March 30, 2002
Q: Mr. Ben-Eliezer, let’s start with the latest front that opened up today and that doesn’t seem to bode well – as if everything else that is happening is not enough. Who is responsible for the fire from the Hizbullah?
DM Ben-Eliezer: The Hizbullah started firing without any provocation, using missiles and mortar shells, on our positions over an area stretching from the Shab’a Farm to Ghajar.
Q: You can hardly be surprised by the fire
DM Ben-Eliezer: We knew, we had [a feeling], we saw preparations, and so our aircraft were in the air. The aircraft responded immediately by firing at the sources of [Hizbullah] fire. Something like this could not have been carried out without the knowledge and the approval of the Syrian government, and maybe now is the time to send a warning [message] to both the Syrian and the Lebanese governments. Our only interest is to live peacefully side by side with them. The Hizbullah is trying to force escalation. If [the firing] doesn’t stop we will have to move to protect the north of the country as well.
Q: Mr. DM Ben-Eliezer, "If [the firing] doesn’t stop" – does that mean that Israel will hit targets in Syria or Syrian targets inside Lebanon? We’ve been hearing warnings like this for a long time already, and nothing [happens] – what is happening?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I would like the Syrians and the Lebanese to understand the message that we want to live peacefully with them.
Q: OK. But there’s also a warning in your message. Please explain what you are warning the Syrians about.
DM Ben-Eliezer: I think that anyone who tries to move [against us] without any provocation, without any provocation…
Q: By the way, the Hizbullah radio station claimed that it was in response to the siege on Arafat.
DM Ben-Eliezer: Let them worry about their own country. They don’t need to worry about the Palestinians, and, as I said, there was no provocation. There is no acceptable reason to simply open [fire] on an area that has been surveyed and mapped by the UN and along which [our forces] are deployed. As I said, we have no interest in responding, we have no interest in opening up a new front. I honestly wouldn’t suggest that. I would only suggest adopting the model of peace. I would not suggest that the Syrians and the Lebanese force us to prove to them that our army is strong enough to protect our northern border.
Q: I would like to understand. You say we have no interest in responding. Does this mean that firing back at Hizbullah positions is our response? And that’s all there will be unless there is further fire?
DM Ben-Eliezer: We are interested in containing events, not expanding or escalating them. We have no argument with the government of Lebanon, nor with the government of Syria. We want to live side by side in peace with them. But it must be made clear that this action could not have been carried out without the knowledge of the Syrians or the Lebanese government or, alternatively, I think, without Hizbullah knowing that the Syrians would sit back quietly. Who’s sitting inside Lebanon now? Syria!
Q: OK. You know, maybe they started firing exactly because they realize that we don’t want to get involved in yet another front, knowing that nothing would happen.
DM Ben-Eliezer: That’s why my message to them is that we also know where to place limits and when to say "Enough!"
Operation Defensive Shield
Q: Mr. DM Ben-Eliezer, please describe to us what is happening right now around Arafat’s HQ?
DM Ben-Eliezer: The IDF is everywhere in Ramallah at this time. I think we have taken almost all the targets we set for ourselves inside Ramallah. We are inside the Mukta’a (compound) itself, facing the sites we defined as bases of the terrorist infrastructure. These include houses, the HQ, warehouses, and you saw the proof earlier – all the [weapons] we took out of those sites. We have almost completed the takeover of the Mukta’a, but we have not completed our searches inside the Mukta’a, and we have not yet completed [the destruction] of the terrorist infrastructure in Ramallah.
Q: I would like to understand. Are IDF soldiers moving through Ramallah with a list of names of people they want to apprehend, and those that they do not wish to apprehend?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I suggest that we avoid going into operational details. I say we are not there, heaven forbid, to harm the residents of Ramallah. We are there to fight terrorism and its infrastructure. That’s all.
Q: How far away from Arafat is our closest soldier now?
DM Ben-Eliezer: The problem is not one of distance…
Q: From his point of view it is.
DM Ben-Eliezer: Yes, I know. But I would like to say that we have spent many long hours to make this issue very clear, and to ensure one thing – that nobody harms Arafat. Nobody will go near him or his office. We have no interest in harming him. On the contrary, we have received all types of complaints that there are shortages of certain things. We immediately gave instructions to start supplying whatever was necessary.
