|Daily Press Briefing|
Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman
March 14, 2006
MR. ERELI: Hello, everybody. It's good to see you all again. I don't have any statements to begin with so we can go straight to your questions.
QUESTION: On the prison raid, the Israeli prison raid, I can't grasp whether -- you know, we have some facts from the U.S. Government, the State Department, but I can't grasp whether the U.S. has any qualms about the raid, whether they approve of the raid, have no position. I don't understand what the U.S. position is, if there is any.
MR. ERELI: The U.S. position is that the foremost issue was the safety and security of the monitors who were at the prison. I'd refer you to a statement by British Foreign Secretary Straw which was presented to the House of Commons today in which he laid out our joint concerns, because as you know it was a joint British-U.S. monitoring mission, and the decisions and actions that were taken that led to the events of today. You'll note in his statement that what we saw happen today in terms of withdrawing the mission really goes back to over two years ago, where we started -- where we began to raise with the Palestinian Authority our concerns that it was not doing enough to ensure the safety and security of the British and U.S. monitors who are in the prison pursuant to the Ramallah agreement of January 2002 to make sure that the prisoners -- six prisoners of concern at the prison were being held in a secure way.
So for at least the past two years, we've been telling the Palestinians, look, you've got obligations to provide for the security of these monitors, there are threats to their safety, we need you to take certain actions.
We continued to press that at various points in the course of the last several years. And finally it got to the point last week where we sent a letter to the Palestinians saying if you don't take really effective action, we're going to have to withdraw. And we took that step, I think, reluctantly today but necessarily since, frankly, we had to do what was necessary to protect them. In the wake of the actions following the withdrawal of the monitors, obviously we'll work closely with the Palestinians and the Israelis to ensure calm, to ensure restraint, and we'll continue to be doing that over the course of the next days as events develop.
But I think the focus on this issue needs to be, first and foremost, on why we did what we did, which was to protect our people and because the Palestinians weren't able to do that.
QUESTION: But the Israelis walked off with the -- I mean, the Israelis have taken over the prison.
MR. ERELI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I mean, is that what you want to happen? Weren't they under Palestinian --
MR. ERELI: I think what we -- what we wanted to happen was to be able to fulfill our mission, which was to implement the -- to do what we were supposed to do under the terms of the Ramallah accord. We weren't able to do that. That's unfortunate. It's unfortunate for what it says about the ability to follow through on that agreement and it's unfortunate for what it says about security of prisoners, or the security provided prisoners, under Palestinian control. These individuals are now apparently, if the news reports are correct, under Israeli control.
We will continue to be in touch with both sides on the matter. It's certainly not an outcome -- the events are certainly not what we would have wished for. We would have wished for the Ramallah agreement to continue and the Israelis and Palestinians to have been able to, pursuant to the Ramallah agreement, to work out modalities for dealing with these guys, and they weren't able to do that.
QUESTION: When was the last time American monitors were in the prison?
MR. ERELI: I'd have to check for you.
QUESTION: Because I think what you said was there was a decision to withdraw today, right?
MR. ERELI: Yeah.
QUESTION: So I'm just wondering --
MR. ERELI: To withdraw the monitors and to not go back.
QUESTION: Right. Assuming there were American monitors in there today --
MR. ERELI: I don't know if they were in there today. My understanding is actually today there were British monitors. There are -- speak to the numbers. I think there are something like eight American monitors and 12 British monitors. I'll have to check and just make sure on that. But on any given day, only a certain number of them are actually at the facility. So today, those monitors that were at the facility were withdrawn and there won't be others returning to do their shifts in subsequent days.
QUESTION: So --
MR. ERELI: And when was the last time the American monitors were there?
MR. ERELI: I'll check and see if I can get that for you.
QUESTION: I mean, one reason for asking is -- you've probably seen the accusations, even from someone like the head of the Arab League. But there's a suspicion there was some kind of collusion that somehow the American-British mission knew that this -- the Israelis planned this operation so the timing was done deliberately. You got people out, knowing the Israelis were going in. Is there any truth to that?
MR. ERELI: Such accusations are baseless and ignore the facts, quite frankly. And that's again why I think it's important to look at the statement for the record that the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Office put before the House of Parliament, because that outlines for you in a very detailed chronological way what led up to today's action. And it points out to you that this was -- that this has been an issue that we've been engaged with the Palestinians on quite seriously for some time.
