Minister Dan Meridor
Colonel Miri Eisin – IDF Intelligence Officer
Colonel Marcel Aviv – Commander of Israeli Forces in Bethlehem, Head of Israeli Negotiating Team National Media Center, Jerusalem,
April 14, 2002
(Note: Colonel Marcel Aviv spoke and replied to questions in Hebrew; an English translation is provided here.)
Minister Meridor: Good afternoon. We don’t know what has been said in Ramallah between Mr. Powell and Mr. Arafat, but having had a description of this meeting I very much hope that something good will come out of it. We very much need an agreement. We very much need a cease-fire. We want to move into political dialogue for which we need this cease-fire. As the Secretary has come here and spent time with us, now with the Chairman of the PA – we are waiting to hear, hoping for better days than the ones we have been going through in recent weeks.
On Friday night, the Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice issued an order to stop all actions regarding the bodies that are to be found in Jenin refugee camp. Of course, the Israeli army immediately did what they were told to do – that is to stop everything regarding the bodies. As you know, the Court has convened today and heard the parties and the respondents, and the Court has issued their decision allowing the Israeli army to go on with what they were doing and deal with these bodies in a respectful way – respect for human life and for dead people as well.
I must say, I don’t know of any other country where, in time of war, the Supreme Court would issue orders of this sort to the army, and I am proud that we are that sort of a country. When we fight, we fight within the rule of law against people who respect no law whatsoever. This may be one of the sources of our strength; it is not our weakness. I am happy, if one can use happiness when dealing with such tragic events, that the decision today was positive from point of view of the Israeli government, after the sides had been heard in the Supreme Court.
The first crew of media went to Jenin today. I haven’t heard them yet, but from what I have been able to gather from our people there, the numbers of bodies that have been found are more or less in dozens. I have been told that 9 bodies were moved to hospitals there – 8 to one and one to another; 2 bodies were given to the families; 26 bodies were found and were still lying out there – they may by now have been taken care of. The Supreme Court and our army agree that the actions conducted there will be done with the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, the two may join and do it in coordination with the
IDF. I heard from our people in Jenin just five minutes ago that they are trying to coordinate with the Red Crescent or the Red Cross the handling of the situation.
This is the number of bodies that have been found. This does not mean that this is the whole story. We don’t know yet. We are still searching. It’s in an area that went through intense and heavy fighting. In these areas we have lost 23 soldiers and over 60 were wounded in this fierce battle. We did not do what some other countries might have done in similar cases, and use the Air Force to bomb houses, in which case no Israeli soldiers would have been hurt. We fought from house to house, from street to street and there were people who had explosives on them. There were houses that were booby-trapped. I heard from military people today in the Cabinet meeting that it was a very tough fight, trying very much not to hit civilians, but it was carried out within a civilian population area.
We did not choose this arena for the battle. This was chosen by the other side. The terrorists of Tanzim, Fatah, Hamas, Jihad – those organizations that were mentioned by the American administration as terror organizations – have chosen the civilians, children, women, men as human shields from which area they acted against us. In these areas we found explosives, guns belts. They fought against us. It wasn’t easy. I heard that now it is quiet. I hope that we will not find many people dead there, but certainly wars are always ugly. Those of us who have taken part in wars know that it is not like the films about wars, and this one was not a happy scene too.
You will hear about the situation in Bethlehem from the Colonel who is in charge of that area, but basically it is our wish to get this issue resolved as soon as possible. The horrendous fact that people took shelter with guns, within a holy place, does not mean we will allow ourselves to act the way they did. We are not storming the place, not shooting at the place, but as people there are suspected of terrorist activities and have taken part in these activities, we want to make sure they cannot escape with immunity. Negotiations are being held to conclude this business, which certainly is very much related to our very stay at Bethlehem.
Colonel Marcel Aviv: We are now in the eleventh day of negotiations with the terrorists in the compound of the Church of the Nativity. They have been holed up inside for about 13 days. Since the start of the incident, we have succeeded in evacuating a number of priests who were inside, about eleven, from three sects: the Franciscans, the (Greek) Orthodox and the Armenians.
