Video: Abbas discusses Israel's demands

By Tom Aspell Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/25/2005 3:49:31 PM ET 2005-08-25T19:49:31

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank, there was a momentary lull in the cycle of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

But, after an Israeli raid in the West Bank overnight on Wednesday that left five Palestinians dead, Palestinian militants vowed to renew their armed campaign against Israel.

NBC News Tom Aspell discussed the recent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the shadow of militant radicals, and the difficult balancing act of pursuing the road map for peace with the Palestinian leader Mahmous Abbas on Thursday.   

Tom Aspell: Mr. President, Israel is now saying that during the last week, when it evacuated Gaza, it took care of its militants, its radicals. It used force on them and did what it wanted to do.  Now they are asking, can you take care of your radicals?

Mahmoud Abbas: I think the political atmosphere nowadays convinces both, radicals and ordinary people, that this is the right way toward peace.

Accordingly, the ones who you call radicals want peace in the end. I am sure people nowadays are convinced of this step, and the football is in the Israelis' playground, not on us.

The Israelis should not think that leaving Gaza is the first and last [step]. There has to be steps after that to convince people that we are really willing to achieve peace.

Israel is specifically asking you to disarm the radical Palestinian groups. Can you do it and will you do it?

Abbas: I was elected on the principle of a united authority and united law, and I am working on it. We have gradually implemented things in our ways. First we agreed on truce, second step is to participate in the local elections, then the legislative elections.

By the end we have to reach the understanding that there is no authority above the Palestinian Authority.

But, we've heard criticism from Israel that you personally, and the Palestinian Authority are not strong enough to deal with the militants.

Abbas: We don’t deny that we are not strong enough. For the past five years, Israel destroyed all the Palestinian security systems.

We already started to build up since two months ago, so we will resume building up again to be strong and to impose law and security.

When I strengthen the Palestinian forces, I don't only prevent attacks on Israelis, but it ensures the safety inside the Israeli community. We should stop the chaos, lawlessness, and stop the weapons in the streets. But our abilities are still weak, and both the Americans and Israelis aware of that. We don't have secrets to hide.

But, in the last two days, despite your orders that there be no weapons in the street, nobody openly carrying of weapons, we've seen a parade by militants on the street, we've seen Hamas, Islamic Jihad, on the beach, openly carrying weapons...

Abbas: We are now in a stage of the settlers' pullout of Gaza. We focus our efforts on the settlements to prevent any attacks on the settlers and the army. Then we will focus on preventing weapons in the street. Only the official Palestinian security forces should be in the street.

How do you responde to the fact that last night Israeli troops went into Tulkarem and shot five people dead? What do you say to Israelis in situations like that?

Abbas: Today I asked them this question, I asked the Israelis that committed these crimes, and all those crimes provoke the Palestinians: tell me what to do? What is your advice to me?

You [Israelis] violate, provoke and attack the Palestinian community, and you want me to be patient and bear with this? What is your solution? What do you want from us?

In the same direction as that question, the Israelis have withdrawn about two percent of their settlers from Gaza and have given you back the Gaza Strip. What is the guarantee that you are looking for that the Israelis will continue to withdraw settlers from the West Bank and not just from Gaza?

Abbas: Actually I don't have guarantees.

I do have American and international support — the situation as the international community sees it, is that there has to be a withdrawal from 1967 borders.

I have tens of U.N. Security Council resolutions saying that the settlements are illegal in the West Bank. President Bush made a statement that there has to be an end to the 1967 occupation.

It means that I have legitimate, legal guarantees to negotiate with the Israelis and the international community.

Everybody knows that if Israel doesn’t seek a solution agreed by both sides then there will be no peace. We want peace, if they want peace, this is the way. But, I don't have guarantees.

Have the Israelis given you any signal that they are willing to go another step? For example do you have a meeting scheduled with Mr. Sharon?

Abbas: I spoke with the Israeli prime minister and I spoke with the president of Israel, and we talked about the pullout, and we really appreciate this step.

It’s a good start and we agreed on meeting soon in New York or Jerusalem, but we have to meet.

