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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Israeli Government Approves Expansion of Ground Offensive Against Hezbollah; Interview With Lebanese Consul General Mohamad El- Harake

Aired July 31, 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. Thank you for being with us.
We have a very busy news night tomorrow, our "Top Story" of the crisis in the Middle East.

And we start off with some breaking news and ominous signs that the conflict could escalate, despite a 48-hour pause in the bombing. Here are this hour's war bulletins.

Israeli leaders have just approved an expansion of the ground offensive against Hezbollah. Now, that decision came as Syria's president orders his army to raise its readiness level.

And, as we speak, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is at the White House for an urgent meeting with President Bush. She is telling reporters that a comprehensive settlement can be reached this week.

Right now, we happen to be in the middle of a 48-hour break in Israel's bombing campaign, declared amid the ferocious worldwide backlash to the Israeli airstrike yesterday that killed 54 Lebanese civilians in Qana.

Tonight, we're bringing in live reports from Washington, Beirut, and the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Now, with Israel making plans to expand the ground war tonight, and calling up 15,000 more reserves, let's check the situation right on the border tonight with John Roberts. He joins us live -- John.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you, Paula.

And there is an intense battle raging not far away from where I am. We're hearing outgoing artillery fire, that small .122-millimeter howitzers. We're also hearing the .155-millimeter artillery fire going into a town not far from here, just over the hilltop. We can hear automatic machine gun fire.

And, not too long ago, a Katyusha Robert came in not too far away from where I am. That's the first time -- I don't know if you can hear it in the background, or you can hear the pounding just a little ways away -- that's the first time that a Katyusha rocket has been fired at night since I got here. And that was 10 days ago. It's a big turnaround for the Israeli security cabinet, to now approve an expansion of the ground war. Just a few days ago, they had said, no, we want to leave the ground war the way it is.

And it has people asking questions as to what form this is going to take. But more and more troops are going over the border, even as I speak. A little bit earlier on this evening, I took a night-vision camera down to where troops were preparing to go into Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS (voice-over): In what increasingly appears to be a race against the diplomatic clock, armored personnel carriers and soldiers head for the border with Lebanon.

Israeli censorship rules prohibit us from disclosing their objective, but they are a combat engineering unit, typically tasked with clearing roads and building defensive positions for advancing ground forces.

The partial 48-hour pause in aerial bombing has not stopped the ground campaign. If anything, it has accelerated, as the Israeli army moves to capture more territory, before mounting international pressure forces an end to hostilities.

In a speech to the Israeli mayors conference, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, troops are moving deep into southern Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah strongholds.

EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Everybody has said to me, no cease-fire, no cease-fire.

ROBERTS: There are also reports that the Israeli military may seek to Shebaa Farms, an area at the north end of the Golan Heights that is the center of a lingering dispute over territory. The army has closed the area, so we try to get in a back door, driving the road that parallels the border.

Along the way, we see a Hezbollah outpost, either shelled or bombed, now deserted. Close to the town of Rajaa (ph), a unique village that straddles the border, we're met by three Humvees and soldiers carrying weapons. The soldiers talk about whether they should arrest us, but decide, instead, to let us off with a warning and escort us out.

It is unclear at this point what Israel's plan to widen the ground campaign means. Will it see huge columns of tanks, as in past conflicts, or more elite troops who probe Lebanese villages for Hezbollah guerrillas and launchers? It would appear Israel will take whatever time it has left to degrade Hezbollah's capability, as much as possible, paving the way for an international force to take over and keep the two sides apart.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTS: And not only is the fighting becoming very intense in the northeastern section of the Israeli-Lebanon border, but also expanding toward the center. Israeli troops are now in the town of Aita al-Shaab, which is not far away from that point where those two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped, Paula, back on July the 12th, the event that touched off this conflict.

ZAHN: John Roberts, right in the middle of a story that just keeps on changing by the hour.

Thanks so much for the update.

Now, tonight, in southern Lebanon, thousands of people are desperate to get out and to get to safer ground.

Senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has that story from Lebanon tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): As Fatama Hamoud (ph) nears her home, she breaks down in tears. Her house and others in the village of Sreifa (ph) have been damaged by Israeli bombs.

Lebanese officials say 11 bodies are still buried in the rubble here. Fatama (ph) heard about Israel's conditional 48-hour bombing hold.

"I took a big risk to come here," she says. "They say there's a temporary cease-fire. And so I decided to visit my home."

She stays only long enough to grab a few possessions left when the family fled north to safety several days ago, thousands of people fleeing north for safety -- convoys of cars jammed into the relative safety of the port city of Tyre.

But the bombing hold didn't last, just north of Tyre, an aide to a Lebanese army general killed and three soldiers wounded in an Israeli strike Israel says targeted a senior Hezbollah commander.