I would like to emphasize again, as I mentioned last week, that what we are involved in is a military operation. We know, of course, that there are political and international ramifications, but it is a military operation with one purpose only: to remove a group of terrorists – terrorists who entered the compound with arms, who burst into this holy place – without harming the Church of the Nativity. The terrorists have made themselves at home inside the compound, and we know that they are desecrating it, shooting inside, creating provocations, and later on we will see this on film.
We are making an effort, and allowing humanitarian activity – although without assistance, and even in the face of resistance by the terrorists inside. In the last few days, we brought medicines and food into the Armenian Church, to the priests there. Today, on my way here, we succeeded in bringing medicines and some water to the Franciscan priests, and we will do whatever we can to help the priests.
I would like to mention that yesterday, when one of the terrorists tried to shoot (at us), he was hit by our soldiers. We offered our assistance in order to evacuate him, but unsuccessfully, because no one on the other side would take responsibility for bringing him out. We spoke with the head of coordination, with the Palestinian liaison, without success. We also brought an ambulance and a doctor in order to evacuate him, but in the end, he died, still inside.
Today, following a request from the terrorists inside, we suggested to the Red Cross that they act as a go-between to bring medicines in. The answer of the Red Cross, and I quote, was: "They have no intention of going into that place." At the moment, an attempt is being made to bring in medicines through the Red Crescent. My point is that, even though the men inside are terrorists with blood on their hands, we will allow humanitarian actions (on their behalf).
In conclusion, I would like to say two more things:
We have all the means necessary to finish this operation, including time. And the second thing is – and we promise this in all of our statements, whether they are official communiqus or in private conversations – that anyone who wants to can come out. We will investigate him, and if he belongs to either a civilian or the PA apparatus, he is free to go home in peace. We only want those "with blood on their hands."
Colonel Miri Eisin: Good afternoon. We are going to try and focus on one subject today, and as we have started with Bethlehem I am going to continue with Bethlehem. When the IDF surrounded the area of the Church, we entered the offices of the Governor of Bethlehem, the same Governor who is inside the Church of the Nativity. Within his offices there were lots of documents. The single document, of which I will show the translation in a moment, was taken out of the Governor’s office in Bethlehem. It raises more questions than answers, but I think it focuses on: a) why, maybe, the Governor of Bethlehem is inside the Church itself; and b) what the people [are doing] inside the Church and how they see themselves within the Church itself.
The document itself is, yet again, of the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades – you have already read several of their documents; the original is in Arabic, and is available on the IDF website. Within the original itself, it is addressed to the Bethlehem Municipality, and it is stamped as received by the Municipality. Within it is a request for money.
I want to go through this again because it is important. Terrorism costs money. The Tanzim, the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades within the city of Bethlehem, are the ones who have been firing on the southern neighborhood of the city of Jerusalem, sending in suicide bombers into the city of Jerusalem – to Kiryat Yovel just a week ago – and over a month ago, they are sending in suicide bombers and firing with mortars and guns. Here they are requesting money, not from Yasser Arafat which we have showed you in the past with the Tanzim, but from the Bethlehem Municipality. Not only do they ask for money from the official PA authority, Fatah – here they are requesting money from the Bethlehem Municipality because it costs a lot to do what they call their military activities, and which we know are their terrorist activities.
There are several points I’d like to make about this document which is dated November 17. First of all, it was received within the Bethlehem Municipality and the first question is always – did they pay the money out? I don’t know if they paid the money out, but they planned to bring it up in the City Council meeting on November 19. It was put on the agenda of the Municipality meeting. We know for sure meaning it was on the agenda of the Municipality – this is the civil authority. I want to remind you again of where the EU funds and where the different funds from outside the PA are going, because these funds with these requests are going to terrorists.
This is from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – which, I will say it again have been outlawed by the US as a terrorist organization – from the Brigades to the Bethlehem Municipality. If you focus on the signature, it is signed in a way which is more cynical than anything else. It says: "The Brigades of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs and the Church of the Nativity of the City of Bethlehem". Within the city of Bethlehem they see themselves together with the Church of the Nativity, in which they have been holed up for the past 13 days, using the Church as a sanctuary against us, using it as a base of terrorism. That’s the way they signed it in November 2001.
