Mr. Danny Ayalon, Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister, and Colonel Gal E. Hirsch, Head of Operations in the IDF Central Command National Media Center, Jerusalem,
April 12, 2002
Mr. Danny Ayalon: I would like to be very brief to begin with since you have probably all watched the press conference with Prime Minister Sharon and Secretary Powell following their meeting. It was a very good meeting and I will refer to any specific questions later on. I would just to emphasize and start by saying that we all here in Israel welcome very much Secretary Powell, whom we see as a friend. The administration, the American people and the American president are true friends and good friends with Israel. We share common interests and values and this friendship which we feel is the basis for the continuation of any stable situation here in the Middle East.
I would like to emphasize Israel’s commitment to peace with regard to the situation in Palestinian controlled areas. We have no intention of staying in Area A – in fact we have pulled out significantly. Three-four days ago we pulled out of Kalkilya and Tulkarm, and yesterday we have also pulled out of 22 towns and villages covering a significant territory. We will continue to pull out our forces, in accordance with the cabinet decision, once they complete their mission there of uprooting terror and infrastructure. The rationale for that is that we don’t want terror to bounce back immediately as we pull out, because this would only mean more deterioration and never having a chance to get to any negotiation of substantive issues to reach stable settlement and hopefully peace later on.
Israel has shown a lot of restraint throughout the period of the last 18 months until there was no other way but to act the way we did. The Passover massacre which followed an intensive two-three weeks of, on the one hand negotiations with General Zinni who came, and on the other hand relentless terrorist attacks on Israel culminated in this Passover massacre and left us no choice but to mobilize and to defend ourselves. It was in very simple words ‘terror versus democracy’ and we couldn’t let terror win. Granted, Israel is a strong country economically, high-tech, culturally and what have you. But this terrorist attack was directed at the nerve centers of the country, to the extent that our own structure I would say, and the trust of the population in the administration was at stake. So what we did was the only thing that any normal life-seeking and peace-seeking government and country would do, except I am sure other countries could have, would have done it much earlier throughout this process.
I want to reiterate that we will not cave in to terror because terror will not stop here. If terror sees or thinks they have any chance to win here, it will not stop here; it will go throughout the region and beyond. We welcome very much Secretary Powell and his mission here. We will do our utmost to cooperate, assist him and his mission as we have done in the past, and we hope that his mission is successful.
One last note is the situation in the north, which was also discussed between the Prime Minister and the Secretary. Again, there we have been very restrained. Israel is not seeking any confrontation there. I think we have proved in the past our peaceful intentions. We have pulled out completely to the last inch from Lebanese territory, in full compliance of UN Security Council 425. We have deployed our forces on the international border but unfortunately there was no commensurate compliance from Lebanon. We don’t face the Lebanese army as we should have, but we face instead the Hizbullah with their agenda of trying to destabilize and flare up the situation with their direct assistance to Syria. In fact Syria is in full control of Lebanon, de facto occupying Lebanon, and we see the governments of Lebanon and Syria responsible for the recent escalations. I don’t believe that we have crossed the point of no return, so we still hope that the international community will convey this message, as I know they have, but we hope that the message will be understood both in Beirut and Damascus as to the severity of the situation and the responsibility that they have. Thank you.
Colonel Gal Hirsch: In the last 24 hours we are still acting in the territories in order to dismantle terror infrastructure all around Judea and Samaria. Dismantling takes time, especially such an extensive infrastructure as the Palestinian Authority and terror organizations have built in the last years, including the years that we were under the peace process umbrella and the peace process atmosphere. There is a lot of evidence and proof in what we have found, and we know now better than we knew before. In the last 24 hours we also came close to finish the fighting in the city of Jenin, and especially in the Jenin refuged camp.
