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Crisis in the Middle East: Living With Conflict

Aired June 22, 2003 - 18:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Living with conflict. Is any wall big enough to keep out hatred? One Israeli plan believes so.

They're called a key obstacle on the road map toward peace. But are all settlements on the West Bank the same?

And getting on with life after a terrorist attack. Rebuilding the cafe was easy. Rebuilding some of the lives was not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You cannot leave the terror -- let the terror win, and let the terror change your normal life.

BLITZER: See how some carry on with their ordinary lives during extraordinary times.


BLITZER: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Welcome to our special report, "Crisis in the Middle East: Living With Conflict." During the next half hour, we're going to take a close look at several key issues in this conflict. I spent last week in the region meeting with Israelis and Palestinians. We'll hear directly from them. But first, today's headlines out of the Middle East.

Israeli tank fire killed three Palestinian militants in Gaza a few hours ago. Palestinian witnesses say the victims were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. This follows the killing last night of a Hamas leader, Abdullah Kawasme, in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Hamas says it's still considering a cease-fire proposal from the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas but also has vowed to avenge the death of Kawasme.

And at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States would remain committed to the peace process, despite the continuing violence.

Powell issued a mild rebuke of the Israelis for their killing of the Hamas leader in Hebron. The Israelis say they were trying to arrest Kawasme, but killed him when trying to escape. At the same time the Israelis are defending their policy of targeted assassinations.

They insist they're dealing with what they call ticking bombs, trying to prevent terror strikes that are already in the works. So much of Israel's policy is, of course, predicated on fighting terror. That was made clear to me this past week.


BLITZER (voice-over): The Israeli air force Blackhawk helicopter was waiting for us at the helipad near the Knesset, Israel's parliament. President Moshe Katsav, Israel's largely ceremonial head of state was doing what he's done hundreds of times since taking office nearly three years ago, paying condolence calls to families of Israeli civilians and soldiers killed in Palestinian attacks.

MOSHE KATSAV, PRESIDENT, ISRAEL: It's very difficult. It is our life of the last 1,000 days.

BLITZER: We fly over Jerusalem, where the holy sites to three great religions quickly stand out, and then within minutes we're over the Dead Sea, along the border with Jordan.

The stark and barren terrain seems to continue forever until we spot Masada, the ancient mountaintop fortress where Jewish zealots committed mass suicide 2,000 years ago rather than surrender to Roman troops.

After a 40-minute flight we reach our first stop -- -a small farming community called Faram -- the home of 19-year-old Tamar ben- Eliyahu, an Israeli soldier who was one of 17 Israelis killed in the suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem on June 11. Her parents asked cameras stay outside when President Katsav came to pay his respects. Two days earlier, Tamar's sister had an angry exchange with the Israeli Defense Force minister Shaul Mofaz, who also had made a condolence call. She accused the Defense Minister of doing nothing to prevent terrorism -- charging the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories had contributed to Palestinian despair, including the suicide bombers, and ultimately, her sister's death.

On this day, President Katsav hears more of the same -- and later, aboard the Black Hawk, that shows on his face. On this day, President Katsav hears more of the same and later aboard the Black Hawk that shows on his face.

We head north, over the Negev Desert toward Israel's Mediterranean coastal plain. The beaches of Tel Aviv and the bustling commercial district of Israel's major center of commerce stand out in sharp contrast to the desert. We continue north along the coast toward Haifa. We land at Atlit, an Israeli naval base, and drive to our second destination, the home of another Israeli soldier, 21-year-old Mor Tzaide who was killed on June 13 in the Palestinian town of Jenin on the West Bank. Though he was driving on patrol in an armored vehicle, a sniper's bullet managed to pierce through and hit him in the neck.

When we arrive his extended family is clearly in deep pain. Here, no complaints about Israeli policy. The family is religious and observes the traditional Jewish rituals of grief and mourning.

Later a second Black Hawk comes to Atlit to take us back to Jerusalem, a 30-minute flight across central Israel. At several points we can easily spot a massive building project underway, the initial construction of a more than 200 kilometer wall that eventually will separate Israel from the West Bank.

We arrive back at the Knesset helipad five hours after we began. After a day of pain I ask President Katsav if he has any hope for peace.

KATSAV: Yes indeed, I am not pessimistic. I am not pessimistic at all and I believe around the table we can find a formula of peace is existent and I believe that the formula of peace and reconciliation, we can achieve it. His optimism not something heard often among Israelis or Palestinians.