There have been endless amounts of information about the problems the Christians have with the Palestinian terrorists within the cities and I am wary of saying the word Muslims, because I don’t like to talk about all of the Muslims together. But within the city of Bethlehem, just the symbol itself of the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades of the Church of the Nativity, who are holed up within the Church at the moment, are asking for funds from civilian authority of Bethlehem.
What you expect the Municipality of Bethlehem to take care of is education and health and sewage – things that a municipality takes care of – and not of funding the terrorist organization within Bethlehem. This is the new document that we bought out of Bethlehem. It is on our site. You can see the original with the translations as we are speaking now.
The second subject I am going to address today is about an aerial photograph of the city of Nablus – the city that we entered in this present operation. Looking at the aerial area, the southern portion is Mt. Grizim which closes in on the city from the southern side, a very tall mountain which goes down steeply, and at the bottom is the city of Nablus. Within the city of Nablus, and this is what we would like to point out, we have spoken extensively about terrorist infrastructure, that horrendous name. What I would like to try and point out at the moment is what that exactly means.
On the map itself, you can see red and green numbers which are different structures within the city that we entered. The purple ones are where we arrested different people. I want to focus now on the different houses, especially within the Kasbah, that we entered, and on what we found in them.
I’ll focus on the weapons we found in different buildings that the IDF entered between April 3 and April 11, as part of the terrorist infrastructure. These are the red dots. One building – 4 improvised guns. A different building – dozens of handguns. A third building – components to make bombs, meaning gasoline, nails, gunpowder and explosive detonators. An additional building – explosives. Another building – a handgun and M-16. These are things that when we went in, we blew them up. For example, in one structure which is in the downtown of the Kasbah, we found ten pipe bombs, improvised explosives, TATP, the ingredients for making explosives, detonators and a side bomb of 20 kilo. I don’t know how many of you understand what that means, but most of the suicide bombers explode with, at the most, 5 kilos; 20 kilos of real explosives could bring down entire buildings. It’s a huge amount. In one building we found – 2 pipe bombs, electric detonator, TATP and cellphones. In a different building – a side charge, a rocket engine, 30 pipe bombs. And in two structures we found the opening into caves and underground tunnels – that was the way they transferred a lot of the weapons in and out of the Kasbah itself to make sure that it would be inside the PA area and from there it would go out.
In addition to the Kasbah, we also entered some of the structures both in the Balata refugee camp and in the Bet Ilma Camp and in both of those we found: 12 Kalachnikov rifles; 2 handguns; 1 M-16; a large amount of ammunition; 2 bags with explosive charges. These are what we mean of going into buildings and finding ingredients which make terrorism.
In addition to the weapons themselves, we found 11 different explosive labs within the Kasbah, and some of them are within the downtown of the city. These are the green points on the map.
An explosive lab equipped with bags of TATP, bottles of acid, side bombs already prepared, pipe side bombs already prepared. Another explosive lab equipped with 500 small test tubes, filtering paper, thermometers, several kinds of glue, three castings for projectile side bombs, IR detonation devices, 3 kilo of TATP, 3 explosive belts and 3 disguise wigs. As I said before, we found 11 explosive labs in Nablus alone and 24 buildings where we found weapons and ammunition in the Kasbah itself.
Questions & Answers:
Q: Minister Meridor, you have just said that Israel respects the law. But we have heard of reports stemming from one of the most important NGOs that ambulances have been prevented from entering the Jenin camp for many days. One of the heads of the Red Crescent said that he has never experienced such a situation. One of the doctors in Nablus told me that half of the people dead in Nablus are civilians. How can you be so sure that you respect the law?
Minister Meridor: We do respect the law and act only within the limits of the law. and I cannot relate to the accusations that you have leveled here in the name of NGOs or heard from people or doctors who were in Nablus who know the exact number of casualties. I do know that in times of fighting, while there were booby-trapped bodies and booby-trapped buildings there, people who had nothing to do with the fighting were not admitted in. This is normal procedure. I don’t know of any other situation that people were not allowed to go in, if it was not dangerous for them themselves during the fighting. There were shootings as far as I know, until quite recently, and when we could, we allowed people in and they do get in. You might have heard the American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld some days ago, when he answered a question like the one you asked me now: why didn’t you Americans let the people in to see what’s going on in Afghanistan? He said, "I know the press, always asking the same questions and it’s not true. We do the maximum we can to let the press in, but the minimum that we need to do is to protect our people."