First I would like to say and to emphasize that when the rest of the world hears about refugee camps, they have a different idea of what it is. The term ‘refugee camp’ usually refers to poor people who suffer from humanitarian problems. They do not usually think about military infrastructure. The place that is called the Jenin refugee camp is actually strong combat position with a strong military infrastructure, so please do not take this camp as a humanitarian problem. It is a place where people had decided to fight. They fought; we fought back. We came there in order to dismantle the terror infrastructure. I will talk later on about the large amount of casualties that this camp, this military infrastructure caused in the cities in Israel. Many Israelis were killed by the people of the Jenin refugee camp, which is a combat position and has been, especially since the beginning of the fighting situation year and a half ago.
In the last few hours I hear a lot of Palestinian propaganda about a massacre in Jenin. If you want to talk about massacre, please come and take a look back ten days ago to the Passover massacre. That was a massacre. Not what happened in Jenin. In Jenin there was battle and it was a battle arena, a real one. The only unfortunate point there is that the Palestinian gunmen, Palestinian terrorists, took civilians as hostages. And these civilians were there, probably by their own choice, and they decided to be there, to stay there with the gunmen, with the terrorists, and to fight. If we are talking about a massacre, please take yourself back to the real massacre – the Palestinian terror whose main purpose is to kill Israeli civilians, innocent people, children, and women, especially in the last year and a half. But it is not new to us; there is a long history.
We suffered casualties during the last fight. There was a battle in the Jenin refugee camp and more than 20 soldiers were killed and many other dozens were wounded, so it is not massacre at all. It was a battle – a battle against military infrastructure. During the battle in the Jenin camp there were casualties. People were also killed and injured on the Palestinian side, and that includes civilians. We know about it. It was not our purpose but a part of the horrors of war. They were not our targets at all. We were fighting against gunmen. The gunmen took their houses as combat positions and we were fighting in the same arena. We offered many times and called on the civilians to leave their houses and to evacuate the camp. They choose to stay there and they made their choice. Unfortunately in some cases we know of civilians who were injured or killed, but most of the people killed in the Jenin camp are terrorists, gunmen with their guns, with their booby traps on them, with their weapons on them.
That is what we are doing right now. We are trying to find all these bodies and trying to remove the booby traps from them. It is very complicated, very dangerous and we are doing our best in order not to cause much more damage after the fighting. We are trying to take all the explosives, all the hand grenades, all the booby traps from the bodies and the houses where the bodies are there. In the last few hours we have heard from the Palestinians about 500, 600 Palestinians who were killed – these figures are usually exaggerated. I would suggest you check again the Palestinian credibility.
We did not choose to fight in Jenin. We did not have any other choice. The Jenin camp was sending a suicide bomber every few days. There was large number of weapons there and a military infrastructure.
What is the lesson from our actions in the territories? What is the lesson from our action in the Jenin camp, in the Nablus casba, in the city of Ramallah, in the city of Bethlehem and all the other places? The main lesson is first, that we are talking about a terror entity which is full of infrastructure of terrorism. From every two or three houses that we check and search, any interrogation, we receive much more information, much more proof and evidence; many laboratories, many factories for Kassam missiles, many explosive laboratories. There is a well-arranged terror entity infrastructure throughout Judea and Samaria in the Palestinian controlled area. What we are doing right now is dismantling this terrorist infrastructure.
The second lesson, to the Palestinians: do not test our will. We are the Israel Defense Forces and we will be wherever is needed in order to guard, to protect Israeli citizens and Israeli lives. We didn’t have any choice. We were pushed into the corner. We are not acting with all our strength, but we are acting right now but we will continue with this defensive operation in order to create new security environment for the Israeli citizens. We haven’t finished yet. We still have many other places, many other infrastructures to dismantle.
Questions and Answers
Q: Mr. Ayalon could we have your initial reactions to the news that we just heard about another terrorist bombing in the heart of Jerusalem.
