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JIM LEHRER: The bombing in Gaza that killed three Americans. Earlier today, Ray Suarez talked to John Burns of the New York Times in Jerusalem.
RAY SUAREZ: And John Burns is with us now. John, I understand you have been to the scene of the attack. Is there any good idea now of how it was done?
JOHN BURNS: Yeah I think that’s fairly clear, what happened was that a bomb, an explosive device, was placed beneath the surface of the road at a point where it had been broken probably by Israeli tanks into a stretch of earth and stones and rubble — that there was a wire leading out 200 feet to the right of the road as the Americans traveled, which seemed to be connecting it to a detonator device.
This was a targeted assassination and left open is the question of whether there was any confusion as to who the victims were. I think and I think the American officials investigating this have already concluded on a temporary basis that there was no mistake here.
These vehicles were eminently identifiable, Chevrolet Suburbans, silver in color with black trim; vehicles only used by American diplomats, with CD, that’s to say diplomatic plates. I think they knew they were coming. That suggests there had been some kind, some kind of security breach before this happened.
RAY SUAREZ: And the size of the crater and the condition of the vehicles after the blast would indicate that whoever did it wasn’t taking any chances?
JOHN BURNS: It was an extremely powerful explosion.The crater was I would guess, fifteen, seventeen feet across, four to five feet deep. There was no surviving for — as we now know — for most of the occupants of that vehicle; the vehicle was absolutely torn apart. So precise and you might say so professional was this that the bomb appeared to have been placed or detonated immediately under the driver’s seat and had torn off the engine, the entire front axle in fact, the entire front structure of the vehicle — thrown it probably twenty or thirty feet into the air and it landed on its roof.
There was complete destruction of the vehicle. As a matter of fact, much less surprising than that three people were killed was that one survived.
RAY SUAREZ: Do we know much about what those Americans were doing in Gaza, what their work was?
JOHN BURNS: We do, and of course it’s deeply ironic. They were on their way to Gaza City to interview applicants for Fulbright scholarships for people from the distant world to come to America and study postgraduate studies. They were applicants — Palestinian applicants, Palestinian academics who were to have met the American party in Gaza City sometime in the late morning of today. This party of Americans which set out from the American embassy in Tel Aviv, which is some forty or fifty miles to the North, were only three miles inside Gaza, that is to say, inside the Palestinian area when this happened.
RAY SUAREZ: Most of the Americans who’ve died in Israel and in the occupied territories have been dual nationals, Israeli Americans who are residents in that part of the world. Have there ever been targeted attacks at American officials, people who are there representing the U.S. Government in one way or another?
JOHN BURNS: I think this is some ways most frightening aspect of all this. This conflict as you know has gone on for decades and American diplomats — notwithstanding the fact that they represent a government which is held responsible by the Palestinian militants for its support for Israel for much that they feel has caused them to become the victims of history here, not withstanding that, American officials, Americans in other functions here, diplomats, journalists, businessmen and others have not hitherto been targeted.
As you say, American Israelis have been targeted, Americans have died in suicide bombings along with of course the majority of Israelis. There is some group, some Palestinian group and it may not be the groups that we are so familiar with, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al Aqsa Brigades, all of which denied responsibility for this today, there may be some group that has decided to target Americans directly, which of course would be a very sinister change.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned in particular groups that have ruled themselves out and publicly not denied responsibility for this attack. Is there any speculation on who this might be?
JOHN BURNS: I think this is another disturbing aspect of this. It’s possible that there might have been splinter groups that carried out and in the aftermath of it those groups realized just how damaging this can be to the cause that they espouse, but if there are new groups springing up who are prepared to engage in this kind of thing, new groups that are supported possibly by some of the external Islamic militant groups, terrorist groups, like Hezbollah the Lebanon-based Islamic group, then we’re looking at a situation which simply takes us into a new and still more dangerous terrain.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what was the reaction among Palestinians, both on the ground at the scene of the attack and in official circles?
JOHN BURNS: Well there were two reactions. Yasser Arafat and his new prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, condemned the attack immediately in very strong terms and placed their support for the FBI investigation. At the scene, however, there was a rather different reaction. Crowds gathered rather quickly; they began stoning a group of American investigators who arrived. Palestinian police had to fire over the heads of the crowd – this was within an hour the incident. Israeli tanks approached.
They also opened fire over the heads of the crowd and fired teargas. Crowd dispersed, gathered again in larger numbers toward the early part of the afternoon and when journalists who had been blocked at the Israeli-Gaza border, if you will, were finally allowed to proceed south to the point of the bombing.
There were a crowd of about six, maybe seven hundred people, mostly youths– the kind that gather quickly overGaza. It’s a dismal place. My Palestinian interpreter said to me such crowds are always available in Gaza, meaning that the level of unemployment is such there is always crowds, men in particular, ready together. They turned hostile very quickly, stoning journalists. I myself had a very narrow escape — pulled up to the rear of the crowd in a Volkswagen cumby [ph]– I thought they were friendly at first. They were laughing. Somebody shouted, “there he is,” very curious because I’m not a known person in this part of the world and then the rocks started coming smashing the windows of our vehicle.
Fortunately the driver after a moment’s hesitation managed to drive rapidly perpendicular from the scene of the bombing off into a stretch of open ground, pursued by these youngsters and we got away but there was no doubt we are seeing here in this a new high tide of young, particularly young Palestinian anger at the United States. And who knows how that may have led to the incident itself, to the bombing today. I’ve no doubt that the United States is entering here, as it is in Iraq, a new and much more dangerous phase in terms of the security of its personnel.
RAY SUAREZ: You call it a new high tide. Have there been recent events that may have sparked rising anger in those areas toward the United States?
JOHN BURNS: Well there have been. There has been… there was an operation in the southern edge of the Gaza Strip over the past week by Israeli troops in search of tunnels, smuggling tunnels for guns crossing from the Egyptian border into Gaza in which hundreds of homes were destroyed. At least dozens and certainly hundred of people possibly as many as a thousand have been rendered homeless. Rafah, where this occurred, is perhaps 30 miles south of where the bombing attack took today and this bombing was so professionally carried out it may have been response what happened in Rafah, the refugee camp where the Israelis have moved in with tanks over the last week.
Who knows — but I think what one can say without any doubt at all that this is not likely to be the last incident of its kind, one may hope American diplomats will not be targeted again but there is no doubt that when the embassy warned all Americans in Gaza and the West Bank today, leave Gaza and to take strict security precautions anywhere in the West Bank, or Gaza if they remain to say. But that’s something that has to be taken seriously.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns of the New York Times thanks for being with us.
JOHN BURNS: It was my pleasure.