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Interview with Ra'anan Gissin, Saeb Erakat

Aired September 19, 2002 - 06:59   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: You are looking at pictures of the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that happened just a short while ago.
For those of you just joining us, we are told that a suicide bomber set off a blast on a very crowded street in Tel Aviv.

Jerrold Kessel, our correspondent in Jerusalem, brings us up to date on what we know at this hour.

Good morning -- Jerrold. What have you found out?


A bus -- a bomb aboard a bus. Now, if it was a suicide bomber or a bomb aboard that bus, we don't know yet, but the working assumption of the Israeli police is it was a suicide bomber, the second suicide bombing in a day inside Israel.

This time in the heart of Tel Aviv in downtown Tel Aviv, the busy commercial and business district, shopping district. You could say Allenby Street is where -- is the equivalent of Main Street in any U.S. city, right in the heart of the town, one of the biggest roads running through the Tel Aviv metropolis.

And the casualty figures are, at this time, at least five people killed, and of the 40 people wounded, five are reported in very serious condition. The wounded have all been ferried away to local hospitals.

The security people, the ambulance people, the rescue workers and the grim task allotted to the special religious duties of those who come and pick up body parts, bits of skin for burial, along with the dead, as is required by Jewish law -- all of that continuing now as the forensics experts on the scene.

But the incident is over, the latest terror attack in the heart of an Israeli city. Five people killed and 40 people wounded -- five in serious condition -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jerrold, as we stay with the pictures here, has anybody claimed responsibility for the bombing?

KESSEL: No responsibility yet. It's just an hour now. It's now 2:00 in the afternoon here local time. The explosion took place at just before 1:00 during the lunchtime rush hour. Many people heading home for the afternoon break before going back to work and back to the shops, and at the end of the school day or in the middle of the school day.

One of our CNN technical team happened to be down there on his own just by chance. And he phoned in immediately, and he said, oh, my goodness, there's a bus that's blown up right in front of me.

And having done that, he went and tried to help the people, the casualties, and reported back in immediately that he had seen two people dead immediately. He believed the one to be a suicide bomber; the other, the driver. And now, we have confirmed from the Israeli police and medical relief services of at least five people killed, and of the 40 people wounded, five in serious condition -- Paula.

ZAHN: Unfortunately, rescue workers are becoming painfully used to this scene we are seeing unfold on our television sets this morning. How quickly were they able to get to the scene of this bombing?

KESSEL: Amazingly quickly. I mean, Israel is, regretfully, accustomed to these kinds of events, and they do have to get there quickly, and they are able. There is a fantastic array of relief services -- from the Red Star of David organization, the medical relief services, equivalent to the Red Cross, from hospital standbys -- and there are a number of hospitals not too far away.

They were on the scene within literally of five minutes, but even before that, people who are trained -- many people have been through emergency or medical courses -- were on the scene treating the wounded, treating the casualties, trying to get some order, some painful order into that painful and chaotic situation very, very quickly.

ZAHN: Is this as obvious as a target as it looks? It's obviously a densely populated area, particularly at 1:00 in the afternoon when the suicide bombing came down.

KESSEL: Yes. Well, of course, we have had so many bus bombings, and that's been the case.

Yesterday, when there was there that -- the first -- indeed, the first attack by a Palestinian suicide bomber inside Israel in six weeks. It's not, the Israelis say, that not for want of trying. They say they have stopped many suicide bombers. Others have been intercepted, others have failed in their effort to get through.

But yesterday, there was an attempt, and a man was apprehended, was stopped at a bus stop, and it was believed he was trying to board a bus in the Galilee -- in one interurban bus in Galilee. A policeman stopped him, he blew himself up at that point, didn't manage to get on the bus.

But many of the suicide bombers have been able to get onto buses. There are searches, there are attempts to stop people with big parcels and so forth, to examine them. But of course, that's an enormously difficult thing to do in a metropolis the size of Tel Aviv, with so many buses and so many people moving around the city at such a congested time, particularly, as this was, 1:00 in the afternoon -- a very, very busy time. But clearly, the people who are trying to do this are trying to extract a maximum number of casualties, the maximum damage.

Now, the Israeli officials are already saying apart (ph) from blaming the Palestinian Authority (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to do for not doing anything to try to stop the bombers, as the Israelis say. They are also saying that this is an attempt of the extremists to try to deflect attention from what the United States wants to do in Iraq. Perhaps they are succeeding.

ZAHN: Jerrold, if you'd stand by, we're going to continue to bring people up-to-date on what we have learned, while you and I have been talking.

As you can see when you go outside, the perimeter area is cordoned off, it's difficult to get exact numbers. But so far, rescue workers are saying that at least five people are dead, 40 wounded, in this latest attack.

