Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Flight 17 Crash Site Not Secure; Crisis in Israel; Interview with White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken

Aired July 28, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Why does Secretary of State John Kerry still sound so optimistic about a cease-fire, when Israel's leader doesn't?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, 10 people, at least eight children, said to be killed in an attack on a Palestinian refugee camp. Hamas says Israel did it. Israel says Hamas did it. Is there any hope for a lasting cease-fire? Israel's prime minister seems to be saying not any time soon.

Plus, this is how Hamas smuggles weapons and stages attacks within Israel without detection. In a CNN exclusive, we will take you into the claustrophobic confines of Gaza's secret tunnels.

Also in world news, it's been called the world's biggest crime scene and the top suspects still control it. How can anyone ever be brought to justice for the downing of Flight 17 if investigators is still can't even get access?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin, of course, with the world lead. This should be a day of celebration in Gaza. It's the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid. Instead, it's not only a day of fighting and mourning for both sides. It also seems to be something of a day of escalation. And civilians continue to pay the price.

Headlines about a possible serious cease-fire are gone, in their place, tragedy, 10 people, at least eight of them children, killed, according to Gaza's health ministry, in a strike on a Palestinian refugee camp on the Gaza coastline. Hamas, the Palestinian militants who control Gaza who have been labeled a terrorist or the organization by the U.S. government, Hamas says Israel carried out the strikes on the camp and another one near a hospital, but the Israel Defense Forces say the strikes were actually botched rocket launches by Hamas.

Israel says five of its soldiers were killed today, four of them in a single mortar attack, bringing its death toll in recent weeks to 51 people, mostly soldiers. The Palestinians report more than 1,000 of their people have been killed, mostly civilians. And those numbers will almost certainly, tragically, keep rising.

Secretary of State John Kerry today said the U.S. is continuing efforts to broker a cease-fire, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that will not come any time soon. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): We knew that we would have difficult days. This is a difficult and painful day. Stamina and determination are required in order to continue in the struggle against a murderous terrorist group that aspires to destroy us. I said and I repeat we must be prepared for a protracted campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Hamas seems to be escalating its attacks, firing mortars successfully at Israeli soldiers and trying again today to use its network of tunnels that Hamas has dug from Gaza to, according to the Israeli government, attack Israeli civilians in Israel.

Our own Wolf Blitzer is the only American television journalist who got a look inside this tunnel network today.

And he joins us live from Jerusalem.

Wolf, these tunnels that are now the primary targets of the Israeli military, why do they say it's so important for Israel to take them out?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Because they have a very secure fence between Gaza and Israel, and it would be very difficult for Hamas militants to cross that fence.

So what the Hamas militants do, they have dug these tunnels underneath that fence about 45 feet below the ground, sometimes going two, three miles, if you will. It goes from Gaza into Israel. So I went down into one. The IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, allowed me to go take a look and see one of these tunnels.

This one that I saw took Hamas about two years to build, according the IDF lieutenant colonel who escorted me down there. And it's pretty elaborate. The concrete is very thick. You can't really stand up too tall because it's sort of short, but you can get the job done. So what the Israelis fear is Hamas guys can come into Israel, they can kill people, they can kidnap people and they can do what they want.

So that's the big concern. That's priority number one for the IDF right now, to find and destroy all these tunnels.

TAPPER: And, Wolf, you spoke to an Israeli colonel who said the concrete and electricity in these tunnels actually came from Israel?

BLITZER: That's what he says. He said that Israel allows concrete to come in to Gaza to build schools or hospitals or buildings or apartments, whatever.

They found the bags, he says, showing that the concrete was actually, the raw material for the concrete came, was allowed to cross into Gaza from Israel, and instead of using it for peaceful, productive purposes, they used a lot of this concrete to build these tunnels. They're not only these tunnels, as you know, Jake, that go from Gaza

into Israel. The whole network of tunnels, they go into Sinai, they go into Egypt as well. And the new Egyptian government of President Al-Sisi, they have tried to destroy these tunnels as well. Those tunnels are used to smuggle stuff, whether goods or products or weapons or whatever.

