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Under the Gun

March 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s suicide bomber struck just after 4:00 P.M. On King George Street, one of central Jerusalem’s busiest shopping areas. At least three people were killed in the attack. Of the more than 60 injured, several were in critical condition. The group claiming responsibility, the al Aqsa Brigades, is a militia linked to Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction.

The State Department announced today that it has taken steps to put al Aqsa on a list of terrorist organizations. The Israeli government responded to the latest attack by canceling a third round of U.S.-brokered cease-fire talks. This evening, Arafat read a statement from his office in Ramallah.

YASSER ARAFAT, Palestinian Leader ( Translated ): We strongly condemn the operation that happened in west Jerusalem today, especially that it was directed against innocent Israeli civilians. We will take all immediate necessary measures to put an end to such actions and those who stand behind them.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s was the second suicide bombing in as many days, and it complicated the mission of U.S. Special Envoy Anthony Zinni, who’s been in the region trying to broker peace. Zinni’s mission had gotten a boost earlier in the week from the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrived Tuesday. The Vice President offered to meet with Arafat, but only if the Palestinian leader does more to stop the attacks on Israelis. On Monday, Israel began withdrawing troops from its most massive incursion into Palestinian territories in years. Palestinians have demanded Israeli troops withdraw to positions they held prior to September, 2000, when the Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, began.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner, who talked this evening with James Bennet, the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Bennet, welcome. Thanks for coming in. Start out by telling us about this al Aqsa group that claimed responsibility for today’s attacks, and that the State Department is now putting on the terrorist list. How tied is this group to Arafat?

JAMES BENNET: Well, it’s composed of members of Arafat’s Fatah faction, his Fatah movement. They are part of the so-called Tanzim, which is essentially the military wing of Fatah.

“Tanzim” is an Arabic word just for “organization.” They say that they don’t take their orders directly from Arafat, or they don’t take their orders at all from Arafat, but that they respect him. It’s a largely secular organization, a much less Islamic-oriented organization than, say, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But since January, since the middle of January, when a popular of leader of al Aqsa martyrs was killed by Israel in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, the group has been responsible for most of the attacks against Israel and most of the really devastating attacks against Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: Are they close enough to Yasser Arafat that if Arafat is asked to crack down on them specifically, or arrest members, that he would have a hard time doing so?

JAMES BENNET: It would be very difficult for him to do that. It would be very difficult. He has already been pressured to do that. He put a couple of leaders of the organization in detention over the last few months. Israel complained that it was never a serious arrest– more done for their own protection than for any other reason. It would be very hard for him to take that step. The other question is whether they would actually obey him if he did order a cease-fire. You hear different things from different members of the organization. Some say that they would. Others say that they would still feel free to carry out attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the 1967 War.

MARGARET WARNER: So what you’re saying is that it’s possible that despite the incentive that Vice President Cheney offered Arafat– namely, agreeing to meet him somewhere in the region– that Arafat truly may have limited ability to stop these attacks.

JAMES BENNET: It’s a question that hasn’t really been tested so far. Israeli security officials… some top Israeli generals say that Arafat’s security organizations are basically on the brink of collapse after 18 months of conflict. Israel’s chief targets in this conflict have been security offices, headquarters, armed men who often turn out to be part of Arafat’s security apparatus. Israel says that they’re no different often from terrorists, that they can be a member of the security apparatus by day, a member of Hamas by night. The question really hasn’t been tested as to whether he’ll be able to crack down or not.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, now turning to Sharon’s reaction, though he did cancel today’s talks, he has not retaliated. What are your sources telling you about Sharon’s likely next steps here?

JAMES BENNET: Well, he’s meeting with his top security advisors tonight to discuss possible reprisal here. So far, the indications are they’re trying to be as cooperative as possible with the Bush Administration, avoid a major escalation in the conflict. Israel has just finished its largest military operation since it invaded Lebanon 20 years ago. The Bush Administration criticized them for that, and since then, since late last week, they have pulled back. They’re making an effort not to be the ones seen as provoking the most violence here.

MARGARET WARNER: And has the Israeli government responded at all to the statement that Yasser Arafat made late today, the condemnation of the attack?

JAMES BENNET: Only with scorn. Their view is that Arafat makes these statements, supplies them words, but never really supplies any action– that he never takes steps against people who take… carry out these attacks, or the people who are behind them. In this case, the suicide bomber himself was evidently imprisoned by Arafat’s security apparatus in the West Bank City of Ramallah for about a month. He was released, it seems, a week or ten days ago, when Israel invaded that city.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you suggesting or… I shouldn’t ask you to speculate, but what do you think are the prospects for Israel even returning to the cease-fire talks with Zinni?

JAMES BENNET: I actually think that the prospects are fairly good. I don’t think they want to be this… they want to be seen as the ones willing to go the extra mile to try to cooperate with the American cease-fire effort. They don’t want to be seen as the ones walking away from the table. That could change if we see more attacks like the one today, the one yesterday. But at the moment, I think they’d rather return to the table, exert more effort, try to achieve a truce, and then see what happens.

MARGARET WARNER: Vice President Cheney left it up really to General Zinni to say whether Yasser Arafat had done enough to bring about this cease-fire for him to come and meet Cheney in, I think it’s going to be Egypt, or that was what was discussed. What’s your understanding of what Zinni is really going to be looking for to sort of certify that Arafat’s done enough?

JAMES BENNET: Zinni’s been conducting joint security meetings with the Palestinian and Israeli security chiefs, and essentially what he’s trying to do is arrive at a system for implementing a cease-fire agreement that both sides agreed on nine months ago. It’s known as the Tenet understanding, and was negotiated by George Mitchell. It essentially obligates each side to take a series of reciprocal measures. The Palestinians are supposed to arrest militants and round up illegal weapons. The Israelis are supposed to withdraw to where they were in September… on September 28, 2000, before the conflict began. The question is, who is supposed to do what, when, and how quickly? The Palestinians are also asking for some sort of a political horizon. They want to progress very quickly to political talks. The Israelis want to insist on a longer-term cease-fire before that happens. General Zinni, at this point, it seems would be satisfied simply with Arafat coming to terms with the Israelis on how this program would be implemented. There’s simply not that much time left to judge how successfully the Palestinian security forces are actually implementing it. If the agreement is signed on tomorrow, Friday, or Saturday, Arafat and Vice President Cheney could meet as soon as Monday in Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jim Bennet, thank you so much for that update.