At the same time, Israeli forces continued their ground advance in southern Lebanon -- Israeli aircraft firing in support when an Israeli tank came under attack from Hezbollah. As the fighting resumed in the south, aid workers in Beirut were taking stock of their plans to ramp up distribution.

CASSANDRA NELSON, COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, MERCY CORPS: The shelling is continuing in the country, so, we are still having to continue to plan, as we did before this announcement was ever made. We feel that the -- the risk is as great as it ever was, based on what we have seen in the last 24 -- or last 12 hours since that announcement.

ROBERTSON: But relief agencies still hope that the shooting will stop soon.

(on camera): The teams are working at full speed to prepare the boxes of aid to go south over here, hygiene products, toothbrushes, soap, and, over here, the food, bags of tea, essentials, like salt, and oil, everything being made ready to get it to the needy in the south.

(voice-over): An estimated 800,000 people in Lebanon need urgent help.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Right now, with the diplomacy that has been happening in Beirut, we have seen the French foreign minister meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, no positive conclusions between them.

Interesting that Iran now getting involved, them being the -- one of the main backers of Hezbollah at this time. But, right now, it seems, even despite this diplomacy, the widening ground war in the south outpacing the short and small paces at diplomacy happening here in Beirut -- Paula.

ZAHN: Nic Robertson, appreciate the update. Thanks so much.

Now, tonight, the Arab world is outraged over the Israeli bombing that killed at least 54 Lebanese civilians in Qana. Israel says it targeted Qana because Hezbollah was firing rockets from there. Residents deny that, and many are calling it a massacre.

The anger spilled over in Beirut streets, as protesters broke into U.N. headquarters there, injuring three U.N. workers. Qana survivors have fled, looking for shelter elsewhere. And, today, the town is deserted, buildings now just rubble. Israel calls this a tragic mistake.

Joining me now, Lebanon's consul general here in the United States, Mohamad El-Harake.

Thank you so much for joining us.

The Israelis have expressed their sorrow for the loss of innocent loss in Qana. Do you really think the Israelis targeted those civilians?

MOHAMAD EL-HARAKE, CONSUL GENERAL OF LEBANON: I know that the Israelis are very proud of their military powers. And they are good in targeting Palestinian activists, so they can hit a car among the 20 cars, and save the other cars. So...

ZAHN: So, you are saying there's no doubt in your mind the Israelis are so good at this that they would have intentionally targeted civilians?

EL-HARAKE: Here, we're talking about smart bombs, about military expertise, very advanced, and we're talking also about, let us say, well-mapped area. They know everything. And, supposedly, there was Hezbollah fighters near this building, as they are claiming. Why...

ZAHN: Let's show some pictures, before you go any further... EL-HARAKE: Yes, sure.

ZAHN: ... because the Israelis have provided us video from the IDF of an aerial view of the area.

Let's look at this closely together. It shows the proximity of the missile launching sites very clearly here to the civilian population in Qana.

Do you deny that they put their rocket launchers close to civilians to use them as shields?

EL-HARAKE: Yes, at first, we should verify this video by expert to see if exactly it reflects the same building that was targeted.

Secondly, where is the evidence? If they targeted the rocket launchers and Hezbollah fighters, how come you don't see any fighter killed? How come you have 36 kids killed and many others killed, civilians? Show me one fighter of Hezbollah to believe the Israeli theory and argument.

ZAHN: But you still haven't stated clearly here, yes or no. I have heard you dance around the question of whether you think they really set out to kill these civilians.

EL-HARAKE: What do you think my answer to be?

ZAHN: Yes or no?

EL-HARAKE: I'm telling you now yes or no. I'm telling you yes, because I'm a Lebanese.

I have witnessed 600 civilians killed, my city completely destroyed, wounded by thousands. And now you're asking me if these people who killed all these people are capable of killing civilians? Yes, they are capable of killing civilians.

ZAHN: Are -- are you defending Hezbollah and their tactics, their tactics of moving freely among the civilian population of -- of your people? Do you defend what they're doing?

EL-HARAKE: I'm defending my government by saying that, if the Hezbollah fighters were close to the shelter, where are the killed? Do you know that the Israeli public opinion right now is asking their government, show us the Hezbollah fighters? You are showing us women killed, kids killed, innocent civilian kills.

But, until now, they were incapable of showing the fighters killed.

ZAHN: You are defending your government.

EL-HARAKE: Yes.

ZAHN: Hezbollah is part of that government.

EL-HARAKE: Yes.

ZAHN: So, are you telling me tonight that you support what Hezbollah's doing?

EL-HARAKE: I'm supporting any resistance against the invasion or the aggression against the territory of my country. You know that...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: The Israelis would argue...

EL-HARAKE: Yes.

ZAHN: ... that it's Hezbollah that started this by going in to Israeli territory and capturing two soldiers...

