Transportation Minister Dr. Ephraim Sneh
Major David Zangen, Chief Medical Officer of the Jenin area
Lieutenant-Colonel Olivier Rafovitch, head of the IDF Spokesman International Media Liaison Branch
National Media Center, Jerusalem,
April 21, 2002
Transportation Minister Dr. Ephraim Sneh: Good afternoon. Today we completed Operation Defensive Shield. There are several very important achievements to this operation. We may say that the infrastructure of terror in the West Bank suffered a substantial, devastating blow.
A few figures: We succeeded to arrest over 70 of the top planners of the murderous terror attacks. About a thousand people who are affiliated with the terror organizations are still under investigation. We succeeded in destroying more then twenty laboratories where the explosive belts for the suicide bombers were prepared. Several workshops for Kassam rockets were destroyed as well. We succeeded to diffuse hundreds, hundreds of explosives with a volume off thousands of pounds. And of course we captured some very important documents, which indicate the dimensions of the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, and the connection, the affiliation of those terrorists to senior officials in the Palestinian Authority.
We hope that the change in the reality after this operation will enable the achievement of a real, lasting cease-fire. It is on the part of the Palestinian side to do so because as you know, we are ready to do so, given that the other side will do it as well.
The Israeli troops this moment are outside Jenin and Nablus, and we are waiting for two other problems to be solved. One is the presence of armed terrorists in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The other problem is a few dozen armed terrorists, who are in the Mukata building in Ramallah. When these two problems will be resolved, when these terrorists will not be able to act anymore, we shall see this as another accomplishment of the operation.
I have to say one more word about the Jenin refugee camp. As you know, we are more then willing to cooperate with the committee that the United Nations Security Council appointed. They will receive all assistance that they need.
We have here two aerial photographs, which give you a very clear and objective indication about what are the dimensions of the devastation in the Jenin refugee camp.
This is the aerial photograph of the Jenin refugee camp before the operation, and this is an aerial photograph taken on April 12, where you see that the area of the real destruction and devastation is in one sector of the camp where all the other parts of the camp are without any sign of devastation. Here is where the real fight was waged, and I believe that Dr. Zangen will later will give you a more detailed description. Thank you very much.
Major David Zangen, Chief Medical Officer of the Jenin area: I am talking to you here first as the father of four children here, living here in Jerusalem. Also normally or every day, I am not in the military, but I work at Hadassah Hospital as a senior pediatrician. The day following Passover, I was called up to fight with my brigade in the Jenin area. It was not an easy situation to leave the children, and to know that you are go into this area where we believed there are many terrorists. So you have to understand: here is not a military man or the classical military man talking to you, but a father and a pediatrician.
I must also tell you that one of the last experiences that I remember before this was an explosive bomber here in Jerusalem area, who didn’t manage to perform what he meant to do. He was caught in the German Colony neighborhood here in Jerusalem, which is close to where my house is. It took place in the afternoon, when I was treating children, Arabs and Jews, at Hadassah Hospital. I got a call from my wife, that she doesn’t know where my children are, and we know that there is a suicide bomber on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. All the children are on vacation from school and she doesn’t have any contact with them. So on the personal level, to treat patients at a time when you know that your children are at risk, and you don’t know what is going on with them – this is a situation that is really impossible to live with.
When we were called up, we knew that we are going to Jenin. One of the very encouraging elements for me was the show of our people. Everybody wanted to volunteer. There was nobody who said, "Oh I can’t come," or something like that. Everybody felt that this a war a way to defend our own children, our own lives. And basically that was the reason that everybody showed and everybody wanted to take part in this actual operation.
The one next thing that I want to tell you is again on a personal level and this is that, you know people again and again asked about the civilian camp or the refugee camp. You must know that this place was not a civilian camp. This is in my eyes a fortress of terror. There were there around two hundred terrorists in this specific camp, living there and recruiting suicide bombers to go into our streets. Suicide killers, one after the other. About thirty percent of the suicide bombers in our streets came from this very camp. And basically who did it was the 200 or 300 terrorists who live in the camp, and who, during the fight, used the few civilians there either as shields or as people who cooperated with and worked for them. So that is to talk about the civilian area is really not true; this is a terrorist center.
In terms of the fighting, obviously from an army or military point of view, this is very easy to bomb, using artillery or from the air. But the Israeli army went from one house to another in order not to harm any civilian who is sitting there, even though we know that he is only a shield for these terrorists. We lost in this battle many casualties, 23 soldiers of ours, excellent people, some of whom I knew, and you can understand how hard it was for me to treat people that I know. We lost excellent officers, because we decided not to bomb from the air and to go and fight in a very aggressive way.