I think the next step should be implementing the Sharm El-Sheikh agreement, by deploying the Palestinian forces in some Palestinian cities, and a solution for the prisoners and the deported. Then we continue, so it’s in our schedule to meet and talk.  

Do you have the feeling that Israelis have put you on probation, on trial? If you do a good job with Gaza, perhaps there will be more?

Abbas: We don't want to go through this experience and we don't want them to go through this experience. We are fully committed to what we agreed on — the cease-fire, self control and to protect them during the pullout, and we succeeded.

The Israelis have to continue, if they do not, it means that they did not do anything.

Aspell: Mr. President, you speak of the reconstruction of Gaza, of the creation of new jobs. The three most important things, the Rafah crossing, the airport, and the port, what progress are you looking for there?

Abbas: We talked about rebuilding the infrastructure in Gaza — to create job opportunities — and we are working on it.

We received $50 million from the American government for projects in Gaza, in addition to $30 millions for water projects, and projects from Saudi Arabia. So, we have projects to move the economic situation in Gaza.

But, as you said, there are three important issues: The seaport, the Israelis agreed to reopen the seaport. As for the airport, we are still talking to them about rebuilding, and then to establish and resume work there again. But it has to come through certain agreements between them and the Egyptians, and according to the international aviation laws.

Concerning the Rafah borders, we asked them to be under the control of the Egyptians and Palestinians, without Israeli intervention. But, Israel insists on being in the middle — a matter we refuse completely. We suggested a third party in between — such as the United Nations, a European committee, or the United States —  to assure to the Israelis that the process will go well.

This suggestion is still under discussion in the Israeli government and it will be discussed next week. We wish also to resolve all the issues during this month, before the pullout operation is over.

Mr. President, in the last week it seems that Israel has won a tremendous advantage in the battle for public opinion or world opinion by this unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. You are going soon to the United Nations, to the United States. What will you tell to U.S. representatives to make them understand that it's not enough? What will you tell President Bush if you meet him?

Abbas: I spoke before with President Bush, Blair, Putin, Chirac and the rest of the world leaders that this step is the first step. President Bush emphasized that Gaza won't be the first and last step.

Gaza is the first step, and we have a lot of projects, like Sharm el-Sheikh. The most important thing is to get together to negotiate, and to ensure to both Palestinian and Israeli citizens that there is progress. The Israeli citizen wants peace and security. That is the same thing the Palestinian citizen wants —  peace, security and stability.

I will tell the world that we want peace and we proved that we want peace. When we talked about a cease-fire, we proved that we want a cease-fire. When the Israeli prime minister declared unilateral withdrawal, we committed and we showed self-control, and we will continue in this way. 

It's not a cease-fire or calm for a month or two, we want a complete cease-fire and calm. The peace process has to continue.

We are willing to implement the road map. So we don't have a problem, just goodwill and good efforts from both sides.

How do you respond to what happened in Tulkarem, the extension of the barrier around the West Bank, the buiding of more settlements?

Abbas: We want to be patient. But we have a proverb saying that patience has limits. People can be patient, but with the continuing build-up of the settlements, and seeing the wall every day, this is an unbearable situation.

We don't say destroy the settlements or destroy the wall, we say stop and freeze. But the continuation means that there will be no peace.

We will be patient, but by the end, if they don’t help we won't be able to control ourselves. I am responsible to people who want to see peace. We have to keep this hope, not by words. I can not sell words to people, and ask them to be patient and they see expanding the settlements and wall. At least freeze and stop till we talk and negotiate.

We said the only way to reach peace is through negotiation. Attacks on children is not negotiation. Negotiation is to set and recreate the bridges of trust. Then we can talk about all issues, and put them on the table.

Is this why the Palestinian people will not renounce armed struggle, totally?
Abbas: The Palestinian culture is changing. If you took a poll, you will see the majority of the Palestinians support a calm down and cease-fire.

They don't want war, because they saw some hope and they are trying to expand it. But, if the situation deteriorates people will get crazy. But, I think that the Palestinian people now have a culture, a real culture of peace, and will prevent violence.

Tom Aspell is an NBC News Correspondent. 

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