EL-HARAKE: And what...

ZAHN: ... and killing eight.

EL-HARAKE: What about the previous provocation, airspace violation, territorial water violation, Mossad cell operations that killed many people in Lebanon? All this, you don't consider it previous provocations, people jailed for 28 years? All that don't count for you or for any other person? Only count the two captive soldiers in -- by Hezbollah?

You don't consider that keeping the land of Lebanon...

ZAHN: All right.

EL-HARAKE: ... of Shebaa Farms, Kafr Shuba hills the provocation?

(CROSSTALK)

EL-HARAKE: Only two soldiers. We kill first the -- the neighborhood, then the localities, then the city, then the country. Then, now we want to declare war against Syria. All that for two captive soldiers?

ZAHN: Let's -- let's move forward to where we are tonight, a final question. The head of Hezbollah has called for the elimination of Israel. Do you support that?

EL-HARAKE: No, he didn't call for that. I don't think he called for that. I don't think he has the capability of doing that. All what I know, we are talking here...

ZAHN: He doesn't believe in Israel's right to exist.

EL-HARAKE: We -- we believe in Israel's rights to exist.

But, here you are asking the question in another way, as if Israel is targeted right now more than us.

ZAHN: OK.

EL-HARAKE: Here you are, you have Lebanon targeted. You have Lebanon wounded, not Israel. Israel keeps saying: I'm attacked.

But the victims are on the other side.

ZAHN: OK.

EL-HARAKE: If you ask a baby of 5 years old, by the results on the ground, who is a terrorist? He can tell you judging on the results on the ground.

ZAHN: All right. Final final question. We only have 10 seconds.

EL-HARAKE: Yes.

ZAHN: You said you -- you defend the right of the resistance fighters.

EL-HARAKE: To defend any attack against...

ZAHN: You don't want -- you don't want Hezbollah disarmed now?

EL-HARAKE: Now this will be a kind of discussion within the Lebanese government, as we were doing it in a very serious way...

ZAHN: All right.

EL-HARAKE: ... to reach this result among ourselves. That's our right...

ZAHN: OK.

EL-HARAKE: ... to discuss any issue among ourselves to reach tangible results.

ZAHN: We...

EL-HARAKE: Here, we're talking about Condoleezza Rice, Middle East, a new Middle East.

ZAHN: OK.

EL-HARAKE: We don't see any...

ZAHN: We have got to, unfortunately break it off...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: ... because we have to get to some breaking news out of Syria, and the call by the president of Syria to put his troops at a higher readiness level.

Mohamad, thank you for coming by.

EL-HARAKE: Always a pleasure.

ZAHN: Appreciate your...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: ... perspective.

EL-HARAKE: Thank you.

ZAHN: We're going to take a short break here.

Coming up, there's much more ahead on tonight's "Top Story" coverage, including what some believe are the ominous signs of ancient prophecies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): Signposts on the road to Armageddon. War rages in the Middle East, horrific natural disasters. Some people see biblical omens that the end is near.

Plus, he has already apologized for despicable words and disgraceful behavior, but who's buying Mel Gibson's mea culpa? And what could the fallout be? -- all that and more just ahead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back.

Our "Top Story" coverage now shifts to the breaking news out of Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is ordering his armed forces to step up their readiness.

Aneesh Raman is in Damascus as we speak. He joins us live.

Aneesh, give us some context here. What does this really mean?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, good evening.

Strong words made stronger by the context of war in the region -- the Syrian president telling the Syrian troops in a statement that was read to them today to raise their readiness, amid what he says an -- is an Israeli aggression, a war in Lebanon, that is infuriating the region, essentially, and increasing in ferocity.

Now, what does it mean? There was no mention of increased troop numbers, no mention of moving of military assets towards the border. But Syria has said from the start that, if Israel gets too close for comfort to the Syrian border, it will see that as a threat on national security.

Just a few days ago, an Israeli airstrike hit the main road between Syria and Lebanon, just two miles into the Lebanese side of the border, the closest, as far as we have been able to tell yet, attacks to Syria. That closed the border crossing. And as Israel seems set to expand its ground offensive, Syria is perhaps posturing, trying to send a defensive, but, we're told, not offensive, message that it will respond if attacked.

But, also, amid calls, Paula, for a peace deal, Syria wants to remind the world, and especially the West, that it shouldn't be left out; it shouldn't be ignored; it wants part of any peace deal that could be brokered -- Paula.

ZAHN: Just a real quick answer -- the Israelis' ambassador to U.S. is saying that Israel has no intention of attacking Syria.

RAMAN: Yes. And Syria says it has no intention of attacking Israel, but you're seeing troop numbers increase on the Israeli side. You're seeing the alert raised on the Syrian side. It's a game of war. Tensions are high. And, so, this just adds to the situation here -- Paula.

