Briefing by
Cabinet Secretary Mr. Gideon Saar

National Media Center, Jerusalem,
April 9, 2002

Mr. Gideon Saar: As you know, our forces withdrew from two Palestinian cities, Tulkarm and Kalkiliya. We announced publicly and also through diplomatic channels that we will withdraw in every place where our operations have been completed. Our aim is to do everything we can to conclude this operation as quickly as possible. We do not have any intention to remain in Palestinian areas. Our aim is to uproot terrorism, and to return to a path of dialogue, if there is a willingness on the other side to end this conflict through peaceful means.

The reason for the operation is that during the last seven years our security, as a result of the agreements, was in a way connected to the Palestinian actions. The situation became impossible after terrible terror attacks.

This strategy of terror was led by the Palestinian Authority. As you know, some members of their security forces were involved directly in these terrorist attacks. The [PA members have also been involved in] the financing of terrorist organizations, such as the [Fatah] Tanzim. There has also been incitement, and perhaps the incitement with the greatest impact was carried out by the Palestinian Authority Chairman himself.

So we reached the point where we had to take the issue of security into our own hands, and this can be seen during the last ten days of the operation – we have not seen any terrorist attacks in Israel. Of course, we have taken a risk with the withdrawal from Tulkarm and Kalkilya, since the Palestinian Authority has not shown any willingness to impose its control and to prevent terrorist attacks, so in that sense it is a complicated situation. I believe that the international community should be aware of these aspects.

Q: You said that the IDF is conducting the operation now as fast as it can. By speeding up the operation, is the IDF not running the risk of having more Israeli casualties by speeding it up.

Secondly, in the Knesset yesterday, Prime Minister Sharon spoke about withdrawing to security zones; buffer zones. Can you explain or give somehow a little more details about these buffer zones or security zones, what they entail there?

Saar: First of all, there are places where we must act slower – we have here two important things. First, we must avoid civilian casualties, for example like in Jenin. But the terrorist took over places with citizens there, and not only there. The operations take time when we want to conduct them carefully, and this time is also necessary in order to minimize the risk to our forces.

When we say we want to finish it, or to conclude it as quickly as we can, this is our aim. We can’t do it everywhere and under any conditions.

We are aware of the US interest and the American desire as presented by President Bush himself and other senior officials from this US Administration, and of course we take it into account. At the same time, we have vital national interests: we do what we have to do, and no one else can do it, in order to uproot the terror infrastructure.

We have had achievements during this operation, including the location of arms and ammunition caches, and we will also bring terrorists to justice – terrorists who have been involved in the most severe attacks in Israel.

About the security areas, I cannot give you an exact map, of course, but what we will try to do is to redeploy our forces in such a way that it will minimize the risk of renewed terror attacks of the terror organizations inside Israel. In places from which we have already withdrawn, we can redeploy our forces in such a way that risks are minimized. This is the basic principle.

Q: Can you apply the general thing now to Bethlehem? Can you explain what is going on there?

Saar: I think it is a very serious issue there. Islamic terrorists invaded the Church of Nativity and took hostages. I think this is the serious aspect of this issue, because they are cynically taking advantage of the holiness of the place, and then because of the sensitivity of a religious place, they think they can escape justice. I can tell you that we do not intend to let those terrorists escape from justice.

Q: There is information of Israeli casualties in Jenin, can you tell us what happened there?

A: No, I cannot. Right now that is the reply to this question.

Q: There are Israeli soldiers being kidnapped in Jenin?

A: As I already said, I can’t comment on this issue right now.

Q. Shimon Peres said that it is like a massacre in Jenin, and what is happening in Jenin?

A: First of all, I didn’t see Mr. Peres and I sit with him every day. We have had numerous discussions; I don’t believe he said that. I believe it is incorrect.

And I can tell you, if you could only hear the Palestinian media and the way they are talking about how they fight in Jenin refugee camp, then you can be sure there is no massacre [in Jenin]. There is a fight with terrorists to cover some of the sites there in the refugee camp. Our forces called on them to surrender; some of them did surrender, and the fighting is going on between the terrorists and our forces.

Progress was slower during the last few days in order to avoid casualties and to avoid casualties among the civilian population there. Because you should know that in certain places they took over places where there is a civilian population.

Aryeh Mekel (reading from a statement from Foreign Minister Shimon Peres read): Foreign Minister Shimon Peres expressed his concern that Palestinian propaganda is liable to accuse Israel of carrying out a massacre in Jenin rather then a pitched battle with heavily armed terrorists. This is what the Foreign Minister said today.

Translated from Hebrew:

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Q: Have there been discussions between the US President or other senior officials from the Bush Administration and senior officials from the Israeli Government?

Saar: There are always contacts between American and Israeli officials, including today. I don’t think it is necessary to answer the question in detail. Unless there is a decision to publicize these discussions, we are discrete about the identity of those holding the discussions. However, in the last twenty-four hours, there have been talks between Israeli and American officials.

Q: There have been a considerable number of casualties in Jenin. Does this change the cabinet decisions with regard to the length of the operation, and other objectives, such as the Gaza Strip?

Saar: The operation will continue in accordance with the cabinet decisions. Any place where the military operation has been completed, then the operation is over in that area. Any place where the military objectives have not been accomplished, they will continue. No operation will be concluded before the IDF has decisively accomplished its objectives in every place.

