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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Hundreds of Americans Escape Lebanon; Interview With Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Hezbollah in U.S.?

Aired July 19, 2006 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everybody. Good of you to join us.
Tonight, we go in depth on today's top stories, starting with breaking news about the exodus from Beirut. As we speak, a cruise ship carrying hundreds of U.S. evacuees from Beirut has just been docked in a Cyprus harbor. Another ship is on the way to Beirut. A third joins the evacuation flotilla, too.

CNN has also learned that the Pentagon is considering sending Marine helicopters into Lebanon, over Hezbollah-controlled territory, to evacuate Americans scattered all over the country.

Just a short while ago, an Israeli airstrike in Beirut dropped 23 tons of explosives on a bunker used by Hezbollah leaders. Was anyone killed? We will talk more about that coming up. Lebanon's prime minister says Israel's bombing campaign has displaced a half-a-million civilians. He's denouncing Israel tonight as -- quote -- "a savage war machine."

At least 100 Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon hit northern Israeli cities and towns today.

We have correspondents on both sides of the front lines, as well as in Cyprus.

Right now, breaking news on tonight's top story: hundreds of Americans fleeing from the fighting in Lebanon docking in Cyprus on the cruise ship Orient Queen just a short while ago. The ship is just a small part of the tens of thousands of people coming to Cyprus by sea and by air to escape the fighting.

Anderson Cooper now joins us from Larnaca in Cyprus with the latest.

So, Anderson, how frustrated are these folks who are finally on what they would consider safe ground?

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": They're frustrated and -- and tired, some of them angry, upset, all of them, I'm -- I'm sure, relived to be out of Beirut -- of -- of course, thinking about those they have -- they have left behind, friends and family, no doubt.

The ship you can see behind me, the Orient Queen, arrived here a -- a short time ago. A lot of the Americans are still on board that ship. It takes time to get processed through customs. They are then taken by buses to a -- to another area not far from where I'm standing, where they talk to consular officials, they're checked out.

The -- the big problem here in Cyprus, as you know, Paula, is, it's a relatively small island. It's a tourist destination. There are a lot of hotels, but those rooms are booking up quickly. This is presenting a logistical nightmare, of course, for U.S. officials, who have to find either places for these people to stay, or -- or planes to get them out of here as quickly as possible, some of the people going straight to the airport. There are charter flights waiting for some of them, flights to other points in Europe, from which they can catch other planes.

But this is just the beginning, Paula. I mean, by the end of tonight, by the time all of these 1,000 or so Americans are off board this Orient Queen, there should be 1,500 Americans having been taken out of Beirut over the last several days.

Tomorrow, they're ramping up big-time. They're going to double that number in one day, 3,000 Americans being taken out. The problem is, they don't have an official number, an accurate number, of how exactly many Americans need to get out. We have all heard that 25,000 figure, the number of Americans believed to be in Lebanon.

I talked to the Marine general, General -- Brigadier General Jenkins (sic), earlier today. He doesn't know how many of those really need to get out. There have been estimates, about 8,000, maybe 10,000. But those numbers keep changing. People change their minds. And, as he points out, a -- a number of those people will decide to stay and ride it out in Lebanon.

So, it is a very fluid situation -- the U.S. military officials here saying they're trying to do the best they can. They know that there have been a lot of complaints. And they say nothing can be fast enough to try to get Americans out of harm way -- Paula.

ZAHN: Well, as you said, there's still many on board. And we would like to come back to you, if and when some of those people start disembarking.

Anderson Cooper, thanks.

And Anderson, of course, will be back at 10:00 with more on the story on "ANDERSON COOPER 360."

And, in just a few minutes, I will be talking to an American who has just escaped from Beirut.

Our top story coverage now shifts to the city the evacuees just left, and where there is also breaking news tonight. Hezbollah's senior leadership has just been the target of a staggering amount of Israeli explosives.

Senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is in Beirut.

Nic, a lot of conflicting reports out there tonight at just about how effective this strike was. What can you tell us? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Israeli officials say that they dropped 23 tons of bunker-busting explosives on what they believe was the -- the leadership of Hezbollah, Nah -- Hussein -- Hassan Nasrallah.

What we have been told by Hezbollah officials here is that that is incorrect. They say what was targeted this evening was a -- was a religious facility under construction. They say only one floor of it had been built. They say several missiles hit it. But they say that this facility had nothing to do with Hezbollah, and they categorically deny -- deny that Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was at that facility at any time.

So, they -- they are putting an end to that particular report, as far as they're concerned. We can hear surveillance aircraft, the small drone aircraft, flying in the sky right now. It's a very clear indication the Israelis looking, examining at what -- what they have targeted today, perhaps looking for targets right now, perhaps even looking for the Hezbollah leadership right now.