Michael Harris, our sound engineer on the scene, was near the blast. He described it as "enormous."

We're trying to get a status report from local hospitals there as to the extent of the injuries of those who have been transported to area hospitals.

Dozens of emergency workers on the scene, and as Jerrold just described, they got there very quickly. And unfortunately, they're accustomed to having to react to these kinds of crises.

Now, this bombing today follows a suicide bombing Wednesday in northern Israel that killed a policeman and the bomber. Israeli police are saying there has been no let-up in attempts to launch terror attack in Israel. Yesterday, I guess the police feel they were pretty lucky, because the police actually spotted the man, thought he was suspicious, approached him in his police car, and when the car drew near, police said the bomber set off his explosives.

The Israeli government at this point is blaming all of this on the Palestinian Authority, and as Jerrold just reported, using this as an example of an attempt on the extremists' part to deflect attention away from the debate over a potential war on Iraq.

So, Bill, we're going to stay with this for a moment, as we're trying to get more Israeli officials to us on the telephone. Ra'anan Gissin, who is a spokesperson for Ariel Sharon, was just on the air with Carol Costello just about five minutes ago, and he wasn't able to say exactly who was responsible for it, but clearly said it was the Palestinian Authority's fault for not trying to get these extremists under control.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: A couple of things to pick up on just listening to Jerrold. This is becoming an all too familiar scene for Israelis.

And not to be too dramatic at this hour of the day, but this is one of the most gruesome scenes any human being can ever witness, when you see the walking wounded literally being carried into this hospital room here. The body of the bomber essentially, Paula, explodes into literally a thousand pieces, and you can see charred, raw human flesh in so many different areas, and oftentimes it gets on the bodies and on the hair and in the face of those who have survived and are eventually led away.

The trauma for events like these is so dramatic, and you can see it in the faces. I had the experience back in April of witnessing one of these essentially, missing it by about four minutes essentially. And so, I could see up close and firsthand just how chaotic the scene becomes.

But also, too, you see how efficient the Israelis have become and how they respond to this. And I know we are watching this videotape right now, but within 30 minutes, within 45 minutes' time, this street, essentially, will be cleaned up, and the bus itself will be removed. It is a striking scene throughout the Middle East.

ZAHN: And it's remarkable that rescue workers were able to get in there as quickly as they did. Jerrold Kessel confirming that in some cases, a couple of these ambulances rolled up within five minutes of the announcement of the attack.

You know so much about the vulnerability Israelis feel, particularly to be around places that gather large crowds. And this Allenby Street is in a heavily-populated area, a tree-lined street. People are wrapping up their lunch hour at 1:00 p.m. Israeli time.

HEMMER: This street, it's where you shop, it's where you go out to eat, it's where, you know, you go out to drink -- a lot of bars and cafes. And it is no stranger to the terror that we've seen throughout this area.

One interesting thing, though. You know, Jerrold mentioned there have not been, up until yesterday, any suicide bombings within Israel Proper over the past six weeks, and one has to wonder and question what the strategy is essentially for the bombers.

Last week, there was some attention given to the Palestinian delegation and questions they had about the future for Yasser Arafat, well-overlooked in this country, but it might be an important point to examine as we go throughout the morning here.

ZAHN: Let's bring Ra'anan Gissin into our conversation, a spokesperson for Ariel Sharon, the prime minister.

Mr. Gissin, do you know who is responsible for this attack?

RA'ANAN GISSIN, ADVISER TO ARIEL SHARON: I can't hear you. Could you repeat your question, please?

ZAHN: Do you know who is responsible for this attack?

GISSIN: Well, I don't know who is directly responsible, but I know that the responsibility lies with the Palestinian Authority. For the past two years, we have been engaged in a war of terrorism imposed on us, and the pictures that you see on the screen speak more than a thousand words of what is the nature of this war. This is a war of a free society, of democracy against the forces of evil, and we have no choice but to win this war.

By the way, I believe that this is the harbinger of the kinds of wars that the free world will have to fight elsewhere, not just here in the Middle East, but elsewhere all over the world. And we are determined to win this war, because losing is not an option.

ZAHN: Tell us more about what you have been able to glean from rescue workers down there about how this unfolded.

GISSIN: Well, you know, we had a lull in the successful terrorist attacks in the past five weeks or six weeks. And I say, "a lull in the success," because our intensive effort throughout the territories -- in Judea, Samaria and Gaza -- is what prevented real successful terrorist activity. And the motivation is still there. The Islamic Jihad, the Hamas, the Tazim, the al Aqsa Brigades, have tried almost day and night to penetrate into the heart of Israel and to cause damage and kill people -- innocent men, women and children.