Q: But, at least according to reports from our correspondent Saliman a-Sha’afi, who has just returned from Ramallah, Arafat is completely isolated in his office, without electricity, telephone, TV, radio – he doesn’t even have a battery for his mobile phone. So what is the idea behind all this?
DM Ben-Eliezer: Incidentally, the electricity is a problem in the whole area, [and is the responsibility of] the East Jerusalem Electric Company. Even in Beit El, there was no electricity, and the problem is being dealt with now. It may still take a while. They requested a generator, and we replied that there was no problem in regard to supplying a generator. As to the problem with water, we immediately sent out a detail to deal with it.
Q: Let’s not get into the actual details, but what is the overall objective of the siege on Arafat and his total isolation? He is actually in solitary confinement right now.
DM Ben-Eliezer: He brought it upon himself.
Q: Where do we go from here?
DM Ben-Eliezer: We want him to stop the incitement. We want him to stop meeting people and inciting everyone [against us] and escalating terror. That’s what we want. We just want to separate him from all the other mechanisms [of terror] – that’s all.
Q: Where is this operation headed? When is it going to end?
DM Ben-Eliezer: It will end once we feel that we have done everything possible to protect our country.
Q: What is "everything possible?" What have you got planned?
DM Ben-Eliezer: The "everything possible" in our plans is to crush the terrorist infrastructure.
Q: You said we wanted to root out terrorism from Ramallah, and that until that was done the IDF would remain there. This could go on for months, because if there are people there who are set on perpetrating acts of terror, the minute our soldiers pull out, they’ll do just that. This means that just going in to confiscate weapons won’t solve the political problem.
DM Ben-Eliezer: I think the IDF is quite capable of defining the parameters. We will define the parameters for ourselves. Make no mistake – don’t think that this operation – however extensive it may be – will enable us to make the country impermeable to acts of terrorism. But we can hold it off and [crush] their command structure and weaponry infrastructure – you saw the huge quantities of explosives, weapons of destruction, RPGs, pistols, and mortars.
Q: But if terrorist leaders, or the heads of [the organizations] directing the terrorism from Ramallah – and I asked you previously about Bargouti – remain there, then it’s only a matter of time before we’re back to where we started. Unless we stay there permanently.
DM Ben-Eliezer: Firstly, it was you who decided that they were remaining. I don’t know whether they will. I said, please note, we intend to fight terrorism in order to protect our homes, I am aware that…
Q: Are you hinting that there is a very clear plan according to which they will also apprehend very senior PA officials or Palestinians we view as responsible for the terrorism?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No. I mean to say that we, as the State of Israel, have said "Enough! We are not going to witness another Passover massacre".
Q: Will Israel hit senior Palestinian officials harder than it has up to now? Like Bargouti, for example?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I am not prepared to make any comment about that. I am saying anyone who tries to bring about terror and murder. I think that it is our duty at this time, as a nation and country, not to accept what is happening here, and we must do whatever it takes to protect our children.
Q: There has been extensive mobilization of IDF reserves.
DM Ben-Eliezer: It’s not such an extensive mobilization. We have mobilized several units; I am not going to say how many, but I can say that we have mobilized several units necessary for this operation. They are full partners in this battle. This is, in fact, a war to protect our homes, and I am also very aware of the effect of mobilizing reserves, just as I am conscious of the economic implications of doing so. We will do everything we can to keep the reserves mobilized only for the time we actually need them.
Motivation for Defensive Shield
Q: Mr. DM Ben-Eliezer, we’ve heard some very tough words about combating terrorism, but still, the question keeps arising about how this particular operation is different from the operation three weeks ago. There is the feeling that this is a form of revenge – maybe even legitimate [revenge]. But perhaps we need to say it like it is.
DM Ben-Eliezer: No. This operation, unlike previous operations, is actually the start of Israel’s policy of saying "Enough [of] what happened on Passover night. Enough, no more!" The decision here was a very determined one to go for it. For a whole year we tried. We gave every opportunity a chance. We remained silent for weeks on end. We didn’t respond. We held back. Now it’s enough.