But we do know that Hezbollah themselves have been making a lot of the -- the Israelis crossing into Lebanon and south Lebanon today on an offensive, looking for Hezbollah missile launching sights -- the Hezbollah leadership thinking that they're doing very well in the fight right now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON (voice-over): The raids by Israeli special forces across Lebanon's southern border are being interpreted by Hezbollah guerrillas as something positive, as proof of Hezbollah's ability to withstand Israeli bombing from the air over the past week.

DR. ALI FAYYAD, HEZBOLLAH CENTRAL COMMITTEE (through translator): This reflects the failure of Israel's air assault. Therefore, Israel has no choice but to rely on a ground assault, in an attempt to dismantle these military positions. What is happening is only the beginning, and has met with failure.

ROBERTSON: Air assaults continued as well -- several dozen civilians injured in and around the port city of Tyre -- a food distribution warehouse in southern Beirut bombed -- in some places, fires still raging hours after the attacks.

(on camera): The heat from the fire is scorching. This is the second car park that we have seen targeted today by the Israeli aircraft. It's not clear if they're changing their tactics, so much as broadening their target list.

(voice-over): A fire that, according to Lebanon's prime minister, is pushing his country into a downward spiral.

FUAD SINIORA, PRIME MINISTER OF LEBANON: The toll, in terms of human life, has reached tragic proportions: over 1,000 injured and 300 killed so far. ROBERTSON: Beyond the casualties, a humanitarian crisis in the making -- according to the U.N., over half-a-million of this country of four million displaced from their homes. The government says, more than 100,000 need emergency help.

And, on top of that, the country's ports are blockaded, the airports blasted beyond use, bridges broken by bombs, and roads often under attack have cut off the country from the rest of the world and regularly food shipments.

NAYLA MOUAWAD, LEBANESE SOCIAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: And we are living a humanitarian disaster.

ROBERTSON: Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad is frantically trying to avert that disaster getting worse, calling on the French and Americans to help get food and medical supplies flowing into the country.

MOUAWAD: We have to see how it could work, and under which conditions, and if it is going to work. If not, we may meet hunger. We -- we may have a sort of civil war.

ROBERTSON: For the first time, the Israelis today appear to have struck targets in one of Beirut's predominantly Christian neighborhoods.

(on camera): This is where the missile impacted. It appears as if it was very small, and it is an indication of the precise targeting that the Israelis are using, if in fact it was an Israeli airstrike. It also shows how carefully they're scrutinizing what goes on, on the ground here.

But, in this case, though, it seems as if they missed a military target. This looks like a well-digger.

(voice-over): Here, in Ashrafieh, Christian banker Ziad Fatig (ph) tells me, he believes the Israelis should have known that these were not military vehicles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have very accurate satellites. So, it's -- I am sure that it's not a mistake.

ROBERTSON: Like many others here, he thinks Israel is trying to divide Christian and Muslim, reignite Lebanon's old civil war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ashrafieh, it's a Christian region. Why bombard the Ashrafieh? So, they want the -- the Christian opinion to -- to have a problem with the Muslims.

ROBERTSON (on camera): Do you think this will happen? Do you think it will...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I don't think so. I don't think so, no. ROBERTSON (voice-over): It seems the Lebanese are finding unity, not because everyone likes Hezbollah, but because their country is sinking deeper into this crisis.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: And, of course, that's the issue that makes it very hard for this government. That unity makes it hard for them to deal with Hezbollah as a militant organization that needs to disarm -- Paula.

ZAHN: And just a quick clarification, again, Nic, because the reporting is all over the place on this tonight.

The Israelis are claiming -- we reported this breaking news at the top of the hour -- that they have hit a bunker where they believe Hezbollah leadership was hiding. Hezbollah is saying tonight -- or the Lebanese government -- that that's not true?

ROBERTSON: Hezbollah is saying, absolutely not true, a religious facility under construction that has nothing to do with Hezbollah. And, absolutely, they say their leadership nowhere near that -- nowhere near that religious facility.

ZAHN: Nic Robertson...

ROBERTSON: Paula.

ZAHN: ... thanks for the clarification.

Time now for our countdown of the top 10 most popular stories on CNN.com.

For that, we turn to Melissa Long of our broadband news service, CNN Pipeline.

Hi, Melissa.

MELISSA LONG, CNN PIPELINE: Good evening, Paula.

More than 21 million people logged on to CNN.com today. Many wanted to learn more about the evacuation of an American family from -- stuck in Lebanon right now. It is number 10 tonight. It's the Esseily family of California that was visiting relatives when the airstrikes began, and now they're waiting to hear from the American Embassy about when they can get out and get back home.

