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Following a report from Independent Television News, Terence Smith talks with New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief James Bennet about the latest developments in the Middle East.
Our Middle East update. We begin with a report by Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.
After 150 days imprisoned in his compound, Yasser Arafat emerged this morning to the adulation of his supporters. The victory was simply that he was alive and amongst them again. But he couldn't contain his fury that Israeli troops are still besieging the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
I am asking you to ask the whole international community, this is a holy city state, not only for the Christians– for the Christians and for the Muslims. How dare I keep silent about this dark deed, this big criminal.
And so, amid some chaos, to a tour of Ramallah. First stop: A cemetery. Prayers for those killed during the Israeli incursion. Israeli prime minister said Yasser Arafat was irrelevant, but he's reasserting himself as the spiritual, political, and military leader of Palestine.
On to a cultural center — the school children chanted, "With our spirits and our blood, we shall redeem you." The Israelis seized government records. He said it was a crime carried out by racists and Nazis. At a police station, worse damage. A gesture for the cameras, a message that Yasser Arafat is still a player. He will not be sidelined or exiled.
My message for the whole international community: They have to come and to see that these crimes have been done in this place, Palestine — especially the Nativity Church – especially around Jerusalem — especially here.
While Mr. Arafat was savoring his freedom, journalists for the first time were able to see the room where he'd been confined, the bullet holes testimony to the ferocity of fighting. The Palestinians say their leader's emerged stronger and with more credibility, like Nelson Mandela.
But the Israelis made it clear he's not really a free man. If he travels to Jordan or Egypt, they may not let him back.
ARIEL SHARON, Prime Minister, Israel:
We are not giving any guarantees for that. We're not asked to give any guarantees. We're not going to give any guarantees, because usually in the past, when he left, it was always a sign for a wave of terror. So if there would be a wave of terror and if he'll be going around the world inciting, then we'll have to consider.
But Mr. Arafat's unlikely to go anywhere as long as the siege in Bethlehem continues. Today, monks brought out one dead and two injured in a firefight this morning, and tonight, ten peace protesters carrying food supplies burst into the church.
More now from Terence Smith.
Joining me by phone is James Bennett, the New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. Jim, welcome.
What's the latest situation in Ramallah? Have the Israeli troops fully withdrawn from the city?
Yeah, they have withdrawn. They withdrew before dawn today, pulling out of Yasser Arafat's compound and then leaving the city itself. They're blockading the city, basically following the same procedures that they've used with other Palestinian areas, withdrawing to the margins of the town or the city and setting up a perimeter — enforcing checkpoints very strictly and limiting Palestinians from moving back and forth.
We just saw some pictures of Arafat making what seemed to be almost triumphal tour of Ramallah and seeing some of the wreck allege. Has he emerged stronger from this?
There's no question that in the short term he's seen his popularity rebound. It had really sunk over the first year or so of the conflict from quite high levels to about 30-33% in reliable polling here. In the last month, it's improved considerably. The question is whether that's just a short-term reaction to his being under siege or a real long-term shift, that is, whether people were simply feeling sorry for him, feeling it would be very unpatriotic to criticize their leader when he was in such an isolated and dangerous situation, whether it really represents a long-term rallying around Mr. Arafat.
From your reporting today, could you get any idea of what he's going to do next? Is he going to stay in the Palestinian-controlled areas or go abroad? What sense of that do you have?
Well, we're right back to the usual situation, which is mixed signals about whatever his next accept might be. He's indicated that he wants to move around through the Palestinian territories, that he wants to go survey the damage in other cities like Jenin and Nablus where it's more extensive than it in Ramallah.
His aides say he's interested in going abroad quite quickly to go to Egypt to consult with President Mubarak and to Saudi Arabia to consult with the Crown Prince Abdullah about where the diplomacy is headed at this point.
Is he, as far as you know and can tell, free to move around the areas so far as the Israelis are concerned?
As far we can tell, he hasn't attempted to cross the checkpoints so far. He hasn't tried to move outside Ramallah. He's only operated within Palestinian-controlled territory. So we haven't yet seen it tested. As far as traveling out of the area, the Palestinian air force, such as it was, a couple of helicopters, is essentially destroyed now so he's going to be reliant on the kindness of probably the Jordanians or other Arab governments to fly in and pick him up and take him out.
Is there a danger that if he leaves the area, leaves the country, that he won't… that the Israelis won't let him back in? It seemed that Prime Minister Sharon was making no promises on that.
Yeah, he's repeatedly suggested and suggested it again last night that if while Mr. Arafat is out of the country there are attacks here or he doesn't behave himself while he's abroad, incites violence, that they might not let him back into the country; but it seems that as part of the deal that was negotiated by the Bush Administration over the weekend, Israel… or Israeli officials made some representations that they wouldn't block him out, that would in effect be destabilizing again. So it's not entirely clear that he would follow through on that threat.
Meanwhile, as we speak tonight, the siege in Bethlehem around the Church of the Nativity, that continues?
That still continues. There's an added wrinkle today, which is that for the first time a group of peace activists carrying food apparently in backpacks sprinted through the Israeli lines and across Manger Square. 22 started out. Apparently about 10 of them managed to make it all the way into the church, which further complicates the siege from the Israeli perspective.
Is it possible that the Ramallah formula, namely the turning over of certain prisoners to be guarded by U.S. and British wardens, could work and resolve the situation in Bethlehem?
Terry, that's what the Palestinians tonight are saying they want to see happen. Palestinian negotiators in Bethlehem are saying we'd like… we'd find acceptable the Ramallah model applied here. The Israelis are saying absolutely no way. The only reason we agreed to that in Ramallah is that we were pressed to do it by the Americans and the only reason the Americans pressed for it was because they were trying to relieve the siege around Yasser Arafat himself because they were, in turn, receiving pressure from the Saudis and other Arab governments to do something to resolve Mr. Arafat's predicament. Those conditions obviously don't apply in Bethlehem. There's also a question whether the Americans would be willing to supply that many more monitors to serve as wardens for an even larger batch of Palestinian prisoners.
What's the situation elsewhere in the West Bank, in other cities? We get the impression here– correct me if I'm wrong– that the Israelis have in essence reserved the right to go back in to sensitive and targeted areas when they choose to.
That's correct. They've been doing it. They did it again today. Early this morning they were in and out of Tulkarem again; they moved into Hebron. They moved in and out of at least one other Palestinian- controlled village, all in what they describe as a hunt for gunmen, other militants, a search for weapons, laboratories.
The Bush Administration has spoken fairly strongly asking the Israeli government to halt these sorts of operations, but Israel says it's vital to its own self-defense and that they're going to have to continue conducting these sorts of operations as long as they say the Palestinian Authority is failing to act against Palestinian violence.
All right. We'll stay tuned as we know you will, Jim Bennett. Thank you very much.
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