Briefing by
Matan Vilnai, Minister of Science, Culture & Sport
Brigadier General Shuki Shihur, Head of Operations IDF Northern Command

National Media Center, Jerusalem,
April 8, 2002

Min. Matan Vilnai: Good Afternoon. We are now in the tenth day of Operation Defensive Shield and I believe that the main issue that you would like to know is how long it will take till the end of the operation. There is no real answer for this, but to understand the Americans and their point of view and their demand that we have to stop the operation. I would like to declare that Israel has no intention to stay in the Palestinian areas. We have said this from the outset. We are not going to conquer the A areas or the areas of the PA. We would like only to uproot terror from all the areas and then we will leave. I am not sure how long it will take. I am sure that it is not a matter of weeks, but it is not a matter of hours. We have to find the real time in order to leave places when we have finished our job, we will leave. In other places we will stay until we have accomplished all the missions.

We remember that it has been four days since President Bush called upon Yasser Arafat to declare in Arabic that he renounces terrorism. We are still waiting. President Bush is still waiting. The whole world is still waiting and I am sure that we may have to wait for a long time. Israel and the US see eye to eye on the issue of terrorism. I am sure that you understand, and the President mentioned it more than one time, that peace talks and terrorism cannot live together. This is one of the problems since September 2000. It’s been more than a year and a half when, after Arafat took a strategic decision, we are under terror attacks, as all of you know very well.

Some words about the operation: The results have proven themselves very well. The operation is necessary. Till now we apprehended more than 1,400 suspects. One third of them are wanted. We are questioning each one of them in order to realize who is a terrorist, who is a suspect, and those who can be sent home will be sent home.

We lost 12 soldiers during the fighting and around 160 wounded in action. These are the casualties on our side. On the Palestinians side, there are several hundreds of Palestinians that have been killed, most of them with arms in their hands.

The fighting in refugee camps is very problematic and until this operation, it was thought obvious that the moment that we enter the refugee camps, two things would happen: Firstly, there would be a massacre and secondly the force would be caught in the camp and they would be unable to do anything. In this operation, operating in refugee camps, with civilians in the camps, we are operating as accurately as we can in this case.

By now, the terrorists understand that the refugee camps are not a shelter any more. It used to be a shelter for many years. It is not only in this case – in the first intifada it was the same; before the intifada it was the same. It is not the case any more. They understand that they cannot execute terror attacks against Israelis and then escape to take refuge in refugee camps. We will go after them and pursue them into the camps, if need be.

I would like to say a few words about the situation in the North. All of you understand the Hizbullah would like to do their utmost in order to open a second front so that we will have to deal with two fronts at the same time – the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria and maybe in Gaza and along the Lebanese border. You all remember May 2000 – almost two years ago – we withdrew from all the purple line and now it’s the blue line. It’s the old line from 1923 between the French mandate and the British mandate in Palestine, and we withdrew from every centimeter.

The Hizbullah are trying to open a second front against us. Until now they "played" in the area of what was called Shab’a, Har Dov in our terms. Since two days ago, they started to open fire along the blue line, near Kibbutz Menara, Moshav Avivim – they shelled with mortars one of our positions, and several of our soldiers have been wounded. We understand their intentions. They are trying their utmost to make us retaliate.

When we say Hizbullah – Hizbullah is connected first of all to Iran, but they are acting under the umbrella of the Syrians. They are the real rulers of the State of Lebanon. Therefore, it’s not only the Hizbullah – it’s the Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese. It’s a very complicated situation and we are watching all the incidents very carefully and we will have to decide how to react. We have asked the Americans to do their utmost in order that nothing happens in that front. One of the main issues since September 2000 is that we do not have an overall war in the Middle East.

Since we started to retaliate to the Palestinians under the government of Prime Minister Barak, we looked very carefully at the problem of small terror acts and our reaction and then we will find ourselves one morning in an overall war in the Middle East. We are using our force very carefully not to get to such a situation and in the North it is very problematic. It is not terror; it can be more than terror.

