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AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Tension Remains High Even as Israelis Start to Pull Back

Aired April 18, 2002 - 08:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: "Up Front" this morning, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived back in Washington early today after his trip to the Middle East. But he left the region obviously behind, still in a state of conflict. Israel has agreed to withdraw forces from the West Bank town of Jenin by Sunday.

But at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, over 200 people remain holed up inside.

And joining us now with the latest developments is CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who has been on the ground there for quite some time. And we turn to Wolf now for an update -- good morning, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Paula.

The situation here remains very much like it was before the secretary of state arrived last week. The tension, of course, continues in most of the areas, even though the Israeli military is pulling out from most of those areas by Sunday. They are leaving open the possibility, the very distinct possibility, though, that they will return if they have any intelligence suggesting there are terrorist threats facing Israel.

Let's go to Jenin first. That's the home of a huge Palestinian refugee camp that clearly saw the fiercest fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces in Jenin. Earlier today, the special U.N. envoy to the Middle East, Terje Larsen, was there. He described the situation as shocking and horrifying and he said no military operation could justify the suffering we are seeing in Jenin.

Now, I spoke with the Israeli defense minister,

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. He insisted the situation was bad, but he blamed the Palestinians and he said the casualties among the Palestinians were much lower than they're insisting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: How many Palestinians were killed?

BENJAMIN BEN-ELIEZER, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER: No more than 45.

BLITZER: Forty-five? BEN-ELIEZER: No more than 45. So that's what we have counted. And, you know, the amazing thing that we have found, we have found among them -- most of them, by the way, were uniformed and two of them, just recently we found them with the, as the suicide bombers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Two areas the Israeli military will not be evacuating include Bethlehem and Ramallah. In Bethlehem, that stand-off with those 200 armed Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity in Manager Square, that continues. There are behind-the-scenes negotiations. The United States CIA is involved in trying to ease that situation. It doesn't look like there's any solution. The mayor of Bethlehem told me he wants the people to get involved, to come here to the Holy Land to personally try to ease this situation. That obviously is not very, very likely.

In Ramallah, where the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains holed up in his headquarters, the Israelis are saying they may leave the general area, but they certainly won't leave the area surrounding Arafat's headquarters until five suspected terrorists are handed over, people the Israelis say were directly involved in the assassination of their tourism minister -- Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Wolf, but Yasser Arafat and his people have made it very clear they have no intention of releasing those terrorists. So what is it that is expected to happen here?

BLITZER: That's absolutely -- I think what's expected to happen, U.S., Israeli and Palestinian sources tell me they expect the stand- off in Ramallah to continue. They expect the stand-off in Bethlehem to continue. They say the Israelis will pull out of Nablus, Jenin, the other major areas, the Palestinian towns in the West Bank by Sunday. But the Israelis won't be pulling out very far. They could be going back in sooner rather than later if threats continue.

ZAHN: All right, thanks.

Wolf Blitzer reporting from Jerusalem for us this morning.

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