Israel Government Briefing with Ambassador Alan Baker, Foreign Minister Legal Advisor, and Brigadier General Ron Kitri, IDF Spokesman
National Media Center, Jerusalem, April 3, 2002

Ambassador Alan Baker:

Good evening everybody, and in as much as it is possible to say, 'Happy Holidays', I will say that. I am coming from the legal community. The viewpoint I will give will be to a certain point legalistic, but what we are dealing with in carrying out a campaign against terror is something which is fraught with legal aspects, because first and foremost terrorism is prohibited in international law. It doesn't matter what the reason is, doesn't matter what the cause is, international law prohibits any type of terror. There are ways of solving international problems, there are ways of dealing with questions that come up, complaints that come up, but international law prohibits in every manner the use of terror to solve international problems. We have seen this in Security Council resolutions and there are several, 9 or 10, international conventions prohibiting all the various components of terror. Whether it is terrorist bombings, terrorist financing or whether it's any other aspect of terror, in the air, on the sea or anywhere else.

For instance, this letter that was discovered yesterday asking Arafat to finance the various components of the explosive belts for the suicide bombers, this is financing terror. This is specifically prohibited in the most recent Security Council resolution adopted after the Sept. 11 bombings in New York in which all states, members of the UN were asked to do everything possible to stop financing terrorism to prevent all the various routes by which monies are transferred.

Coming onto the suicide bombings themselves - this is a component of terrorism. The fact that these suicide bombers include, within the actual belts, ball bearings and nails and screws and sharpened pieces of iron, this in itself, without any other context is a very serious violation of all the norms of humanitarian law in the Hague Rules of 1899, those of 1907, and the Geneva Conventions. The use of this type of material to inflict superfluous and unnecessary suffering is simply the most blatant violation of any humanitarian law available.

The use of children - it's a crime according to international law. It's detailed in the new international criminal court document as a very serious crime. Children under the age of 17, under the age of 15, using children in any way whatsoever, whether by sending them to commit suicide and blow themselves up or simply using them to hide behind them in order to shoot is something which is forbidden.

Crime against humanity - is defined in international law as a crime committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population with knowledge of the attack intentionally causing great suffering. By sending suicide bombers to attack restaurants, synagogues, bar mitzvahs, weddings or whatever - basically this is a form of a weapon of mass destruction. Its nothing more and nothing less and it should be treated as such. It's a weapon of terrorism.

Now, this whole thing that we are seeing over the last few days, the sheltering behind the civilian population, whether by entering into churches, bringing arms into churches, and I understand that what I have just heard is that in the Church of the Nativity there are 200 armed Tanzim people. The use of ambulances to carry weapons underneath people who are lying on stretchers, the use of hospitals, placing weapons next to schools or behind schools, or within civilian residential areas in high-rise buildings, this is perfidy. This is the use of civilian day-to-day articles in order to carry out active terror. This again is something which goes against any moral, normal humane concept of carrying out or striving to solve ones' problems.

The use of the international media to spread false rumors, to create public hysteria in order to influence the situation on the ground. This whole concept of the glorification of terror, what we find in Scandinavia, people demonstrating, wearing the clothes of suicide bombers, all these things, the glorification of terror is something which is, again, part and parcel something which is an antithesis to what we are seeing in the international community.

This campaign against terror -- Therefore it is all the more strange that here, in this corner of the world, where we are conducting a campaign striking against terror, not because we want to harm the Palestinian people, as one of the officials who for the last 11 - 12 years has been negotiating with the Palestinians, its very frustrating for me personally to see this thing that we have built, this pyramid of a series of agreements, which is just crumbling down. Because the basic commitments in these agreements, the undertaking by the Palestinians to fight terrorism, to bring to trial terrorists, and to cancel completely any kind of incitement, is being blatantly violated.

But, however, these commitments still exist, these agreements are still in force and therefore our basic position is that once it is possible to get rid of this element of terror - to do what Arafat undertook to do and has blatantly failed to do or he is not prepared to do. Once we can solve this aspect, then there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be possible to get back to the framework in which it will be possible to continue negotiations.