And so what happened today was the result of a -- frankly, a consistent and painstaking effort on our part and on the part of the British to work with the Palestinians to get them to hold up their end of the bargain. And it was only after lots of trying and numerous representations at very senior levels that we came to the conclusion that they were going to be unable to fulfill those obligations and that, therefore, we had no choice but to take these steps again to protect the safety of our personnel.
QUESTION: So when did the United States know Israel was going to do this operation?
MR. ERELI: The Israeli -- the United States -- what the United States knew was what it was going to do. And pursuant to the Ramallah agreement, we told the Palestinians, we told both sides what we were going to do. It was in the March 8th letter. And we took actions that we were responsible for. I can't speak for other countries taking the actions that they took.
QUESTION: Right. But there's a small problem when you're dealing with the PR element of this in the Middle East. You're saying the accusations are baseless and ignore the facts. The problem is, there's not necessarily enough facts out there for people -- for the suspicion to be allayed. We're asking --
MR. ERELI: Why?
QUESTION: Well, because you can't answer that question. You're not saying when the United States knew there was an Israeli operation going on.
MR. ERELI: The United States didn't know.
QUESTION: Well, so you didn't know until the bulldozers turned up?
MR. ERELI: Yeah. This was -- again, what the United States knew was the Palestinians aren't living up to their obligations. Our people are in danger. We've got to pull them out.
QUESTION: Okay. And when did you tell the Israelis that you were pulling them out?
MR. ERELI: We told -- we told pursuant to the Ramallah and again, I'd refer you back to Foreign Secretary Straw's statement on all this. We told the Israelis -- we told the Palestinians on March 8th that if they didn't take action, we'd have to withdraw our monitors. We told -- again, pursuant to the Ramallah agreement -- the Israelis about the substance of that letter. And then we didn't tell that we were withdrawing them until they've actually been withdrawn, which was today.
QUESTION: You told them today or they were withdrawn today?
MR. ERELI: We told them after they had been withdrawn -- today.
QUESTION: Everything happened --
MR. ERELI: Yeah.
QUESTION: You told them today after (inaudible) been withdrawn?
MR. ERELI: Because we've said --
QUESTION: And you told them after they were withdrawn today?
MR. ERELI: We told them after they were withdrawn today.
MR. ERELI: Yeah.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, Deputy Prime Minister Perez has met with President Abbas in Jordan. And also the British council offices in Gaza were just torched or burnt after the siege concluded.
MR. ERELI: Right.
QUESTION: Did -- obviously, did we tell both Prime Minister Abbas that this will go forth today or did the Israelis tell anyone --
MR. ERELI: No, no. We said we would -- obviously, if they couldn't, if they couldn't do it, it needed to be done. We would have to terminate the mission. But for operational reasons, we didn't say, run that with me.
QUESTION: Can you speak a little bit to the actual -- to the --and put this in context with the timing of what's gong on in the region. I mean, the Palestinians are saying that, you know, you chose this particular moment in time to do it right in advance of Israeli elections to kind of give Olmert a boost. At the same time, you have a Hamas-led government coming in which has already said that it didn't recognize the Ramallah agreement and obviously there would be some issues about implementing it. So what is it about this particular moment in time? Is there an extra specific and credible threat to the monitors right now that caused you to take this step today? I mean, it's a very delicate moment.
MR. ERELI: Let me see if I can't give you a little bit more background to help you put this into context and see it in a broader perspective. As I said, the agreement governing this was from 2002 and -- let me just make sure about that date. Yeah. In 2005, we had independent reports that noted that the security for the monitors was not adequate and throughout the course of 2005 it was the assessment of both the United States and Britain that the threat to the monitors was increasing.
In late December 2005, we told the Palestinian Authority that unless the safety of the monitors could be improved, we would undertake a withdrawal of the mission. So this has been going on for a couple of years now. We again raised it in late January 2006. Earlier this month, as I said, we delivered a joint letter to President Abbas on March 8th which noted that if they couldn't come into full compliance and make substantive improvements to the security of the monitors or come to an agreement with Israel regarding incarceration of the prisoners, we would have to terminate our involvement with the mission.