And a story from Florida is number nine tonight. Prosecutors have rested their case in the trial of three young men accused of killing six people over an Xbox video game system. Today, a medical examiner told the court that all the victims died of blows to the head. Prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty if the suspects are convicted.

We will continue to count down the list, still to come -- Paula.

ZAHN: See you in a little bit, Melissa. Thanks.

Coming up: more of our top story coverage, including a dramatic speeding-up of the effort to get Americans out of Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): Our top story: the crisis in the Middle East -- for thousands of stranded Americans, with growing concern for their safety, the exodus begins with a Navy escort. And we follow their journey home.

And our top story on the CNN "Security Watch": Hezbollah at home -- the FBI steps up the search for Islamic terror cells on U.S. soil -- all that and more just ahead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back -- more now of our top story coverage on the evacuation of Americans, now gaining momentum, with some military muscle tonight. More warships and military aircraft are on the way. Marine helicopters may soon even be flying rescue missions deep into Hezbollah-controlled territory to rescue Americans.

And, as we showed you just moments ago, the largest number of evacuees yet, nearly 1,000 Americans, arriving tonight in Cyprus on the Orient Queen cruise ship.

But wait until you see what it took to make that journey.

Alessio Vinci reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN ROME BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): For Americans in Lebanon, it has been a week of fear, uncertainty, and frustration. Many of these people were caught in a crossfire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, taking cover whenever they heard the roar of Israeli jets overhead and the explosions of the bombs.

And, for a week, they wondered when the U.S. government would get around to rescue them. Today, as they boarded this luxury liner, it was as though a piece of America had just docked at the port of Beirut. Finally, these Americans could relax and try to forget the ordeal they endured.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: God bless America.

VINCI: Kids tried to resume a vacation abruptly interrupted by war.

The McVicar family from Washington, D.C., was at the Beirut airport last week when Israeli jets bombed the runways.

DAVID MCVICAR, AMERICAN EVACUATED FROM LEBANON: We played the -- the waiting game and avoiding the bad areas. And, you know, there was a lot of shelling in -- in the one -- one part of the area we were staying in. And we were told to evacuate. And -- and the rest was waiting and working with the embassy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm just happy...

VINCI: The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon was relieved to see the first batch of citizens smiling again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... Lebanon.

VINCI: His embassy struggled to deal with an estimated 500 phone calls an hour over the last few days. More ships are on the way, he said. By the end of the week, as many as 8,000 Americans could be evacuated.

JEFFREY FELTMAN, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO LEBANON: Today, we're helping more than 1,000 people travel safely. Tomorrow, it will be more. And we're going to keep this pace up until everyone who's asked our help in leaving Lebanon has a safe way to do so.

MARY MCVICAR, AMERICAN EVACUATED FROM LEBANON: I'm guessing we weren't...

VINCI: I follow the McVicars them to their cabin, a cramped space with four fold-down beds. But they don't seem to mind.

D. MCVICAR: Well, we're on a cruise, as you can see.

(LAUGHTER)

MCVICAR: And...

M. MCVICAR: It is actually pretty nice. We weren't expecting to have beds for everybody. So, all four of us fit nicely in here. We can take a nap, or, if we have to travel overnight, we can sleep all night.

VINCI (on camera): You definitely feel...

(voice-over): Mary McVicar, who was born in Lebanon, tells me, this is the second time she has had to flee the country. The first was in the 1970s, before the civil war broke out here.

M. MCVICAR: We were in a cargo container when we left.

(LAUGHTER)

M. MCVICAR: It was not fun.

D. MCVICAR: Back in the civil war, yes.

M. MCVICAR: So, this is very nice, very, very nice, yes.

VINCI: American officials say, one of the reasons this evacuation was slow to get under way was concern over security. This ship will be protected by the U.S. Navy on its journey to Cyprus. And so will other ships coming here to evacuate Americans.

The last thing the U.S. government wants is American casualties in this conflict.

Alessio Vinci, CNN, Beirut.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And bear in mind that some of the evacuees are being flown to Baltimore/Washington International Airport in Maryland starting tomorrow morning, and continuing through Saturday.

Our top story coverage continues now with two Americans with firsthand accounts of what it took to get out of Lebanon safely.

Joining me now is Kasem Abadi, a Lebanese-American from New Jersey, who has just arrived on the Orient Queen, just disembarked. With him is another evacuee, Beverly Levine of Brooklyn, New York.

Glad to see both of you.

Kasem, how bad was Beirut as you were trying to get out?

KASEM ABADI, LEBANESE-AMERICAN EVACUATED FROM LEBANON: Well, according to what I heard, Beirut was getting struck hard.