I suggest that if there is any specific claim to be brought to the IDF or the government and we will look into every specific claim. If you have a place, a date, a situation, bring it to me, bring it to the government, we will check it. As far as I know, the fighting was going on, at which time one couldn’t get in and I don’t think they should have been allowed to get in. If there were cases where people used their discretion the wrong way, we will take care of it. I have no problem with that.
The fact is, as I mentioned, we did it in a way that cost us the lives of 23 soldiers. I am not sure that other countries would have done the same and we don’t target civilians, unlike some other countries who targeted civilians, intentionally, to get the point made. We don’t do this. Civilians were hurt along the operation. This is an inevitable situation where the civilians were used as human shields for the terrorists. If you give me one example of the Western world, France, America – if you give me one example of a court giving injunctions in time of war, it will be very interesting to compare. I don’t remember any court – French court in times of war, or the British or the American – giving the army instructions to stop doing this or that. It is unique to Israel.
I must say, by the way, you might have heard about the ambulances and what we found in the ambulances in the past. I don’t know of the ambulance you are speaking of. But ambulances are being used in a cynical way, against every norm of behavior, to move terrorists and explosives. That doesn’t mean we will not respect ambulances.
Q: Maybe you could answer something the army was asked some 24-36 hours ago by me and is still not answered. Dr. Ali Shaar, who evidently is a doctor working with an NGO called Save the Children, was reported as saying that his wife went into premature labor and gave birth to a premature baby. He appealed for ambulance to get to the residence to take the wife and baby to the hospital for urgent treatment, and I think it was either in Nablus or Jenin. Dr. Ali Shaar is a known doctor and there was no response from the IDF, the ambulance was unable to get to the residence, the baby died and he said he spends his life saving infants and here his own infant has been lost. I couldn’t get an answer to that from your IDF spokesman’s unit.
Minister Meridor: First of all, this is a very tragic story and it’s bad that it happened. I hear it for the first time now and I don’t want to give you any answer, but I will ask the IDF people and ask them to find the answer and give it to you. If you give me the details you have, I will look into it. It is tragic, no doubt.
Q: It was announced that the fighting in Jenin ended about 48 hours ago. Ambulances were prevented from going in, the Red Cross was prevented from going in, NGOs were prevented and journalists were told that their equipment would be confiscated and their press cards taken if they tried to get in and were turned away. You know that the Palestinians have been accusing the Israelis of a massacre. If there was no massacre, why don’t you open it up and let people in for themselves? Why is there a rush to clean up the bodies before people are let in?
Minister Meridor: First of all, I think you will find that no
bodies were cleaned out. The numbers I gave you can be checked and everything can be checked. There was no massacre. There was fierce fighting there. What happened yesterday, I don’t know. But if what you say is true, that there was no shooting, I don’t have the answer to that. I heard that there was shooting until quite recently and it was dangerous to go in. I just heard from the Israeli Chief of Staff, who was in our Cabinet meeting today, told us that he was in Jenin and told us how he got in, and how protected he had to be, and how it was very dangerous to get in. So, I’m not sure what the situation was but I will check it.
Aryeh Mekel: If I may add, a pool of foreign correspondents was allowed into Jenin today.
Q: Is there an Israeli decision to break into the Mukata’a in order to capture the murderers of (Minister Rechavam) Ze’evy? How do you view the Powell-Arafat meeting – is it a mistake? Do you expect a breakthrough?
Minister Meridor: I hope the meeting between Powell and Arafat will bring results. I do not yet know the content of the meeting. We need a ceasefire; I think the Palestinians need a cease-fire. I am not sure whether Arafat thinks so. I very much hope that the Secretary’s visit will succeed. Talks were held today; they will surely be held tomorrow. I want to be optimistic but cautious. More than that I cannot say, because I don’t know. Regarding a breakthrough – there has been no decision to do anything that hasn’t been done.
