Statements by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer at press conference following Cabinet meeting

Jerusalem, March 29, 2002

PM Sharon: Good morning,

In the past few days we have witnessed horrific terrorist attacks – the attack during the Pesach Seder in Netanya, where 21 people were killed, tonight’s events in Elon Moreh, resulting in 4 deaths, and the incident which is currently taking place in Netzarim where so far two people have been killed.

I take this opportunity to extend my condolences to the bereaved families. I know that there is no remedy for your pain, and I believe that we all share this expression of condolence and sympathy. I also wish a speedy recovery to the wounded, among them there are still a large number of people who are very severely injured.

All this has happened at a time when Israel’s hand was – and still is – extended towards peace. We have done everything in our power to achieve a cease-fire and an immediate entry into the Tenet process in order to advance any possibility of a cease-fire. All we have received in return was terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism.

No sovereign nation would tolerate such a sequence of events.

Therefore, the government, in a special session lasting throughout the night, and in accordance with the recommendations from all the security agencies – the Chief of Intelligence, the Chief of the GSS, and the Director of the Mossad – has made the following decision:

The Government has approved principles for extensive operational activity against Palestinian terrorism. As we speak, the IDF is already inside the ‘Mukta’a’ in Ramallah.

Israel will act to crush the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, in all its parts and components, and will carry out comprehensive activity to achieve this goal.

Arafat, who has established a coalition of terror against Israel, is an enemy and at this point he will be isolated.

The Government has authorized the mobilization of reserve forces, in accordance with the operational needs, in order to enable the IDF ongoing, lengthy activities in various terrorism centers.

On behalf of the government of Israel and the citizens of Israel and on my own behalf, I wish to extend my best wishes to the IDF for success in this mission.

At times such as these we are all required to demonstrate responsibility and mainly unity, and I am confident that we will do so.

DM Ben-Eliezer: At the outset I would like to extend my condolences to the families of the recent victims. The sheer number of people, and a massacre of this nature is something that no nation can live with. On the eve of Passover we witnessed the Passover massacre. Yesterday evening, an entire family was slaughtered. This morning, a laborer, who usually works in Netzarim, went in and killed two people.

Consequently, the security forces decided to initiate extensive operational activity aimed at a conducting an all-out war against terrorism – a war whose aim is to crush all forms and all elements of the terrorist infrastructure. This war will know no geographical, or other, boundaries. Its aim is to provide maximum security, as is our obligation to the citizens of this country. We have been forced to take this path, to mobilize extensive forces and to operate over a wide area.

As I speak, operations are focusing on Ramallah, which, as mentioned by the Prime Minister, has become the capital of terrorism. Action is in progress, and will continue, against the entire infrastructure there. Nobody has immunity from the IDF as long he bears the mark of a terrorist.

What has happened during the past few weeks, and particularly during the last two days, has thwarted all our efforts over the past year, during which time we welcomed and embraced anyone who came in the service of peace. Unfortunately, in the case of General Zinni who recently came here in good faith, armed with the goodwill of a great nation that is our friend, the only thing we could do was to be at his side and to assist him. It is not an easy thing to say, but I will mention here that for an entire week we restrained ourselves. We did not respond to a single terrorist attack in the hope that maybe, maybe [it would stop]. But that did not happen. I believe that, in order to avoid questions, Arafat has made himself into the enemy. He cannot absolve himself from responsibility. He bears a heavy responsibility for the terrorist elements, through both his actions and omissions.

The very nature of the Cabinet decision, as read out by the Prime Minister, makes it clear that we have now started moving towards a war against the forces of terrorism in the coming days, possibly weeks. We have stated at every turn the fact that we have no interest in continuing in the use of arms, but given no other choice, we owe it to our homes, to our children and to our people.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, two questions – first, what is actually happening in the area of the Mukata’a right now, what updates are you receiving?

My second question is – During the government’s session you spoke with Colin Powell. How much are the Americans in the picture, and to what extent do they support this move?

PM Sharon: As I have already said previously, at this time IDF forces are carrying out operations in the Mukata’a compound and, I am sure, will complete their mission in the manner decided and dictated by the General Staff, the Minister of Defense, and approved by the government.

The Secretary of State did call, and we did speak. I filled him in about the terrorist attacks which show no signs of stopping, and about the fact that the Palestinian Authority has not taken any steps – any steps at all – against terrorism, neither during recent weeks and certainly not before that, nor after the terrible murder, the massacre, in Netanya during the Seder service. No order was issued, no instruction was given [by the PA], and so the State of Israel will take all steps necessary to protect its citizens. Those were the issues I explained, and I think they are clear. Naturally, we never give out details of operations or of any operational plans. But Israel’s position, the position of the government regarding what is happening, was made absolutely clear.

Q: I’ll address my questions first to the Prime Minister and then to the Minister of Defense.

Mr. Prime Minister, what does the decision to "isolate Yasser Arafat" actually mean? And with your permission, a second question. Has a military objective been defined – [i.e.] a rolling operation that re-conquers the areas of the Palestinian Authority, including the Palestinian cities?

Minister of Defense, Mr. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. You said that nobody would have immunity from the IDF’s operations. Does this also include Yasser Arafat, will he also have no immunity from the IDF’s operations?

PM Sharon: The term "isolated" means exactly what it says. He will be isolated, period.

Q: What does that mean? He won’t be able to receive telephone calls? Nobody will call him, or speak to him?