And I could even hear it from where I was. I was on the outskirts of Beirut. I could here even -- almost each and every bomb that was hitting Beirut. And even the bombs that were hitting next to us, I could feel it, the pressure of the bomb, hitting me at the same time.

So, how bad it was, I -- I haven't gone into Beirut to see how really bad it was, but I could -- according to what I have heard from people that have come out of Beirut, that the situation there is not getting any good.

ZAHN: So, obviously...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: ... you had to fear for your life, Kasem, as you were trying to get a way out of there.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: How frustrating was it, ultimately, to find a way out? We have heard about how flooded all of the embassies have been with phone calls from the tens of thousands of Americans who wanted to be safe.

ABADI: Yes. We were one of those Americans constantly calling.

But, yes, it was very, very frustrating. But, you know, we were -- it was me and my family there. We stuck together. We organized everything how everything should be, whether it was food or water. It was frustrating, the bombs constantly bombing next to us. It was -- it was horrifying, you know? It was like -- it's not great. It's -- it's practically impossible to see while they're bombing. And it's very nerve-racking to wake up to a bomb, you know?

ZAHN: Well, I...

ABADI: So...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: I can't imagine that at all.

You mentioned food and water. How bad were the shortages at the time you got out?

ABADI: Well, like, on Friday, we -- our water supply in our house just stopped. I don't know why. So we had to find new methods of getting water. So, we went to our neighbors. And they gave -- they gave us water. So, we -- it was like a balance between neighbors, in which we started to help each other out. Whatever we needed, whatever they needed, we helped each other out, you know? It was basic human -- human -- human survival, you know?

Beverly, you got out a couple days, obviously, before Kasem did, during a time of tremendous bombing attacks in Beirut. Describe what you lived through.

BEVERLY LEVINE, AMERICAN EVACUATED FROM LEBANON: Well, I was lucky enough to have a campus that had -- I was at a university that had two campuses, one in Beirut and one in Byblos. So, they took us out on Friday.

I did hear some bombs going off, but it was not something I was used to hearing. So, I wasn't sure what was going on. I learned the difference between anti-aircraft gunnery and bombs from a ship vs. bombs from a plane. So...

ZAHN: Not a lesson...

LEVINE: ... it was...

ZAHN: ... that any of you ever thought you would have to learn.

LEVINE: Yes.

ZAHN: Beverly, we know that you have been outraged by how slow the process has been of getting American citizens out of a city under fire like Beirut.

You're out now. And I understand that the tens of thousands of Americans who are lucky enough maybe to make it to Cyprus are going to have a whole new round of headaches. There aren't enough rooms on the island to accommodate all these people, are there?

LEVINE: Yes. No, it's completely booked in Larnaca. I was lucky enough to have a friend who has enough connections to get us a hotel not too far away. But a lot of my friends went directly to the airport, and just stood there and waited.

ZAHN: Well, I guess...

LEVINE: I...

ZAHN: ... those nuisances obviously pale in comparison to what both of you had to put up with.

Welcome back to safe ground. Thank you for sharing your stories with us.

Kasem Abadi, Beverly Levine, good luck.

Right now, let's check back in with Melissa Long, who has the rest of our CNN.com countdown -- Melissa.

LONG: Paula, it's a mystery in New Hampshire that is ranking number eight on the countdown tonight.

And scientists are trying to figure out the origins of a stone we're going to show you in a moment, found in a field in 1872. There it is. I want to tell you about it, Paula. It's a unique creation, about four inches long, two-and-a-half inches thick, all covered in symbols, possibly a moon, maybe a deer's leg. One researcher suggests it may have once symbolized a treaty between two Native American tribes.

CNN.com readers also wanted to learn about actor John Cusack and the restraining order he has against a woman he says has been stalking him. The actor says she has shown up at colleagues' offices in an effort to meet him, and also has mailed threatening letters to his home -- Paula.

ZAHN: It's an ugly world out there, isn't it, Melissa?

LONG: Very scary for him.

ZAHN: See you in a few minutes.

LONG: OK.

ZAHN: Meanwhile, back to our top story coverage -- Israeli ground forces are in the thick of the fight tonight. Next in our top story coverage, tanks vs. rockets along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Plus, Americans unwavering support for Israel, is it hurting our image around the world?

We will be back with that debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Now on to the Israeli side of the front lines, where it has also been a very rough day. We continue our top story coverage with chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who we find tonight along the Israeli-Lebanese border -- Christiane.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Paula, despite this eight days now of the Israeli assault, trying to push Hezbollah back, it doesn't seem to have had a massive impact on their ability to fire rockets into Israel.

According to sources, 120 were fired in today, one of the biggest barrages. And there was fierce clashes between the two sides as well.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The fiercest clashes yet between the Israeli army and Hezbollah guerrillas are here in Avivim, right on the Lebanese border, Israeli tanks pitted against Hezbollah mortars and rockets.

