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Israeli Forces Surround Arafat's Compound Following Suicide Bombing

Aired June 5, 2002 - 19:15   ET


HARRIS: Well, we have breaking news here coming in to us here at the CNN center. We have been watching things as they've been unfolding there in the West -- in the Middle East here. As you may know, we've been reporting for some time now, there was a suicide car bomber that blew up a bus that killed some 17 Israelis in the process, and we have reported throughout the day that the Israeli defense forces have injected themselves into the Jenin refugee camp.

Well now we're getting word that those forces have also gone ahead into Ramallah and have actually compromised the compound of Yasser Arafat.

Let's join now the coverage being offered right now by our sister network CNN International.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But many worry this conflict could lead to that. Jerrold Kessel, CNN, Magita (ph) Junction in Galilee, Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We want to bring you more information now on word of fresh Israeli incursions into Ramallah that we told you about a few moments ago, and for all the latest, we join Jim Bittermann live in Jerusalem -- Jim.

JIM BITTERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jill, what we're hearing is that in fact Israeli forces have entered into the town of Ramallah tonight from three different directions. Thirty military vehicles storming into the town of Ramallah, which of course is the headquarters on the West Bank for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Apparently the vehicles have come up to the compound where Yasser Arafat stays.

They have not, so far as we know, yet entered into the offices of Yasser Arafat, but we're also hearing some reports of shooting around the compound. I'd like to bring in now on the phone Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. And Mr. Erakat, I wonder if you can tell us what the latest is that you have heard about what's happening in Ramallah tonight.

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Yes, Jim, as I said, they entered Ramallah from a few directions, actually more than 40 to 50 Israeli tanks and vehicles. They are now inside the compound, President Arafat. They are shelling many parts of this compound. I think this is a very dangerous escalation.

This is a major, major escalation, and I hope that we can see the Americans and the Europeans intervening immediately because we don't want to find ourselves in a similar position to that of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or worse than, you know, trying to destroy the Palestinian Authority or to kill President Arafat or to do anything that is unthinkable now for Sharon. Everything is thinkable.

BITTERMAN: Well, exactly what is the status of Mr. Arafat right now? Have you had any late reports about his safety?

ERAKAT: Actually I spoke to him about five minutes ago, Jim, and he's safe, but there was heavy shelling, heavy shooting. I could hear it over the phone, and I worry about President Arafat's life and worry about the safety of the people with him. And they told me that there's heavy bombardment, shelling tanks, shelling certain areas of the compound. It's a very dangerous situation and it's a very critical situation.

BITTERMAN: Mr. Erekat, can you be surprised at all about this kind of reaction given what happened earlier today in Israel? Is this -- wasn't there some kind of expectation that there would be some kind of retaliation?

ERAKAT: Jim, President Arafat was the first to condemn that attack that took place this morning. And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and he ordered the arrest of those who planned the attack. And I don't think the answer, the Israeli answer is justified, the more tanks he sent into our towns of Jenin, Ramallah, now surrounding the president's compound itself, entering the compound itself, just resuming the occupation, destroying the Palestinian Authority's ability to move or to act, destroying the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure.

This will not lead anything other than escalate the situation. What we need to see is a real effort at de-conflicting and de- escalating, and this will not happen through more incursions. Last month alone, Jim, there were 93 attacks incursions into Palestinian areas. The Israeli army literally controlled the West Bank. There's a tight seige and closure of all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and yet these attacks happened.

So what we're saying to the Israelis that maybe through the resumption of a meaningful peace process that will revive hope in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis, that will end the Israeli occupation, we can cure this cycle of violence and counter violence. But to have more attacks in our town, to have the tanks go into President Arafat's compound and shelling this compound, what -- this -- you know, we all know that bullets will breed bullets, violence will breed violence, hate will breed hate, and this must stop -- this must stop.