So this is the result of a growing and escalating threat to the monitors and coming to the decision that we had arrived at the point where we could not in good faith and responsibly continue to keep them there if the Palestinian Authority wasn't going to take the steps that (a) they needed to take and (b) the steps that we outlined for them.
QUESTION: No, I know you obviously gave them, you know, repeated warnings that you were going to do this, but the criticism right now is that it was done in a way that didn't give the Palestinians enough time, you know, as this was developing to secure the prisons, leaving -- to secure the prison, leaving the ground completely open for the Israelis to move in.
MR. ERELI: Well, look, they've had over two years to take actions to secure the facility. They haven't done it. Waiting another couple of days probably wouldn't have changed that.
QUESTION: Well, if it wouldn't change it on that sense, why wouldn't you give them a couple of days notice in any event?
MR. ERELI: Well, because, as I said, these -- you've got to remember there are security concerns here. Our first concern is the safety of our people. The Palestinians have proved incapable of providing for their safety so we needed to take the steps we thought sufficient to do that. That meant telling them, hey, unless you can't take effective action, we're going to withdraw them and we're going to withdraw them, you know, at a time that we decide without signaling it for operational security reasons. Obviously the whole point of this is to protect your people, so you're going to want to be careful about tactically how you do that.
QUESTION: Just one more on this. Were there any specific credible threats to the monitors --
MR. ERELI: Yes.
QUESTION: -- in this particular moment in time that you had to take them out before some kind of attack against them --
MR. ERELI: I would say the security environment was deteriorating.
QUESTION: Do you attribute this to the incoming Hamas-led government?
MR. ERELI: Certainly statements about releasing the prisoners or failure to take certain actions, both in the past and now, I think intensified our concern.
QUESTION: Can you be more specific now that operational security is not an issue about the threats, how often, over what period of time, or more specific about --
MR. ERELI: I just don't have that information.
QUESTION: Okay, one other thing. Can you tell us what role President Abbas played in this or didn't play in this in terms of his assurance or his statement that he didn't see any reason not to let these prisoners go?
MR. ERELI: We delivered the letter to President Abbas on March 8th. We took the action today because the concerns that we communicated in our letter weren't acted upon. That's the best way I can answer it.
QUESTION: Adam, can you just sort of describe for us the type of security problem that there is or there was? I really have no idea whether it was that there was -- I don't know -- firing from outside into the prisons or it's the prisoners make threats, the prisoners have knives. No idea what's on the ground and what type of threat.
MR. ERELI: It's important to note that the monitors are unarmed so they are in the best of situations vulnerable. Second of all, there have been continuing information that they are targets of hostile parties.
QUESTION: Inside the prison?
MR. ERELI: I think by being in the prison they're vulnerable. I don't know the specific details of those reports so I really couldn't tell you. And that we look to the Palestinian authorities to provide security for them while they're in the prison and while they're doing their job, whether it be inside the prison, frankly, or outside the prison. It's not just inside the prison. It's, you know, wherever they happen to be doing their job.
So if you've got unarmed personnel tasked with monitoring an agreement and under that agreement the Palestinian Authority has the obligation to protect these guys and that they're getting threats and that they're vulnerable and that those tasked with protecting them aren't protecting them, then you've got to do what's necessary. And that's why we withdrew them.
QUESTION: What's your reaction on the Israeli operation on Eriha prison?
MR. ERELI: Well, as I said, we think it's important that all sides exercise restraint and calm. We made that clear to the Israelis. We made it clear to the Palestinians. It seems from the press reports that the Israelis have taken certain prisoners. We will continue to consult with both sides on next steps.
QUESTION: But does that mean that every time Israel feels that there is insecurity in the Palestinian territories that it can go in and take whomever it wants?
MR. ERELI: No, I think what it means is that both sides have an obligation to provide for the security and protection of both monitors to an agreement and wanted prisoners in their custody, and that it creates a vacuum of sorts when security services are unable to fulfill the obligations and tasks that they had before them.
QUESTION: Isn't this the same security system -- well, because it's getting to be academic because you have a new government coming in. But isn't this the same Palestinian security system the U.S. has worked closely with and happily with and apparently I don't remember you -- I don't remember the U.S. Government bad-mouthing the Palestinian security system saying, of course, they need to be trained, they need to improve. So what are there, two security systems? There's one that does a slipshod job at this prison and another that the Israelis should depend on to protect their lives? Is that the point?