ZAHN: Aneesh Raman, really appreciate the update on that late breaking-news out of Syria.

And just a reminder once again: Israel's ambassador to the U.N. says he's not worried at all about this threat, because, once again, his country has no intention of bringing Syria into this conflict.

Now, while Syria's president is ordering his army to step up its readiness, the president and the secretary of state just wrapped up a meeting moments ago. We have just been provided with this picture of the president and secretary of state meeting.

And, right now, we get the latest from White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux on what they're trying to cobble together.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a week of shuttle diplomacy blew up in Qana, after Israelis mistakenly hit a civilian target, killing dozens of children. Now the president, his national security adviser, and Rice are hunkered down at the White House, with a renewed sense of urgency to get a peace deal done.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to work with our allies to bring before the United Nations Security Council a resolution that will end the violence and lay the groundwork for lasting peace in the Middle East.

(APPLAUSE)

MALVEAUX: That resolution includes a permanent cease-fire, a deployment of Lebanon's army in Hezbollah-controlled areas, a global embargo against rearming Hezbollah, and a new international force to help enforce any cease-fire.

Israeli officials indicate, for now, they're on board with Rice's resolution, which does not require Israel to immediately stop its attacks.

EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): I have to say that everybody has said to me, no cease-fire, no cease-fire.

MALVEAUX: That position has earned the condemnation of European and Arab allies alike, raising the stakes even higher for Rice's diplomatic mission.

DAN BENJAMIN, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY PROGRAM SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: There's no question that the United States has a public-relations disaster on its hands. The question really is whether the leadership is prepared to ride it out in order to achieve its strategic goals.

MALVEAUX: But the Bush administration is heartened by what it sees as an emerging tough stance towards Iran, which it believes may have orchestrated Hezbollah's attacks to distract attention from its nuclear program.

Monday, the U.N. Security Council passed its first resolution, giving Iran until the end of August to freeze its uranium-enrichment program or face possible economic sanctions.

BUSH: It is -- it goes to show that, when America takes the lead and works with our friends, we're able to accomplish diplomatic objectives.

MALVEAUX: But political analysts say, time is not on the administration's side. Israel says it needs perhaps up to two more weeks to carry out its military campaign against Hezbollah. The U.S. will be back before the U.N. Security Council by midweek to broker its resolution and what the administration calls a sustainable peace.

BENJAMIN: From the U.S. perspective, if there are more civilian casualties in the manner of Qana, then, it's going to be a very, very difficult passage for the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: And, Paula, it was about 15 minutes ago Secretary Rice left the White House. It was about a meeting that took place, 90 minutes, with President Bush.

Still waiting for a readout of that meeting, but I can tell you, earlier today, U.S. officials emphasized that, yes, time is running out; there's a window of opportunity here that is dramatically shrinking -- one of the challenges, of course, not only to get the U.N. Security Council members on board with that resolution, but also to get Lebanon to get tough with Hezbollah, to crack down on it militarily, at a time when Hezbollah is actually strengthening politically -- Paula.

ZAHN: Suzanne Malveaux, if and when you get to that readout, we will come back to you live. Thank you so much.

Now, as our "Top Story" coverage continues, we are going to take you to the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting so far in this conflict -- coming up, an amazing look at what little is left of Bint Jbail.

Plus, why do so many conservative Christians see the events unfolding in the Middle East right now as a prelude to Armageddon and possibly the end of the world?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: As we're on the air here tonight, the clock is running down on Sunday's 48-hour suspension of most Israeli air attacks, but some relief workers are finally reaching people in southern Lebanon, trapped in the battles between Israel and Hezbollah.

Karl Penhaul went on an extraordinary journey with the first U.N. forces to enter one town that took a fierce pounding.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A U.N. armored truck rolls out of its base -- the mission, check out what remains of Bint Jbail, the town the Israeli military dubs Hezbollah H.Q., or rocket city.

Judging by this monument to Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei and to Hezbollah commander Hassan Nasrallah, this town was fiercely loyal to Hezbollah. Now little is left.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. (INAUDIBLE) There are (INAUDIBLE) in there.

PENHAUL: This is what still is standing on main street. Hard to imagine how anybody stranded here managed to survive such a ferocious Israeli bombardment. But some did. Now Lebanese Red Cross volunteers are trying to ferry them out.

"We were hiding. I hid under my stairs, and bombs fell on my house," Fatima Kadish tells me.

Seventy-year-old Daida (ph) says she has been through three weeks of hell. Her house was bombed, and she had to sleep outside. Now she finally has a ride to safety on a Red Cross stretcher.

In the bombed-out remains of Bint Jbail Hospital, Dr. Fuoad Tahar describes the intensity of the Israeli attack.

DR. FUOAD TAHAR, BINT JBAIL BOMBING WITNESS: In half-an-hour, we counted 350 or 360 bomb.