Israel has taken casualties in this operation. Two soldiers were killed, and the injured were loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the nearest hospital. All the while, sirens wail, warning of the next rocket salvo. And it's not just humans, but hardware, too. An Israeli tank is pulled, limping off the battlefield.

The Israeli military says this action is aimed at taking out Hezbollah posts along the border.

(on camera): Israel has sent in tanks to this battle, and we have been hearing the sound of outgoing tank fire. Meantime, around the hills in this region, peppered with smoke and flames, as Hezbollah rockets are still making their mark.

(voice-over): Two children were killed when rockets hit the town of Nazareth. They have also again struck Haifa, Tiberias, and all this part of northern Israel. Villages and hillsides are billowing with smoke. Buildings here in Dishon are aflame.

Overhead comes a flying fire extinguisher, dropping red powder to dampen the blaze. It circles again and again over the village, over the slopes.

Meantime, the air raid siren sounds again, as the town of Avivim, scene of the worst fighting, finally gets a direct Hezbollah hit.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR: Now, conflicting reports about how long it's going to take to break the back of Hezbollah, their military operation, which is Israel's aim -- some are saying, it could take many more days. Some are saying, it could only take a week -- Israel always operating with one eye to its military objective and one eye to the international public opinion.

And, already, there are loud choruses of complaints about the level of casualties in Lebanon. The International Red Cross is very concerned, it says, about Israeli -- civilian casualties that are being caused in Lebanon and about damage to the infrastructure -- Paula.

ZAHN: Christiane Amanpour, thanks so much for that late report.

And, as Christiane just mentioned, Israel, of course, is getting pounded by critics from all over the world. They say it is being too aggressive, and its response is way out of proportion to the kidnapping of two soldiers, which sparked all of this.

And, just a short time ago, I spoke with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who joined me from Jerusalem.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: You have said that the Israeli government must have a decisive victory, without concessions. How would you define that?

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: We have to remove the missile threat, or destroy the missiles, if they can't be removed from Lebanon.

I think this is number one, because, right now, a good chunk of Israel is paralyzed. People are in bomb shelters. Israelis are targeted. They're being killed. And the country is vulnerable.

ZAHN: If the goal is to wipe out all these rockets, we know we had a senior Israeli army official saying today that airstrikes so far have wiped out 50 percent of Hezbollah's arsenal. How long will it take to wipe out the rest?

NETANYAHU: I -- first of all, I hope that number is real.

ZAHN: You think it's too high?

NETANYAHU: You know, unless there was a huge change between yesterday and today, because, yesterday, in the Knesset, I heard other numbers. But all power to them. I hope this is true.

The number-one thing is that -- to realize is that seven million Israelis are now held hostage to these terrorists and their rockets. And, so, we have to -- we have to free these hostages, along with the others. And that requires however long it takes.

ZAHN: The Lebanese prime minister today basically accused Israel of holding his country hostage. He fiercely attacked Israel, saying, so far, that 300 people have been killed, most of them civilians, 1,000 have been wounded, and a half million people displaced. Is there at any point in this process of trying to wipe out Hezbollah's rocket arsenal that the price is simply too high a price to pay?

NETANYAHU: I have a real problem with body counts. On the basis of body counts, who's had more civilian deaths, the Nazis were right and the allies were wrong. Because the number of German civilian casualties in World War II far exceeded American and British casualties. The rocketing of London precipitated very powerful responses. I wouldn't call Churchill a war criminal or Britain in the wrong when it responded to the V-2 rockets that reigned on London. So this whole notion is a bogus notion. In fact, if we're going to have any possibility, any sense of right and wrong in international affairs and international law, then I think the blame should be placed squarely where it belongs, right on the heads of Hezbollah and their Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

ZAHN: Meanwhile there's growing concern over Israeli military mistakes. Just today Israeli airstrikes took out a truck carrying a water pump, a truck apparently that military officials thought was harboring weapons. How concerned are you about those kinds of misfires?

NETANYAHU: Look, I am concerned. How could you not be? But war is not an exact science. You do your best if you're a Democratic country with a moral ethos, try not to hit innocent civilians, but innocent civilians are hurt in every war. The real question is do you intentionally hit civilians? That's the difference between legitimate combat and illegitimate combat or war crimes. That should not give the terrorists immunity. Because if they know that you will not strike them because you fear civilian casualties, then they will hit you again and again and again.

ZAHN: Benjamin Netanyahu thank you for your time. Always good to see you.

NETANYAHU: Thank you.

ZAHN: And we carry on now with Melissa Long over at CNN Pipeline for more of the CNN.com countdown.