I will tell you about one case. There was one house in this very area, in this area from which about ten terrorists were shooting at us. This whole house was basically booby-trapped – it was like a minefield. We sent two of our very special units to explode the booby-trapped front of this house, because it was impossible in any other way from a military point of view, to overcome these terrorists. When our two soldiers from the very special unit came close to the house, they saw that there were one woman and two children, and they did not put the explosives under the house, and did not blow up the house. While they were withdrawing back to their forces, one of them was seriously wounded, the other not very seriously.
I must tell you again that some of my very special experiences here in this battle were to see that even the very simple soldiers of ours, had such high moral values. They sacrificed their own lives in order not to wound or to cause injuries to civilians. And again, I say not many civilians were there in the camp, just possibly a few hundred.
Another element that I must tell you about how the terrorists used people, used children. A few days after the battle ended, we saw a 6-year-old child with a little bag going in the camp. One of the soldiers asked him, "Listen, what do you have there in the bag?" and so he dropped it and ran away. The bag included three booby-traps. Six years old. Now obviously this child went back to his family or wherever. A six year old cannot understand a lot, but obviously he understood it was not a good thing to do, but it is unbelievable the use of children.
The other experience that we had was with two old women and one man. At every house that was in the end destroyed, we called upon the people, once and twice and three times, to come out – the ones who do not want to fight. We said, "Please come out". Obviously in some cases some people came out, and in one case two old women and one man came out of a house, with their hands up. Just behind them there was a terrorist who shot at the soldiers and afterwards detonated explosions. So you know, people talk here about all kinds of moral elements, accusing the Israeli army. I am very proud of the moral values of every specific soldier, the most simple soldier in our army.
There is one last thing that I want to talk about, and that is the accusations by Terje Larsen from the United Nations. There are three elements that he mentioned and as he well knows, they have nothing to do with reality.
The first is what he accused us of in the hospital of Jenin. The hospital in Jenin was an extraterritorial area – not one soldier of our division entered the hospital, nobody was attacked in the hospital, and nothing was done to the hospital. Every doctor in the hospital of Jenin knows that and won’t be able to say anything else than this truth. There is not one bullet in the whole area of the hospital of Jenin. There was no situation where we did not allow people to get into the hospital. Every ambulance that wanted to get into the hospital could go every time. We did check the ambulances. The reason was that the hospital was used to hide highly wanted terrorists. On one occasion one of our doctors checked one of the ambulances. According to what the Palestinian doctor said, there was one severely sick person lying inside. And then we looked at him – there wasn’t a scratch on him, he just had an intravenous, just taped to his shirt, not even inserted in his veins. And this was one of the highly wanted terrorists. So every ambulance, and everybody who wanted to go in to the hospital, could get into the hospital. Furthermore, there were cases that the Palestinians asked for doctors, and their doctors did not want to come, either because it was dangerous or they just refused, and we treated them. We treated Palestinians – a case of appendicitis, and we treated a case of leg wound and a wound in the neck – some of them were on the list of people that we knew that fought against us. So this is one element – the hospital. This has nothing to do with reality.
Second, he mentioned the element of the smell of destruction. I’ve been in the camp – some of the people here were with me – one week following the fighting. During this time of four to five hours that we were there, nobody sensed any smell or any problem of such kind. There was no situation where somebody prevented burial of anybody. In five days of searching for bodies, we found possibly 25 bodies, and that is all. So talking about a massacre, this is again a terrible runaway from reality.
The third thing was already mentioned by Dr. Sneh. This area basically harbored or included the very fighters that wanted carry out suicide bombings. This whole fortress of terror was built basically to be able to recruit more and more suicide bombers. We found in the houses albums of pictures of children, 18, 16, and 14 years old who will be the next week suicide bombers in our streets, here in Jerusalem, in Haifa, in Netanya, in Hadera. For me as a pediatrician, to look at the pictures of these naive children, recruited by the terrorists, it was very hard to look at them. Basically these fighters were centered in this area when our troops entered. And as they want suicide bombings to continue, they decided to commit suicide on our soldiers. So it was all booby-trapped, filled with explosives and filled with guns in order to shoot as many soldiers as possible, and to kill them – and to be suicide killers. In this situation there other choice but to destroy some of these houses.
