Major General Giora Eiland: Good afternoon. When we discussed the current operation we have to recall the goals of this operation. From the military point of view, there were two goals for this operation. The first and most immediate one was to reduce significantly the number of terrorist attacks that have been launched from Palestinian-controlled areas in Israeli cities. During all the period of March, more than 124 Israeli civilians have been killed and many other wounded.
The second goal of this operation is to try to destroy the terrorist capabilities, or at least to reduce significantly, their operational capabilities. Therefore, these kinds of terrorist operations that we experienced until one week ago, will not be able to be deployed in such an effective way.
So far, after less than a week, we feel quite comfortable with what we have already achieved. As far as the first goal is concerned, we have managed to reduce the number of these terrorist attacks. I know that we cannot give 100% guarantee that such events will not occur again, but we do know that the probability that such events will occur with the frequency that we experienced in the past, is relatively low.
As far as the second goal, so far we have managed to arrest more than 1200 people. Many dozens of them are very dangerous terrorists. People who we have been looking for, for a long time. Unfortunately, until a week ago, we didn’t have access or capabilities to reach them. Now we can. We did find a lot of weapons and ammunition. We are talking about more than two thousand weapons of various kinds including types of weapons that are not permitted according to the agreement that we have with the Palestinians. We did find a lot of explosive devices, laboratories, where these kinds of ammunitions and explosives are stored and if the operation continues more or less in the same manner, we hope to be as successful in the future.
There is one sensitive place and this is the city of Bethlehem where in a the Church of the Nativity there is a very delicate situation. A few days ago dozens of Palestinian terrorists, with some Palestinian officials, including the Palestinian Governor of the city of Bethlehem, occupied this Church. First, all the people who were there, priests and civilians, stayed in this specific place. They did not enable them to leave, and in a way they are kept as hostages.
A few hours ago four priests managed to escape with our assistance. They did it of course, without getting permission from the Palestinians. We do hope that we will find a way to assist some others to escape in this way or in a similar way.
The situation in this Church is very similar to many incidents in the past where terrorists, many of them Palestinians, took hostages, whether on a plane or in buildings or in offices, and kept them just to protect themselves or to gain some other goals.
Of course, we will let anyone leave this place, and arrest only those who are wanted terrorists. Anyone that wants to leave this place and if he is not involved in any terrorist activities, of course we will release him.
We have been asked, due to the speech of President Bush yesterday, about the duration of the operation. When exactly we are going to begin our withdrawal. I read very carefully this speech and the main thing that is emphasized is the failure of the Palestinians and their President, Yasser Arafat, not only to fight terrorism but to understand the consequences of such an approach.
The explanation of the rules of the situation is given by the President himself in a very clear way. So, I can imagine, that the President’s intent is not that we will leave the Palestinian areas so that terrorism that we have been experiencing until six days ago will become the norm again. We do believe, that his intent is that something dramatic will be done against this terrorism. and if and when this kind of something dramatic is done, then the conditions and the circumstances will change in a way that we will be able to leave these areas. And as far as I understand, all the recent talks between the US administration and the Palestinians, including the visit of General Zinni today, are aimed to see whether such circumstances can occur and can facilitate a new situation, which is of course our desire.
Whenever we speak about terrorism, we have been accused of the reason for this terrorism, and we have been told, it is only because of one phenomenon – the occupation. So, let’s stop the occupation and there will be no terrorism. 22 months ago we tried this notion in a different area. 22 months ago Israel withdrew its forces out of Lebanon, unilaterally. We brought our forces to a line that was formally confirmed by Secretary General Kofi Annan in full compliance with UN Resolution 425, and he said that Israel completely accomplished its withdrawal. Three months later, terrorist activities began along this border and three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped in Israeli territory. And as we can see from the past few days, repeated attacks from Lebanon on Israel with no excuse. Of course, the term "disputed area" is irrelevant because the line was marked on the ground and on the maps by a special UN envoy and there is no room for misunderstanding whatsoever.
So, probably leaving specific areas does not necessarily guarantee that the other side will not understand it as a sign of weakness or further attacks should take place.