BITTERMAN: While you've been talking, Mr. Erekat, we've been seeing some pictures of Ramallah this evening. Live pictures coming from Ramallah and apparently they don't show a whole lot of detail. We don't really -- can't tell from the pictures exactly what is going on. But let me ask you a question while we're looking at these pictures from Ramallah this evening. Let me ask you a question that pertains to something that has been talked about much in the last few days here, and particularly since the bombing this morning. And that is the possibility that somehow the Israeli forces might try to evacuate Mr. Arafat to some other country.

In other words to get him off the West Bank, get him out of contact with the Palestinian -- with the PLO, and put him somewhere where he would not be in contact with the Palestinians. What do you think the impact of that kind of move might be?

ERAKAT: I think this would be the most strategic mistake Israel will ever commit. This would be the most stupidest mistake, actually, that they will commit because, you know, they can say whatever they want to say about President Arafat.

He is the elected leader of the Palestinian people. He is the elected leader of the Palestinian people have made the agreement with the Israelis, have organzied the state of Israel, and I think if the Israelis will move to kill President Arafat, or to deport President Arafat or to harm President Arafat, I think this will be the greatest mistake that Israel will ever commit.

I don't think they'll find a Palestinian in the next five decades to speak to them a word about peace. I hope they will not do this. I hope that we will see a direct intervention by the Americans and the Europeans (UNITELLIGIBLE) to really take some tough action in terms of de-escalating, de-conflicting, bringing us and the Israelis back to a meaningful peace process.

We have heard so much about vision, of a Palestinian state, visions of a conference being held, visions concerning the next move. What we need to see, we need to see a precise roadmap introduced to Palestinians and Israelis by the Americans, by the Europeans, by the international community, that will ensure a de-escalating process, de- conflicting process, bringing the parties back to a meaningful peace process.

BITTERMAN: Well, one of the things that's been talked about in that peace process, the refusal of Mr. Sharon, the refusal of Mr. Sharon, the prime minister, to accept the fact that Arafat can be brought into that kind of peace process. In your view, is it necessary for the chairman to be part of that peace process, to be part of any kind of international conference on bringing peace to the Middle East?

EREKAT: Jim, you don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies. It's absolutely essential for President Arafat to be at any conference.

You know, we -- maybe Sharon is the last person on earth I would like to speak to, personally. But at the end of the day, he is there, the democratic choice of the Israelis. They elected him. And the Palestinians have elected President Arafat. And we're not seeking, you know, a love/hate relationship between Arafat and Sharon now. What we're trying to do is to bring about a formula that both sides will accept. And we need people to deliver this.

I believe President Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinian people. He is the one for -- who recognized the state of Israel. And he's the only one in the Palestinian leadership that can deliver the concessions, required to make peace.

But the fact that Sharon is saying that he doesn't want to talk to Arafat, and he doesn't want Arafat, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) about Palestinian reforms, his reforms to Palestinians means that he getting rid of President Arafat, maybe killing President Arafat, maybe destroying the Palestinian Authority, replacing it with the Israeli occupation.

And then telling you, Jim, that I want to make peace. I want to make painful concessions, but I don't have partners for peace. Actually, what we need to see is will the Palestinian reform that's being talked about and being done, what we need to see is also stopping of the Israeli reform of Palestinian way of life, the Palestinian economy, the continuation of the closure and the siege, the settlement activities that we're witnessing.

This is all breaking the rules. This is putting the Palestinians at a point of their patience breaking down, because they've seen that Sharon is stealing the hope away from their minds, and denying them any hope that peace is possible and that they will be delivered after this Israeli occupation, which actually today marked its 35th year. June 5th, 1967, you know, Israeli forces entered the West Bank as the occupying power. And today, they're still the last occupying power on earth 35 years later. So I think Sharon cannot choose our leaders for us.

BITTERMAN: The 35th anniversary...

EREKAT: Yes, go ahead, Jim.

BITTERMAN: The 35th anniversary there of the 1967 War. I'd just like to wrap things up here a bit if I could, Mr. Erekat.

LEON HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're going to step away right now from the coverage being offered by our sister network, CNN International. We thank our Jim Bitterman there, for conducting that coverage for us.


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