Finally, I want to tell you one personal thing: For me, when I hear things that are far from the truth, when I hear, when I see people come into the camp and see the truth and try to sell the story and exaggerate and say 500 bodies, 1,000 bodies, a destruction that is like an earthquake, when you know that it is not true, what you do is you basically create more hatred, and you encourage more suicide bombers. You have to take responsibility, also as journalists. You have to remember that when you paint the picture in a way ten times magnified of what it is, you create more hatred. And such statements by people like Terje Larsen, whose role in the UN is to create more love between the two peoples and not to cause more hatred – they just create more hatred. Thank you.
Lieutenant Colonel Olivier Rafovitch: On the crisis with the Church of the Nativity: Right now, nothing has changed. It’s totally blocked. We are trying by negotiations to solve this crisis by peaceful means, but the other side is refusing any kind of negotiation, or any meeting with us, and we’re still waiting. We are still waiting because we know now – this is very new information – that fifty young people and two children, 10-years-old, are in the church, in the cave of Jesus. They have not seen daylight for two weeks now. They are receiving one cookie a day, they are urinating in a plastic bottle. One of them succeeded to run away, and to talk to us, and to talk to some people outside the church. So now, besides our goal to arrest the terrorists, we also want very much to save the children in the church. They are Palestinian children, I repeat, two of them 10 years old. It’s new information, and I think it is very worrisome.
Another point, we know also that in the church, among the 35-40 senior terrorists, some of them have killed American citizens. We cannot elaborate about it, but we are there because we have to arrest these people, very dangerous people, and we will do it.
Questions & Answers:
Q: The numbers – you said 35-40 senior terrorists. How many not so senior terrorists are there? How many clerics? Can you give us as much detail as you can?
Lt.-Col. Rafovitch: According to information we have received from people who left the church, we assume today that there are about 230 gunmen in the church. They belong to the Tanzim, to the Hamas, to the Islamic Jihad and to the Palestinian Authority organs, like policemen and so on. Among the gunmen, we know, we have very clear information, that 35-40 senior terrorists with blood on their hands, very serious ones, are in the church. They are running all the negotiations, they are controlling the entire church. We have seen from the balloon, which is there to observe what is going on in the church, that every place in the church is fully controlled by the Palestinian gunmen. What we know now is that there are in the cave 50 more people – they are blocked, they cannot move, and cannot go out; they are hostages, Palestinian hostages, beside the priests and the monks.
Q: You said beside the priests and the monks?
Lt.-Col. Rafovitch: The presence of these 50 young people is new information. We didn’t know that before. This is in addition to about 35-40 clerics.
Q: Could you elaborate a little about these terrorists who are wanted for killing American citizens? Does this relate to Seprember 11th?
Lt.-Col. Rafovitch: No, it is not related to September 11th, it is related to events in Israel involving people with dual citizenship.
Q: Dr. Sneh, I was wondering if you could respond to Chris Patten these days, who accused Israel of hijacking the war on terror. He also accused Israel of not targeting militants but the structures of Palestinian self-rule.
Minister Sneh: It is a very original definition. I may say that there is global war on terror. We, the Israelis, fight terror, which is just at our doorstep. The Jenin refugee camp is five miles from Afula, and Kalkilya is five miles from my home. I don’t disparage those who fight terror quite far from their homes, I appreciate it. But it is a ‘hutzpa’ – absurd – to say that we have hijacked the war on terror. We did not volunteer to wage this war for fun.
Terror did not start in the World Trade Center, or in the Pentagon, on September 11th. The suicide bombers started in Tel Aviv seven years ago. And the very permissive attitude of the world to this phenomenon brought them to the heart of Manhattan. Such declarations like that made by Chris Patten – I assume that your quotation is correct and precise – causes great damage to the EU as a possible broker in this conflict. No one can complain why we do not accept him or her as a broker, as a third party if they say what Mr. Patten does recently said, or Mr. Terje Larsen.
Q: (Hebrew) The Prime Minister said this morning that Operation Defensive Shield has not yet ended, but that we have moved into a different stage. Can you sum up the achievements to date, and what is the meaning of the new mode of operation?
Minister Sneh: (Hebrew) Our fight against terror has not ended with the withdrawal of the troops from Jenin and Nablus. It will continue as needed, not necessarily with physical presence in these cities, but in other places, according to the situation and the need.
Q: (Hebrew) Do you believe that Terje Larsen can still serve as a neutral envoy?
Minister Sneh: (Hebrew) An envoy is someone who is sent. Can we accept him as someone who is balanced and neutral? Certainly not.
Q: First of all to stay with Mr. Terje Larsen. Would you say that he is no longer effective as a UN envoy here? Should he be recalled or replaced? And second, you mentioned earlier that the terrorist infrastructure had been devastated or damaged, but not entirely uprooted. Would you say that that with the exception of the Mukata and the Bethlehem standoff that that has been accomplished? What else needs to be done?
