APRIL 18, 1996
More than 75 people were killed in an Israeli attack on an United Nation's compound. The compound was serving as a temporary shelter for refugees fleeing fighting between the Israeli military and Hezbollah rebels. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres expressed regret at the death of the civilians, but blamed the incident on Hezbollah's rocket attacks on northen Israel. The NewsHour gets reactions from both Yossi Beilin, minister without portfolio in the Israeli government, and Riad Tabbarah, the Lebanese ambassador to the United States. Click here for two ITN background reports.
JIM LEHRER: We go now to a further explanation of the official Israeli government position. It comes from Yossi Beilin, minister without portfolio in the Israeli government, and a long-time associate of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Mr. Minister, welcome. First, the cease-fire, President Clinton's call for a cease-fire, Israel has agreed to that, is that correct?
YOSSI BEILIN, Israeli Cabinet Minister: Of course. It is a very, very sad day today, and of course, seeing this picture is something which is horrible for all of us. The question of how it happened is important but secondary to the feelings of all of us, and I think that the issue of a cease-fire is more than obvious. From the beginning of this operation, we said that we had only one, one aim, one condition to put into it, and that is that the Hezbollah will stop its fire. Once that happens, we will stop our fire and our operation. We don't have any political aims, even no military aims. We want just to prevent them from shooting our cities and our civilians.
JIM LEHRER: But it's not--Israel has not agreed to a unilateral cease-fire? In other words, as we sit here now, sit here now, if Hezbollah fires another rocket into Northern Israel, the same thing--I mean, Israeli gunners will react, is that correct?
MINISTER BEILIN: Right you are. If they continue and to shoot at our villages and cities, we will continue fire. If they don't, as it happens now in that proper minute, we will not shoot at them and hopefully, they will not shoot, and as a result of it, there will be a real cease-fire.
JIM LEHRER: As a result of what happened today, have, have a new set of special orders been given to the Israeli military about when they might respond? In other words, has any kind of secondary caution been, been applied?
MINISTER BEILIN: Well, we both saw the U.N. spokeswoman who said that the Hezbollah abused the fact that there was a, a U.N. position within the Lebanese civilians in order to shoot katyushas against Israel. Now, we cannot immune the Hezbollah. We should be very careful about it not to hurt others, either civilians or the U.N. positions, but it is very, very difficult to do that. That is why we ask the villages, the inhabitants of the villages to leave their villages for a while, so that we will be able to target the Hezbollah positions in these villages without targeting the civilians, but today, once the Hezbollah is abusing the U.N. existence there, it is very, very difficult to shoot at them without hurting others.
JIM LEHRER: But was not the Hezbollah position 300 or so yards away from this U.N. facility?
MINISTER BEILIN: Well, sitting just now here before going back to Israel--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MINISTER BEILIN: --it is difficult for me to tell you the details. What I can say is that our intention is never to hurt neither civilians nor U.N. positions and what we are going to do is the best we can in order to prevent a repetition of something like this.
JIM LEHRER: There was another incident today several miles away where an Israeli plane destroyed an apartment house where eleven people were killed, including a four-year-old girl. What are the circumstances of that? Do you know?
MINISTER BEILIN: Well, again, our target is to hit the Hezbollah. Once we get information that in a certain building, a certain apartment there is a Hezbollah headquarter, we are trying to pinpoint every Hezbollah and to hit them there. Now, again, I'm not aware of the details but what we are trying to do is to hurt the Hezbollah, itself, without hurting others.
JIM LEHRER: But has that actually been happening, Mr. Minister? I mean, have you actually destroyed Hezbollah targets without hurting others?
MINISTER BEILIN: In most of the cases, that was the reality. Today, of course, it was a catastrophe. I mean, the fact that so many people were killed, innocent people were not part, as they, themselves, said, that is true. They are not Hezbollah. They are just--were abused by Hezbollah. But they, themselves, those who paid the death toll did not have to. That is why it is so sad for all of us.
JIM LEHRER: But even before today, the U.N. was saying even yesterday--we reported it on this program last night--that of the people who've been killed thus far since these attacks began was eight days ago from Israel, most of the people who have died have been civilians, Lebanese civilians, rather than Hezbollah people, is that--can you confirm that?
MINISTER BEILIN: What I can say the Hezbollah, themselves, they are not an army there. They are Lebanese civilians. So here to distinguish it is very difficult, but until yesterday, the number of the victims was something like 40 people. And speaking about eight days of an operation, it is not a very high death toll. What happened today, of course, is changing the dimensions, and that is the, the difficult problem that we have to tackle.
JIM LEHRER: From the Israeli point of view then, this has been a successful operation? You're accomplishing what you set out to do eight days ago?