PENHAUL: Amid a lull in the bombing, survivors pick their way through the ruins. Some have walked from nearby Maroun al-Ras, the first village to be invaded by Israeli ground troops.

"Israeli soldiers came into my house and told me to put my hands up and sit on the floor."

Three more people shuffled through the rubble of another street. And when I ask them their names, this is what I hear.

MOHAMMAD BAZZI, RESIDENT OF BINT JBAIL, LEBANON: I am American. I can stop here.

PENHAUL (on camera): You are American?

BAZZI: Yes. My -- my wife American.

PENHAUL: He pulls their passports from a plastic bag and adds:

BAZZI: I have nine kids in Michigan...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michigan. Michigan.

PENHAUL: But he has no more time to chat. They're trying to reach the Red Cross vans and get evacuated.

(on camera): Bint Jbail has seen some of the heaviest combat. It's here the Israeli military say they fought Hezbollah guerrillas door to door, hand to hand, window to window.

(voice-over): But I met a man who said he was a Hezbollah fighter and who told a different story. He declined to appear on camera, but allowed me to record his voice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hear only shelling, I swear by God.

There's no military target.

PENHAUL (on camera): The Hezbollah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even the fighter -- even the fighters were not in town. The fighters are on the -- on the mountains.

PENHAUL (voice-over): It's difficult to thoroughly check his claims, but, in the ruins, I spotted no remains of Hezbollah rocket launchers or bullets, only shrapnel from bombs and artillery rounds, including this one, unexploded, with Hebrew on the side.

The damage is worse than the U.N. observers expected.

KOJO OPANGR, UNITED NATIONS OPERATIONS OFFICER: Coming to see Bint Jbail again today for the first time, it's -- it's a big change. I think it has been quite massive here.

PENHAUL: Looking at the scale of the destruction, it's hard to imagine how it could have been any worse.

Karl Penhaul, CNN, Bint Jbeil, south Lebanon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: But despite the weeks of destruction like that in Lebanon, Hezbollah rockets still fly across the border into Israel. So a short time ago I questioned Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: So, Mark, the prime minister said that Hezbollah had suffered a heavy blow. How can he say that when the highest number of rockets so far, almost three weeks into this conflict, fell yesterday on your country?

MARK REGEV, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN: I think the assumption is that these 20 days of conflict, we've managed to hit some very important Hezbollah infrastructure, we've managed to hit some very important command and control, we've taken out a lot of its resources on the ground. No one has any illusion that this conflict is already over, that Hezbollah still has a fighting machine left. But we've been hitting them hard, and I think we've been successful in neutralizing a significant part of their fighting machine.

ZAHN: You say you've been successful in neutralizing a part of their fighting machine, but in that process, it is believed that 54 innocent people were killed in Qana. How do you defend that?

REGEV: I don't. I mean, what happened in Qana yesterday was a tragedy. I know I speak for my entire country when I say that we express our most sincere sorrow at what happened yesterday in Qana.

Now, that incident is still being investigated. There are a lot of question marks about exactly what happened, but I can tell you that we've ordered now a period where we are cutting down our aerial sorties, we've put limitations on our use of air power to make sure things like that don't happen again. And we're investigating it thoroughly.

ZAHN: Today, when your government said there was going to be a 48-hour cessation of bomb drops on southern Lebanon, Israeli forces ended up hitting a car with Lebanese military members.

REGEV: I think you raise a legitimate point, but this is real combat. And in combat, it's not a computer game on some sort of screen. This is real combat, and people are getting killed on both sides of the frontier. It's our obligation as a democratic society to make a maximum effort, a maximum possible effort to limit the number of innocent people being caught up in the conflict. That's especially difficult because of the strategies and tactics used by Hezbollah.

ZAHN: But, sir, wouldn't a cease-fire prevent another tragedy like we saw happen in Qana?

REGEV: I mean, you'd be right, the cease-fire would get the violence off the television screens. But maybe that's only a mirage, because that is allowing Hezbollah then to rearm, and then we're back to square one. And six months from now, eight months from now, a year from now, when Hezbollah once again decides to reorchestrate this sort of regional crisis, we'll be back with the same violence.

ZAHN: So how has the prestige of the Israeli military been compromised by this series of mistakes? REGEV: I've got no doubt. I mean, I'm on the public relations end, and I know it's very difficult every time one of these tragedies happens to answer tough questions and say why did it happen? But I think if you look at recent conflicts, whether in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Serbia or in other plays, there is no such thing as a war without collateral damage.

ZAHN: Mark Regev, we appreciate your time tonight. We've got to leave it there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And we move on to the question of whether the crisis in the Middle East is actually a prelude to the end of the world. Coming up next in our top story coverage, why some evangelical Christians think the end is coming.