We are determined to stop it. We think that if the Palestinian Authority would have taken the necessary action to stop terrorist activity, which they haven't done for the past two years, then we could have returned back to the negotiating table. But every time we offer to ease restrictions, every time we offer to lift the curfew, we get another wave of terrorist activity.

So, it leaves us with no real choice but to take the kind of determined action that we have taken for the past several weeks in order to stop terrorist activity.

ZAHN: When you talk about taking determined action, how do you plan to retaliate this time?

GISSIN: Well, it's not retaliation. We have an ongoing war. We will continue to search for those who perpetrate this act, and believe me, either we bring justice to them, or we will bring them to justice. And we have been quite successful in the past few weeks.

I think this is the time when the international community should put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to do exactly what they said they will do, and that is to reform -- reform the security forces, reform their economic system, create a different Palestinian Authority, one that will go with the forces of freedom towards peace, and not with the forces of evil towards more terrorist activity.

The battle lines have been drawn. And unfortunately, regrettably I must say, that the terrorist organizations have decided to side with Saddam Hussein, with the forces of evil. And we see it along our northern border. We see it inside Israel. The effort is to escalate. Our effort is to stop it dead in its tracks, and that's exactly what we are going to do. ZAHN: Mr. Gissin, on the phone, just after you and I finish this conversation, will be Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian negotiator. What's your message to him this morning?

GISSIN: Stop talking and start doing for the sake of your own people. You know, by not fighting terrorist activity, by allowing and instigating and inciting for more suicide and homicide bombings, you are bringing destruction on your own society. This is a time for reckoning, a time for a moment of truth for you, as a leader of the Palestinian people, to tell them to choose the right way one minute before it's too late.

ZAHN: Mr. Gissin, thank you for your time.

Joining us on the phone is Saeb Erakat.

Mr. Erakat, I don't know whether you were able to hear what Mr. Gissin said, but he is blaming this attack on the Palestinian Authority. He says that you have to stop talking and start reforming your security forces. Your reaction.

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATION: I cannot accept this broken record and blame assignment. Mr. Gissin knows very well that in the last six weeks, there hasn't been a single suicide bombing. We have been exerting every possible effort as the Palestinian Authority. We have managed to stop all of the violence from our side, but unfortunately, the Israeli side continued.

As a matter of fact, people don't notice that in the last month, 71 Palestinians were killed, including Abu Salam Samarena (ph), a 12- year-boy that was shot and killed in Ramallah this morning.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority condemns any attack that is directed against Israeli civilians or Palestinian civilians.

And to Mr. Gissin and to the Israeli government, once again, I urge them to stop the re-occupation, the escalation, the violence.

ZAHN: OK, Mr. Erakat, before you go any further...

ERAKAT: And we need to resume a meaningful peace process, because that's the only way to break this vicious cycle.

ZAHN: But Mr. Gissin just made it clear that when you have suicide bombings like this, it's going to disrupt any negotiations. Who do you hold responsible for this attack today?

ERAKAT: Well, I think the whole situation is responsible for the attack today. I think the lack of a genuine effort to put the peace process back on track, the lack of the genuine efforts to revive hope in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis.

What we need to do -- I know that there are those on the Palestinian side who are trying to sabotage any attempts to put the peace process back on track. We have those in Israel who are trying to continue the language of violence and counter-violence and bloodshed. This must stop if we're going to save the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

The only way for us and the Israelis is to resume a meaningful peace process, because that's the only way to save the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. And I really call upon the United States, I call upon the Europeans, I call upon the Quartet, to help us -- to help Palestinians and Israelis -- in order to bring about a meaningful peace process and to begin the restoration of hope in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis.

ZAHN: But, Mr. Erakat, on the one hand, you're condemning the bombing, and yet, you say this whole situation has led to this bombing today. You basically are acknowledging that -- or are you -- that there is an excuse for this to happen?

ERAKAT: That's not what I said, ma'am. That's not what I said. What I said is that we want to resume a meaningful peace process. In the last month -- in the last six weeks, there were no suicide bombings, and at the same time, there were 71 Palestinians who were killed, including a Palestinian child -- a 12-year-old who was shot this morning. We are not saying (ph) if we die.

What I'm saying the whole situation of Palestinians and Israelis, it's a vicious cycle. How do we break this vicious cycle? How do we stop those forces on both sides who want to sabotage the peace process?

All I'm saying is that we need to resume a meaningful peace process. Nothing justifies the killing of Israeli civilians or Palestinian civilians. Nothing should justify that. And I'm saying that the only way out for us and the Israelis is not through the broken records of Gissin blaming us and blaming the Palestinian Authority -- the same Authority they are destroying on the hour every hour, the same Authority they are destroying its ability to move.

