National Media Center opened in Jerusalem

First briefing to the press by:
Mr. Arye Mekel, Media Center Director,
Mr. Gideon Meir, Deputy Director General of the Foreign Ministry for Information,
Major General Yitzhak Eitan, Commander of the IDF Central Command
Colonel Gal Hirsch, Head of Operations in the IDF Central Command

Jerusalem, March 29, 2002

Arye Mekel: I would like to welcome you to the National Media Center. I am the Director of the Media Center. We have opened this facility this morning following the latest events. Everybody here is familiar with the events. The purpose of this Center – which is operated by the Foreign Ministry in conjunction with the Military Spokesman’s office, the Police, the Prime Minister’s office, the Government Press Office and other government branches – the idea is to have the Center here for you and for other correspondents who we predict may join us in the coming days. We would like to offer our services to you in any possible way. We will try to have a briefing every day, of a major Israeli personality, whether from the political arena, or the military arena and in general, we are at your service. Please feel free to come every day, we will try to alert you ahead of time of various activities, briefings, services that we offer, etc. Without further ado I would like to start this briefing.

I will tell you the sequence of events. We will start by a briefing by Mr. Gideon Meir, the Deputy Director General of the Foreign Ministry for Information. He will first address you in English and then in Hebrew. His briefing will be followed by a briefing by Major General Itzhak Eitan. General Eitan will speak in Hebrew. He will be followed by Colonel Gal Hirsch, the Head of Operations in the Central Command.

Mr. Gideon Meir: Thank you and good afternoon.

I am standing in front of you today representing a bleeding nation which is out to defend its citizens from a vicious terror campaign which was imposed upon us. Let me give you some data. Since March 14 – the date of the arrival of General Zinni – there have been 32 terrorist attacks. There were also dozens of terrorist attacks which Israeli security forces prevented. Some of them were suicide bombers, intercepted by Israeli security forces. Since Zinni’s arrival, 49 Israelis have been killed – including in today’s terrorist attack in Kiryat Yoval.

There is no limit to Palestinian cynicism and barbarism. The use of women and children and ambulances in order to transfer explosives and suicide bombers, is something which is an abuse of international law. The ambulance to which I refer, was caught by the Israeli security forces. In it there was a mother and her three children, and underneath the child’s stretcher there was a explosive belt.

Two suicide bombers were intercepted and killed near the Malha Mall in Jerusalem on the eve of our Passover holiday. They belonged to Tanzim-Ramallah, an organization which reports directly to Yasser Arafat. They were sent by a handler named Ziyad Ja’ara, who belonged to Jibril Rajoub’s security organization. Yasser Arafat took no action whatsoever in order to prevent these terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli citizens.

The Passover Massacre in Netanya and the cold-blooded murder in Elon Moreh, were aimed at killing innocent Jews. This is the goal of the Palestinian Authority; this is what happened a few weeks ago in the Moment Cafe in Jerusalem, where, unfortunately, I lost my private secretary. She was 27 years old and her only sin was that she was Jewish and out socializing on a Saturday night. The responsibility lies totally and solely upon the shoulders of Yasser Arafat, who is directing this terror campaign.

Regarding General Zinni’s mission – Israel has done everything it can to assist General Zinni to achieve a genuine and real ceasefire here in the region. Prime Minister Sharon declared that Israel is willing to give up the seven days of quiet, as a pre-condition to enter the Tenet plan. Israel allowed Chairman Arafat free movement in the territories, and withdrew its forces from Area ‘A’.

This is the second time that even though we were exposed to vicious terror attacks, Israel decided to show restraint. In the past two weeks, we saw a total Israeli restraint, even though there was a lot of pressure from Israeli public opinion to take action. This pattern was the same pattern we saw after the vicious attack in the discotheque in the Dolphinarium on June 1 of last year.

The Palestinian Authority has not learned the lesson from the events of September 11. Quite the contrary. The Palestinian Authority decided to take sides with those who are using terror rather than fighting terror. By taking this action, the PA almost killed every possibility to achieve a cease-fire and to go back to the negotiating table.

It is the responsibility of every democratic country to defend its citizens. This is exactly what the Government of Israel is doing. Because the Palestinian Authority did not take the action which it was obligated to take, we had no choice but to take that obligation upon ourselves. Today, Israel is actually exercising its most basic security doctrine, which is the doctrine of self-defense.

There is no intention to re-occupy the territories or to harm physically Yasser Arafat. But, no terrorist will be immune to the Israeli security forces. The lives of our citizens come first and foremost and it is our obligation to defend them.

Israel is a peace-loving nation. We are looking for every chance to achieve peace with our neighbors. After the war against terrorism is over, we are hopeful that we will be able to implement a cease-fire and return to the negotiating table.

Thank you.

Major General Yitzhak Eitan: (Hebrew) On Passover eve there occurred a horrific massacre, when civilians, most of them elderly, came to celebrate the holiday and a terrorist attacker exploded himself in a hotel and took many lives. Yesterday as well, the terror events continued and a terrorist attacker penetrated Elon Moreh and killed members of the Gavish family. In addition, this morning, a female terrorist attacker committed a horrifying terror attack in Jerusalem.