When we tried to evaluate again how long is needed in order to accomplish our mission in the West Bank and Gaza, we said that the longer these operations continue, the better the chances that we will be able to accomplish all or most of our missions. We do understand that under certain circumstances, it might be shorter, but we have to understand that every day we manage to seize some explosive belts, and if we leave them and other terrorist devices, they will eventually explode in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or any other place.
In the past few days, we have tried to prove the connection between terrorism and the PA and we did say that it is not a situation where we have terrorism as a separate entity and the PA as another and that apparently the only complaint against the PA is that they don’t do enough to prevent and stop this terrorism.
Unfortunately, this is not the situation. If you want the best example of this situation, all the Palestinian attempts to carry out suicide attacks during the presence of General Zinni in Israel, most of them were conducted directly by the PA. For example, someone who was in a Palestinian jail in Ramallah, they knew very will of his intent to carry out a suicide attack and just a few days after the arrival of General Zinni, he was released from jail and sent by a Palestinian official to carry out a suicide attack in the Moment Coffee Shop in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, he was successful.
We do have many more examples like this – if you like, in general we can say that we can compare Yasser Arafat to a manager of a zoo who decided to open all the cages and to let all the lions, tigers and snakes, go free. So no one should be surprised that these specific animals do what they are told to do.
Colonel Miri Eisin: I’ve stood here a few times over the last few days, and today I would like to add some more information which I hope will tie in some of the documents that we have been finding from the compound in Ramallah. I’ve mentioned before, we entered in Ramallah into Fouad Shoubaki, the chief financial advisor’s office, and today I am going to talk about a document which we found in General Tirawi’s office – he is the head of general intelligence and he, as Fouad Shoubaki, is together with Arafat now within the compound, in Arafat’s office.
The document itself which I hold here, and you may see the English translation, I say as an Intelligence Officer, is the sort of thing I always like to find. It’s an intelligence report of the the Head of General Intelligence in the city of Tulkarm, one of the cities that we are controlling right now. He writes to Tirawi about what goes on within his city. And it is this description which you will be able to read in depth. The entire document has been translated and as I said is on the IDF site, I would just like to point out several things, which are within a long intelligence document.
The document explains what the Fatah-Tanzim are doing within the city of Tulkarm. Without any way of explaining it better, you read the document, and you see Fatah — I’m talking about Arafat’s party, about Marwan Bargouti, the head of the Fatah — that the Fatah-Tanzim within Tulkarm is funded by Arafat personally who, as it says within their own intelligence report gave money for guns for the Fatah-Tanzim. These aren’t the Palestinian police, these aren’t for security apparatus, these are the Fatah-Tanzim that have been doing attacks against Israelis. Arafat himself is mentioned in their own report as having paid for it.
In addition, the policy of the terrorism in this document is approved by the General Intelligence of the PA. Such as, ‘you are going to do an attack in Hadera’, where there were six killed at a Bat Mitzva, by a suicide bomber. It was approved by the General Intelligence within Tulkarm.
The only reason that they wrote this report, as you will read it, was that some of the Fatah-Tanzim people within Tulkarm weren’t doing exactly what they wanted and they found this problematic and they wanted to make sure that they were brought into hand. They were firing from within Tulkarm at local Palestinian people and parades and that’s not okay, because that’s bothering the own Palestinian civilians.
The connection to the documents of yesterday, is that within it are mentioned all of the names that were within the document that Arafat personally signed, which we showed you yesterday, which was from the Fatah-Tanzim in Tulkarm, to Marwan Bargouti, the Head of the Fatah-Tanzim in all of the West Bank, and from there to Yasser Arafat himself where they paid twelve separate people. They are all mentioned within the General Intelligence Report themselves, and they describe exactly what they are doing.
The last thing I would like to say is, within this is a direct reference about the suicide bombing, as was explained, in Hadera on the 17 January, as something they both knew about. They know about the people who were in it, and they continue to fund them and to supply them with the guns.
As I said before, the entire document you will be able to read in our website and I only have it in Hebrew and in Arabic.
Questions & Answers:
Q: Do you think it was appropriate that you interpreted President Bush’s speech as a military person?