Q: You just said that you tried to deliver food and medicine to the church and you couldn’t do it. Could you explain to us how is it that the Church of Nativity has no electricity and has no water which was cut from outside? Can you explain what does it mean you have to use all the tools and means in order to complete the operation at the Church?
Col. Aviv: First of all, regarding ongoing actions, we are in an area in which, in many places in Bethlehem, there is no electricity. I cannot confirm or deny what was said here, if it was cut off or not. We are not fighting priests. They are given everything they need, and they know how to turn to us. That’s one thing.
Secondly, if I’m not mistaken, concerning the actions that are in our hands – we can act using everything we have at our disposal. At the moment, we have time, and, again, I would like to repeat what I said: we want the murderers, and only the murderers, outside. If the priests or civilians who are inside can exert their influence so that the innocent without blood on their hands would come out, we would welcome that. Regarding the food we sent, we will continue to send (food) to the priests.
Q: Yesterday Ha’aretz said that Colin Powell is asking that an additional $80 million be sent by the United States to UNRWA. We’d like to know the position of the State of Israel to UNRWA and the position of the army to UNRWA, considering the fact that all of the UNRWA supply dumps have been turned into ammunition dumps and the underground tunnels that were supposed to have been the offices of UNRWA became places for terrorists to hide, and UNRWA has openly welcomed armed soldiers to come and use UNRWA facilities. For the future, do you see UNRWA playing a role? And of course the UNRWA educational system continues to teach the right of return and liberating all of Palestine. Therefore, what is the attitude of Israel to additional funds to UNRWA and to UNRWA’s role currently?
Minister Meridor: Ii is none of UNRWA’s business to preach or teach for the right of return, which means: no Israel; that after there is a Palestinian state they will have a right to flood Israel with Arab citizens. If UNRWA does this, it is very bad. If what you say about UNRWA is right, that they are funneling their funds which are ending up in the hands of terrorists, it’s bad as well. I hope all this is taken into account when the money is given to UNRWA. Maybe transparency is very important here – that the people who give money know where it ends up. I can’t say more than that because I don’t know all the details of this decision made yesterday, as you said.
Q: Can you explain the purpose of the loud music and noises that are being broadcast over the loudspeakers in Bethlehem over the last 36 hours and how long is it likely to be that Bethlehem will remain a closed area?
Col. Aviv: There is no music! We are broadcasting our announcements, telling them also telephone numbers so that they can call, so that the innocent can come out. Our job is to capture the terrorists, some of whose pictures are displayed here (at the Media Center), and we have no intention of giving in or moving from here until they surrender; maybe something else is possible, but we want them in our hands. Again, I deny that there is any music; we are conveying messages to them and announcements, to the people inside.
Q: You said you hope the religious Christian leaders in the Church will manage to influence the armed Palestinians. In case they don’t succeed, what can you say the IDF will do in order to guarantee the sanctity of the place from the Israeli side?
Col. Aviv: I said at the beginning of my remarks that the Israel Defense Forces will do everything not to harm the Church. Even when their snipers have shot (at us), we did not hurt the Church. We have the means, we have the time to get the terrorists out. In answer to the first question, I expect more cooperation from the priests on the inside in influencing the terrorists there, and this is not exactly what has been done in the last two days.
Q: What exactly is the status of the negotiations? What are the conversations about? What exactly are you offering or demanding?
Col. Aviv: For obvious reasons, I cannot tell you the exact status of the negotiations, but our proposal to all the people inside is to let them come out with dignity; we won’t hurt them and we won’t shoot them. We will check them out, and then, if they are not guilty, if they don’t have blood on their hands, they will be sent home. We estimate that between 70-80% of the people in there are not connected to terrorism. And this is the message that we are delivering to them.
Q: Will journalists be allowed to enter Bethlehem in the rest of the parts besides the parts around the Church?
Col. Aviv: No. The answer is "no" because a danger exists to people going in. Snipers are shooting at us all the time; I have been living there for eleven days, and there are snipers there, and we do not want to endanger people who come to that area.
Q: There were reports today that Israel had made an offer to the gunmen insid. the Church of the Nativity in which they offered them the right to permanent exile without the right to return to Palestine, and this offer was discussed today between Powell and Arafat during their meeting and that, after some thought, the Palestinians turned this offer down. Can you confirm this?