MR. ERELI: I think the point here is that those responsible for living up to their obligations under the Ramallah agreement in this prison didn't fulfill their obligations, didn't do what they were supposed to do and left us no choice but to withdraw our monitors. Under the PA, there was and there continues to be a broad ranging program of security reform and training that the United States is involved in and the Egyptians and others are involved in. And I think what this incident shows is that there clearly isn't -- there clearly is a need for that. I don't know if I would just to the conclusion that, you know, the whole system should be indicted completely. I think that's maybe a bridge too far. But clearly in this instance, at this location they didn't live up to the job.
QUESTION: Do you know if this Israeli raid this morning started before or after you called them to let them know that the monitors --
MR. ERELI: I couldn't tell you.
QUESTION: So I mean --
MR. ERELI: And I just don't have the chronology --
QUESTION: But you can say for sure that the U.S. did not know about the Israeli raid before it happened?
MR. ERELI: You know, what I can say is that the United States took the action that it took to protect its people and worked with -- and informed, along with the British as the Foreign Secretary outlined, the steps that we were going to take, pursuant to the terms of the Ramallah agreement and that this was a question of being very clear and systematic.
QUESTION: So just to confirm, I'm sorry. So just to confirm, you did not coordinate this with the Israelis, that as soon as the monitors would be gone, the Israelis would be given enough time to secure the prison? Is that what you're saying?
MR. ERELI: What I'm saying is that we took the steps we needed to. We let people know what we were doing. There were certain things that we didn't say for operational reasons and that we took the steps we needed to protect our people. I can't speak for steps that others took. But the notion that somehow there was -- you know, it was a joint operation are patently wrong, if you look at the facts.
QUESTION: Has the plan been since March 8th to remove the monitors today?
MR. ERELI: I couldn't tell you that.
QUESTION: What is General Dayton doing to the (inaudible)?
MR. ERELI: I don't know what General Dayton's plans are, frankly.
QUESTION: Can you check on that?
MR. ERELI: Sure.
QUESTION: Adam, isn't this the responsibility of General Dayton to coordinate such --
MR. ERELI: Well, it's really the responsibility of the Palestinians here. General Dayton has the broad mission of working with the Palestinian Authority to affect security reform, to improve capability and improve training. Now, clearly as I said, in this instance, they fell down on the job. But this particular case was I don't -- I'm not aware -- was what General Dayton was focusing on because he didn't really need to focus on it. And this is a discrete facility with specific obligations that don't relate to broad systemic reform and training. I mean, look, there's clearly -- what the problem was -- it was clear what needed to be done and it's clear that it wasn't being done. And that was something that we raised through the consulate with the Palestinians and was really not -- General Dayton's focus was elsewhere, as it should have been and is within his mandate.
QUESTION: Did you find out why it was not best for him to do this?
MR. ERELI: You know, I can't speak for the Palestinians. I can just say it was based on our assessment. The threat was too great to ignore.
QUESTION: Well, the Palestinians have said that they're not -- like throughout this whole process and that you've been warning them, they've said -- they've been saying to you that we don't have the capability to do that. And since you've been working --
MR. ERELI: Well, they haven't been saying that on this case. That was not what they've been saying in this case.
QUESTION: That is not what they've been saying to you. Well, that's what they're saying today, that we didn't --
MR. ERELI: This is --
QUESTION: -- the ability to secure the prison. Did they ever -- at any point in time, when you said to them, listen, you know, these security situations for our monitors are not good. You need to secure the prison. Did they ever come to you and say, well, we'd like to, but we really don't have the capability? We could use extra help.
MR. ERELI: That -- look, I don't have all of the back and forth --
QUESTION: Well, what was their excuse?
MR. ERELI: -- excuse me. I don't have all the back and forth over two years, but it doesn't take two years to do what you signed up to do. And the reason they're in the situation today is not because the Palestinians needed help and didn't get it. The reason they're in the situation they are in today is because the Palestinians didn't take action that they undertook to take. And it is only because of the Palestinian failure to do what was necessary, that we were, frankly, forced to take the actions we took, reluctantly.