BLITZER: Israelis understandably worry about terrorism and their security but it's also not easy being a Palestinian living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. There are numerous restrictions which understandable create deep resentment.


BLITZER (voice-over): Qusay Abu al-Homos a middle class dress shop owner in Ramallah says he yearns only for a normal life for his family but after one especially unpleasant recent confrontation with Israeli soldiers he saw a shocking change in his six-year-old son.

QUSAY ABU AL-HOMOS, PALEST. DRESS SHOP OWNER: And I saw in his eyes that he is suffering, you know. I don't know what kind of looking it was. Next day, I saw my son playing in his room with his cousin, you know, and what did they play? They played a game of suicide bomber. Even though we are not extremists, I mean my family, I tried to raise him as a peaceful man but look what they do to him.

BLITZER: Other Palestinians tell similar accounts of despair. They blame the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank that goes back to the 1967 war. There are Israeli military checkpoints around Ramallah as is the case indeed throughout the West Bank.

The Israelis cite security concerns noting that Palestinian suicide bombers usually have crossed into Jerusalem and other Israeli cities from the West Bank. But Palestinians, including Dr. George Imsehi, a pediatrician, don't accept that explanation.

DR. GEORGE IMSEHI, KALANDIA CHECKPOINT, WEST BANK: There is no security points and checkpoints here. These points are a humiliation and insulting for the population, Palestinian population.

BLITZER: He lives in Ramallah but works at a hospital in Jerusalem, that commute usually winds up taking 90 minutes or longer each way. Under normal circumstances that drive would take only about 15 or 20 minutes.

Kais Bakri, a Palestinian businessman sees a much more sinister Israeli motive.

KAIS BAKRI, PALESTINIAN BUSINESSMAN: The whole aim of putting the checkpoints is to make you want to leave this country.

BLITZER: This is the Kalandia checkpoint just outside of Ramallah. It's normally a very busy place. A lot of people want to go back and forward between Ramallah and Jerusalem. If you want to get into Ramallah, you want to leave Ramallah you got to by and large go through this Kalandia checkpoint.

(on camera): It's open today. People are going through their check. The security is rather tight but by and large people are moving. Almost at a moment's notice they can close off this checkpoint. They seal off the West Bank from Jerusalem. People won't get in. People won't get out if there's a security problem. That's a fact of life here in the Middle East.

(voice-over): Once inside Ramallah, you see a bustling and diverse Palestinian community, the traditional mixing with the modern, both Muslims and Christians.

Sonia Jeetan is a lawyer in Ramallah who says she has become physically and emotionally drained by the Israeli military occupation though she insists it's also in some inexplicable way making the Palestinians stronger.

SONIA JEETAN, PALESTINIAN LAWYER: I feel tired of the suffering but I feel much -- I know that in the end this will have to end up in something good for us. I believe that we can suffer all this and we won't gain anything out of it.

BLITZER: The question for Palestinians and Israelis alike, just when does that happen?


BLITZER: They captured the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt during the 1967 Six Day War. Over these past 36 years, the Israelis have imposed those military checkpoints, part of an elaborate effort to try to bolster their security, but with the dramatic increase in suicide bombing attacks over the past two and a half years, the Israelis are now taking an even more dramatic and aggressive step.


BLITZER (voice-over): The Israeli argument is simple. As the poet Robert Frost said, "good fences make good neighbors." And so, the Israelis have started building a fence that eventually will continue for more than 200 miles, roughly coinciding with Israel's 1967 border with the West Bank.

But there are several major detours to ensure that Arial (ph), Emmanuel (ph), and other major Jewish settlement communities on the West Bank are on the Israeli side of the fence.

As you can see from the air, it's a massive project, its eventual cost an estimated $220 million. The Israelis say they need this fence to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists from crossing into populated Israeli centers. Most of the infiltrators, they say, have come from the West Bank.

Israel already has a fence encircling Gaza. Officials say there have been virtually no infiltrations from there.

(on camera): Right now we're outside of Jerusalem, very close to Bethlehem. This is where they're building a fence -- the Israelis are building a fence. They obviously want this fence to provide them security.

Now, take a look at this ditch. This is going to be the ditch where this fence is going to go. On this side, where I'm standing, is going to be the Israeli-controlled area.