Mr. Ayalon : Well this is again a repeated pattern, a devastating pattern that we see every time there is a chance for a peaceful mission. We have seen it in the past when we have had other emissaries or envoys come here, that the terrorists went out of their way to try and derail this. I think that this is a continuation of the same pattern. As we said, we intend to pull out and we have been pulling out from different areas, but there is a lot of work to be done. In accordance with the cabinet decision, we will act to make sure that the infrastructure and the terrorists do not have this capability. I would also like to mention that although there is no 100% foolproof solution in the war against terror, like there is no 100% proof in any kind of campaign, if we look at the total picture of the last few weeks since we started this operation, statistically the number of this type of event or suicide attack was greatly reduced. If we have had two or three terrorist attacks in the last three weeks, we used to have two or three a day before we started the operation.
Q: No. 1: Given what we have seen in the last few minutes, there are some military officials that are speaking publicly and not so publicly saying that this operation is not going to work when Israel pulls out, there is going to be maybe even a heavier retaliation, more suicide bombing. Given what we are seeing now, what is your opinion on that? No. 2, could you respond to the report in Ha’aretz this morning that the army is burying the Palestinians that were killed in the battle in Jenin in mass graves. And the last question is. if there is this propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians over what happened there, if the Israeli version is bona fide, then why doesn’t the army let the journalists in to see what is happening?
Colonel Hirsch: You have all seen in the last two days, although we have made our redeployment from the city of Tulkarm, we found that we did not have any choice but to enter there again with two commando raids the last two nights. The last two nights we found there two suicide bombers who were ready for their mission. So since no one else takes security control in that area, we still have to control these areas in many other ways. Whenever we will have enough information or intelligence, we will act in different ways as we all know.
About your question of mass graves, this is a part of the Palestinian propaganda. I asked you before to check again the Palestinian credibility. They are putting forward again and again many lies, and then leaving them and moving on. Please check – you will find out that in the last ten days they put out so many lies, and not for the first time, as part of a strategy that we all have to work so hard to deny them. We are not taking Palestinian bodies to mass graves and we have repeated called on the Red Crescent and the Red Cross to cooperate with us and to arrange the burials after we finish to dismantling all the explosives that are on the bodies.
Most of the people who were killed in the Jenin camp are Palestinian terrorists and Palestinian gunmen, including major terrorists on the list. This is the terrorist Ali Zafouri. He is responsible for the murder of many, many Israelis, and he one of the people we found there and we have arrested and we will take him into interrogation in the next few days. Nursi is another of the main terrorists there, and they had with them hundreds of gunmen, hundreds of terrorists under them, and they were all a part of this well-arranged terror infrastructure of the Jenin camp that killed so many Israelis. The question about the journalists, I think you can understand my answer what I said before. This is real battle arena and one of the most complicated that I have seen ever because they booby trapped their own houses, bodies, cars, everything, everywhere. You travel in the streets and you will see the roadside charges, many explosives. This entire camp was a war machine against Israeli citizens. When we entered, they had to fight against the Israel Defense Forces and in that war we will of course win.
This is the message that we would like to send to all the Palestinians that are still trying to fight. We call on them to surrender. They won’t have any other choice. We will find them everywhere. We will search out terror everywhere – in the territories and all over, in order to safeguard the State of Israel and its citizens. We cannot let journalists enter yet, although this may change after we will finish making the arena safe. Yesterday evening we were under fire there in the streets of the camp. There were still snipers who were shooting at our forces, and it is really difficult since it is mass populated area. The houses are very close to each other, as you can see in the photos there. You can understand that if you want to check that there are no terrorists there that is difficult work. I won’t let you in until I can be sure you are safe. There were many arguments with me a month ago about letting you into Ramallah. The next day you asked me again a few of you entered and we all know of the results. This is a battle arena and you should face the reality. Palestinians are shooting at everyone and accidentally sometimes even journalists and cameramen can be hurt from fire exchange.
Q: Can I ask you a brief supplementary about the graves please? There are reports today in Israeli papers that you are burying or intending to bury some of the bodies in Israeli controlled territories in the Jordan valley in a special cemetery. Is that true or not?
