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Arafat prepared to accept Israeli state

"Do you know now that we don't call them Jews? Do you know what we call them? Our cousins," Arafat said.  

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Sunday he is prepared to accept a Jewish state called Israel.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, however, he offered no apologies for funding such groups as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, saying he was merely trying to help their members from suffering in poverty.

The Palestinian Authority president said the land of Israel and the Palestinian territories is "terra santa" -- Latin for holy land -- for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Any independent Palestinian state, he said, will have room for them all.

"We hope that we will have this independent Palestinian state side by side with Israeli Jewish state," he told CNN.

Asked whether he accepts the Jewish state of Israel, he replied, "Yes."

"A part of the Jews are Palestinians, and they are represented in our legislative council," Arafat said. "Till now, we don't call them Jews. Do you know what we call them? Our cousins."

Arafat recalled how as a boy he had Jewish playmates. "Historically, we are cousins."

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Reacting to the Arafat interview, Israeli Consul General Alon Pinkas said, "What is it about a Jewish state that he doesn't understand? What is it about recognizing Israel as a Jewish state that he finds so difficult to acknowledge?"

"What I heard was someone who doesn't know anything, hasn't heard anything, hasn't seen anything, doesn't know who's responsible for terrorism," Pinkas said. "So forgive me for being somewhat dismissive of his seriousness."

Arafat said he was doing his best to fight terrorism and has tried to investigate those responsible for a number of suicide bombings blamed on Palestinian militants, but complained that even after repeated requests Israel had provided him no information.

"We asked the details about the last suicidal bomb, in Rishon Letzion," he said, referring to last week's terror attack that killed 15 Israelis. The Israelis did not give him an answer, he said.

He said he did not know who was responsible for the Passover terror attack that killed 29 people in late March. The bombing has been blamed on a member of Hamas.

He conferred with an off-camera aide before shaking his head, no, that he did not know who was to blame.

"But we have condemned it," he said. "We are against all this .... Me, personally, I have condemned it."

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

Arafat was asked whether he knew who carried out the April 12 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem marketplace -- the terror attack killed six people. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a military wing of Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has carried out numerous attacks against military targets and civilians in Israel and in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. State Department designated it as a foreign terrorist organization in March.

"I don't know," Arafat said. "But you know we have condemned this. And not only that, I gave instructions to search who had sent this."

He seemed astonished that the group would even be involved in militant violence. "Al Aqsa Brigade is engaged in terrorism? Give me one, one example."

His funding of Al Aqsa and other such groups should be compared to the U.S. government's welfare program, he said. Many of the group members lost jobs in Israel when hostilities heightened and live in poverty, he said.

"I am proud I am giving help for those who have lost their work in Israel," Arafat said. "If I am giving money, I am proud of it."

Arafat said he did not give money to fund the Karine-A arms shipment Israel intercepted in the Red Sea in January, saying the Palestinian Authority did not need to acquire weapons from Iran, which Israel accused of sending the arms.

"We have weapons in many Arab countries, and it has been known," he said. "When I left Beirut, when I left Tripoli, I left with my arms. Do you think that the Iranian government will give us weapons? When have they given us weapons?"

He said Egypt would never have allowed the ship to pass through the Suez Canal to reach the Israeli coast.

Arafat scoffed when he was asked whether Palestinian Authority finance chief Foaud Shubaki, accused by Israel of being Arafat's link to Iran, could have funded the shipment without Arafat's knowledge.

"This is what he asked when we put him in investigation," he said. "He asked this question: 'Can I pay $15 million without the approval of Yasser Arafat?' He was right, because I didn't sign this."




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