Due to the lack of activity on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and in order to strike the terror infrastructure, we were forced to carry out a wide-ranging operation in Ramallah by IDF infantry and armored units. During the operation, I regret to say, we lost an officer, an Egoz unit fighter. Up till now there have been over 60 arrests of suspects and many weapons were found.

In the past, IDF forces entered the Palestinian territory in order to bring the Palestinian Authority to the negotiation table. Now, however, we know that the Palestinian Authority is in fact not doing anything, due also to a planned strategy. We have entered in order to directly strike at the terror centers. It was decided to recruit a number of reserve units, in order to allow the IDF forces a wider ability in this battle. The commanding officers and fighters, while facing difficult conditions, entered the territories yesterday and fought in a very respectable and admirable manner.

The IDF is now deployed throughout the West Bank, in order to prevent the exit of hostile terrorists into Israel. This operation will last as long as necessary and we will continue operating until most of the wanted people and the terrorist suspects are arrested.

The IDF is operating throughout the entire area of Ramallah, excluding the offices in which Arafat is staying. I regret to saying that shots were fired toward us from the offices in which Arafat is present. Our forces returned fire. We are not operating within the compound of the Chairman himself. This is a military operation, and in military operations, tanks are involved alongside armed vehicles. We requested that the officials in the Mukata surrender themselves, but when Palestinians started shooting toward the forces, we responded with fire. We do not shoot or fire intentionally towards Arafat’s bureau.

We are not fighting Arafat. We are fighting terror, and the pressure on Arafat’s bureau will continue until the Palestinian officials surrender. The IDF soldiers are fighting terror and carrying out the directions of the political echelon. The area of the Mukata is closed, no one can enter the area.

Colonel Gal Hirsch: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. In the last few hours, since early this morning, we have launched a large-scale operation in the Ramallah area. These are defensive measures in order to create a wall between Israel and the massive terror attacks that we have seen in the last few weeks and months. We have launched this operation since this morning as part of our efforts to create a normal environment for the citizens of the State of Israel.

Since this morning, as I already mentioned, we entered the city of Ramallah and that includes Arafat’s compound, the "Mukata’a". At present, we have not yet entered Arafat’s offices, but we are still present in this area of the "Mukata’a" and we are holding a few positions around the compound.

During this operation, we lost one of our best officers, and three of our soldiers have been injured. We have captured large amounts of ammunition and weapons and until now a few dozen Palestinians have been arrested.

During the last few hours we have mobilized reserve units, this in order to create the possibility for continuous operations meant to respond against the terror attacks that we have been witnessing in the last few weeks.

You have all been a party to this, and you can understand what we have been through in the last few weeks. The Passover massacre is just part of it, but we have lost hundreds of Israeli citizens since the beginning of this situation and now we have decided to launch this operation against terrorism.

These are defensive measures. We intend to make any effort in order to dismantle the terror infrastructure wherever it may be, and right now we are acting in the city of Ramallah.

The action till now, is being conducting in bad weather and under fire. We will stay in the area of Ramallah as long as is needed.

We are acting in Arafat’s compound, and before you ask, let me say that our action in Ramallah, Arafat’s compound, is in order to fight terror, and we are not there for any other reason. Pressure is being exerted on the Chairman Arafat security organizations. Let me just remind you that he has many organizations that are directly attached to him. He has the capability to fight terror, yet he has not until now.

Unfortunately, all the Palestinian security organizations, are now taking part in terror and their main center is in Ramallah, in Arafat’s compound, and that is the reason we are there now. Thank you.

Colonel Hirsch responded to questions:

Q: Certain reports have been coming in, I guess from the Palestinian side, so, some of them may sound strange to you, but these are the reports. First of all, that the IDF has been storming – they use the word "storming" – the "Mukata’a" area/compound, that you have deployed 60 tanks in your onslaught against the Mukata’a, that a number of [Palestinian] security personnel, including bodyguards, have been wounded, if not killed. I’d like to know if that’s true, if those people have been evacuated, if you’ve allowed them to be evacuated. And then on the larger picture, I’d like to ask if you intend to go one by one, from one city at a time in the West Bank and deal with it separately – like you did with Ramallah – or a few at a time, until this operation is over?

A: This is a military operation, so we operate with tanks, infantry and all the other means that the military use. At the beginning we asked everyone in this compound to surrender. And after Palestinian security forces started shooting at our soldiers, we fired back. There are some Palestinians that were injured, maybe some casualties. This is a military operation. If the Palestinians will surrender, the curfew will be lifted from this compound.

Q: You are explaining this operation like an operation of dismantling the terrorists. You were explaining it exactly the same way as the operation you were bringing before, so I would like to understand the difference between the previous one – which did not in fact stop the terrorism – and the one you are trying to do today. About Arafat – all the world is asking – what is going to happen to Arafat. Can you give us some answer?