MINISTER BEILIN: It might be premature to judge. You have to wait a little until you know whether as a result of this operation, Hezbollah stopped fire. What I can say is that before the beginning of this operation, we did the utmost in order to prevent operation, itself. We tried to ask the American administration to, to convince the Syrian government to prevent Hezbollah from acting against our cities. For a while, it was successful, and more than a week ago, out of the blue, Hezbollah began again to launch katyushas against Galilee, and we had no other choice but to have this operation. But for the first moment we said we have no other targets, stop fire on your side, don't shoot at our civilians, and we will stop the operation. I hope that after eight days, that will be now the result, and if this is the result, it will be a successful operation.
JIM LEHRER: The conventional wisdom here is--there are two pieces of conventional wisdom--one, that Syria could stop this if it wanted to. Do you subscribe to that?
MINISTER BEILIN: Yes, I think so. Syria in a way is a link between Iran, which is launching the whole process with Hamas, with the Palestinians, Hezbollah with the Lebanese, in order to prevent the continuation of the peace process. And that why--that is why the timing is not just there by accident. I think that they are taking into account the political timetable too, but Syria is there between Iran and Hezbollah. Syria is able, if it wants, to stop the ammunition from Iran to the Hezbollah, and once they do it, it will be impossible for the Hezbollah to act. That, they have to do now.
JIM LEHRER: The second piece of conventional wisdom is that this would not be happening with the ferocity at least that it's happening if it were not for the domestic political situation in Israel that Prime Minister Shimon Peres needs to show for political reasons how tough he is against the enemies of Israel, and that's why he's doing what he's doing. Comment on that.
MINISTER BEILIN: I beg to differ. I sat around the table when the decision was taken. I was one of those who took the decision. And I can tell you after we did whatever we could in order to prevent the launching of such an operation, we did it only as a last resort. I don't know as a political scientist whether such an operation is adding anything to the success of this party or another in the elections. I can say that had the Hezbollah not launched katyushas nine days ago against Kiryat Shemona, such an operation would have never--
JIM LEHRER: A village in Northern Israel.
MINISTER BEILIN: In Israel, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
MINISTER BEILIN: Out of the blue, with no reason whatsoever, they did it, and they did not find on our side a government, a government which was trigger happy. We really exploited all the other options before we decided to launch an operation.
JIM LEHRER: Based on your knowledge of the situation--I realize you're sitting here many thousands of miles away from there--what do you think we're going to be reporting on this story tomorrow night, another exchange, another--some more deaths, or a cease-fire, what? What do you feel is going to happen in these next 24 hours?
MINISTER BEILIN: I can only hope and pray that the event of today is the last event of this operation. I hope that the Hezbollah will understand that launching katyushas against Israel is something which is quite expensive for them to. I hope that we will not be engaged in such an exchange of fire and that we will see tomorrow tranquility on the borders of Lebanon and Israel.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Beilin, thank you very much.
MINISTER BEILIN: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Now an official Lebanese view of what is happening, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault has that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Joining us now is Riad Tabbarah, the Lebanese ambassador to the United States. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us. First, to President Clinton's call for a cease-fire. What's your reaction to that?
RIAD TABBARAH, Ambassador, Lebanon: Well, we welcome a call of cease-fire. We've been calling for a cease-fire for--since this operation, Israeli operation started. We had wished that this call had come earlier, but we welcome a cease-fire at this time also.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How much difference will the President's call for a cease-fire make? You heard what Minister Beilin said. He said that the Israelis would welcome and honor the cease-fire only if Hezbollah would, would also honor it. How much difference is the President's call going to make to Hezbollah, do you think?
AMB. TABBARAH: Well, uh, I think, uh, that if the Israelis stop firing on Lebanon, that was the condition that Hezbollah plays to stop the firing. I, I just believe that this whole thing started in a very unusual way. You know, we have this part of the country occupied by the Israelis for the last 18 years. There is a resistance, and, therefore, any time there is occupation, there is resistance, there is a problem. And we've been calling for the last 18 years to solve this problem peacefully. The Israelis have insisted that this problem could be solved for--solved by force. And this is the result of this attitude.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you just--
AMB. TABBARAH: I hope--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --heard the minister say--excuse me, sir--you just heard the minister say that if Hezbollah hadn't fired rockets into Kiryat Shemona a few weeks ago, none of this would be happening.
AMB. TABBARAH: Umm, well, I--it really--you know, as things start, usually in this--in these situations, usually one party starts something, the other party replies, and things get out of hand. Now, in the past, since 1993, we've had an agreement which is called, you know, the July Agreement of 1993, which asked each party not to fire on civilians. Now, this agreement, every once in a while, somebody starts something, and it gets out of hand. Pressure comes on both sides, and it stops. One wonders why this time as soon as this thing got out of hand, it really got out of hand, and Israel came with all its force.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what's your answer to why this time?