I think that it's a little too late now to go to the Monday morning quarterbacker and say, oh, if we'd only had this and if we'd only had that. The fact of the matter is we've been at them. We've been with them -- we've been engaging with them on this since 2000 -- since the beginning of 2005. So it's hard to understand after the fact why, if you needed this, or why if you are lacking in this area, you would have just let it go and not done anything about it. The fact of the matter is we were clear about what needed to be done. We worked with them to do it. They continued to fail or to meet the bar. And so we, frankly, had no other choice.
QUESTION: But you're saying then that you kept the monitors in danger for the past year?
MR. ERELI: I said we were concerned about their security. We --
MR. ERELI: We wanted to do everything we could to make this deal work.
QUESTION: Is there any American hostages in the Palestinian territories today?
MR. ERELI: No. I'd seen reports that some had been taken hostage, but I think we've looked into them and all Americans are safe and accounted for that we've been able to determine.
QUESTION: Can you just give us an update on the Secretary's phone calls on this matter?
MR. ERELI: The Secretary has talked to Israeli Foreign Minister Livni. I think she tried to reach -- she's trying to reach President Abbas. They haven't been able to get together. We've been working at senior levels through our consulate and with our Assistant Secretary and Deputy National Security Advisor on both sides.
QUESTION: And she talked to Sharon?
MR. ERELI: I'll have to check.
QUESTION: This is still the Palestinian territories, a slightly different topic. Yesterday it was made clear from the podium that the position of the United States is it will not have any contacts with any member of a Hamas-led government. Just going beyond that, what message are you delivering to any parties that are considering joining a Hamas-led government Are you going to lay out or have you already laid out the consequences for a party, if it (inaudible).
MR. ERELI: Well, I think this issue was dealt with pretty extensively yesterday.
QUESTION: Not that morning, but we were told on that issue of, you know -- (inaudible) might get back to you.
MR. ERELI: Yeah. On the issue of the future government of Palestinian Authority, that's something the Palestinians are going to have to work out themselves. We've made it clear what our position is, that we're not going to deal with a foreign terrorist organization. We're not going to meet with members of Hamas. We're not going to give assistance that can go to Hamas and that we're conducting a comprehensive review of our assistance programs. And what kind of assistance we could continue that would meet both the criteria of not supporting foreign terror organization and the criteria of wanting to help the Palestinian people in meeting their humanitarian needs and that we'll develop guidance on those points and apply it against a future Palestinian government which has not yet been formed. So let's just -- you know, we're working it now. A lot of the answers to your questions will depend on who comes to power in the Palestinian government.
QUESTION: But you haven't just said that the U.S. will not have contact with a member of a Hamas-dominated government.
MR. ERELI: Let's see what the government is. I'm going to say what we've said before, which is we will not have contact with Hamas or provide assistance to a foreign terrorist organization.
QUESTION: And so you're not delivering any message to the parties other than Hamas about what the consequences for them would be if they were to join a Hamas-led government?
MR. ERELI: It's up to them to decide what government they want.
QUESTION: Yeah. And so you're not delivering any message?
MR. ERELI: And we will -- well, the message, I think, is clear. The government of -- it's up to the Palestinian people to decide and the elected representatives of the Palestinian people to decide what their -- who they want to be members of their government. The position of the United States is our relations with that government will be determined by three things: our law, our policy, and the policies of the government of the Palestinian Authority. So if you're looking at the government of the Palestinian Authority and you've got members of Hamas, by law and by policy, we're not going to deal with them and we're not going to give money in ways that could benefit Hamas.
Third, their policies are going to make a difference. I mean, let's be clear. The guidelines on this were laid out pretty well by President Abbas in his speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council on January 18th. He said, hey, I was elected on a platform of peace. I was elected to bring about a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel. I expect the government of the Palestinian Authority to support that program. And frankly, so do we. We agree with President Abbas on that and we will be looking at the Palestinian government that comes about through this formation process and judge it according to its policies and how it does that. That's the best way I can answer it.
QUESTION: So the way to conclude is Fatah so far doesn't yet know whether joining a Hamas-led government would mean the United States cuts off contact with it?
MR. ERELI: You know, that's again a hypothetical that I'm not going to engage in.