Colonel Hirsch: Since we have not started yet to search the bodies with our engineers unit, to find all the explosives and hand grenades and booby traps, we haven’t yet made the burial arrangements. We offered many times to the Red Crescent to cooperate with us on this mission. We haven’t found all the bodies yet. We have to enter all of the houses and to find them in their combat positions. Since we honor people and we treat them with the same respect as we treat any bodies, as was always in war, we are arranging special teams of rabbis and doctors and other people who would be able to identify these bodies, if the Palestinian won’t cooperate with us.
About the event in Jerusalem, it seems there was a suicide bomber at a bus stop on Jaffa Street, not far from the Mahane Yehuda market. We know that at least 20 people were injured, some of them seriously and some of them critically. But as we know from our sad experience, these numbers tend to rise and we can’t tell you at this time more than that.
Q: What are the prospects that the situation around the Nativity Church can solved in the short run?
Colonel Hirsch: The Israeli Army is trying to deal with this crisis and to take all the precautions to preserve the holiest place of the Church of Nativity. We have had some contacts with some terrorists in the and we were trying very hard to arrange a meeting with them two days ago. In spite of our efforts, they didn’t come to the meeting and we are still waiting. The meeting was to deal with immediate issues. We are waiting. There are 230 terrorists inside the church, some of them very senior terrorists belonging to Tanzim, to Hamas and to Islamic Jihad. We know that Arafat has appointed a group of people to deal with this crisis but till now at our level we are still waiting to see any change and any development.
Q: We have heard that an agreement is being worked out that the people inside the church might to willing to turn themselves in if they are going to be deported from the region. Is there any truth to that?
Colonol Hirsch: There are many rumors around this Nativity Church crisis. Right now I cannot give any more than I gave before. Mr. Salah Tamari has been nominated to deal with this crisis – again, until now we have not gotten any new information from their side. We know that they want to evacuate a dead body. We know that they want to talk about food, water. We are ready to talk about everything, but we need to talk with them.
We need to talk with the terrorists because they took the church by force and the world has to understand that this place has been taken by force by Palestinian terrorists, among them Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Just we have seen people firing from the church, also causing major damage inside the church so we are waiting and the ball is in their court.
Q: Has Powell presented any kind of new ideas or peace plan this morning and what was the comeback from Sharon?
Mr. Ayalon: The main issue that was discussed was really how to stop the terror violence incitement and move ahead.
There was a question here to the Colonel that maybe there is no military solution. There is no foolproof military solution, of course, and you certainly need political elements for the solution. I think that the first political element that you need is a strategic decision or a political will to stop the terror. We all know that the terror starts from the top and the Mr. Arafat himself and the people, his top aides, are implicated directly with financing, instigating, organizing and perpetrating this terror. So I think that we should all ask ourselves why don’t they stop doing what they do. They can certainly give the orders to stop the terror. They can go out publicly and declare a cease-fire. They can stop the financing to the terror organizations and they can dismantle them.
We all recall UN Security Resolution 1402 which called for the pull-out of Israeli troops, but it also called for the Palestinians to declare a cease-fire and to stop terror. We are in compliance and we have started pulling out, but the Palestinians have not done anything yet. We pulled out from Kalkilya and Tulkarm, and still the Palestinians didn’t start complying – no declaration, no acceptance of security arrangements and not ordering the stop to terror. We have continued with further pull-outs yesterday, but still from the Palestinians – no word.
There are of course some questions which might be legitimate about their capabilities, but certainly they control the finances. They can also take a model from Gaza where no infrastructure of the security organizations of the Palestinians were hit. So certainly they can stop there, dismantle the organizations and really show good will for a progress. This is the only way we can make any progress – if both sides comply and no demands are lodged at one side only. So far, unfortunately, we see how the international media was concentrating on the hard issue of when we are pulling out while we have started to pull out and we will continue as I said, but no questions are raised regarding the the Palestinians: What do they have to do? Have they started to do anything about calming the situation?