We are a people under curfew. We are 3.3 million Palestinians, who are totally in the biggest prison. We cannot move from town to town. We cannot move our security forces. All of our police stations have been destroyed.

And then at the same time, to hear Mr. Gissin finger-pointing at me and blaming me to do and not to talk, give me a chance! You're not giving us a chance.

And at the same time, I know that the only way out for us and the Israelis, it's not going to be through assigning blame or finger- pointing, but it's going to be through the goodwill of resuming a peace process with the help of the Americans, Europeans and others.

ZAHN: Mr. Erakat, we are trying at this hour to cobble together information from the scene, but it appears, according to Israeli police, that among those that were killed here, among the five was the suicide bomber. If you're able to find out who assisted the suicide bomber in planning this attack, what will you do to them?

ERAKAT: The Palestinian Authority has always taken the position of condemning these suicide bombings, and we have always said that given the chance, given the ability, we will proceed with those who are perpetrators of attacks and bring them to justice.

ZAHN: Is there anything to the timing of this attack coming on the heels of that attack yesterday -- the first attack in some six weeks, where two people were killed?

ERAKAT: Well, that's precisely my point, madam. My point is that you cannot stop the fighting and the violence from one side, and have the Israelis continue with their re-occupation, their closures (ph), because Mr. Sharon must understand that this military solution of his will not produce security or peace for Israelis or Palestinians. There will never be a military solution for this.

We must understand that violence will not bring a solution. Military solutions of Sharon will not bring any solution. The only way to bring a solution is through a genuine peace process directed toward ending the Israeli re-occupation and establishing a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel.

ZAHN: But Mr. Gissin's charge is that you have had the opportunity to put some pressure on the Palestinian Authority, despite what you say about your ability to control things being undermined by the curfews. And he said, if you really wanted to control the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Authority wanted to control that kind of stuff, you could do that right now.

ERAKAT: Well, you know, I want to ask Mr. Gissin one question: Who is in control of the West Bank and Gaza? Whose tanks are surrounding, today, President Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah? Whose tanks have been imposing curfews on the city of Nablus with 140,000 people for the last 90 days?

Madam, the Israeli army is in total control and re-occupation of the West Bank. That is the truth. We don't have a Palestinian Authority functioning today. All of the cities in the West Bank -- Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalquilya -- are under Israelis curfews. There are Israeli tanks in every Palestinian corner on the street.

So, the question to Mr. Gissin with this situation: What do you want me to do? What do you expect me to do?

Get out! I am appealing to the Israelis to withdraw from re- occupied areas -- to give me a chance to begin a process of rebuilding my capabilities. Because the only way that this can happen will not be assured through more Israeli violence, more Israeli attacks and more Israeli incursions and more Israeli assassinations, because violence will always breed violence, bullets will breed bullets, and lack of hope will bring disasters on both Palestinians and Israelis.

ZAHN: Mr. Erakat, thank you for joining us today -- the Palestinian negotiator -- appreciate your time.

HEMMER: Michael Harris is a CNN producer, Paula. He was very near that scene when the explosion first went off.

Michael is with us by telephone, still in Tel Aviv. Michael, first, recap a little bit. Your experience was what earlier today?

MICHAEL HARRIS, CNN PRODUCER: Yes, I was walking down Allenby Street, and suddenly, a bus explodes right in front of my face. Immediately, I understand (ph) this was a terror attack, so I ran to the bus and started to pull the people who could walk and start to give them medical treatment, the first medical treatment (ph).

HEMMER: It was 1:00 in the afternoon, essentially lunch hour. Can you describe to us what Allenby Street looked like at that point, Michael?

HARRIS: In those -- always Allenby Street is very busy. The street was full of people, and many buses are going by, but it's a main road.

HEMMER: Do you know, Michael, how crowded the bus was? Did most of the injured and the dead, were they on board the bus, or were they on the sidewalk, sir?

HARRIS: When I walked onto the bus, I didn't see so many people, so I believe -- hello?

HEMMER: Yes, we're still with you, Michael. Go ahead. Sorry for the interference.

HARRIS: When I went on the bus, I didn't see so many people, so I believe the bus wasn't full. But still, there were people around the bus, and I think the bus -- my feeling is that the bus wasn't full.

HEMMER: Michael, do you know in the past few days, knowing there was a bombing yesterday in the northern part of the country, as to whether or not there was some sort of warning that went out first?

HARRIS: I have no idea. I believe there is always a high alert here about bombings. But I don't know if there were specifics. I don't know.

HEMMER: All right, Michael.

Michael Harris is a CNN producer on the scene. Again, he was there when the explosion took place.

Just to recap: 40 wounded, five serious, and right now, five dead, which seems to include not only the bus driver, Paula, but also the bomber in central Tel Aviv.


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