General Giora Eiland: I didn’t say anything about the political consequences of his speech. I simply said that the word terrorism appears in this text more than other word, and as far as I understand, his intent was that our withdrawal will not be conducted unilaterally unless something is achieved in the area of fighting terrorism. It is said in the text in the most accurate and clear way so it is not an interpretation.
Q: What would be for you something dramatic in fighting terrorism that could cause the IDF leaving the Palestinian territories? There was also a decision by the UN yesterday and they say that the IDF should withdraw immediately from the West Bank cities?
General Giora Eiland: Unfortunately, there is nothing dramatic in a war against terrorism. There is no one decisive victory. It is a long campaign that requires a lot of patience and a lot of efforts that should last not only days or weeks but sometimes months and years. So, I cannot say that one specific event will change the situation dramatically. But we do believe that by doing what we are doing we can create an incremental impact that might be significant enough if we continue this for enough time, so that the threat of terrorism will be reduced.
Q: The military leaders of Israel are reported in the Israeli press to have wanted a month to two months to carry out this operation – is that timetable possible at all now, given President Bush’s speech and the fact that that will be followed by Secretary of State Powell’s visit?
General Giora Eiland: The timetable of four weeks and another four weeks is for a military point of view, the most desirable period of time that we need and this is only our assessment. Maybe we need more maybe we need less. We do understand that there are some other restrictions and circumstances that will lead us to shorten our operation and whenever a decision is taken to stop it or to begin any withdrawal of course we will do so.
Q: Where do you put twenty thousand prisoners? I wonder how do you manage with this logistically? How do you manage the selection of the people you then keep in prison? Secondly, would you enter the Church of the Nativity if it is the case, are you decided to capture the terrorist that are inside or you would avoid it for political reasons?
General Giora Eiland: We do understand the sensitivity of this place. We don’t have any intention to penetrate and of course not to demolish this holy place, but we are determined to stay there and to surround the building until those who captured those hostages give them up and leave this place. And we hope to achieve it if we are patient enough.
I mentioned the number, 1200 people who have been arrested so far. This is not twenty thousand. I said twelve hundred. If I made a mistake I apologize. Many of these detainees will be released shortly or it might take a few days while we make investigations. The final number will be significantly less.
Q: Could you elaborate on the parallel you were drawing with Lebanon where Israelis withdrew and then the three soldiers were kidnapped? Does this mean that you think that Israel should not have left Lebanon, that it was a mistake after 18 years to go out.
General Giora Eiland: I don’t want to discuss something that took place close to two years ago, whether it was a mistake or not, it has already been done. But, I do want to emphasize that the fact that we completely withdrew from Lebanon. There is no reason whatsoever for anyone that lives in Lebanon to continue attacking us, yet some people have different ideas. Some people have different visions and if we mention the Hizbullah the vision of Hizbullah is to see the complete destruction of the State of Israel. They are pushed by Iranian ideology that doesn’t recognize that Israel has the right to exist. So they continue more or less in their activities, just as they did before, or as they say formally, the battle on Lebanon was only the first phase because the final campaign will be on Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, this specific approach is typical not only of the Hizbullah. In the Palestinian areas, there are huge organizations, like the Hamas, Islamic Jihad, all of them are formally considered by the US as terrorist organizations who share the same vision, who are also inspired by the Iranians to take, not only military actions, but to adopt the same policy. So, at least these kinds of groups don’t recognize and they say that they will never recognize, that Israel should be a state. They even give some religious reasons why it is against the Islamic belief.
But I can say even more than that, when President Bush mentions in his speech, that Jews in Israel deserve to live peacefully in a Jewish State. Maybe it sounds to you very obvious. It is not obvious. The Palestinians expect that we will recognize that they should have their Palestinian state. Almost everyone says that Israel knows that the Palestinians should have their own state, but has anyone heard from Yasser Arafat a statement saying that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state? You have never heard such a thing and there is no chance that it will be ever heard because this is against his vision.
In a way, the only difference between Hizbullah and the PA is the tactics, not necessarily the vision and the reason why they will avoid saying that they are willing to recognize that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish State is because of a very simple reason. Because if they say this statement it means that they have to give up their idea of the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees who live in all the Arab countries around us. And they don’t want to give up this specific notion because in their mind the implementation of this notion can bring to the elimination of the State of Israel.
