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THE SITUATION ROOM

Middle East Conflict

Aired July 8, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report.

Breaking news: Air raid sirens blare. Panic spreads as militants launch attacks deeper into Israel. The Middle East conflict is dramatically escalating at this hour.

Israel is activating its air defenses, mobilizing tens of thousands of troops. I will ask the spokesman for the Israeli military if a ground invasion of Gaza could be just days or even hours away. We will also hear from a top Palestinian representative about the danger and deaths on both sides and the threat of a wider war that could engulf the region in chaos and bloodshed.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And let's get right to breaking news. The deadly conflict in Middle East is looking more and more like an all-out war. Tonight, Hamas militants are claiming they fired rockets deeper than ever into Israel, targeting some of its biggest cities while Hamas commandos stormed an Israeli beach.

We have new pictures in the brazen assault. Israel says it killed five of the attackers. Meanwhile, a major Israeli offensive is under way in Gaza. Right now, airstrikes are pounding Hamas targets while ground troops are mobilizing for a possible, possible invasion.

Up to 40,000 Israeli military reservists are waiting for marching orders at this hour. We have our correspondents, analysts and newsmakers all standing by for our special report on this escalating crisis.

First, let's go to our international correspondent, Ben Wedeman. He has the very latest in Gaza.

What is it, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf.

I can hear airplanes overhead, but it's been relatively quiet for the last few hours, which really fits the pattern that we saw last night. Last night, between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m., there was a fairly serious rocket barrage coming out of Gaza into Israel and about three or four hours later, Israel struck back with a series of airstrikes across Gaza.

So at the moment, there's a real heavy feeling or sense of anticipation that the other shoe is about to fall here in Gaza. Now, what we have seen over the evening is occasional blasts in the distance, but, by and large, relatively quiet.

Now what's been interesting, Wolf, is that a nearby mosque has been announcing these rocket attacks on Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and other Israeli cities. What they are leaving out of the story is that most of the rockets were stopped by Israel's Iron Dome anti-ballistics system.

And when these announcements are made, you don't hear much reaction in the street. In fact, what we were hearing was much more reaction from the houses in this area as people were watching the Germany/Brazil game, because, speaking to a lot of people in Gaza, you don't get the feeling they're wildly enthusiastic about this latest escalation. It's yet another disturbance to their already disturbed and difficult lives -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume they appreciate the fact that the government of Israel is under enormous pressure to deal with the rockets coming from Gaza and potentially -- we will hear from an Israeli military spokesman shortly. There could be a major Israeli invasion of Gaza. I assume folks are bracing for that possibility where you are, Ben?

WEDEMAN: That is the concern, Wolf, that the airstrikes, the air war could be followed by a ground invasion, which as we have seen in the past can be very bloody, very nasty, because of course, Gaza is a very crowded place where, if you're fighting in the streets, regardless of your intentions, there will be civilian casualties.

And that's the main concern. People you speak to here by and large want this thing to end as quickly as possible. They simply don't feel they have a stake in this fight between Hamas and Israel -- Wolf.

Ben Wedeman in Gaza for us, thanks, Ben.

Israeli officials, they're warning Hamas will pay in their words a heavy price for attacking, targeting major cities in Israel, dealing with millions potentially of civilians.

Diana Magnay is on the scene for us in Ashkelon along the Mediterranean coast, not far away from Gaza.

Sirens are going off not only there but in Tel Aviv and even in Jerusalem. Diana, what's the latest?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

For the last three hours or so, it's been fairly quiet here also. But about three hours ago, there was a real barrage of rockets coming over our heads, the air raid sirens sounding here and we then heard that they were sounding in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv as well. Two rockets intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, which is clearly doing an extremely effective job of intercepting rockets that could potentially cause problems in Israel's major cities.

One intercepted just south of Tel Aviv and one intercepted over the city itself. But we know that one rocket went as far as Hadera, which is 116 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip. That is possibly the longest-range missile that we have seen used out of Gaza to date. We have also had four rocket attacks over Jerusalem, three of which we hear from the IDF actually hit the city, but presumably not causing any actual damages.