Q: Meaning that this is not a response that meets with the approval of people who – perhaps justifiably after what we have suffered – want to get back at them?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I would like to say one thing. I’m not looking for revenge. I am only interested in doing whatever I can to protect our homes and our children. Unlike in the past, this operation is not going to be over in a day or two. This is an operation that is going to get deeper and deeper into the terrorist infrastructure. This is an operation that is going to be carried out with tolerance and patience, while, at the same time, bearing in mind that eighty percent of our work is important, but that in the case of the other twenty percent we have to start thinking of the political issues. But overall, I say again, we want to stay and fight the [terrorist] infrastructure until we can at least say that we’ve managed to halt the attacks.
Q: Can you already see, by the number of warnings, that a certain point (has been reached)?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No. Responses are not immediate. Everything is still in a state of turmoil; people still haven’t taken in what has happened. All of a sudden we’re moving into the Mukta’a, into Ramallah – the capital of terrorism, and [then] we go in even further. If you ask me, I think it’s still early days.
Q: So we’re still on high alert?
DM Ben-Eliezer: Yes. We’re still on high alert and I only hope we can stop it.
Q: Mr. DM Ben-Eliezer, I would like a brief word about Arafat’s isolation. Our political correspondent, Udi Segal, reports that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to the cabinet meeting with a far more radical proposal. You say leave Arafat alone, but according to this report, Mr. Sharon said that Arafat should be removed immediately. Were you against this proposal?
DM Ben-Eliezer: Yes, there were some who took a harder line than the Prime Minister. Some even thought we should apprehend Arafat.
Q: Were you against [the proposal]?
DM Ben-Eliezer: My only concern was the well-being of the State of Israel and our security. I am very happy to report that all the heads of security, the heads of the security forces, the heads of Intelligence, in particular, as well as the Coordinator of Operations in the Territories, presented their position and explained to the government that this operation could have exactly the opposite effect from what we anticipate. I was therefore pleased that the government took the decision not to deport him [Arafat].
Q: Does this mean that at some stage you assume that you will start talking to this man? Otherwise you could have deported him.
DM Ben-Eliezer: What I can say is that the central role of this man cannot be ignored – you cannot just ignore him. But at this point in time, the central role he is playing is as a terrorist leader. If he changes, and becomes a leader searching for peace, then…
Q: And what will make him change? Will isolating him in his office make him change?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No, but isolating him will separate him from the terrorist organizations and infrastructure. Isolating him will enable us to go ahead and start dealing with the terrorism, and its infrastructure, properly. And that is what we intend to do.
Goals with regard to the territories
Q: Two weeks ago, Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, was interviewed and suggested an option that he said he would not recommend the mobilization of reserves this time – but that was a definite possibility – of retaking the [PA] territories, and he mentioned what we would have to do – and one of the things was mobilization of reserves. Have the reserves been mobilized in order to retake the [PA] territories?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No. Thank you for asking, because I would like to say here that we have no interest in retaking the Palestinian territories. We do not want to remain in Area A, nor in the PA territories. Nor do we want to harm Arafat. We do, however, want to fight the terrorist infrastructure. We want to destroy the terrorist leadership, we want to combat terrorism. Those are our goals. In fact, once things are quiet we’ll move out of there. I’ll tell you something else, as someone who was previously commander of Judea and Samaria and the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories: I would like to note that retaking the PA territories means controlling 3.5 million Palestinians, and everything that entails.
Q: And that’s not going to happen.
DM Ben-Eliezer: No, that won’t happen.
Q: So how long will we remain there?
DM Ben-Eliezer: We will remain there as long as the security forces – the IDF – feels it is necessary to ensure protection for our homes.
Q: In order to crush terrorism, and I use your words, to root it out, Ramallah is just the beginning, isn’t that so? Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, maybe even Gaza or Khan Yunis – are these all possible targets?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I said we would take all steps, and geography is not going to stop us. We will combat terror wherever it is – in every place.
Q: Of all the cities that I mentioned, are at least some of them potential targets?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I am not prepared to comment. I’ll tell you once again, there are no geographical restrictions. We are going to combat terrorism. We are not prepared to relive recent scenes [of terror attacks], we cannot have a situation where every morning we hear of another ten, or another twenty people killed. We will not accept that. No nation would tolerate that.
Q: You were asked whether an IDF operation – however extensive and forceful – with thousands of reservists mobilized, would be the answer to terrorism. Is any army, however strong, actually able to put an end to this type of guerilla warfare, this wave of terror?
DM Ben-Eliezer: Negative.
Q: So why do it?