On the other side of this ditch, once this fence goes up and it's going to be high, it's almost going to be like a wall, that's going to be the Palestinian side and it's going to literally go all along here, all along down there, and it's going to go for miles and miles and miles, and the goal of course is to prevent infiltrators from getting into Israeli-controlled areas. They think it might help. We'll see.

(voice-over): Most Palestinians say they hate the fence, in part because it will make it more difficult for them to get desperately needed jobs in Israel. It will also at various locations divide Palestinian farms and villages.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): You know the wall of Berlin, the big wall, the people there were jumping over it to the other side to look for work, and this fence compared to the Berlin Wall is nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The fence will not help. Everyone who wants to cross can do it.

BLITZER: Israelis we spoke to acknowledge it won't provide 100 percent protection but they insist it will help in the short term. The only long term solution, they say, is peace.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think you have to get to agreement with the other side and I hope that this is what they will do.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What you need is a real peace agreement and not a fence, not the solution I think.

BLITZER: But Israeli government officials say seven-year-old Naomi Lebowitz (ph) would be alive today if that fence had been completed. Her father was driving her and her three-year-old sister in central Israel this week, not far from the West Bank town of Kalkilya. They say a Palestinian gunman crossed into Israel and shot them. Her father and sister survived.

A fence, the Israelis say, could have prevented the incident.


BLITZER: When many Americans hear of Israeli settlements on the West Bank they may not know exactly what those settlements are like. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't consider this a settlement. This is a city.

BLITZER: Why some West Bank Israelis will be hard to move no matter what agreements are made by their government.

And, for young people in Jerusalem, living with conflict often means braving death to have a life. Stay with us.



BLITZER: People are clearly watching CNN around the world, including here on the West Bank. Thank you.


BLITZER: Yes, that's me. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We see you every day. You don't see us except once in a lifetime.

BLITZER: Thank you.


BLITZER: Thank you very much. But this guy selling cold drinks clearly doesn't get cable. He didn't have a clue who I was. He was just happy to sell us some drinks. Well, good work. Thank you very much, appreciate it very much. You want a drink? Can I buy you a drink?


BLITZER: By the way, he's been wearing the outfit, including the flowers atop his head selling drinks since he was 14 years old.


BLITZER: Welcome back. There are so many bitterly sensitive issues separating Israelis and Palestinians. The so-called road map for peace leaves many of these most difficult issues for a later stage of negotiations among the most difficult final borders, return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and the future status of Jerusalem.

And then, there's the matter of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. During my visit to the region last week, I saw there are all kinds of settlements.


BLITZER (voice-over): It's been exactly 36 years this month since Israel's Six Day War victory that captured the West Bank from Jordan. Since then, some 200,000 Israelis have settled there. That doesn't include the quarter of a million who have moved to East Jerusalem and other neighboring parts of an expanded Jerusalem municipality also controlled by Jordan until 1967.

Ma'Aleh Adummim is one of those Jewish settlements on the West Bank not far from Jerusalem. It's grown from 23 families and a few tents and mobile homes in 1975 to this, nearly 30,000 residents, most of whom commute to work in Jerusalem. The Israelis who live here say almost uniformly that they will never leave this area no matter what the politicians come up with.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you ask me to leave no way. They could pay me a lot of money, no way, I'm not going to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want to go from here and I want to stay here.

BLITZER: The homes and gardens are reminiscent of the southwest United States. There are playgrounds, shops, restaurants, and movie theaters. The businesses here have prospered.

What you see here is similar to several of the other major settlements on the West Bank, including Arial where 17,000 Israelis live just a commuter drive from Tel Aviv, and Ephrat (ph) where another 10,000 live just south of Bethlehem. They are really more like towns. Indeed the Israelis who live in Ma'Aleh Adummim say they're not settlers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't consider this a settlement. This is a city. It's not a settlement.

BLITZER: These established communities are in marked contrast to what the Middle East peace road map calls the illegal outposts on the West Bank built since March, 2001 that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has promised to dismantle.

That process has started but what happens to Ma'Aleh Adummim and the other Jewish communities on the West Bank is supposed to be worked out through direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as part of that road map.

Palestinians insist these settlements are part of an illegal Israeli occupation but most Israelis will tell a visitor rather bluntly don't hold your breath waiting for any of these major settlements to be evacuated let alone dismantled.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is no way the Israeli government can do it. They couldn't offer the people in Ma'Aleh Adummim the money to move. They don't have that kind of money.