AMB. TABBARAH: Well, I think, I think it has, of course something to do with Israeli elections to show that Mr. Peres is, is a very powerful person, a strong man and so on. I think that this has a lot to do with it. I believe that there is a misconception on the part of Israel, that like I said that the problem of Hezbollah, the problem of the southern part of Lebanon can be solved by force, and, uh, and I think that is the result of this kind of attitude.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you're saying that Israel has no justification for going after Hezbollah? I mean, was Israel firing into Lebanon when Lebanon fired the rockets into Kiryat Shemona? Was that in reaction to something that Israel had proposed?
AMB. TABBARAH: Yes. I mean, the first incident that happened in this sequence was an attack by Israel on a civilian target, a building that they destroyed and killed a number of people in it. Now Israel said that was a mistake. You know, they admitted that this was a mistake, as, as they are saying now that this is a mistake. These are mistakes that, you know, usually start a bigger operation. A couple of days later, they put booby-trapped dolls and things and some Lebanese children died as a result. Now, that created confusion. But I would think that is that, the problem here. The problem is that this has happened many many times before since 1993. One side starts something, the other replies, but things were calmed down. Why this time, one wonders, it went to this--to these proportions that are unusual judging from past history?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How much influence does Lebanon have over Hezbollah? I mean, if you hear the Israelis saying that they are willing to do a cease-fire if Hezbollah will stop firing, can Lebanon tell Hezbollah let's give this a chance?
AMB. TABBARAH: Well, I think we can, but, you know, Hezbollah and the rest of the, of the resistance movement in Lebanon is the result of the Israeli occupation of that part of the country.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So are you saying that Lebanon is not willing to tell Hezbollah to stop?
AMB. TABBARAH: No. We are willing to tell them not to fire on, on Israel, on civilians, just like it was in the agreement of 1993, and I think this is the American proposal right now is exactly to go back to the 1993 agreement so that both sides don't fire at civilians. But that does not deny the right of people who are occupied to, to resist occupation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You heard Prime Minister Peres say in the taped piece a little earlier that Lebanon is a victim of Hezbollah, which suggests that Lebanon has no control over what Hezbollah does.
AMB. TABBARAH: Well, I'm, I'm very surprised at the Israeli logic here. At one time when this same logic was applied, when our President said that if the Israelis withdraw from the South, we are willing to send 35,000 troops to protect the border. They said, you have no influence on Hezbollah. Now, when they are hitting our infrastructure, they are hitting electric power stations, they are hitting water reservoirs and so on, Mr. Barak said, we're hitting the infrastructure of Lebanon in order to force the Lebanese government to stop Hezbollah. Now, I don't, I don't--you know, they've got to make up their minds. If we don't have influence over Hezbollah, why are they hitting the Lebanese government in order to influence Hezbollah, and if we do have influence over Hezbollah and we do, if the Israelis withdraw, then we will guarantee that on our side of the border there will be calm. You see. But you cannot have it both ways. You know, sometimes they say we don't have influence over Hezbollah, therefore, they don't negotiate a withdrawal, and at another time they say, you have influence, therefore, we're going to hit your power stations, you know. I mean, I think if they withdraw according to the will of the international community, which is Resolution 425, which was sponsored by the United Nations--by the United States and unanimously approved, if they withdraw according to this resolution, our president has said, I will 35,000 troops just to make this border calm and quiet, and I think we can.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let me ask you something else that the minister said today. He said that in terms of this horrible tragedy that has happened that everyone has condemned, and the Israelis have said they did not intend to do against civilians, that Hezbollah is placing itself among civilians deliberately to use them as a cover and that it is that that is causing these tragedies. What do you say to that?
AMB. TABBARAH: Well, umm, I, uh, think all guerrilla activities usually are within populated areas. The South of Lebanon is a populated area. It is a heavily populated area. And the resistance is operating in the South, so it can never be very far from a populated area. So that is a false excuse. If you hit guerrilla targets--and we know that from past history--you are bound to hit civilians, you know, and, and especially that here in this instance they hit at a good distance from where the source of fire had come out.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally and briefly, Syria, he said, the minister said, can stop this if it chooses to, and your prime minister was in Syria today. What do you say to that?
AMB. TABBARAH: Well, I say that this is calling for the wrong, the wrong thing to be done. I think here is an occupation of a country, people are resisting, and if you want to stop this, this situation, I think you should not ask the resister to stop the resist, you have to ask the occupier to get out, especially that the international community has already done that, and its appeal has not been heeded.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Ambassador, thank you.
AMB. TABBARAH: You're welcome.