LONG: Paula today CNN.com readers wanted to gain some insight into the Andrea Yates murder retrial. This story is number six tonight. A forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Yates after her children were drowned testified that she killed them because Yates thought they were defective and would grow up to be criminals.

And political news from the Peach State coming in at number five tonight. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, has lost his bid to be the Republican nominee for the lieutenant governor of Georgia. Reed's campaign had been hampered by his ties to the now disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And Paula, still to come a blond bombshell says she's going to be a bride.

ZAHN: Which blond bombshell would that be, Melissa? Are you going to reveal it to us tonight?

LONG: A little bit later.

ZAHN: You're such a tease. We'll wait. Thanks, see you in a little bit.

Back to our top story coverage here, some Americans feel so strongly about the crisis they are taking to the streets. Is this country's unwavering support for Israel actually hurting the U.S. overseas? Our top story panel debate coming up. Plus a growing worry about our own security. Could Hezbollah sleeper cells be a danger inside the U.S. tonight? Well, the FBI's worried about that. We'll tell you why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Well, there's clearly no doubt about whose side the U.S. is on in the Middle East crisis, but it raises a very important question for our top story coverage tonight. Just how much influence does Israel and its supporters, the so-called Israel lobby, have over U.S. policy? A midday rally in Washington under a banner proclaiming America stands with Israel featured members of Congress. As we speak the House of Representatives is debating a resolution supporting Israel's right to defend itself and condemning Hezbollah's attacks. The Senate has already passed a similar resolution.

Israel gets about $3 billion a year in U.S. aid, but President Bush's spokesman rejects the notion that American is working hand in hand with the Israeli military.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The assumption is that we're sitting around at the war map saying do this, this and this, and as I've said over and over we're not engaged in military strategy sessions with the Israelis. We're not colluding, we're not cooperating, we're not conspiring, we're not doing any of that.

ZAHN: Well, that is probably not the answer you would be getting in much of the Arab world. Is the United States's unflinching support of Israel, which has been the case for many years now, hurting its image over seas or its ability to solve complex international problems. We put together a top story panel tonight. Morton Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of American, Hussein Ibish is executive director of the Foundation for American/Arab Leadership. Glad to have both of you with us tonight. Mr. Ibish, what is the Israel lobby and what is its impact on the average American?

HUSSEIN IBISH, ARAB-AMERICAN LEADERSHIP FDN: Sure, I mean the pro Israel lobby is a collection of special interests, including many of the major Jewish organizations, but also some of the Evangelical Christian right, some neo-conservative groups, some liberal groups. A collection of special interests that wants unconditional support for Israel and its foreign policy and its policies, by the way. And what happens to the U.S. political system as a result of this, and it's not unique, you can see this with regard to the Cuban American community and plenty of domestic issues, and other special interests, is that it becomes a question when Israel is concerned first and for most of domestic political considerations and only secondarily foreign policy considerations.

So, for example there's a disconnect now between our stated policy goal of creating a Palestinian state to live in peace alongside Israel and our de facto policies over the past the few years which really haven't done much to advance that because we've been supportive of almost every move the Israelis have made.

ZAHN: Right, now you find that dichotomy in a lot of areas when it comes to policy, with people lobbying for various policies. But Mr. Klein, you've got a lot of people out there saying that they have a hard time understanding why Israel deserves to get $3 billion a year in aid from America and when you've got so many people out there saying that that support is what undermines our security here in the United States.

MORTON KLEIN, ZIONIST ORG. OF AMERICA: First of all Israel is now down to $2.5 billion a year in aid. And they even receive this amount because they gave up $2 billion in income in 1978 when they gave the oil wells that they developed to Egypt. That's how Israel ended up getting this amount of money. But, it's a myth that America has been so overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. America stopped Israel in the 1956, 1967 and 1972 wars.

IBISH: That was a long time ago.

KLEIN: May I finish please?

IBISH: Sure, go ahead.

KLEIN: Wars from going further. They condemned Israel when they attacked the Saddam nuclear reactor. They have not moved the embassy. When Israel killed these terrorists, Sheikh Yassin and Rantizi, President Bush condemned it.

ZAHN: But Mr. Klein, that's going back a way ago. The fact remains, a lot of people are highly critical of the United States tonight for not calling for a cease fire. They're saying because of the president's, of this Israel lobby, the U.S. has pressure on them to allow Israel to continue this campaign, maybe for a week or so.

KLEIN: Well Ms. Zahn, Hezbollah is an enemy of the United States. Their leaders have said America is the enemy of Islam. Death to America, Hezbollah killed 241 marines. They've hijacked U.S. airplanes. This is part of the international war against radical Islamic terrorism and that's why it's so important that America support Israel in the front line against terrorists who are against America.