I am sure you are familiar with their rocket launchers and their capability. Now, we are talking about the whole northern part of Israel, up to Zichron Yaakov, which is south of Haifa. If this area will be under rocket shells, you can understand what this means. The north, is therefore, very problematic and we are looking very carefully regarding the actions in the northern part of Israel.

Brig.Gen. Shihrur: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I just got information 15 minutes ago before entering this room that the daily fire of the Hizbullah that started nine days ago, started again also today. As usual, they started firing over the vicinity of `Dov’ Mountain and they are still firing. I will give you some information regarding what has been taking place over the last few days.

Before that, I would like to tell you a short story. Today at 2:00 PM before flying here we got information that their two missiles have been shot on one of the posts along the border. This post is very close to the Kibbutz I am living in, I called home to see that three of my kids are home and okay and my small son told me, ‘Dad, I think that these are jets flying above’. To tell you, how on one hand, the tension of the soldiers and their readiness, and on the other hand the tension and sensitivity of the population along the border that suffered in the past and are again suffering.

On May 24, 2000 we withdrew from Lebanon. We didn’t lose one single soldier doing it. On the other hand, in one day, the State of Israel absorbed 6,600 refugees from Lebanon, former SLA soldiers and their families. Just to remind you, I don’t remember in the modern era any country in the world that absorbed in one day thousands of refugees. Besides Israel, in the Moses and Solomon operations, but we brought our Jewish brethren from Ethiopia. This time we brought Muslims, Christians and we took care of them pretty well till this moment.

On June 16, Mr. Kofi Anan stood up in New York and declared that Israel had complied with UN Resolution 425. It was almost one month after the unilateral withdrawal of the Israeli forces from Lebanon.

On June 18, the Security Council approved the declaration of Mr. Kofi Anan and said that Israel complied with the UN Resolution 425. This UN Resolution calls Israel to evacuate Lebanon on one hand and calls on the Lebanese forces to come to the South and restore law and order. We complied with this. We moved from every place that the people of UNIFIL and UN main cartographer told us to move. Just not to give any pretext to the other side – to the Lebanese and the Hizbullah and any other terror organization – that we hold a square inch of Lebanese soil.

But, this is not good enough probably for the Hizbullah. Listen carefully to what Mr. Nasrallah declares every day. He is looking for pretexts to continue to fight. His is a guerilla organization that after we evacuated Lebanon, has no reason to continue to fight. He will become irrelevant and there is nothing worse than becoming irrelevant to a guerilla organization. So he wants to ignite the whole blue line.

His first pretext was the Shab’a Farms, Dov Mountain. UNIFIL declared that even if you go to 1,000 lire bill in Lebanese currency you will see in the corner a short map. They decided according to the Anglo-French committee following the agreement in 1923, and got another approval in February 1949 after the cease-fire agreements. Israel complied with every inch. Hizbullah didn’t. Even Farouq A-Shara – the Syrian Foreign Minister – declared that this is Syrian territory that should be negotiated between Syria and Israel according to UN Resolution 242 and not according to UN Resolution 425.

But the Lebanese didn’t come to the south, they brought about 1500 soldiers to Bint Jbel and to Marjayoun, far away from the border, they camouflage them as policemen so as not to take responsibility over the South. And in Lebanon there is no vacuum. Each place we evacuated, Hizbullah entered. From there, from 22 different posts along the border, and from guerilla forces in Shab’a Farms, they continue to fire. We have to prevent it.

At the beginning they fired in a restricted area, but after that they continued. They already shot Katyusha rockets last week on Kibbutz Matzuba, where five innocent people were killed. After that they fired rockets on Kiryat Shmona, and shot anti-tank missiles at Ghajar village. Ghajar village is a Syrian village. The population there is Alawi, the same minority that Presidents Assad from Syria are from – the current and his father. And here in Ghajar there is a small post of our forces. The Hizbullah shoot missiles from here, wounding very seriously four children, Alawis from the village.