I'd just like to say a few words now about what is happening in the North because this, again, its part and parcel of another legal framework. The legal framework which was established by the UN in resolution 425 from 1978 which called for three things to be done.
- Israel to withdraw from Lebanese territory.
- the UN to assist Lebanon to establish its authority in the area from which Israel withdraws.

- and the UN to assist the parties to restore international peace and security.

Now, Israel has withdrawn. Every inch that we were supposed to withdraw from according to the line determined by the UN. This has been acknowledged by the Security Council and by the Secretary General. The Lebanese government has not yet carried out their side and hasn't brought their own governmental authorities into the area from which Israel withdrew and hence the Hizbullah is there - the only authority in the area in Southern Lebanon, and the question of peace and security still remains open. And as we have seen the Hizbullah are opening fire and threatening to bring this front back into an active violent conflict.

We have no doubts as to the responsibility and the involvement of Syria in all this and we are hence very concerned and very worried. And the Foreign Minister is so worried that he invited, yesterday, the representative of the UN Terje Larsen and asked him to pass a message on to the Syrians and to the Lebanese that they must stop this, because we won't suffer any attempt to turn this line between Israel and Lebanon once again into a line of violence.

And so, we will turn to the military spokesman and he will talk about more practical matters of what's going on the ground, but the message I would like to give you all is this, Israel is very conscious of its obligations according to international law. We are a democratic country. We are a country where the rule of law is something that is recognized and we are a leading country of the world in this regard. It hurts us very much when we are placed in a situation, for instance, where people are finding shelter in a church, which they are perfectly entitled to do, but they take 200 weapons into a church as well. This places us in a very difficult position. This is an abuse of our own respect of human rights and humanitarian law and it places us in a very difficult position. We will observe our obligations and in any event, in all aspects of this strike against terror. What we are trying to do is to maintain the high standards of humanitarian activity. Any problems in this respect, any soldier or any one that perhaps might not be observing this, then Israeli law provides all the procedures to examine this and to deal with this. We don't go in for killing, we don't go in for any activities which are not justified by the international law's right to self defense and what is provided for in the international instruments with respect to humanitarian issues. Thank you very much.

Questions from the international press corps:

Q: [ inaudible. Was a soldier killed in Jenin?]

General Ron Kitri: We suffered 4 casualties - one very severely wounded and up till now I don't know (about a killed soldier) and if he is, I will update you. I hope he is not. We will check it and will try to bring you the most credible information.

Q: [inaudible - re the Church of Nativity?]

General Ron Kitri: The only plans we have is not to actually invade by military means. We want to search it from top to bottom with the kind escort of the people in charge there, only to see that its not a hiding place for the people we are looking for, terror operatives.

Q: In Bethlehem - how much damage have the armed Palestinians created with regards to the Church itself?

General Ron Kitri: I do hope it's a minimum damage. I told you before that we have strict orders and we have ordered our soldiers not to shoot at churches, monasteries, mosques etc. Therefore, I cannot testify to any kind of damage caused by us, but in due time we will be able to see. I do hope there is no damage at all, at least minor.

Q: Do you believe that the terrorists are trying to provoke the IDF to create damage on the churches for their own PR?

General Ron Kitri: I have no doubt that the main idea of hiding there in the first place is to provoke the IDF soldiers to come there to exchange fire and to shoot, to create damage, to hit maybe some clergymen and so forth. We are not tempted and I do hope we will have the restraint not to go there.

Q: I understand that there are some negotiations with the Mayor of Bethlehem and the church leaders to let you in - how far are those negotiations to being concluded?

General Ron Kitri: I know of several channels of negotiations trying to achieve as close to a peaceful solution to the situation as possible. I cannot inform you of any success, but we do try, we think it's a better idea than to continue fire clashes between the two sides, and I do think that with the patience and the right attitude we can achieve something with them hopefully in the near future.

Q: How many, as far as you know, of the men inside the Church of the Nativity or in the vicinity of the church, are armed? What is the situation of various church dignitaries who have been attempting, and have perhaps by now succeeded, to enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem?