ZAHN: Mr. Ibish, you get the last word tonight. Just please help us understand as we wrap this up, why you think the Israel lobby in and of itself is such a bad thing.

IBISH: No, I don't think it's a bad thing. I think it's a very effective lobby and I think the problem with it is is that it isn't counterbalanced on the other side, and partly that's the fault of the Arab American community. But I think you have to be clear-cut about it.

It's a very effective lobby that's a special interest, that pushes the one-sided foreign and it distorts our policy in the world and really -- I think what we need is countervailing pressures to have a more realistic serious foreign policy. ZAHN: And that's where your organization comes in.

IBISH: This fighting in Lebanon is not in our -- exactly.

ZAHN: All right, Hussein Ibish, thanks for your time. Morton Klein, glad to have both of you on tonight.

We continue the CNN.com countdown right now with Melissa Long. Melissa?

LONG: Hi, Paula. At No. 4 tonight a unique gift, it's not wrapped in boys or anything, but nonetheless, it is a nice one. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards will receive this present from the state of Arkansas. The governor says he will pardon Richards for reckless driving. Richards was arrested 31 years ago while traveling through the state.

There are reports that the former "Baywatch" babe Pamela Anderson is about to become a beautiful bride. The soon to be hubby? On again/off again boyfriend Kid Rock. And the wedding is scheduled for next week on the French Riviera. And I was just reading her Web site as well, first time I've ever been on that Web site, and she confirms that "my life is moving forward."

ZAHN: And I don't want to disappoint all those folks out there in CNN land tonight, Melissa, but we will not be covering that wedding live.

LONG: Oh, no?

ZAHN: No, sorry. See you in a few minutes. We'll be counting on the countdown to keep us up-to-date on what exactly transpired.

Back to our top story coverage, could the violence in the Middle East make its way to U.S. streets and cities? Coming up next, Hezbollah in the United States? How big is that threat?

Plus the price of war. A CNN crew's remarkable visit behind the battle lines in inside a Lebanese hospital. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Our top story coverage moves on to the CNN Security Watch, and this very important question. As fighting escalates in the Middle East, could the violence spread to the United States? Well the FBI is now on alert for Hezbollah right here at home. Let's check in with Justice correspondent Kelli Arena right now for the very latest on that. Kelli, pretty scary stuff.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It sure is, Paula. You know, the FBI has been pursuing people in this country working with Hezbollah for years, with some success.

But there is a new urgency to that mission as the situation in the Middle East worsens.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA (voice over): Hezbollah has never attacked on U.S. soil, but U.S. officials say if the situation in the Middle East escalates further, that could change.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: We're taking precautions here in the United States. And to the extent that we have identified individuals associated with Hezbollah, we are taking additional precautions to ensure that we do not face a threat from these individuals.

ARENA: Counterterrorism officials stress there is no new intelligence suggesting that Hezbollah is planning an attack against the U.S. or U.S. interests, but in an advisory sent to law enforcement partners late last week, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned that, "... it is possible individuals residing in the U.S. who sympathize with Hezbollah could act."

PAT D'AMURO, CEO, GIULIANI SECURITY: Hezbollah is extremely well-structured, very well trained and organized in a fashion that they have significant funding from state sponsors and would be a much more forcible entity to deal with than al Qaeda, should they decide to start conducting attacks globally.

ARENA: Law enforcement sources say there are active cells in the U.S. allegedly involved in everything from gathering intelligence, to raising funds, to smuggling arms and military equipment to Hezbollah fighters.

U.S. officials say there are investigations under way in at least two dozen U.S. cities, including Detroit, Los Angeles and New York, involving at least 200 people. Those investigations are mostly focused on people allegedly providing financial support to Hezbollah through traditional criminal enterprises.

BOB GRENIER, KROLL: Those associations primarily center on areas where you have substantial Lebanese expatriate Shiite communities.

ARENA: One of the largest Shiite/Muslim communities in the U.S. is in Detroit. In March, prosecutors there announced charges against 18 men for allegedly smuggling counterfeit goods, including cigarettes and Viagra and sending some of the profits to Hezbollah. Two of those men pled guilty.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ARENA: You know, many experts do not believe that the current situation has escalated enough to prompt Hezbollah to directly act against the United States. The problem though is that it's not clear what the trigger might be, Paula.

ZAHN: Something we need to understand. Kelli Arena, thanks, appreciate it.

"LARRY KING LIVE" is coming up, just about 13 minutes from now, for those of you who were checking out your digital clock, like I am. Hi, Larry. Who's going to be joining you tonight?

