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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Six Forum: The Middle East
You put your questions about the Middle East to the BBC's Orla Guerin in Jerusalem, in a live forum for the BBC's Six O'clock news, presented by Manisha Tank.

  Click here to watch the forum.  


Israeli forces are continuing their operations in the West Bank for a sixth day.

Soldiers and tanks have now entered five West Bank towns. Israel says the operations are in response to the wave of Palestinian suicide attacks of the past few days.

The Israeli prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has raised the possibility of expelling the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who remains trapped in his Ramallah headquarters.

US President George W Bush has again called for all those who "yearn for peace" in the Middle East to work to stop "the terrorist activities".

What is happening on the ground? Is there any hope for an break in the spiral of violence?


Transcript


Manisha Tank:

Orla thanks so much for being with us. First of all I know that you've been doing a great deal of travelling around the area and you've seen a lot - in terms of the latest update, what can you tell us?


Orla Guerin:

The situation this evening is particularly bad. We've just returned from Bethlehem. We managed to find a way in even though the town, like a lot of other towns in the West Bank, has now been declared, what the Israeli's call, a closed military zone. That means that all the major routes are blocked. There were tanks and armoured personnel carriers trying to stop us getting in. We did manage to find a way in. We saw an ambulance that was trying to make its way to some wounded and had been trying to do for several hours. Initially when it tried to go down the road it was blocked by an ATC - eventually it was allowed through.

We saw wounded being brought out - some of them appeared to be men of fighting age - we saw dead, two of them were certainly civilians. Palestinians claim that they were killed inside their own homes - possibly during an exchange of fire. But much of what's going on is impossible for us to check because the Israelis are imposing such tight restrictions on us.


Manisha Tank:

There is a great deal of concern here of course about those very issues and the humanitarian issues behind what is happening there. Maria, London, UK asks: What is the humanitarian situation on the West Bank at present? Is there a shortage of food and water?


Orla Guerin:

It is exceptionally grim. I've been myself in the last few days in Ramallah and in Bethlehem. I've been in the homes of Palestinian families, including some who have young children - a three month old baby in one case - who took me into the kitchen to show me the cupboard and opened the cupboard and opened the doors and there was basically nothing or little inside. People are talking about running out of supplies of powdered milk for their babies. Aid agencies are telling us that they are having extreme difficulty in making regular deliveries.

It is worth pointing out to people that in event, even at the best of times, many people in the West Bank and Gaza suffer extreme poverty. Many are dependent on food supplies that are brought to them regularly by the United Nations. Since the Intifada began, the situation has obviously become a lot worse - the living standards have plummeted and people have been living with little or nothing for a long time. On top of that you now have to add the restrictions on their movement - they can't go out, they can't buy fresh food, they don't know how long this siege is going to continue. Yesterday in Ramallah, there was a very brief break - the curfew was lifted for a few hours. Many people didn't even know about that and so didn't go outside. So the situation is quite extreme and there is a lot of concern now among international agencies that there will be real hunger soon.


Manisha Tank:

Loay Abu Baker, Palestine/UK: I want to ask about the reaction of the Israeli people toward their soldiers' behaviour in the West Bank. They see in the news everyday what their soldiers do. I would like to ask about the reaction of the normal Israeli people. What are they saying?


Orla Guerin:

I think you have to talk about two different reactions: one before all the heavy suicide bombing attacks we've had and one now. Prior to the recent wave of suicide attacks that have killed more than 70 Israelis in a month, there was the beginning of a questioning in mainstream Israeli society about what the Israeli army was doing. There was reporting appearing finally in the Israeli media about human rights abuses that were carried out by Israeli soldiers in the occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza - it was starting to become a point of debate. There was a new group formed by reservists in the Israeli army who signed a signed a petition and went public saying that they wanted to serve their country but they were no longer prepared to serve the occupation and that created a huge debate. I think at that point there was a real questioning going on.

I have to say that there's a very different feeling now - I think Israelis have united in a time of crisis, they feel that they are fighting for their lives. They can go absolutely nowhere - they can't go and have a cup of coffee, they can't go to a restaurant, they can't take their children out for a walk, they can't go to the shops - they simply do not feel safe anywhere. I think with that kind of extreme fear going on, most people are now backing what the army is doing.


Manisha Tank:

Joe Howard, UK: After witnessing this current Intifada, can the Israeli "public" trust and engage with Yasser Arafat again?


Orla Guerin:

I think the answer to that for most people is no. Many Israelis when you talk to them will say, look we bought into the whole process, we believed in Oslo, we were ready to make compromises, we spent many years dreaming of coexistence and a better life and we thought that Yasser Arafat would be a partner for peace and now we no longer believe that.

There is a tendency among many on the Israeli side and certainly in the Israeli media to see the Palestinian leader as a kind of a demonic figure who is responsible for all the evil that befalls anybody in Israel. There was less of a questioning of how we got to this point and many Israeli commentators will always want to start the clock on a Palestinian attack and won't want to see what came before that. Palestinians will say that a lot of the violence that is taking place is set against a backdrop of occupation - that the occupation is here, that they are resisting that and that is why they carry out attacks and unless and until Israel ends the occupation, there won't be peace.