The tunnels that go into Israel, the Israelis say there's only one purpose for Hamas militants to cross into Israel, either kidnap someone or kill some Israelis. And they say they're going to stop that.

TAPPER: And, Wolf, the prime minister Netanyahu, he today cautioned about a prolonged campaign in Gaza. How long of a timeline do you think he's talking about? What will it take, in his view, do you think, to seek and destroy this tunnel network?

BLITZER: One Israeli military officer told me maybe another week or two to destroy the tunnels, but then they have got all these other rockets they want to destroy. There were maybe 10,000 at the beginning of this current war, or this current conflict, if you will.

The Israelis say maybe 6,000 or 7,000 have either been used by Hamas, maybe 3,000 been launched into Israel, another 3,000 have been destroyed. But they say there's still 3,000 or 4,000 more. That's a big operation as well. The Israelis are under enormous pressure to accept the cease-fire. I don't know what they're going to do. But the pressure is coming, including from the U.S.

The U.S. would like to see a cease-fire, the U.N. and the Europeans. My gut tells me that in the end, there will be some sort of cease- fire. Whether it comes within a few days or few weeks, who knows.

TAPPER: Wolf in Jerusalem, thank you. Stay safe.

CNN has the resources to cover this conflict like no one else.

In Gaza, we have our Ian Lee is standing by. In Ashkelon, Israel, our Atika Shubert is also standing by.

Let's go to Ian Lee in Gaza first.

Ian, what's happening there on the ground? Are you hearing any blasts, any evidence of an airstrike in?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, there's been a lot of activity tonight right behind me. We're looking south here and all night, we have been seeing tank fire. We have seen airstrikes and we have seen artillery go off here. A lot of flares lighting up the night sky as well, as we're assuming infantry movement as we have seen in the past move along with these thanks, a lot of activity coming from what the prime minister earlier today said, that they're not afraid to expand this operation.

Residents along the eastern border also got messages today that said move away towards central Gaza. Move out of these areas. We have been to these areas, like Beit Hanoun, and Shaja'ia, and these are areas that have for the most part -- some of them have been leveled, completely destroyed. When we went in to them, a lot of the areas were like ghost towns. So it's unlikely that a lot residents are staying there.

A lot of them are taking up shelter in U.N.-run schools as well as that Shifa hospital that was hit today. We're unsure whether that hit came from an Israeli airstrike or as Israel says from a failed rocket.

But Shifa hospital is an area where a lot of people are seeking shelter. Not only do you have that, but you have people who have been injured, their family members and doctors, a lot of people in that area. And as we know, targeting any sort of hospital is against the rules of war. So there would likely be an independent investigation to find out really what happened and really who is responsible.

We also had that attack at the Beach refugee camp. The name of the refugee camp is called the Beach, where we had at least eight children killed and two adults. Witnesses there said that the strike came from an Israeli drone. Our team on the ground said they didn't see any signs that it was a failed rocket. They saw shrapnel marks on the walls all around there, pools of blood.

A lot of people wondering how this could happen, how eight children who were playing in the street could have been targeted. Also there, it would likely take an independent investigation to figure out exactly what happened, Jake.

TAPPER: Thanks, Ian.

Let's turn now to Atika in Ashkelon, Israel.

Atika, five Israeli soldiers killed in a single day. What are you hearing from the Israeli government?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of those soldiers was killed in combat inside the Gaza Strip, but four of them were killed in a mortar attack that just happened a few hours ago.

I spoke to the member of kibbutz Be'eri, which is less than a kilometer away from the mortar hit. And it hit directly into a military post, killing four soldiers. There were immediate evacuations, and a number of others were wounded. But as a result, it's very tense in that area.

They feel blocked it off, all the roads leading there. There's a lot of security and police there. We did manage to take some back roads to get inside. And in addition to that extra security, we saw also several -- an artillery position just shooting round after round of artillery into Gaza City, into the Gaza City area and also the Khan Yunis area in the southern Gaza Strip.

It certainly looks like the military is planning some sort of an escalation of Operation Protective Edge tonight.

TAPPER: Atika Shubert in Ashkelon, Israel, Ian Lee in Gaza, thank you to both of you. Please stay safe.