They realized that they made a mistake. First, they transferred the fire from Dov Mountain and then they wounded civilians. They didn’t take responsibility as they used to do. Hizbullah is very good at showing to the world, I am here, I continue to support the Palestinians, I am the only organization firing in the North, but when something goes wrong, when civilians are wounded, when Arab civilians especially are wounded – they don’t take responsibility.

Yesterday they continued to fire on a post in the vicinity of Kibbutz Menara, and this is also in the vicinity of Moshav Avivim. Nine missiles were fired yesterday, and four female soldiers were wounded in this attack.

Syria is the real country governing Lebanon. They were invited in 1975 by the Lebanese to support them and take responsibility to control the civil war that was in Lebanon in those days. They remained in Lebanon since then and they can control whatever they want. Another key player here are of course, the Iranians. Hizbullah, like Amal, all the Shi’ite fanatical fundamentalist organizations, came from the school of the Iranians. If you listen to Nasrallah one of the pretexts is the main idea of the Shi’ite and the main idea of the Islamic fundamentalists. An Islamic world, an Islamic Middle East with the capital here in Jerusalem.

But this is only the fifth pretext of Nasrallah.

The next reason is the 19 people we hold in prison, and after it the need and will of Hizbullah to show the Arab world that they are active and they are supporting the Palestinians and of course, the pretext I mentioned, an Islamic Middle East.

They have many reasons to continue. If tomorrow morning the Cabinet and Minister Vilnai decide to give back Shab’a Farms, do you think they will stop the fighting? No. We know already that they will continue to fire. Of course, we are preparing ourselves. We are ready for our mission but we will do whatever the government tells us to do.

It will be interesting for all of you to speak to General Lalit Tivari, the current commander of UNIFIL. When he goes along the blue line, when he knows very certainly, that we are not taking every Lebanese inch, we are not violating Lebanese territory, the Hizbullah is. And he has been saying this from time to time and he is trying to prevent it.

The Israeli government allowed the army yesterday to bring a few reserve soldiers in order to prepare the area and to be prepared for further actions if necessary. We are ready; we have the ability, the power and the means. We will do it when the Israeli government decides.

It should be remembered – from time to time people say this is not Hizbullah. This is another Palestinian terror organization. Who cares? Is there any address written on their rockets? Any terror activity against innocent civilians is a terror activity. It’s a coalition of terrorism. The Prime Minister declared last week to the world that part of the events were because of the Jibril organization. Nasrallah took responsibility for some of the events and some he preferred not to take responsibility for. Especially after September 11. Especially after the western world and the US are looking for terrorism in the world. He has good reason why not to declare it. We know the truth.

Min. Matan Vilnai: The Hizbullah is dominating all south Lebanon and no organization can act in south Lebanon without permission of the Hizbullah. It is obvious. Sometimes for them it is very convenient that a Palestinian organization takes the responsibility and will act against us, but everything in south Lebanon is not under the government of Beirut, nor the government of Damascus, it is basically under the Hizbullah and everything in south Lebanon is under the watchful eye of the Hizbullah.

Brigadier General Shuki Shihur: We think that the Hizbullah crossed a red line. Many people talk about a second front. The main idea is that we are not happy to open a second front, but we will not hesitate to do it if the situation will force us to do so.

The last subject I would like to address is that on the other side of the border is a government. The Lebanese government. They are responsible for Lebanon. They are trying from time to time. If not in front of a camera, you can ask the key people there. I believe that they think more about culture and agriculture and economics and not about terrorism. But, sometimes they don’t have enough power to enforce it. We see them responsible for everything happening along the border especially when they didn’t comply with UN Resolution 425.

A few words to the people of the north – we lost 7 soldiers since we evacuated from Lebanon. This is the mission of the army. We lost also 5 civilians in the event in the vicinity of Matzuba. Till now we will continue to do the best to defend the northern border and to let the citizens live normal lives. They are strong.

Thank you.

Questions & Answers:

Q: What does your intelligence show you are facing from the north in Lebanon? Syrian troops, Lebanese army, Hizbullah. What exactly are you facing? Is it building up? Can you fill us in on what is going on regarding the political/diplomatic track?