Iron Dome has intercepted just under 30 of the more than 150 rockets, which the IDF says has come out of Israel today. So it has been extremely busy, Hamas clearly making good on its promise that it would retaliate and retaliate hard for these Israeli airstrikes which are supposedly targeting its terrorist infrastructure and its capabilities to launch rockets from Gaza.

And even though the IDF says it has made very good on taking out some of those key points, it clearly hasn't done -- you know, it hasn't been completely effective. These rockets are still coming, Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly are. All right, Diana Magnay in Ashkelon for us, Diana, be careful over there.

Let's get the latest now from the spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner is joining us right now.

Have any of these rocket or missile attacks from Gaza done any -- created any casualties of Israelis so far, Colonel?

PETER LERNER, SPOKESMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: No.

Actually, I'm happy to report that we invest in life. Indeed, the Iron Dome project seems to be a strategic project that actually gives us the leeway and gives us the capability to make cool-headed decisions of what we need to do. And, indeed, if what has been reported and what you just reported about, approximately 150 rockets launched at Israel in the last 24 hours, that's only a small fraction of what Gaza and what Hamas terrorist organizations have.

They have about 10,000 rockets, all poised and prepared to attack us. This is what really concerns us. We have to operate. We have to -- our mission is to deal with this rocket threat and to strike strongly against Hamas and this terrorist organization. It's a reality we cannot bear.

We actually tried to send a clear message last week. We can calm things down. Hamas, please calm things down on your side. What did they choose to do? They choose aggression. They chose to attack us. They chose this barrage of hundreds of rockets against our civilians. It's unacceptable.

BLITZER: Colonel, what can you tell us about this Hamas beach attack or beach raid along the Mediterranean in Israel? We have some video we are showing our viewers.

LERNER: Indeed, the IDF located four or five people that were coming out of the sea. It seems that they were swimming and they had weapons on them. Our surveillance picked them up immediately, alerted the ground forces and, in a combined effort together with our air force, our naval forces, and the infantry on the ground, took these terrorists out. I would say -- that they came to the wrong beach party.

These terrorists have no -- they should have stayed on their own side of the fence. They paid dearly for this.

BLITZER: Israeli cabinet, as you know, has mobilized 40,000 reservists, civilians who have been called into active duty. Does that mean you are bracing for a ground invasion of Gaza?

LERNER: Actually, the cabinet has approved the military to recruit up to 40,000.

We have not recruited that much yet, only about 1,000 or so. You know, the way things are going, we have to be prepared. Hope is not a method. We have to be prepared and be able to mobilize as quick as possible in order to address the threats that are developing on the field.

Today, we attacked some 18 tunnels that Hamas are preparing in order to infiltrate into Israel. These tunnels have proven in the past to reach within the reaching point of our civilian communities. So, we posted our forces on the border with Gaza, and they serve as a physical buffer between Hamas terrorists and our civilian communities.

If we need to mobilize, we will. We don't want to. We clearly said it last week that we have no interest in any confrontation or escalation with Gaza. But, unfortunately, Hamas made this bad decision.

BLITZER: So if Hamas stops firing rockets and missiles into Israel, you will step back?

LERNER: No, I think that they have -- we are beyond that point now. Hamas are going to pay for the attacks they are carrying out. We refuse to be held hostage by this terrorist organization that thinks that they can launch rockets at Jerusalem just here in Jerusalem and that can paralyze our cities.

It is just unacceptable. We won't permit that to happen. We will deplete their rocket capabilities. We will continue to do so. Their leadership will be pursued. Their organization will be paralyzed. That's what we are out to do.

BLITZER: But, Colonel, as you say, they have 10,000 rockets. And what I have been told is they have several hundred, not only rockets, but some missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and beyond.

And a lot of those rockets and missiles are in heavily populated areas. How do you deal with that? You can't just go bomb those areas and wind up killing a lot of young kids, women, elderly. You are not going to do that?

LERNER: No, clearly. We are a professional military force. We take our business extremely seriously.

We base our missions on highly credible intelligence and operational capabilities. We do a precision strike. We use precision munitions. If you're involved in terrorism, you know it, you know you are putting yourself at risk. You know you will have a personal price to pay. And, indeed, we do realize that 10,000 rockets, they won't disappear overnight. That's why we expect it to be a long mission.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying is that the airstrikes will continue. You're not yet ready to deploy a ground force invasion of Gaza, but the airstrikes are going to continue, is that what you're saying?

