that compound.

On the outside of that compound though, back to Matthew Chance. Matthew, what are your observations?

CHANCE: Bill, that's right, still a lot of activity that we're anticipating will take place here outside of the compound here, this vantage point overlooking Yasser Arafat's battered presidential compound. Inside, as we've been reporting, 12 cars belonging to the British and U.S. security negotiation team that has been hard at work trying to hammer out the fine details of this U.S. initiative to finally bring to an end this siege that's been long-running here, in fact, since the end of March, around Yasser Arafat's battered compound. What Nabil Abu Ruddeineh was saying to us on the telephone earlier -- I don't know whether it came across on that live interview we had, maybe we can get him to restate it again -- is that he's inside the compound now. He believes that it could be just a matter of minutes before those six wanted Palestinians wanted by Israel are transferred into international custody and moved out along this road in front of us here, which I don't know whether you can make out now quite frankly because darkness is so thick and black here in Ramallah, and moved along that road out of Ramallah towards the West Bank town of Jericho, where a Palestinian prison facility has already been inspected and prepared to house them, Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Matthew, thanks.

I think we have reestablished our telephone connection and we ask our viewers to be patient with us as we try this. Nabil Abu Ruddeineh is back with us, an Arafat adviser, who has been inside that compound since the very beginning. Sir, I think we have a firm connection now. Tell us again, is the transfer taking place? How far away are we from that happening at this point?

Yes, trying to reach Nabil Abu Ruddeineh. And if you can hear me, Bill Hemmer at the CNN Center, sir. Can you tell us about the transfer? Is it happening right now?

OK. Clearly, that's not going to work. We will try and reestablish that signal. Matthew Chance is in Ramallah. John King is back at the White House.





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