Col. Aviv: I do not take part in political level discussions. My role in these negotiations is to bring about the surrender of the terrorists. If a different decision is taken by the political echelon, we as the army will carry it out.
Q: There are reports that there have been offers to the gunmen that they could surrender to forces from another country – Britain specifically was named. Is this the case or will anyone coming out of that church have to give themselves up to Israeli authorities before there was a decision what to do with them?
Col. Aviv: We will abide precisely by any agreement that is signed. The role of the army is to bring about the arrest those terrorists with the blood of our brethren on their hands.
Q: Some TV networks are saying that there could now be a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian representatives in the next few days, tomorrow maybe, after the talks between Mr. Powell and Mr. Arafat are over. I would like you to confirm if this is true and what kind of discussion will be held? And Colonel Eisin, it was announced that the closed military zones in most of the West Bank areas are being lifted. I’d like to know what that precisely means, what kind of movement can be seen in the areas, and if it;s true that the areas of the Jenin refugee camp and the Arafat compound will be kept aside from this lifting?
Minister Meridor: I can confirm that I would like very much a meeting to take place in the coming days, I don’t know if it will happen. For this to take place, one needs to have the beginning of a peace process, in other words, first peace, no fire, cease-fire. Mr. Arafat hasn’t been very keen on doing that so far. If there is a process and he calls upon his soldiers, people, terrorists to stop suicide bombings and shooting and killing and maiming and what not, then I believe one of the immediate steps would be reconvening of all the bodies to see to it that things go smoothly on the ground.
Let me add one more thing – ambulances were called in several times along the days of fighting. They did not want to go in, they were afraid to go in. Even in the last two days, when there was still sporadic shooting there, they said that they will not go in. This is what I heard and I wanted to convey this to you.
Another comment I would like to make – I don’t know whether it is very right to cut the sequence of events. It will be very strange if somebody on television, maybe your predecessors fifty years ago, would focus a lot of questions about the very young, small, nice-looking German children, being killed to liberate your country by the allied forces. I suppose there were some kids like this. But people knew who was right and who was wrong, so they didn’t focus on civilians were killed – many were – because it was a just war against an evil regime.
So one can always start from a certain link in the chain. One has to look at the context and in the context it is a war, and it is ugly and it is bad and we try to do it the best way we can. But to start from why we are in Jenin is strange, why we are fighting there within civilians. Because they located themselves within civilian population after they have been attacking us, suicide bombers, one after the other. So, I don’t think that there is any moral doubt here who is right or who is wrong and I don’t think there is any moral equivalents between targeting civilians, killing them and also fighting against them. Or you would say that the American, British, French who fought, say Iraq, are now fighting Afghanistan, are exactly like Sadam Hussein the ally of Arafat, or Mr. Bin Laden. There is no equivalence here.
We don’t live in total relativity in this world. There are people who do bad things, whatever their cause is – their cause may be right or wrong – you don’t target civilians. You don’t kill for it. You don’t murder people for this. And what we see here, repeatedly, is an attempt to have special rules for Israel, rather for the Jews in Israel, which would not oblige any other country, and we are the only ones who should not defend ourselves. I think it;s wrong and I think the way one reports should take into account the context, not just the tragedy of the moment of this awful situation, of a widow, of a child, of father, husband, killed – but whether they are the good guys or the bad guys. You need to take the context. In war people die. It’s bad. We don’t want to be in war.
I was at Camp David a year and a half ago, trying to reach an agreement with the same Mr. Arafat, after which President Clinton said very clearly: he is to blame; he didn’t want it. I saw General Zinni here twice, trying to reach an agreement to stop the fire and saying very clearly who is to blame. One cannot look at this and say: who cares? why did you kill this man? We are forced to be in this war, which we didn’t want. One has to see to it that we win this war, because if we don’t win this war it may not only be the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv who will suffer from suicide bombers, it’s a new system. Sometimes people say, it’s only for the Jews, it will be okay, we will be safe from this. Don’t make this mistake – it was made in the past.