Minister Sneh: I would start with the first question. We are not in the job of appointing UN senior officials, and I don’t give marks to anyone. What we expressed recently, in the last 24 hours, is a great deal of resentment to the comments that Terje Larsen made yesterday and before yesterday.
We planned that the operation would take longer. As you know, we decided to shorten it, but in this framework of time we succeeded in achieving most of our objectives, I can’t tell you 100 percent of them. There are still arch-terrorists, ringleaders, commanders of terror organizations were at large, and the measures that we are taking right now is to prevent them from sending suicide bombers from the Palestinian towns to Israel proper.
Q: My question is about program of "Otef Yerushalayim" – the plan to protect Jerusalem with a wall; about the separation. I want to know where it will pass, this wall, and if they started in this work, and if it will be official.
Minister Sneh: What we started to do is to build a sort of a barrier, a fence of various types, along a total of 57 kilometers, between the West Bank and Israel. We are going to start at a few points – one near Umm el Fahm, the other one in the Tulkarm area, and part of them in Jerusalem. I can’t give you the precise locations, but these are the areas. It will take a long time to accomplish the whole construction along the entire length. It may take a long time, but the immediate actions are in those places that I told you. I believe that this will make it very or more difficult for terrorists to cross the old border between the West Bank and Israel, and to carry out suicide bombings or other terrorist attacks in Hadera, Natanya, Afula and so forth.
In Jerusalem we have some areas where such a fence or physical barrier would be constructed, not everywhere in Jerusalem. As I told you, it will take time, but gradually we are starting now.
Q: The Israeli government has urged Arafat to hand over the terrorists in the compound. If Arafat agrees to hand over suspects, will the Israeli government ease the siege against Arafat? And, are there any preconditions for the Israeli government to set Arafat free?
Minister Sneh: There are no other preconditions. What we insist upon is to hand over these wanted terrorists. They were involved in the assassination of my colleague Minister Ze’evy, and once they are handed over, the conditions will be changed.
Q: If Arafat doesn’t do that, are you planning to storm the Mukata? And if you have nothing to hide in Jenin, why is it still a military closed area?
Minister Sneh: We don’t have right now any plan to storm it. We are trying very hard to settle this problem in a peaceful manner, and I hope that this will be the case. About Jenin, whenever this committee that is supposed to come will arrive, it is open.
IDF representative: As of today, it’s fully open.
Minister Sneh: The main effort now is solve the problem in Bethlehem and in Ramallah. These are actually the obstacles to achieving all objectives of our operation, and to pave the way for a cease-fire and other diplomatic activities. So the efforts now are concentrated on solving these two problems.
Q: For the Lieutenant Colonel, could you give us a little more detail on the 50 children who are in the cave – when you say young people, what age group are you talking about, what were they doing there, and just a little more description.
Lt.-Col. Rafovitch: Concerning the people in the church cave – it is information from someone who left, his name is Taher Mohammed Abdallah. He is now being treated at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital. He told us about 50 young people, two of them ten years old, the others I believe 18, 17, 16, that was very clear – Palestinians, among them some Christians, young people, they came into the church during the fight. They were with the terrorists, with the fighters, and together with the gunmen and terrorists, they were sent into the church and then they were separated. I think all of them are young men and children.
Q: (Hebrew) Minister Sneh, we heard this morning both the Prime Minister and the Attorney General about the statements made by Terje Larsen. Does the government really mean to declare him persona non grata in Israel?
Minister Sneh: (Hebrew) I don’t think that is what is important – that is an issue that is being examined by our legal advisers. What is important is the sense of hostility that Terje Larsen’s comments broadcast, when he is the envoy of the UN Secretary-General, who is supposed to be impartial. Such statements cast a heavy shadow on the objectivity of those who want to play the role of honest broker, of mediator and peace-makers.
Q: Last week I was inside the camp, I was one of the reporters who sneaked in spite of the army closure, and I can say there was no massacre – no massacre of civilians of people who were not member of a fighting group. Why did you close the camp for so long? I understand the fighting ground, I understand that every army has to stop other people when they are fighting, but why did you stop journalists for so long? I really do not understand. And secondly, being there, I can say that I spoke with people of the Red Cross and the UN, and they repeatedly said, that they were stopped, they were methodically stopped. Searching ambulances, no searching ambulances – they didn’t have any access to the area of the fighting, even after the fighting ended. So why all this?