Q: [inaudible – re journalists’ attempt to enter Arafat’s Compound]
General Giora Eiland: A few days ago we considered this specific area as a closed military zone. Despite this, some reporters and activists tried to penetrate the building. At that time, the soldiers didn’t want to confront them aggressively, so they preferred to give up and these people penetrated this building. When they left they left with some other people. This is a closed area for anyone. Whether for reporters or anyone else. These reporters tried to breech the fence we put there, and the use of tear gas or other means is the only way that you can prevent their access and at the same time not to cause irreversible damage.
Q: [Inaudible, re was live fire used against the journalists]
General Giora Eiland: Let me tell you that the way that we shoot our tear grenades is by rifles that look very similar to other weapons. There was no kind of live fire that was used against these people.
Q: About the Church of the Nativity – Roman Catholic officials are saying that Israeli forces did indeed destroy a door yesterday leading into the church courtyard. Could you comment on that? In Hebron – today there are witness reports of a helicopter missile strike on a car there – can you explain?
General Giora Eiland: Regarding the church – we don’t know of any damage that has occurred to this place. We don’t shoot at the building and we avoid taking any actions that can lead to any damage to the building but there are some people inside and we cannot give guarantee as to what these terrorists do inside the building.
Regarding Hebron, we are looking for wanted terrorists in every possible place. If we are already in a specific area then we might have access to arrest these people. If we are not, like in Hebron, then we have to use other tactics and I guess that this was the intent of this specific operation.
Q: [inaudible – re the four priest who escaped the church]
General Giora Eiland: It took place a short time ago and I am not sure that I have the reliable information.
Q: Could you talk a little more about what happened in Bethlehem today. You said that four priests had managed to escape with your help. Did they give you a further impression to one you may already have, of the conditions inside, if they are being held against their will and could you talk about the bell-ringer who had come out of the compound and been shot?
General Giora Eiland: About the priest, it is an event that occurred a short while ago so I am not sure that I have all the information. They did say that they were forced to be in the building under quite poor conditions, by those who forced them to be there. But I can’t tell you anything about the specific conditions.
About the shot man – what the Palestinians are trying to do – they know they we avoid shooting at these buildings, so they tried to make some provocation, to send someone outside and shoot at us at the same time, hoping that we will shoot back, and then some civilian will be hurt. Of course, we didn’t shoot. And if someone has been shot in this place, it is quite well understood that it happened because of the Palestinian fire.
By the way, not far away from this place, we did find today, five bodies of Palestinians that were treated in a very brutal way, bodies of people suspected of being collaborators with us. Quite similar to what has happened in other Palestinian cities. So far, besides these five, we know about at least twelve Palestinians that were killed, in cold blood, in Tulkarm, in Ramallah, and in some other places, just because they thought they collaborated with us. Unfortunately, by the way, I didn’t hear anything from any objective observers about these incidents.
Q: I am curious about a comment made yesterday by the World Bank and UN special envoy, concerning Israel’s targeting of generators and water pumps, infrastructure, etc. How does that fit in with the fight against terrorism?
General Giora Eiland: I guess that you will agree with me that we do understand that any damage that is caused to civilian infrastructure, and of course, any civilian victims that are part of this operation, is something not desirable, even from the perspective of how we appear. So we try to avoid it as much as we can. But we do have to understand that there is fighting almost everywhere. Like what I just told you about this church, it has attracted attention, so everybody understands what is going on there. But it is not a unique place. Similar events are happening many other places. Terrorists control specific buildings, apartments and streets. They force the people to stay there. Even when we tell the civilian that they should leave and nothing will happen to them, they are forced to stay. And the terrorists fight in a built-up area. Its extremely complicated, and some damage to infrastructure cannot completely be avoided, although we try to do whatever we can.
Q: When you say that Arafat is like a zookeeper, who has let the wild animals roam, can I deduce that you are now saying that his involvement in the terrorism can now be seen from a different light. Because before, you were saying that he was not doing enough against the bombers, but now you’re actually accusing him of perpetrating terrorism?