Colonel Miri Eisin: The answer is yes, it is being lifted. It is being kept only in certain spots. The different people who are here reporting about Israel, as they go out they just have to fill out a form and then you will be able to go around. There are certain areas where we feel – not that we have anything to hide at all – that there is a true danger for people going in. When I say booby-traps, it’s is if everybody thinks they are stronger than booby-traps. I think some of you journalists have been near suicide bombers, and anybody who has been near a suicide bomber has been appalled at what he has seen just from being nearby. Booby-traps are booby-traps. You walk in, you trip a wire, it blows up. And what they have done in the refugee camp in Jenin, and they did this in preparation weeks in advance, is they booby trapped the camp. That’s why most of the time, we have to go in very slowly and we won’t let journalists go in, just as we won’t let high-ranking Israeli officials go in because it’s very dangerous. Not that we want to sacrifice our soldiers, but that’s what our soldiers are doing now, are going in, clearing out meter by meter the Jenin camp – this is true mainly in Jenin which was heavily prepared.
I am only talking about the camp, I am not talking about the city. There are restrictions in certain areas of Nablus, but very specific areas. The issue of Bethlehem and Ramallah have to do with other issues, as Colonel Aviv said. In Bethlehem, there is a negotiation going on and we cannot have that interfered with at the moment. It is at a very critical stage. In Ramallah, we have strict orders about the isolation of Arafat and that will continue.
Q: Regarding the whole operation – how much longer can we expect this to continue? Can you make a mention to Jenin-Kasbah – Nablus area – how much longer to expect there specifically?
Colonel Miri Eisin: Essentially what we are saying at the moment, as we, the military, have said throughout, the longer time that we have, the more labs will be uncovered. What we are doing in Nablus is going house to house, every person you arrest, you interrogate and you find out about more places that you go to. If we physically wanted to go into every single house in Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah – it would take us forever. What we are doing is interrogating people who have indications of having connections to terrorists and that’s taking care of the infrastructure. We have been doing it now for almost two weeks, if we have another two weeks that’s how much more we have. In Nablus, we have uncovered a lot, we don’t think we’ve uncovered most of it. We don’t even know to give a good estimate – is it already 50% that we have uncovered and if we had another two weeks we’d uncover another 50% – these are estimates that are difficult to tell. The actual numbers themselves as we see them is, every explosive lab that we uncover is another one that won’t explode in the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. So, for us, and this is what the heads of our military have said, given six-eight weeks we would be exceedingly thorough, given 4 weeks we would do a lot more and as long as our democratic government tells us what to do and when to stop, that’s when we will stop.
Q: In light of what we have been told by Colonel Eisin in one of her previous briefings about documents picked up in the Mukata – specifically Arafat’s involvement in the purchase of explosive ingredients and the need for 59 explosives a week and other documents that are incriminating, as well as what she said today about document in Bethlehem Municipality, would you say, as a political member of the government, that it was wrong morally, tactically even politically for the American Secretary of State to go out of his way and to see the Chairman of the PLO, the Head of the PA and to go back and see him again tomorrow morning?
Minister Meridor: I am not in a position to give any advice or marks to the Secretary of State’s decision to visit whoever he would like to visit. What we know about Mr. Arafat, he certainly knows too. What President Bush said about Mr. Arafat, I believe is well known to the Secretary of State. When President Bush said that Arafat betrayed, a very tough word, the hope of his people, I believe Secretary Powell heard this. When we produce documents through the press and directly to the Americans last week by the Chief of our Intelligence showing Arafat’s signature, financing terrorists, I am sure Mr. Powell knows this. I don’t think there is any illusion about who the man is. But, he is there, and if the Secretary of State decides to see him, we are not going to stand in his way or give him marks for this. Now he knows more than I do, because he met him. What the results will be, we are still here to listen. I believe we will know today or tomorrow.
What you didn’t ask about was a story revealed yesterday on Israeli TV by Ehud Yaari. I think it is worth following. There was a story told by a reliable reporter, Ehud Yaari, quoting the former President of Indonesia, the biggest Moslem country in the world, saying he asked Mr. Arafat after the failure of Camp David in July 2000, why he did not agree to what was offered to him by us: end of occupation, Palestinian state etc. And the answer, as reported by Yaari from Indonesian Mr. Wahid, is that Arafat said: We have 150 years of struggle, in the end we will throw them to the sea. Which gives a good explanation to all the negative answers heard from Mr. Arafat. So, this is something that if true, will answer many other questions.