DM Ben-Eliezer: [This operation] can reduce, disrupt and prevent [acts of terror]. I know that today there were many attempts by suicide bombers to get into the country, but they were unsuccessful.
Q: What stopped them? The IDF presence outside Arafat’s office?
DM Ben-Eliezer: They were stopped by the IDF presence almost everywhere.
Q: Inside the territories?
DM Ben-Eliezer: For example, in all the areas I define as requiring encirclement, and that are currently encircled.
Q: You mean that the presence of IDF soldiers contributed directly to preventing terror attacks? Can you say that now with any degree of certainty?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No, but look at what our presence achieved a few days ago at the Ram roadblock. An ambulance was stopped at the roadblock – and by the way we are being blamed for stopping it – and we opened it to check what was inside. There sat a suicide bomber with seventeen kilos of explosives strapped to his body. We prevented [an attack]. You want more? There were another two Tanzim suicide bombers traveling by car.
Q: I think that answer is very clear. The question is asked, though, how long can we sustain this effort without mobilizing more reservists?
DM Ben-Eliezer: If you ask me, I believe the only way to end this is at the negotiating table. That is why we tried everything for a whole year in order to get talks started. But if there are no negotiations, and if this is Arafat’s response, and this he brought upon himself, we have no choice but to…
Relations with neighboring states
Q: When Israel calls up reserves, tensions rise in those countries. Did you send some sort of message to allay their fears, saying that Israel was mobilizing only to fight against the Palestinians?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No. I did receive several phone calls, including calls from Arab states.
Q: Tell us which Arab leaders we are talking about in this situation.
DM Ben-Eliezer: The Prime Minister of Jordan called, and I told him clearly what has happened here.
Q: Did you say to him, "Don’t worry, we are mobilizing reserves but it is not war"?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No. I did not feel obliged to tell him that we were mobilizing reserves, but I did think it was necessary to tell him exactly what was happening in Israel at that moment with regard to the terrorist attacks. Everyone saw what had happened. The whole world saw it.
Q: Did Egyptian President Husni Mubarrak call?
DM Ben-Eliezer: No he did not. But his staff called. I will probably call in the next day or two.
Q: But did you take into account the threat and tension that mobilization of reserves creates in the region?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I think that today, despite all their declarations, the Arab world at least understands what prompted us to take this course of action. In fact, the Arab world today understands the damage Arafat has caused to the initiative [we saw] in Beirut. More than anything else, the Arab world now understands that Arafat was the cause of the failure of General Zinni’s second and third missions here in this region.
General Zinni Mission
DM Ben-Eliezer: A week before the IDF made this move there was a week of terrorist attacks, one after the other, and the whole nation looked on angrily asking, "What’s happening to us? What’s happening to the IDF? Why don’t we respond?" We only did that to keep channels of communication open. We gave our total support to General Zinni, in order to get his plan up and running, to start a political process and to move towards a ceasefire. Up until this time, there has been no decision. Not only has there been no decision – there has not been any ceasefire, and there has been no entry into the Tenet process. Nothing. Nothing at all.
Q: If Zinni wants to go and meet with him, will you let him pass through?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I suggest that you do not raise these issues at present. Right now, we are living for the moment. Let us see what develops. One thing I can tell you is that during this past year, Israel has made every possible effort to get the political process moving while still combating terrorism. Unfortunately, there was no signal [from the other side]. There was a ritual that every time there was a large-scale terrorist attack and he [Arafat] became afraid, he would stand up and [make a declaration]. This time he kept quiet. That is why I feel we have to say to ourselves that we are responsible for our people, for our sons and our children. That is how we reached our decision. The whole purpose of this operation is, first and foremost, to give back a sense of security to the citizens of Israel, to reclaim our security, and to protect our homes and our children.
Q: And now, about the Saudi initiative, Mr. Ben-Eliezer?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I think we should start by saying that the Saudi initiative comes after the Arab world realized that Arafat is leading a process that threatens stability in the Middle East. In other words a continuation…
Q: Does this mean you support the Saudi initiative?
DM Ben-Eliezer: I support the Saudi initiative, but not down to the last detail.
Q: You know that it talks about the right of return for refugees.
DM Ben-Eliezer: No, that will never happen. No party, either to the political left or right [would accept that]. I don’t think that anyone would accept the right of return, including myself.