And later, allegations of anti-Semitism and drunk driving humble one of Hollywood's biggest power players. Yes, you know him, Mel Gibson.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Back to our top story coverage now. The bloody fighting in Lebanon, and Israel has a lot of American evangelical Christians wondering whether it's a sign foretelling the end times. To those who aren't evangelical, that may sound a little bit out there, but according to a CNN Harris interactive poll back in 2002, almost 60 percent of Americans think that the end of the world, as predicted in the Bible's Book of Revelations, will happen, and 17 percent believe it will happen during their lifetimes.

Now, this belief goes back centuries. Countless times, some Christians interpreted calamities as signs that the world was about to end. Of course, the world went on and on and on. And tonight, faith and values correspondent Delia Gallagher is here because the Mideast fighting has many preachers and followers saying that the end is near again.

Welcome.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN FAITH AND VALUES CORRESPONDENT: I know. I know it sounds a little far-fetched, Paula, but the fact is I've talked to a lot of believers who say the events that we are seeing were talked about in the Bible and do suggest that perhaps the end is imminent.

So I've talked to these people and I want to show you a little bit about what they have to say. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER (voice-over): They say the end of the world is coming.

KEN RAGGIO, NORTH CITIES CHURCH MEMBER: As far as I can tell, we are at the very end and we need to prepare ourselves for that, according to the world of God.

GALLAGHER: They see the current conflict in the Middle East, with missiles falling near Megiddo in Israel, the Biblical site of Armageddon, as a sign that the Bible's prophecies of the final days and the return of Jesus are coming true.

One of the Bible's most widely debated books, Revelation is filled with vivid and frightening imagery: Satan, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the mark of the beast. It all depicts a great world apocalyptic battle for Israel, Armageddon, that ushers in the return of Jesus Christ and the beginning of a thousand-year period of peace.

PASTOR CRAIG TREADWELL, ENDTIME MINISTRIES: See, the Bible tells us that a war is coming, which will kill one third of mankind.

GALLAGHER: And this Pentecostal church in Texas is far from the only hot spot of prophetic rhetoric.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, sure, it's heavy nuclear. You can't kill 2 billion people without going nuclear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You better be watching for him to come. You better be ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God is crying out!

GALLAGHER: In recent days, some evangelical broadcasts have been abuzz with talks of the end times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You could get raptured out of this building before I get through finished preaching. We are that close to the coming of the Son of Man.

GALLAGHER: So are we really on the road to Armageddon? Middle East expert and writer of end times fiction Joel Rosenberg has few doubts the rapture is on the way.

JOEL ROSENBERG, AUTHOR, "THE COPPER SCROLL": You have the rapture, then the rise of the Antichrist, and then a terrible period of seven years of terrible war and famine and plague. This is known as the tribulation. And it's at the end of the tribulation that this massive attack on Israel, known as Armageddon, will happen, and then the second coming of Jesus.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: All right, Delia, we need your help. You just rolled through an awful lot of terms. We went from rapture to the Antichrist, tribulation. Explain this to us.

GALLAGHER: OK. So we're going to go through each of these terms so that we get them down because we can't talk about this topic until we know what they're talking about. We've put up a couple of graphics so that is going to help the audience follow along for a moment.

ZAHN: It's going to help all of us. GALLAGHER: Yes. So first of all, with the rapture. The rapture is this idea, which by the way is not in the Bible specifically, but it is this period of time when they say Christians are going to be taken up into heaven and waiting there while all of this tribulation goes on on Earth, as it were. They say it can happen at any time, that's why you hear a lot of the preachers saying you'd better be prepared because you're going to be raptured at any time when you least expect it. That's the idea of the rapture.

Then the tribulation is when this period of seven years, they say, it's going to be wars and trials on earth. We're not in it yet according to them, but you will hear them talking about pre- tribulation and post tribulation, this is the time when the anti- Christ, whoever he or she may be, this figure they say is going to come to power and all of the countries are going to align behind this anti-Christ leading to Armageddon, this big war. The term is taken from Mount Megiddo in Israel, it's an actual place in the Bible. And in the Bible it says on this mountain there will be the kings will gather.

From that they decided there's going to be this huge battle of good and evil, and at that time at Armageddon, the world as we know it, they say, will be destroyed, and they say as we know it because there follows a thousand-year period of peace and that's a period when those Christians who have been raptured come back down to earth with Jesus and a thousand year period of peace follows.

So they say that the world doesn't actually end, that they actually have this wonderful time of peace. Now, you know, the fact is that these periods of rapture and tribulation and so on are also preceded by signs and they say that some of these signs we are already seeing right now. So let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOEL ROSENBERG, AUTHOR: There's a lot of signs that suggest to us right now that we're living in the last days. Jesus was very clear, you're looking for wars, rumors of wars, revolutions, famine.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): And those who believe in end time prophecy also say for more proof that we're in the last days, consider the real I.D. act. It's a post 9/11 law that calls for all Americans to have a federally issued identified card by May of 2008.