PM Sharon: I think I have answered your question. He will be isolated.

DM Ben-Eliezer: Allow me to expand on the question. There is not, nor was there any decision by the government regarding the re-conquering of any areas. We would like to see the continued existence of Areas A as they are. Our interest in those areas is for one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to fight against the terrorist infrastructure. Period. Once we have achieved this, or once we see that there is calm, we will be extremely glad to see life in these areas returning to normal, and that is what I hope will happen. The more we keep to this goal, the better. I would like to reiterate, we have no interest in conquering territories and staying there. This is not one of the goals that I know about.

Regarding your second question, when I said that nobody would have immunity from IDF operations, I include everyone – everyone. Obviously this includes anyone trafficking in terrorism, irrespective of his rank. As to the specific question about Yasser Arafat, I presume that it’s your question, whether we plan to harm him. The answer is no.

Q: Two questions for the Prime Minister. Mr. Prime Minister, you decided to isolate Arafat at this stage. Does this mean that in the future there will be no option of expelling him from the territories? Does this mean that the whole issue of Arafat is over?

My second question is: did you put out any political feelers before today’s session to ensure that if the Labor Party left the coalition, because of decisions taken, you would be able to put together a right-wing government that would include the National Religious Party or the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu?

Two questions to the Minister of Defense. Mr. Minister, you were quoted in the headlines of the Passover eve edition of the newspaper Ma’ariv as saying that it was a mistake to prevent Arafat from going to Beirut, and that it would lead to further escalation of terrorism. Do you still believe this is true? We are receiving another report from MK Ahmed Tibi claiming that IDF tanks are shelling Arafat’s headquarters and that there are already thirteen wounded at his HQ. Can you confirm this report?

PM Sharon: I would just like to reread the section of the government decision that refers to your question. Arafat, who has established a coalition of terror against Israel, is an enemy, and at this point he will be isolated.

Q: Meaning, at this point? It’s not written, perhaps you could clarify what the next stage will be.

PM Sharon: I suggest that this remain exactly as it’s written. I feel that this is exactly the right answer that should be given. He will be isolated at this point. Regarding your second question, I see no reason for any part of the government to break away, nor any sign of it happening. Certainly not a key partner like the Labor Party. The issue was never raised, nor discussed, and was never a part of any discussion held today – never.

Q: But did you initiate any political contact prior to this session?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon : I have ongoing political contact, and always did, regardless of today’s session. Today I will meet with several party heads who are currently part of the opposition, because my plan is to expand and strengthen the government.

Yoni Ben Menachem : Do you plan to co-opt the National Religious Party and to bring back in ministers from the National Union?

PM Sharon: I said that I am holding meetings. I know you have been waiting here for a long time – I think it’s now three o’clock – so it won’t take more than another two to three hours. The meetings will start and I’m sure you’ll be able to follow them and faithfully report about them.

DM Ben-Eliezer: Firstly, regarding the first issues you quoted. I did say the things reported in Ma’ariv, and that is what I thought, and I say what I believe. Today, we are facing a different situation in which I, as Minister of Defense, have to respond, as you forecast, following a whole week during which we did not respond because we want, and we wanted then, to give Zinni the opportunity to go ahead with his mission.

The unequivocal response [from the Palestinians] – as we all saw – was fire and then more fire that culminated in a massacre. That was why I said no nation can accept a situation like that. That was why we said "Enough". This resulted in the decisions that were taken.

As to your second question, I heard the report. I cannot confirm it. What I can say is that, where Arafat is sitting is not our target and we do not plan to go in there. As I have said, we plan to go in anywhere, including the Mukata’a, that there is terrorist infrastructure. I cannot comment at this stage on whether there was or wasn’t firing. I have full confidence in the IDF’s commanders who have been given clear instructions and guidelines on how to act. I know that there is firing on IDF forces – that I know – and that it is heavy fire. I have no answer about whether Arafat’s HQ has been hit or not.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, will General Zinni’s mission continue, along with the security and other contacts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

I also have a question for the Minister of Defense, Mr. Benjamin Ben- Eliezer. Is there a scenario that deals with the possibility of the breakout of a regional war following the IDF’s operations?

PM Sharon: No. We placed our confidence in the arrival of General Zinni, a professional military man, who took his mission very seriously and made an enormous effort to promote a cease-fire and to get the Tenet process underway.

We provided him with all the assistance he required. This fact – the assistance provided by the [Israeli] security forces for his mission – was mentioned by every level in the United States that we had contact with. Who caused the mission to fail were the Palestinians. This is the case with his current mission, and was the case with previous missions. They torpedoed the mission then, and they did it again this time. That should be remembered. It is a pity, because we definitely wanted to move ahead, but the only response we got was terror, and terror alone. Terror is a part of the strategy of terrorism and the terrorist coalition that has been established.

DM Ben-Eliezer: In answer to your question let me say that we, as the security forces and as the Israel Defense Forces, take all possibilities into account and are ready for them all. I do not believe there is reason for the situation to degenerate into an overall war. We are making every effort to focus only on targeted infrastructures and terrorist targets, and we [continue to] explain this fact, as we have always explained it. We are not fighting against the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian people are not our enemy. We are fighting terrorism and I believe that the world – when it sees the pictures from Netanya and from Elon Moreh – is capable of understanding that. In any event, we are doing everything we can to prevent our actions from causing [the situation] to spiral out of control. But, as I said, we are prepared for all eventualities.