Min. Matan Vilnai: The main threat from Lebanon is the fact that the Hizbullah has rocket bases that can cover a range up to Zichron Yaakov – 30 kms south of Haifa. It is a third of Israel’s territory, which is in the range of the Hizbullah rockets. This is the main threat from Lebanon. I am talking about thousands of rockets that are now along the blue line between Lebanon and us. This is the main issue. We are using now diplomatic channels because the situation now is very complicated. There are several figures, one of them the President of Syria Assad; President of Lebanon Emile Lahoud; Prime Minister of Lebanon Hariri – there are very complicated relations between them and you have to remember that the Iranians are in the background. Maybe the Iranians are trying to do something in order to postpone a US attack against them because of the terror attacks of September 11, so it has become a global problem and not only a minor problem of the Israelis.

Q: What has Israel been doing in terms of retaliation when the attacks started nine days ago? As far as the upcoming withdrawal from the West Bank goes, I think that General Mofaz said that there are hundreds of thousands of guns in the West Bank. To make a suicide belt doesn’t take much. After Israel gets out, and there is nobody over there among the Palestinians to take over, what can you do to ensure that we won’t go back to where it was before Israel went in there?

General Shihur: Regarding Lebanon, in any event that happened in the past few days. First we fired back to the fire sources with tanks, artillery, with helicopters and close air support of aircraft. We are doing this in the vicinity of the sources of the firing. We are restricting ourselves with 100% restrictions regarding distance between the targets and innocent civilians, UNIFIL positions, that no one is hurt by these attacks. Yesterday, we attacked the target a little deeper – because there were cannons shooting on the villages and we attacked this target. Besides that we are restricting ourselves only to that. There are casualties on the other side, not to be declared by me here.

Min. Matan Vilnai: Do you know where the most secure border in the world is? Between Belgium and Holland. It’s an open area. You can move with ten formations, no mines, nothing. You can do this very easily but there is no motivation to do it. And I am sure you know from history that many days ago there was a lot of motivation on both sides. Not any more. Therefore, the solution for the terror is not only by using force. Therefore, our Prime Minister mentioned in the Knesset several hours ago, he called upon the Arab leaders of the Middle East, to sit and talk – what we tried according to the Oslo agreements nine years ago: we tried to sit and speak with Arafat.

When we withdrew from Gaza, we were sure that we were opening a new phase between the Palestinians and us. Not any more. Therefore, we have to fight again and there is no military solution. After our military attack we have to sit and talk. We have to find a leader to talk with, and it’s not in his goal to find such a leader. We are going to deploy our forces along the security zone, along the former border and we are going to talk with someone, either Palestinians or any other Arab ruler will take responsibility, in order to talk so that we do not get into an overall war in the Middle East.

Q: We spoke to some journalists in Ramallah who said that soldiers blew open their door to the place where they are staying and working, rounded up the journalists, confiscated some video tapes – one of many incidents in the last week, the expulsion of a journalist from Abu Dhabi and attacks on some journalists on Ramallah last week. There appears to be a campaign to at least intimidate some journalists working in the West Bank. What is the government policy to our journalists?

Min. Matan Vilnai: It is not our policy and if something happened it has to be checked out. I will check this out and this is not according to our policy. The policy is to allow journalists to work freely. I understand that there are several orders from the Ministry of Defense about it, and they have to be checked. I believe that people all over the world have to see what is happening there, not only from the Palestinian side but also from our side.

Q: Before beginning his Middle East tour, the Secretary of State said that given the circumstances he would meet Arafat. Which circumstances have to occur in order for this meeting to take place? What is your position as a Labor Party member concerning such a meeting?

Mr. Matan Vilnai: As a Labor Party member I believe that it is very important that the Americans meet Arafat. But it’s very important that Arafat declares in Arabic his attitude to terror in order for it to stop. I believe it is important that the Americans will meet him. Not any one else.