But what you may not know that by signing the legislation, some Armageddon believers say President Bush fulfilled a biblical prophecy, taking the world a step closer to the end times. They believe that assigning every American an identification number is a fulfillment of revelation 13 that reads, "And he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name."

PASTOR IRVIN BAXTER, ENDTIME MINISTER: We believe this is setting up the mechanism, the prophesy mechanism of the mark of the beast that was mentioned in Revelation 13, 2,000 years ago. GALLAGHER: Followers say if you need more proof that we're headed for the final countdown, just consider some recent natural disasters.

BAXTER: The Bible talks about tsunamis, it talks about the waves in the sea roaring, it talks about a dramatic increase in earthquakes.

PASTOR CRAIG TREADWELL, ENDTIME MINISTRIES: We believe this is a fulfillment of this prophecy that in the last day there is will be many earthquakes in many places.

GALLAGHER: While there's no scientific evidence to support a dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes, believers also make accusations of a military alliance they say will play a role in the coming of the end time.

ROSENBERG: Russia and Iran and their Islamic allies will attack Israel, but Israel will not defend itself using military weapons. God is going to supernaturally intervene. We're talking about fire from heaven, we're talking about a massive earthquake, we're talking about disease spreading. It will involve a supernatural judgment that the whole world will watch on CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GALLAGHER: And I think it's important to say, Paula, that, you know, not all Christians subscribe to the idea of rapture or even Armageddon, but as you can see for many people, it is a source of endless fascination.

ZAHN: And passion as well.

GALLAGHER: Yes.

ZAHN: Delia Gallagher, thanks so much. We're going to take a short break and continue now in just a minute or so when I will ask a top story panel, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell if they're worried. Plus.

BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: I'm Brooke Anderson. It was the traffic stop that stopped Hollywood. The latest on Mel Gibson's arrest and what he allegedly said about Jews when PAULA ZAHN NOW returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back. Our top story coverage continues with our look at the question of why so many conservative Christians in the U.S. are taking the fighting in the Mideast as a sign that the end of the world may be near. And joining me now, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who has said the conflict may be a prelude to Armageddon. And the Reverend Kevin Bean of St. Bartholomew's Church here in New York, who says the book of Revelation is being misread. Glad to have both of you with us tonight.

Reverend Falwell, I'm going to start with you and read something that you recently had on your Web site where you said "It is apparent, in light of the rebirth of the state of Israel, that the present day events in the holy land may very well serve as a prelude or forerunner to the future battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ."

Why do you think this current conflict may be just that, the prelude to the end of the world?

REVEREND JERRY FALWELL, LIBERTY UNIVERSITY: Well, Paula, I believe in the pre-millenial, pre-tribulational, coming of Christ for all of his church and to summarize that, your first poll, do you believe Jesus coming the second time will be in the future, I would vote yes with 59 percent and with Billy Graham and most Evangelicals.

The second question, you asked, do you think he is coming in your lifetime? I would vote neither yes nor no, I would vote I do not know, because Jesus said no man knows the day of the hour. So the bottom line is, I believe that we ought to be living every day as though this is the crowning day. But we should also be planning and working with the next generation in mind because we do not know.

ZAHN: Reverend bane, Reverend Falwell has cited the certitude of some people we spoke with in Delia Gallagher's piece and we just don't know. Do you think Armageddon is near?

REV. KEVIN BEAN, ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S CHURCH: I think our responsibility is for here and now and I think that any correlation that is made with present war making or other political schemes with the events that could lead to a final day and the second coming of Jesus and the separation of the faithful from the rest is an arrogant identification with these present day events with...

ZAHN: ... Arrogant, you say, and yet the Bible does talk about one-third of the world being wiped out, a world filled with 10-headed beasts, things coming up out of the ocean.

BEAN: Yes, you're speaking of very colorful, very mysterious, very horrific and very obscure language in the apocalyptic genre of biblical literature, Revelation to John being one of those. But there are other parts of the Bible.

And I say arrogant and irresponsible identification of these present day events because they are our destructive action and you can't correlate our destructive action with some sort of plan of God, with some sort of plan or will of an all-loving God.

ZAHN: Let's let Reverend Falwell jump in there about the irresponsibility of thinking this way and the arrogance when in fact man has brought, I think you're saying, a lot of this on himself.

BEAN: Yes.

ZAHN: A quick thought, Reverend Falwell?

FALWELL: Well, I think the big difference between Reverend Bean and Dr. Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell and millions of Evangelicals is we believe the Bible to be the inherent word of God and I suspect Reverend Been does not, nor does he take the book of Revelation or the book of John to be the literal words of God.