Q: The number of wounded and the intense fighting, on the one hand, and the American pressure to withdraw, on the other. Does this not change the decisions regarding the length of the operation and the timetable?

Saar: When the Government decided to carry out the operation, no decision was taken regarding timetables. This has never been the case. A decision was taken on aims and objectives of the operation. These aims and objectives have not changed.

Nevertheless, we are aware of the US interest, and taking American needs into consideration, we informed US Administration officials, and Prime Minister Sharon certainly told President Bush that we will make every effort to accelerate the operation and complete it. We also said that in those areas where we have completed operations, we will also withdraw, and this is what happened in two places, in Tulkarm and Kalkilya, as you know. On the other hand, there is activity that is particularly essential for the security of Israeli citizens. This delicate balance will dictate our actions in the next few days.

Q: Which town will the IDF be withdrawing from next?

Saar: We certainly do not make announcements of this kind for a number of reasons, and, first and foremost, for operational reasons.

Q: You said earlier that the IDF would not withdraw from any place, until military victory is accomplished. In one place, at least, there is a particularly acute problem, and I am referring to the Church of the Nativity. Many agree that it would be impossible to achieve a decisive outcome, and they say that this place is particularly explosive. How can we achieve a decisive outcome there?

Saar: I will not go into the methods and approaches by which the IDF achieves its objectives in every area of activity. The principles are very clear. We have no intention of damaging holy places. We do not fire into churches. At the same time, we surrounded the place. We prevented terrorists from entering the compound. There is certainly no reason why those terrorists should be able to take refuge in a holy place. Regarding the type of activity, there are various dilemmas regarding different places. You could have asked a question about other wanted terrorists found in other places. In any event, we have no intention of granting immunity to anyone in any place where we operate.

Q: I understand that today a meeting was held among the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Foreign Minister ahead of the arrival of Secretary Powell. Was a joint position arrived at? And next question, you said that it is Israel’s strategic interest to eradicate the terrorism. Isn’t it also Israel’s strategic interest to maintain good relations with the US, and continue the gradual withdrawal?

Mr. Saar: I think we are already speaking in past tense. You see, the request was a request to begin a withdrawal or a pullout, and in two Palestinian cities, we have already pulled out. As I stated before, the political/security reality is a lot more complicated and it requires giving weight both to the security interests and to the political interests, and we give weight to both of these at the same time. We will work within these principles.

I would just like to stress something that, sometimes the world media ignores. President Bush also made demands, requests from the Palestinian side. Which of these requests were already fulfilled? Have you heard the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority declare a ceasefire, an end of terrorism? Has the incitement in the Palestinian media been stopped? What happened on this account? Surely, if we don’t take the responsibility, in keeping with the view of some and even our own view that it is desirable to withdraw from the cities, then certainly they would want to see another party take the responsibility. So what I suggest is that one look at the entirety of the situation, the whole range of the conditions, and see what each side has fulfilled. The American approach, unlike the approach of some other countries, is generally balanced in its demands of the sides, and in its attitude towards the parties.

And one need not go back to the days – and again I am not referring to the United States but rather to those whose worldview sees the demands as being made on only one side – this phenomenon has brought about a situation in which cities of refuge were established for terrorists under the auspices of diplomatic agreements whose purpose is supposed to be the establishment of peace – terrorist cities of refuge that have no parallel anywhere. The depth of the terrorist infrastructure found there which we have been uncovering daily, from foundation to roof, the amount of explosives, the amount of illegal weapons, these are things that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

So we ask those – and again stress that I am not referring to the US, but to other nations, for example on the European continent, which, it appears to me, speaking in generalities, bear a moral and historical responsibility when it comes to the security of Jews, and the security of the Jewish state – do they expect from us that we take upon ourselves unilateral risks, even if the other side continues in is path of terrorism.

What would be the consequence for the free world, if one can make gains, or achieve a level of international legitimacy as a result of suicide attacks. Are there any guarantees for the free world that it will remain contained in a single region, in just one part of the world?

It seems to me that the situation is too complicated to make demands of only one side, and one must always ask ‘What about the other side?"

Regarding your first question, we welcome the Secretary of State. I would like to reiterate that not only have we accepted the Tenet document. We also officially notified General Zinni of our acceptance of the American bridging document, which, up to this very minute, the PA has yet to accept. Also, we have assisted General Zinni in every way possible on each of the three occasions that he came to the region. The side that consistently torpedoed each of the three visits was the Palestinian Authority.

Q: How will Israel act if Arafat does agree to the American bridging proposal?

Saar: The best thing is to ask that question again, after Arafat accepts it, and implements it. After he does all this, I will be in a position to answer your question.

Q: What must he implement? And have any of the requirements for implementation changed as a result of the situation on the ground.

Saar: Arafat is a terrorist, everyone knows he is a terrorist. His connection with terrorist was uncovered in a way that it no longer is just theoretical, but is now a fact of life, surely one of the sadder facts of life. So, if your asking me if I think he will change his ways, will begin to fulfill agreements, and begin to fight terrorism, I don’t believe it, and I believe that anyone who does believe it is making a grave mistake – since he will soon have to face the truth. But since you asked ‘what will happen if?’ since there are some who still believe it, then let’s see if it will happen, and then we can give you an official reaction. Yet, I have already clarified the way I assess Arafat.

Q: Will you allow Secretary Powell to meet Arafat?

Saar: Whether the Secretary of State will meet Arafat or not, is an American decision, not an Israeli one.