Major Zangen: First of all in terms of the closure, I’m not the chief army officer there, I am the medical team. But I can tell you for sure, at the time that there was closure, it was a time that we knew still that there were fighters in the camp, there were explosives in the camp. Yesterday, there was a doctor who came to deal with a body and he got injured. Last Tuesday, we were in the camp for four or five hours – all over the camp there were still a lot of booby traps, there were still armed people in the camp, and basically we were at risk going in there. During fighting, to have somebody that you cannot identify, and with all of the terrorists – not always such that you could identify them – it is not very easy to have other people in and to fight at the same time. If you understand that, and if you understand that this place was a fortress of terror everywhere – last week we showed it to everybody, the booby-traps were still on the streets, the small ropes that were connected to gas balloons.
What would you say if people would be injured or killed by this terrible minefield that they prepared there. This is one thing. The other thing I just mentioned, is the bodies that were in fact booby-traps. Booby-traps were placed close to the body in order that people who come to deal with the body should explode. There were journalists who came in also during the fighting. They took the risk upon themselves, but we have to be responsible also for our soldiers, and this causes us injuries and casualties if there are people that we can not identify and you have to take care of their lives. You have to understand that.
And secondly, to answer you about the medical assistance. Every Palestinian and everyone who needed help, got help by the best people that we could provide. We did not stop the Red Cross in any event. This is not true. They were also saying that we entered the hospital – this is not true, it has nothing to do with the truth, and when you publish such a thing, you cause just more hatred. It has nothing to do with the truth. Yesterday a doctor came to the camp, and he was wounded. He was wounded by a bomb – a bomb placed by terrorists in the camp. The whole camp is booby-trapped. This camp is a terrorist camp, it was very dangerous and it is still very dangerous.
Q: Minister can you tell me in this case if there was a policy during the operation to stop methodically Red Cross and UN. Because that is what they claim. And also I would like to ask you what you think about the role of the Vatican regarding the question of the church in Bethlehem.
Minister Sneh: First, there is no such policy to stop the Red Cross as such, as you heard from Dr. Zangen, there is no such policy. But there is a policy not to allow people who have nothing to do there, other than the Red Cross, to enter a fighting zone and risk their lives while actually indirectly they are under our responsibility at the moment that we allow them to enter. This is a fighting zone. As you heard from Major Zangen, it was fully booby-trapped with snipers and fighters until recently. I think it would have been reckless and irresponsible to allow Red Cross personnel or UN personnel to enter then. Just inconceivable. And this is the policy. Not to risk people unnecessarily.
Q: (Hebrew) On the political negotiations, it is said that the IDF Operation Defensive Shield did not destroy the terror infrastructure in the sense that there is still motivation. What do you believe has to be done to prevent the continuation of terrorism?
Minister Sneh: (Hebrew) The operation harmed ability, not motivation. The idea is that if political negotiations will begin now, they may create a new reality in which even those who are motivated to terrorist activity, will not act. If not, all security measures are being taken to prevent this. In this sense, our actions have not ended; the operation is over – not the war on terror.
The outstanding issues of Bethlehem and the murderers of Minister Ze’evy must be resolved. Then a cease-fire can be declared. This will open the way to the implementation of Tenet and Mitchell. There is no other course. The armed people [in Bethlehem] must lay down their arms and come out [of the church]. They will have several options. But to remain there and not to stand trial – that is not an option.
A: (Hebrew) Do you support any "punitive" steps against Terje Larsen?
Minister Sneh: (Hebrew) I will give you my personal opinion. I don’t think that we should deal with the legal, formalistic aspect. We must state clearly our view, that he himself, in his one-sided, blunt statements, disqualified himself from serving as a judge and as a neutral and balanced party. That is the message that we have to convey. I don’t see any need for formal steps.
Q: We’ve had this debate about why people couldn’t get in or could they not get in, in those few days after the fighting ended. Since Friday, when international organizations have been able to get in, why has Israel not helped with heavy equipment to begin to help looking for survivors. A survivor was found yesterday merely by people scratching with their hands. It proved that somebody is still alive under the rubble. It seems a fair question why you have not helped. I can understand maybe you don’t want to sent personnel in there, but why not heavy equipment and skills that you have or sniffer dogs to help?
Lt.-Col. Rafovitch: First, we worked there with special units, experts in working in rubble. As to yesterday, this man reported to have been there for six days and six night, were actually there for just a few hours. It was reported by the same reporter from the BBC. It was a mistake, I hope so, from the BBC, a mistake coming from Jenin hospital sources. So maybe get back to Jenin, ask the BBC people, because it is wrong. He was not there for six days and six nights. I talked to the very BBC reporter and he told me it was a mistake from the hospital sources of Jenin.