LARRY KING, CNN HOST: Hi, Paula. We've got a gang-up show and lots of folks. We've got former hostages, people just released, we've got Senator Joe Biden, we've got Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel and of course our far-flung correspondents, who are everywhere covering this. It's all at the top of the hour, immediately following Paula.

ZAHN: Thank you, Lar, appreciate it. See you at 9:00.

Time to get back to Melissa Long for the CNN.com countdown. I got lost. Where are we now, what number?

LONG: We're at No. 2, and the second most popular story in the countdown will take all of your viewers down to Port Canaveral, Florida, for more into the investigation into Tuesday's cruise ship accident. The Princess cruise line's vessel listed 15 degrees while at sea yesterday, injuring 101 people when were trying to enjoy their vacation at sea. The U.S. Coast Guard and the national transportation safety board are now both looking into this incident.

And ahead, outrage and anger from a key player in the Middle East crisis, that is No. 1 on the countdown tonight. We're going to tell you what he said, coming up.

ZAHN: Thanks, Melissa. See you in a couple of minutes.

What is it like to be in a war zone? A CNN crew has taken a remarkable trip into danger, a rare visit to a historic Lebanese city that has turned into a target. We'll take you with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Right now our top story coverage turns to the human cost in the Middle East crisis. The Lebanese prime minister already put the numbers in his country at 300 dead, 1,000 wounded, a half million displaced, many Hezbollah rockets are being fired from the hills around Tyre. That brings Israeli jets and deaths. Karl Penhaul reports from a hospital at the cross roads and in the cross hair.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Assad Habbas' (ph) life is ebbing away. His left leg is almost ripped from his body, shrapnel has seared his brain. Doctors say Habbas was in his car about three miles away from here trying to flee the ongoing Israeli assault when a bomb dropped from the sky. As doctors battled to save him, Habbas mutters softly Yella, Arabic for quickly. With that, doctors race him into the operating room, the doors swing shut as they work at a fevered pitch. I head to the first floor to see other civilian casualties. Thirteen-year-old's Zainab Haider's young body is pock marked with shrapnel from what she says was an Israeli bomb. Like many of those wounded Wednesday she says she was just trying to find a safe haven.

ZAINAB HAIDER, BOMB VICTIM: They bombed the cars in front of our car, and we got down from the car and went to the, we sat under the trees.

PENHAUL: Zainab can't understand why help is not arriving. She has a message to the world from south Lebanon.

HAIDER: Tell them to stop this right now because there is, not everybody is a terrorist and it's not our fault.

PENHAUL: Dr. Ali Tomei (ph) adds up the casualties from bombs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the last 24 or 48 hours we have received about 16 to 20 who were killed, and more than 40 were injured.

PENHAUL: I go to check back on the man. His surgeon Mahmoud Attire (ph) blurts out the bad news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We tried our best, but he give way. He died.

PENHAUL: Dead at 45 years old, another life wasted in this vicious cross border war. Karl Penhaul, CNN, Tyre, south Lebanon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: The irony in all of this is in times of peace Tyre is a beautiful sea side resort, but it's been at the cross roads of wars since Alexander the great and the Crusades. Time to check in with Melissa Long for our CNN.com countdown. Making down that list Melissa.

LONG: And we're now at number one. Of all the stories on CNN.com today, Paula, 21 million readers were most focussed on the crisis in the Middle East. In this particular report Lebanon's prime minister is calling for an immediate cease-fire. He's also blasting Israel for carrying out air strikes on Lebanon in its battle with Hezbollah calling Israel and I quote now, a savage war machine. And that is the top ten, Paula

ZAHN: Thanks Melissa, of course Israel responding that saying we're just defending ourselves from the intrusion of terrorists. I'm going to be right back with the very latest from Lebanon and Cyprus and coming up at the top of the hour, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres is among the guests on "LARRY KING LIVE." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Time to update this hour's top stories. These pictures just fed in from Larnaca, Cyprus where U.S. evacuees are now finally getting off the cruise ship that carried them out of Beirut, many of them telling harrowing stories about the air strikes they witnessed in Beirut and their struggle to get out of the country, and then finding themselves on Tera Firma and safe ground at that and being told that Cyprus is so overwhelmed by all the other evacuees they may not have any place to stay once they get off the ship. And then on top of that, more evacuees are expected to arrive tomorrow.

Our Nic Robertson reporting that Israeli drones right now are flying over Beirut, possibly measuring the damage done by a huge strike, 23 tons of explosives, targeting Hezbollah's top officials. One Israeli newspaper reports Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is believed to have been in the bunker. Hezbollah says Israel miffed, that it actually hit a religious building that was under construction and that absolutely no leadership in Hezbollah was killed by this strike.

That's it for all of us here. We really appreciate you being with us tonight. We'll be back same time, same place tomorrow night. Good night everybody.

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