LERNER: Absolutely.

You reported and Ben from Gaza is reporting our ongoing activities. And, indeed, the Hamas terrorist organization is going to pay a price for their aggression against Israel. The reality where they feel that they can use the Gaza Strip as a staging ground and operate with immunity, they are living in a dreamland.

It just can't happen. It is not what we expect. It's not what the civilians of the state of Israel expect from their military force and we are up to the job. It's our obligation. And we are determined to be successful in our mission.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, thanks very much for joining us.

LERNER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead, we will get the Palestinian perspective. They are warning that Israel may be dragging the entire region into a wider war that will "burn everyone." We will talk about the danger across the Middle East. And what, if anything, can the United States, should the United States do to ease this conflict and stop the carnage?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of the Middle East, a major escalation of the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants. Israel may be mobilizing for a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza soon.

Joining us, Retired U.S. General Anthony Zinni. He's the former U.S. military Central Commander. He's now on the board of governors of the Middle East Institute, was a special envoy for the Middle East. Also joining us, Maen Areikat, the Palestinian representative, the PLO ambassador here in Washington.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Is the region, Mr. Ambassador, getting ready for all-out war right now? Or can cooler heads prevail?

MAEN AREIKAT, PALESTINIAN REPRESENTATIVE TO UNITED STATES: I hope not, because we have...

BLITZER: Hope not what?

AREIKAT: I hope not, that it is not going to escalate into an all-out war, because for Israelis, they have to know that there is no military solution to this problem.

We have seen this many times before in November 2012 and in 2007 and what did it produce? More suffering for both sides. The only solution for this problem is political.

BLITZER: How do you convince Hamas to stop firing rockets, missiles into Israel?

AREIKAT: Well, I think there's always a reaction to each action.

And for the least few weeks, we have been in escalation on the part of the Israeli government after the kidnapping of the three teenaged settlers in the West Bank. Israel embarked on a campaign in the West Bank, targeted Hamas, activists attacked, many organization affiliated with Hamas.

And it was expected that escalation is going to lead to this kind of skirmishes and confrontation.

BLITZER: You're worried though right now?

AREIKAT: Of course I'm worried, because there are Palestinian people who are being killed. Today, the number of people who were killed so far is 23.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: In Gaza.

AREIKAT: In Gaza, and 170 were wounded.

Just two hours ago, a family of six perished in an Israeli air raid.

BLITZER: General Zinni, you were a special envoy for the Middle East. You know this region well. What can, what should the United States do right now?

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.), FORMER CENTCOM COMMANDER: I think it's important to try to get in place it a cease-fire as we did before. How do we influence Hamas? Can Egypt play a role, the Jordanians?

Listening to your interview with Lieutenant Colonel Lerner, it strikes me that the mission for the IDF is to deplete rockets and it sounds like they have a plan that may good on for a while to try to deplete that 10,000 number and maybe even get to the longer-range.

And if that the case, there may not be a short-term cease-fire that's able to be put in place. The danger becomes, as I think the ambassador pointed out, we have some civilian casualties that are truly tragic. That may spark something in East Jerusalem, the West Bank. And this thing could escalate very rapidly.

BLITZER: Because you heard the Israeli cabinet, General Zinni, they have authorized -- you understand this, you're a military man -- the possibility of 40,000 reservists being activated, called into active duty. So far, 1,000 have been activated. We did the math and we will put up it on the screen.

Israel, a country of about eight million people. That's 40,000. It's 0.5 percent of the population. If you were to take a look at the United States, that would be the equivalent, take a look at this, the equivalent of 1.5 million U.S. military reservists. That's a major decision in a relatively small country like Israel to go ahead and potentially authorize that kind of deployment for a ground invasion.

ZINNI: That right.

As you said, that's a significant number. And it tells me that they are preparing for possibly, as they see it, the worst that may require them to go into a place like Gaza. And, again, I want to point out that, as Ben Wedeman said, that's the most densely populated place on earth.

The potential for collateral damage, civilian casualties can be great if it comes to that. So, I think it is important really now to get a diplomatic effort in place, to get a cease-fire that can calm things down and then decide how we deal with the issues, obviously, the ongoing investigations of the deaths of those Israeli and the Palestinian youth.