We do take that, but I was very clear a moment ago to say that no man knows the day of the hour. I do believe the lord is coming, I do believe the entire church will be raptured up, I do believe there will be seven years of tribulation at the end of which will there be a battle of Armageddon, as you just described and probably worse than that, and then there will be a thousand year reign of Christ from the earth, when our lord Jesus will come in power and in great glory to rule with his saints.

ZAHN: We've got to leave this in 10 seconds, just a quick rejoinder.

BEAN: Scripture rejects a heaven where anyone is left behind, that's another point that the folks made.

FALWELL: I never found that verse.

BEAN: And I have to say, you're separating Christians and non- Christians, Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Muslim, and that is not where God is with this.

ZAHN: Well Reverends, it's a discussion that could go on for some time. I hate cutting off reverends, but I have to. We have to move on. I'd love to have both of you back, because this is certainly something that's gotten a lot of people in America very worried. I appreciate your time.

Now we continue our top story coverage and we move onto a story in Hollywood that is a real shocker. Mel Gibson is checking into rehab after a run-in with police. But what about the allegations of special treatment by the police and charges that he spewed a bunch of anti semitic remarks? We'll go in depth next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: So the top story that has Hollywood buzzing tonight, actor Mel Gibson checking into rehab for what he calls, quote, "a horrific relapse into alcoholism" that may have included a drunken rant and a tirade of anti-semitism. Here's Brooke Anderson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON (voice-over): Hollywood awoke Monday to more talk about what Mel Gibson allegedly did during his arrest on suspicion of DUI and what it might do to his career. And as the actor and Oscar- winning director entered a recovery program, authorities meanwhile are dealing with a growing public relations nightmare over how they handled his arrest.

HARVEY LEVIN, MANAGING EDITOR, TMZ.COM: What I wonder is, has the sheriff's department compromised this case?

ANDERSON: The incident unfolded early Friday morning along southern California's Pacific Coast Highway, where Gibson was pulled over by sheriff's deputies. He allegedly registered a blood alcohol level of .12 over the legal limit in California of .08.

But it's what he allegedly said to deputies that has Hollywood talking. According to Harvey Levin of the celebrity news Web site tmz.com, who published what he said was a copy of the arresting deputy's unedited report, Gibson allegedly flew into a tirade that included anti semitic remarks.

LEVIN: He started screaming and swearing, "I own Malibu, I'm going to 'F' you, I'll spend all of my money to 'F' you, I will get you." And then out of context, started hurling these anti semitic remarks. "F-ing Jews, the Jews are responsible for all of the wars in the world," and looked at the deputy and said, "Are you a Jew?"

ANDERSON: The sheriff's department has not released the arresting deputy's report and CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the report documents tmz.com published. An "Associated Press" source confirms Gibson made the anti semitic remarks, but the sheriff's department would only say that Gibson was arrested without incident.

STEVE WHITMORE, SPOKESMAN, LA COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPT (on phone): Without incident means without force, without a significant use of force.

ANDERSON: Gibson's spokesman has not confirmed that Gibson made antisemitic comments during his arrest, but he has not denied it either. He said the statement Gibson released over the weekend speaks for itself.

In it, Gibson said, quote, "I did a number of things that were very wrong. I acted like a person completed out of control when I was arrested and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I apologize to anyone who I have offended. I disgraced myself and my family with my behavior and for that I am truly sorry."

The tmz.com report also alleged the sheriff's department suppressed the details of Gibson's arrest to spare the actor embarrassment. The sheriff's department spokesman denies that.

WHITMORE: We believe it's not a cover up at all. Having said that, I understand the concern. Is there influence pedaling here? Absolutely not.

ANDERSON: Gibson has volunteered time and money in the past for sheriff deputy causes, including allowing himself to appear in a public service announcement supporting a sheriff's department charity.

WHITMORE: Because of that relationship, did the sheriff expend some special consideration to this individual? Absolutely not.

ANDERSON: Meanwhile, Gibson's alleged anti semitic comments during his arrest have reignited debate over his personal view. His 2004 film, "The Passion of the Christ" was criticized by some for allegedly blaming Christ's crucifixion on the Jews. That film went on to become a huge hit earning more than $600 million worldwide. But there is talk in Hollywood that this new incident might indeed damage Gibson's career.

RAY RICHMOND, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: I think people in Hollywood are disgusted with Mel Gibson at this point, but I do believe again because he's such a power monger, because he's big box office, he's going to get past it easier than if his career was on the down swing.

ANDERSON: Whether this will damage his career will be put to the test when Gibson's new film, "Apocalypto," is released in December. Brooke Anderson, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And this just in, very shortly here you'll be looking at Mel Gibson's mug shot. Kind of an unusual expression at the time of arrest. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Thanks for joining us, night night.

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