But certainly Yasser Arafat is a figure who is hugely mistrusted by average Israelis. They feel that he lied to them - they feel he deceived them and I think many feel that he is not ready to compromise on a state because they will say that he was offered a quite significant state by Ehud Barak, the previous Israeli leader and he turned that down at Camp David.


Manisha Tank:

Gareth Bennett, Britain: Has the authority of Yasser Arafat been irreparably damaged by the Israeli attack on his headquarters? And, what precautions do you and your colleagues take when reporting from such dangerous areas?

Michael S, USA: Why hasn't Arafat used the tremendous publicity he has got lately to quell the violence of the people he leads?


Orla Guerin:

The first question was about whether or not Arafat's authority had been diminished - the answer to that, ironically enough, is no. Every strike that Israel lands against him makes him stronger in the eyes of his own people. He has always enjoyed great support but it is even more so lately. Ever since December, when the Israelis sent in the tanks around his headquarters - tried very publicly to humiliate him, tried to make him weak, started talking publicly about an alternative Palestinian leadership - ever since that happened, the strength of the Palestinian leader among his own people has been on the increase. They see him as a besieged hero. They look at all of the Israeli forces massed against him - they see him inside his headquarters, pledging defiance, saying that he will never give way and that is something that they very much appreciate.

Now in terms of our precautions, we and all the other international media here do what we can. We are obviously now and particularly this week living in a war zone - Israel has declared a war and is certainly behaving as if it is at war. We do have some armoured vehicles that we use. A lot of the time we have to wear body armour, we have to wear helmets and it is a thing you do feel very conscious of because sometimes you have this protection and you are moving amongst civilians who have none.

But we try as much as we can to protect ourselves but obviously we have to go where the story is - we have to go to the front line, we have to try as much as possible to see everything that's going on, even if neither side wants us to do so and the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous. There is a feeling now - a very recent change on the part of the Israeli defence force that we in the media are now being targeted - every time we move shots are fired around us. I and my cameraman came under fire the other day - a huge burst of gunfire around us from Israeli troops.


Manisha Tank:

Christian Reme, Norway: Why hasn't the PLO accepted the existence of Israel as a nation? The PLO charter has, as far as I know, never been changed on this issue. What does this tell us about the future prospects for peace?


Orla Guerin:

I think all of that very much depends on which side you're talking to - there are two different versions of the story - two different analyses about why we got where we are. Israelis will say that the Oslo peace accord was something that they reluctantly agreed to but they delivered on their part and the Palestinians simply did not. Palestinians predictably enough will say the opposite that they upheld all of their agreements but that after Oslo was signed that the Israelis continued to build settlements in Palestinian areas and that this was very damaging to confidence and that they basically lost faith in the whole process.

On both sides you have the two peoples now looking back at Oslo and saying that Oslo was not what they believed it would be - the Palestinians particularly feel they were sold out. The Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership have accepted the existence of the state of Israel - have said that Israel has a right to exist. They relinquished a long time ago the notion that Israel could be destroyed. What they say they are now working for is the right to have their own state alongside Israel, not instead of Israel but living alongside.


Manisha Tank:

Dermot McElholm, Germany/Ireland: What should the international community be doing in the face of recent events?


Orla Guerin:

I am not sure there is all that much that the international community can do. The Palestinians take solace from support from the United Nations and European countries which often comes their way. They are encouraged when European countries talk about the suffering of civilians when they raise those issues. But frankly when it comes to the voice that counts, Israel only listens to the White House - it only listens to Washington. The only people who have clout in this situation are the Americans.

Now what Ariel Sharon has been hearing from George Bush in the past few days has basically been encouraging. The American President has said, on more than one occasion, that he understands Israel's need to defend itself. He has basically said that Israel has no choice but to do what it is doing now. I think the only possibility that Israel will be prepared to stop this massive assault, or at least to slow it down or reduce it, would be if George Bush came out and said you have to do that and you have to do that now and he isn't doing that. American officials are telling us privately that the White House doesn't want to see this go on for ever. But certainly, I think, Israel feels it can continue for some time - at least a period of weeks.


Manisha Tank:

Alan Carter, Canada: Will, sometime in the future, the Saudi proposal be applied, so that Israelis and Palestinians can live peacefully in their separate states?


Orla Guerin:

After the fiasco at the Beirut summit which I attended myself, many people feel the Saudi plan is dead in the water. There has been a great deal of excitement about it when it came along first particularly because it came from Saudi Arabia which is such a powerful player in the Arab world, which is also an ally of the United States - it is a voice that's listened to by Arab nations. The Saudi's came up with this idea which was basically a re-statement of old formulas but they gave it a big push, they put it out there and certainly the Europeans got very excited about it.

Now we had an absolute disaster in Beirut - we had huge amount of disagreement over it. Eventually a position was sort of cobbled together whereby the proposal was endorsed by the Arab nations but not but in a very ringing, very united way. Israel never really wanted to have much to do with it although it didn't formally reject it. But certainly the feeling we've always had from Israeli senior officials here is that this is not a deal that Israel wants because it calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied land of the West Bank and Gaza and that's something that Ariel Sharon has said he will simply never do.


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