Q: Mr. Meridor, You mentioned the Secretary of State – he said after the meeting with Prime Minister Sharon that he understands Israel needs to defend itself, but he also suggested to think about the implications of present incursions and what after the military operation? The second question, everybody is saying that Israel didn’t have any illusions that the present operation would put an end to terror. In which practical terms could we expect the situation to change? What does it mean that it will really influence the impact of terror? That an explosion will happen once a month instead of three a week? How would you translate it?
And to Colonel Aviv, how would you evaluate the role of the church, of the Vatican, and of the international community, in these attempts to put an end to the crisis around the Church of the Nativity? In these wars there is also an aspect of propaganda. From the very beginning, Israel said the Christians inside the Church are hostages of the Palestinians. I don’t know to what extent do you think that helps the Israeli position. Why talk about hostages? Are they really hostages or are they keeping the sanctity of the Church?
Minister Meridor: It was a very difficult decision that the government took. It wasn’t a good one. It was a bad and tough one. The problem was, there was no alternative. We could not go on being attacked day after day, night after night, in Netanya, in Haifa, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, by suicide bombers. When the Americans came in trying to put an end to it, offering an agreement, we said yes and Arafat said no. Two, three, four, five times. We tried to hold our horses, so to speak, because we knew the military operation cannot finish everything. The infrastructure is not for building planes or tanks – it is infrastructure for building simple bombs and they will be able to do it again one day.
But, one has to ask oneself, what is the alternative? Just to play the sitting duck, for people to be shot in the streets, in cafes, in restaurants. It was not possible. No government on earth could have done this. So, we needed to take an operation which is not a simple one, and does not guarantee no terror attack whatsoever after it’s over. So, we did a very simple, although tough thing. We needed to hit these people hard and catch what they are hiding. We know that they will always have more. They can do it again in some day, some year. But to say alright, as we know that we don’t have 100% guaranteed answer, we will just sit back and be attacked again and again – this was impossible.
I want to take your question one step further. You asked me, if you withdraw and there is a continuation, what then? This is a good question that could be asked by those who say, withdraw tomorrow, leave everything, leave now. I suppose those who offer it to us should ask themselves, what will they say if after we withdraw – suppose we do it tonight – there is a continuation of the terror. Then are we legitimized to do whatever we like, because it didn’t work? We hear that the PA cannot control it, they have no force, but then they say withdraw and they know it will continue. What will they say to the next phase? Do they ask themselves, if I tell them to withdraw, do I take it on myself to legitimize what they do after another attack following the withdrawal? If there is nobody to say, ‘I am taking responsibility, I agree to a cease-fire and I will enforce it.’
I do believe that what Mr. Powell is trying to achieve in these meetings with the Palestinians and with us is not just Israeli withdrawal, which is very simple. We are an orderly army, you give an order and the army will withdraw. But they know what will follow, and they want to reach an agreement on cease-fire – to be declared openly in Arabic with no reservations, with no hints, with no winking of the eyes and then an operational mechanism to see to it that terror activity does not recur. Not only because it is nice for us or nice for them. Because there is a tomorrow and an after tomorrow. The need to find some sort of agreement by which we leave these areas, which we want to do as soon as possible, there will not be a recurrence, which will inevitably lead to another operation, even tougher. What will we do then? Again sit in our homes and wait for our children to come or not come home? When you hear a siren or a bomb exploding somewhere? It will happen. They say to us that they cannot control it.
So withdraw, and then what? It is a very real question. People who ask us and ask from us, we have to answer, what will we do the next day if it doesn’t stop? Go again to Jenin, Tulkarm, Kalkilya? Should we? Or is it better that once we have done it, we will try to come to sort of arrangement that will provide reasonable security for us and for all those people in the area who suffer so much from this terror wave. If you take it seriously, ask yourself, what would you have done, if you know that when you withdraw nobody promises you it will stop. You need a cease-fire to withdraw which is why all these resolutions speak of a cease-fire and withdrawal.