Q: Does Secretary Powell have any ideas on how to persuade them to do that then?
Mr. Ayalon: I am not in a position to divulge any details, it was a private meeting. But he is still here and we all hope to see good results.
Q: Colonel, we have sometime the feeling that the major part of your action is directed against the Palestinian Authority, against Arafat but that Hamas seems to be more of a terror organization.
Colonel Hirsch: First our operation Defensive Shield is not against the Palestinian people. We are acting against terror infrastructure. Unfortunately the Palestinian Authority is from top to bottom full of terror – the entire organization, even officials, are connected and well connected to terror. So that is why many times you see we are acting against the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure. About our actions against Hamas, there is no doubt that Hamas is our enemy, and we treat it as enemy.
Q: Mr. Ayalon, I’ve become a little bit suspicious when I hear in press conferences many frequent references to ever lasting friendship with the USA, shared common values. Usually my experience says that this is an indication that behind the curtain there are very sharp contrasts between the two countries. I wonder if you could elaborate on that. I would like to know if the issue of monitors has been discussed, if the idea of moving Arafat to Gaza has been also raised and discussed.
Mr. Ayalon: No, I don’t have anything to elaborate, you can take me on my word or face value. I don’t have to explain any more or you can go and ask the Americans. This is my answer to your first question.
To you second question, the international force was not discussed and our position on that is very clear. We have not seen in the past anywhere in the world where international force or monitors were able to stop terrorism and suicide bombers who are preparing their crimes in hideouts, that certainly no force of that nature can go into. So what we need basically is the political will or strategic decision by the Palestinians to stop this.
Let me also remind you that the whole essence of Oslo throughout the period was that Arafat and his forces came here from Tunisia. Before that they were in Lebanon. They came here very well armed and equipped for one reason only, and that was to fight terror. That is why we allowed all of this equipment. Otherwise who would invite well-armed people into his home if he thought that they would attack him? So not only that they did not keep true to their word and commitments, written commitments, to fight terror, but they joined the terror on an enormous scale.
From what we see as we went into the territories now, it wasn’t just a haphazard organization of the last six or eight or even eighteen months. This kind of organization and apparatus was built over ten years. So from the day they landed here, they started building this network or terror. And here let me tell you something else. If they were concentrating on building a nation, their nation, we would have all been in a different situation. But evidently they were concentrating on destroying a nation, our nation, and this we will not allow. This is what brought us into this situation as we are now.
With regard to the questions about Hamas, when you talk about destroying infrastructure of Hamas and Jihad, the infrastructure there is in the mosques. You wouldn’t expect us to bomb mosques. So basically we have to hunt down the terrorists, the people, and this is what we are doing. We are going into the area and picking up Jihad and Hamas terrorists. We wouldn’t have needed to do that had the Palestinian Authority been true to their commitments and stopped them themselves. So this is the situation.
Now on top of this, we have the Tanzim, which are Arafat’s forces. He formed this terrorist organization which in quantities of explosives and arms is just amazing. It has become the first and foremost terrorist organization, so that the danger from Tanzim, from Arafat’s forces, is much larger than Jihad and Hamas put together.
Q: Is there any concern that when Israel pulls out, given the state of the PA’s security infrastructure, that there is going to be a security vacuum in the West Bank, and if so who do you think might step in to fill that vacuum, possibly the Tanzim?
Colonel Hirsch: Israel is committed to the Tenet Plan, which is a very good blueprint for security cooperation and security arrangements. The Tenet Plan, which was drafted was a little bit broad based, was broken down into a detailed blueprint by General Zinni. We have accepted this detailed program of the General; the Palestinians have not. But I do think we have the answer there, and once we pull out and we start a true security cooperation, I think this is a good way to start.
If the Palestinian Authority, especially its leadership, make the strategic decision of fighting against terrorism, they will be able to do so if they will decide now. I am not sure what other choices we will have if they won’t stop now.