General Giora Eiland: We do say it, loud and clear, that these terrorist activities are not only not prevented by Arafat and his people, but actually directed by his people. Some of the papers mentioned by Col. Miri today and in the past few days, were supposed to give you hard evidence about their involvement, including his personal involvement. So unfortunately, the answer is yes.
Q: Do you have any specific information about the people inside the Nativity Church in Bethlehem? And do you have any contact with them?
General Giora Eiland: If you like, we can divide the people in the Church into three groups. First, of course, are the civilian people who live and work there, clergy. Second, are some heavyweight wanted terrorists, who escaped and fled to this place, and three, some Palestinian officials, including the Governor of Bethlehem, as I indicated earlier. We are negotiating with them, it is not continuous negotiation, but we do manage to speak with them directly. As I said, we are patient enough to solve this problem without causing any damage to the building or any harm to the civilians.
Q: (Inaudible, about conditions in Ramallah)
General Giora Eiland: We did lift the curfew inside Ramallah, as we’ve done in some other places, in Tulkarm, Qalqilya, and others. Of course, we do understand that people need to have a little air and space and time to move and purchase products etc. and we believe that the longer that this operation continues, the easier it will be for us to ease the pressure on the civilians.
Q: You said that at the Nativity Church, you are following a policy of not being provoked into returning fire, not to harm innocent people, and not damage the building. Why don’t you follow that policy everywhere? Why is that only at the Nativity Church?
General Giora Eiland: This is our policy in every other place as well – Don’t try to penetrate a building and kill the people, no matter who they are, before we let them leave peacefully, and of course to surrender if they are our enemy. In some other places, there is no reason to be that patient, because, if we waited in every place until they make their decision to leave, then we would fail in our operation. So whenever the building itself is not that sensitive, like the Jibril Rajoub’s compound in Ramallah, there was no reason for us to wait, because if we had waited, then we would have been waiting until now. So this is a policy that should be adopted in different ways in different places.
Q: How much time did you give them to surrender at Jibril Rajoub’s headquarters?
General Giora Eiland: About 48 hours.
Q: The US, the EU, the UN, the Arab World, and probably Canada have all asked that you immediately withdraw from the territories, what is your response to them?
General Giora Eiland: We say that we will withdraw from these territories, based on the understanding that we have with the Americans, that something should be done, by the Palestinian side, before such a withdrawal can be conducted in a unilateral way. It was well understood in the meeting between Gen. Zinni and our Prime Minister yesterday, and in his meeting with our Defense Minister, in which I participated, that no one expects us – and in a way, I guess it is immoral demand – to leave these places just in order to encourage these terrorists to continue causing us the terrible damage which they did in the previous months.
Q: (inaudible, about a ceasefire declaration)
General Giora Eiland: I don’t want to go into details, because this is something that is negotiated between the parties. And of course, an announcement by itself, if a real intent is not going to be behind it, is probably not going to be enough.
Q: (inaudible, about the military’s policy on ambulances and delays)
General Giora Eiland: The policy is to try to facilitate the movement of ambulances from one place to another. But everybody knows that ambulances have become the main way in which the Palestinians try to send their armed men and ammunition from one place to another. Just two weeks ago, while Gen. Zinni was present in the region, an ambulance was used to transfer an explosive belt and terrorists from Nablus to Ramallah. Fortunately, in this case, we managed to stop them. In this specific ambulance, we found enough explosives to kill 30-40 Israelis in a single explosion. So we have to be careful to protect not only the lives and health of the Palestinians, but also the lives of our own people. We try to minimize the restrictions, but some might occur. Again, this is part of these kind of battles, there is a lot of suffering. What are the choices?
Q: There is an attempt of the heads of Muslim countries to redefine terrorism, alluding to Israeli steps against the Palestinians as an act of terrorism itself. What is your reaction?
General Giora Eiland: Of course, we believe that our operation is considered as self defense, of a country that has to defend its own people against those who are sent deliberately to kill civilians in populated areas. So how can you define those who fight against this kind of terrorism as terrorists themselves. This sounds ridiculous to me.