BLITZER (on camera): Behind me you can see Ma'Aleh Adummim and the West Bank an area rich in history and religion, an area where Israelis have established themselves in the midst of two million Palestinians. Figuring out how to resolve this issue will require appropriately enough here in the Holy Land the wisdom of Solomon.


BLITZER: Going out for dinner or cocktails can be a life and death decision in Israel, next on living in conflict.


BLITZER (voice-over): If you just arrived in Jerusalem unaware of the history of this city, you'd never know how real the terror threat is. That's because the people who live here are determined not to let the terrorists win. They go on with their lives as normally as they can. That's a determination almost all of them seem to possess.




BLITZER (voice-over): The sights are spectacular. The people are diverse and fascinating and for a reporter the story here in the Middle East is always compelling but there's also a downside.

(on camera): We're inside the Land Rover, the armored car. We're heading out from Jerusalem now. It's a very, very heavy Land Rover. It's not the most pleasant situation in the world to be inside. There's air-conditioning but it doesn't work all that well and on these hot days here in the Middle East it can get very hot inside.

The advantage, of course, is that you are protected in case there are snipers or anybody wants to shoot at you, you're in an armored car. The disadvantage is you can't open any windows or anything like that and it gets pretty hot inside, so you just have to do that tradeoff. The good thing is we are moving, we are secure, and we're on the assignment.

(voice-over): How hot does it get inside? If it's in the 80s or 90s outside, as has been the case in recent days, it easily tops 100 degrees inside.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report. Israel gained its independence in 1948. It's fair to say it has never known a real day's peace for over these past 55 years.

Yes, Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the borders with Lebanon and Syria right now are quiet, though tense. Still, the threat of terror continues to haunt the Israelis every day, indeed every hour. They are a resilient people who try to do the best they can.


BLITZER (voice-over): This is what the Cafe Moment looked like just a little more than a year ago. It was March 9, 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into the packed Jerusalem nightspot and detonated the explosive belt he was wearing killing 11 people and injuring 54 others. The crowded cafe, especially popular with young Israelis, was destroyed.

I was here in June, 2002 only three months after the blast. Reconstruction then was already well on the way. And, this is the Cafe Moment today. It's been rebuilt and is clearly back in business though by no means the same.

YORAM COHEN, CAFE MOMENT OWNER: To rebuild doesn't mean just to rebuild foundations. It's to rebuild foundations of humans.

BLITZER: Yoram Cohen is the owner. He was inside during the bombing.

COHEN: The second of the blast I flew over the bar from the impact of the bomb and somehow I got up.

BLITZER: He says he's been getting up every day since.

(on camera): If you just arrived in Jerusalem unaware of the history of this city, you'd never know how real the terror threat is. That's because the people who live here are determined not to let the terrorists win. They go on with their lives as normally as they can. That's a determination almost all of them seem to possess.

(voice-over): Rafi Fridj was at the Cafe Moment the night of the bombing but had left only five minutes earlier. He makes a point of still coming back.

RAFI FRIDJ, CAFE MOMENT PATRON: You have to continue with your life. You don't -- you cannot let the terror win and let the terror change your normal life.

BLITZER: Indeed, strolling or driving around Jerusalem and other Israeli cities underscores that determination to live ordinary lives during extraordinary times.

Despite the numerous bus bombings, most recently on June 11, people still climb aboard, in part they say because they can't afford more expensive forms of transportation, and they still go to the Cafe Moment.

DAVID YAKIN, CAFE MOMENT PATRON: In the first few months of the bombing, it really was a little bit scary. I think twice of going to something like this, to a place like this, but (unintelligible) and you don't let nothing get you down.

BLITZER: And they still yearn for the ordinary even as they keep a weary eye for anything out of the ordinary.


BLITZER: Israelis and Palestinians in their own ways have become used to living with this conflict but as much as they manage to cope they would clearly love to live their lives without fear of terrorism or military occupation.

There was hope two weeks ago when President Bush brought the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers together at a summit in Jordan. Even as Israelis and Palestinians hope for an agreement, they cope with the reality of terrorism, occupation, and violence. We'll of course continue to report on all of these issues.

That's our special report CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST: LIVING WITH CONFLICT. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Up next, a look at the headlines followed by "PEOPLE IN THE NEWS."


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