General Ron Kitri: It would be wise of our commanders down in the field in Bethlehem to assume that all the people inside are armed and to minimize the threat as they have facts that this is not the case. To your other question, I don't have any updated information about what happened regarding the exit from Jerusalem, I have heard that several groups tried to come to Bethlehem, of course, the commanders and police prevented them, in the meantime, from doing so.

Q: [inaudible - re rules of engagement when fired upon from a church]

General Ron Kitri: The orders are not to shoot. To try and not to shoot back. We do not shoot at sacred places.

Amb. Alan Baker: There are very specific and strict rules in international humanitarian law prohibiting the use of churches for firing from or for being a base for any action that could bring about a response by the other side.

Q: Isn't this a formula for a long standoff if they stay hold up and are shooting at you, you are holding your fire but won't move on them. How does it come to a conclusion?

General Ron Kitri: What I mentioned before regarding the issue of how complicated this is. It is complicated not only because it is a sacred place but because we do not use live fire on such facilities. What I also mentioned is the fact that we try to achieve some progress in alternative channels.

Q: Would you term what is going on right now, that the Christians inside the church are taken hostage as we have been told by another speaker?

General Ron Kitri: I cannot be sure about that if I would like to be completely honest with you. I just don't know. We do know there are strictly innocent people belonging to the Church inside, as they were in St. Mary's and we do know they are not coming out. What is the reason for them to stay there we don't know, we can assess.

Amb. Alan Baker: I will just add here again, that the word might not necessarily be "taking hostage" but it's "shielding" and this is the terminology that is used in the international community of fighters, terrorists shielding behind civilians in order that they themselves will be protected.

Q: [inaudible - re events at the Church of St. Mary]

General Ron Kitri: The priest and 7 (if I remember the number accurately) nuns came out from the church towards our soldiers, told them that all the people inside evacuated the place before, I don't know now how long before, and they invited them actually to go and see for themselves. When they came in they saw amongst other things, the body of a Palestinian with his hands cuffed, shot dead. I cannot give you any more details about this.

Q: Could you describe the nature of these negotiations that you are having at the Church of the Nativity and who is involved in these negotiations? Who is mediating?

General Ron Kitri: I did not mention negotiations. I mentioned alternative channels of trying to convince the people inside to try and prefer an alternative way than the violent one. We are talking to them without any third party intermediation.

Q: Regarding the terrorists who are holded up in the Church - normally there would be a strategy by many police forces around the world and military units when facing terrorists to deprive these gunmen of food and drink to bring them out in a non-violent manner. Is the IDF going to be using an option like that?

General Ron Kitri: It is an interesting question. You will permit me not to get into it because of tactical reasons.

Q: Has there been condemnation regarding the terrorists being in this sacred church by the Vatican?

General Ron Kitri: I have not heard of such but we are listening carefully to hear any kind of global condemnation of the use of sacred places like this by people, armed or unarmed. But the basic principle is something that should be condemned as far as I understand.

Q: I just want to clarify, has there been shooting in the direction of the Israeli forces from either inside or the vicinity of the Church of the Nativity?

General Ron Kitri: I don't have a single proof to that. I can tell you about very strong fire, very rapid fire on the way to the areas that you just mentioned but not from the sites themselves.

Q: [inaudible - re operation in Gaza]

General Ron Kitri: Its much more limited. We are now scouting and taking preventive measures in several areas, very close to the Gaza Strip fence. We are continuing to search for smuggling tunnels along the so called "Philadelphi Axis" in the western part of the Gaza Strip, close to Rafah, which is a completely Israeli controlled territory, and what we are trying to do now, is to be prepared for any change in the situation. Until now, it is relatively quiet, to exclude last night's penetration attempt.

Q: Regarding the problems in the North, are you contemplating a serious action in the north to try to defend the border?

General Ron Kitri: We shall defend the border. The how, when, if is to be discussed and assessed along the passage of time. We would like to see what is going on there. We do hope that both the Lebanese and the Syrians will understand that it's going the wrong way.

Q: Did you send troops to the Lebanon border?

General Ron Kitri: Not more than what could be regarded as proportional and logical after such events happened. As many as necessary.