BLITZER: They need a cease-fire, Mr. Ambassador. You agree. The Egyptians, their influence right now under the new government in Cairo, President Al-Sisi, rather limited. They don't have a good relationship with Hamas.

I don't know if Qatar has a good relationship. But your president, the president of Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, does, at least for now, have good relations. Can he broker between the Israelis and Hamas groups in Gaza a cease-fire?

AREIKAT: Well, in order for him to play any role, Israel has to cease its attacks on the Gaza Strip.

There are innocent civilians who are losing their lives as we speak. And the claims by their spokesperson that they are precise and careful is meaningless, because innocent people, seven children were killed today, two people over the age of 50. Three women were killed among the people today in the Gaza Strip.

Israel must also assess and evaluate the consequences of its continued attack, because it will have some negative impact on the relationship with the Palestinians as a whole, including with the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.

BLITZER: What does your gut tell you, General Zinni? Is this region going to explode in an all-out war?

ZINNI: I think the potential is there.

It's like a big oil spill or gas spill. And there's a lot of matches that are being lit. I think there is still time to walk this back, but each day that goes by and the more the exchange of airstrikes and rockets, the greater the chance that we will see something that won't be confined just to the Israeli-Palestinian areas, but can quickly metastasize into the other areas that are already in disarray and chaos.

BLITZER: I hope they both find a way to step back from that scenario, which would be so awful.

General Zinni, thanks very much for joining us.

Ambassador Areikat, thanks to you as well.

We will continue our coverage of this in the days to come and we would love to have both of you back.

Just ahead, the bombs and bloodshed, they go back years. I have experienced air sirens in Israel firsthand a couple years ago, the race to the bomb shelter at that time. I have also seen the destruction from rocket attacks, airstrikes. We are going to show you why history may be repeating itself right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our special report, a major Israeli offensive in Gaza now under way after dozens of new rocket attacks by Hamas militants deeper into Israel.

A ground invasion of Gaza could be next. It is an all-too-familiar crisis in the region.

Let's bring in CNN's Tom Foreman for some perspective -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you know, as anybody who has covered this region, researched this region over the years knows, this is what happens. It's almost hard to keep track of it because events like this have happened again and again and again.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN (voice-over): Children murdered and beaten, families bombed and bloodied. The latest violence in the Middle East is a painful reprise of the attacks and counterattacks that have plagued Israelis and Palestinians for decades, so much so that each new round of violence looks suspiciously like the last one.

In the late 1980s, the first intifada began, an uprising by Palestinians against Israeli occupation. It lingered for years and was met with strong reprisals. The second intifada came in the early 2000s, again, each side blaming the other for provocations.

In the mid-2000s, Palestinians fought each other and Israel, bulldozers, bullets and bombs taking tolls. If it all starts looking alike, so have the peace talks for the region. Many made progress, but none produced real peace. The same hopes were raised.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States understands the need for peace to produce real benefits.

FOREMAN: The same warnings sounded.

BLITZER: U.S. officials know there is a potential spoiler out there.

FOREMAN: And the same violence eventually always returns, unraveling hopes for a lasting deal.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Also two media centers will -- whoa.

(EXPLOSIONS)

FOREMAN: Conflict in Gaza dates back to Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Crusades and, of course, the world wars. So, if news is that which is new, what does the latest unrest tell us?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just hope it doesn't hit anywhere here.

FOREMAN: There is nothing new here at all.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: And that of course, Wolf, is the key problem here. You look at these pictures going back for decades and they look the same over and over and over again, underlying how intractable the problem is.

So, why do we pay attention at a time like this? Because every single time, we wonder if this is the time that it will escalate to something much, much worse than what we have seen dozens and dozens of times before -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we can only hope that cooler heads will prevail and they will find some way to avoid what could be another all-out war. Let's hope that is avoided.

Tom Foreman, excellent perspective for us. I remember those scenes very, very well. Good opportunities. Unfortunately, those opportunities have been squandered over the years.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Tweet me, @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show, @CNNSitRoom. Please be sure to join us again tomorrow, right here in "THE SITUATION ROOM." You can always watch us live. You can always DVR the show so you won't miss a moment.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Stephanie Cutter and Newt Gingrich.