A: I don’t want to talk about Arafat. I am talking about terrorism. Last time we did not get close to this compound because we tried to reach a cease-fire. After we understood that there is no chance that the Palestinians will agree to a cease-fire, we changed the system of operating and now we entered this compound. We pushed more and we will continue to press the Palestinians until they will surrender or will give up terrorism.

Q: Is terrorism a problem that can be solved solely through military means?

A: My responsibility is to work through military means and I am doing my best to operate against this terrorism. Of course, this situation is very complicated and to solve such a complicated situation, we need, at least to start with, a cease-fire and then we can continue with negotiations.

Q: General Hirsch said "we haven’t entered yet to Arafat’s office" – can you tell us under what circumstances you might enter Arafat’s office and if I may broaden the question – as I understood it, in the last such operation, you focused on the military infrastructure of terrorism. Under what circumstances would you, this time, also attack the political and perhaps the financial infrastructure of terrorism in area ‘A’? Thank you.

A: As I said before, we don’t plan to get into Arafat’s compound. So, that is not in our plans now. As I said before, my responsibility is to act against the military means of terrorism, so my forces are doing their best to arrest terrorists, to try to find terrorist infrastructure, and we are not dealing with the other means.

Q: I would like to know if the IDF is involved in [inaudible] what are you doing to isolate him? To what extend will that isolation be complete?

A: According to the last questions, the last time we did re-deployment from the Ramallah region, [inaudible] and in order to launch General Zinni’s mission here in the Middle East. We have done these re-deployments and it was in the middle of Ramallah, and that was according to our Government’s decision, and as was said, we are military officers. The compound, the Mukata’a – as we found out from the last operation – it acts as a shelter for many terrorists and is a terror infrastructure in and of itself. That is why this operation, right now, is different in many ways. And we are there according to our Government’s decision. We are there according to our Government’s decision and the way we are acting right now, and – as the General said – the way we are refraining from acting, and we have not attacked Chairman Arafat’s office.

Q: Is the Israeli army now involved in the process of isolating Chairman Arafat and if so, what are the various measures of isolation – such as telephone, e-mail?

A: There is a curfew around that area, there is a closure, nobody can enter that area and this is the isolation of the Chairman and his office now.

Q: [Inaudible] The Palestinians are reporting that there is fire hitting the office near the elevator on the first floor – that shells hit the office. Are you firing on the office even though you are not going in the office?

A: As I said before, we are not shooting at Arafat’s office. Unfortunately, people from his house are shooting at our soldiers. In reaction, we shoot back, but we are careful regarding this. Regarding the other buildings, we are searching for ammunition, infrastructure of terrorism and we found in some of the buildings a lot of rifles, ammunition and we arrested a few people there.

Q: [Inaudible]

A: We don’t think we gave them M16 rifles. We gave them Kalachnikovs and they are not allowed to have M16s and other rifles,and they are not supposed to have RPGs, anti-tank missiles – and what you see on TV are weapons which are not supposed to be in their possession.

Q: Is there any purpose for General Zinni to remain here? Is Israel still talking to him? Do you see any prospects for accomplishing anything now?

A: (Gideon Meir) The only [inaudible] of the political aspect is the mission of General Zinni. From Day 1, from his first mission, Israel wanted General Zinni to succeed. This is his third mission. The reception which the Palestinians gave him on his first visit to Israel [of terrorist attacks], and now on his third visit. During the second

one, we had the "Karine A" [arms smuggling] ship. This is the third visit – this one got a reception of massive terror attacks. Israel wants General Zinni to succeed. We have made every effort for him to succeed, and if it possible for him to bring about a cease-fire – a real cease-fire – which will mean also the implementation of the Tenet plan, which will enable us to go into the Mitchell agreement – yes, we still welcome this effort. The question now is whether there will be a change in the strategic decision of Yasser Arafat. But for us now, first and foremost, the infrastructure of terror must be eliminated. Only after elimination of this infrastructure will Israel be able to go back into the real negotiations for a cease-fire and for the implementation of Tenet-Mitchell.

Q: Is this operation likely to spread to other areas besides Ramallah and how long do you anticipate it might take?

A: Well, sir, I said before, since we are fighting against terrorist infrastructure, it may take time. And since we have witnessed this large Palestinian offensive against us, it may take time. And since you have just heard today – during our defensive measure in Ramallah – that a call for millions of martyrs to march to Jerusalem went out, it is still relevant. And the result, you have seen this afternoon in [the Kiryat Yovel bombing in] Jerusalem – probably it will take time. And we have never said that it will finish in any geographical point. This is a large offensive operation and we are preparing ourselves for a continuous mission against terrorism in order to bring security to Israeli citizens, since we are the Israeli Defense Forces.

Q: Can you give us some numbers regarding the people you have arrested and also whether any of them are senior pivotal people to the terrorist activity? Can you also give us, in general terms, an estimate of the quantities of the arms and ammunition that you have captured?

A: Until this hour, we have captured around 60 people and they were taken for questioning. We have found dozens of weapons of all kinds and many of them are not legal under the Oslo accords. They are now under investigation, and we will be able to answer that question later on.