When we come back, it's been the U.S. goal since this battle in the Middle East began, negotiating a cease-fire. Is President Obama on board with a possible lengthy Israeli military campaign? Well, we will ask his deputy national security adviser coming up next.

Plus, investigators denied access to the Flight 17 crash site again. So who is in charge of securing the scene and why is this taking so long?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Renewed fighting in the Gaza conflict today, our world lead. The Israeli prime minister pledges stamina and determination, as both sides launch deadly attacks. The United Nations has called for an immediate cease fire, but there is really no sign that either side is taking that seriously. And with Secretary of State John Kerry just returning from a grueling week long campaign to bring the area some peace without any success, it's becoming increasingly unclear if the U.S. can do anything really to stop all of this.

Joining me now to talk about it is Tony Blinken. He's White House deputy national security adviser.

Tony, good to see you as always.

Prime Minister Netanyahu today said, quote, "We need to be prepared for a protracted campaign in Gaza."

Going forward, Tony, is there anything the White House wants the Israeli military to do better to better prevent the loss of innocent Palestinian life, or is President Obama satisfied that the Israelis are doing everything they can?

TONY BLINKEN, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Jake, first of all, no country can abide having rockets rain down on its people or terrorists tunneling underground to try and kidnap or kill its people. And so, we have strongly and consistently defended Israel's to defend itself.

Second, unfortunately, what Hamas does is it wraps itself around civilians, putting them in place of danger, next to legitimate military targets. And at the same time, it intentionally targets Israeli different civilians.

The Israelis do just the opposite. It's their policy to avoid civilian casualties to take every possible precaution. Indeed, they hold themselves to the highest standards.

The challenge is this: what we're seeing unfortunately despite Israel's efforts is we're seeing a serious and growing civilian toll in Gaza. And this is despite the efforts that Israel is making to avoid civilian casualties. TAPPER: But when you drop missiles on one of the most densely

populated parts of the world, you're going to kill a lot of innocent people. And I'm sure that you read the same newspaper stories I do, watch the same broadcast television reports, four little boys playing soccer on a beach, an entire family in this village wiped out, most of them children, an entire family in that village. Are you satisfied that Israel is doing everything it can be to prevent civilian death?

BLINKEN: By definition, the fact that it has these high standards and we're seeing these deaths including as you just said tragically and heartbreakingly, young children, it's incredibly difficult to live up to those standards. We have ourselves grappled with this problem in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think this underscores the urgency of an immediate unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.

The fact of the matter is Israel has had great success in degrading Hamas' infrastructure and doing real damage. So, right now, getting to a cease-fire, getting the parties talking and figuring out if we can get to a durable cease-fire that clearly addresses Israel's imperative security concerns is where we need to go.

TAPPER: But, Tony, the Israeli cabinet laughed John Kerry's cease fire proposal out of the Knesset. I mean, there was absolutely no interest that the Israeli government will, I'm not saying Hamas has any interest. But the Israelis weren't embracing the sheet of it paper Secretary Kerry brought them.

BLINKEN: In fact, what we were talking about with the Israelis based on the Egyptian initiative of about 10 days ago is something that the Israelis embraced on several occasions.

TAPPER: No, I'm talking about over the weekend.

BLINKEN: Yes. Over the weekend, the elements of the proposal that were put before them and indeed it was a discussion paper, had most of the elements that had been in the Egyptian initiative that the Israelis agreed to about ten days ago. Unfortunately, Hamas did not. So, there's clearly a basis there for securing agreement.

TAPPER: Wait a second, Tony, the Israeli cabinet rejected what Secretary Kerry proposed. How is that Hamas' fault?

BLINKEN: The point is that the elements in what was being discussed were the same elements that had been in an Egyptian proposal that the Israelis embraced. Hamas didn't. Obviously there have been developments since then.

But the bottom line is, since then the Israelis have been able to swiftly further degrade Hamas's capabilities and infrastructure. We're seeing a mounting civilian toll despite Israel's best efforts.

And so, there is imperative in trying to get an immediate humanitarian cease fire and to use that as a basis for trying to secure the kinds of things that Israel needs to make sure that its security is insured going forward in as we also deal with the living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza. TAPPER: Does Netanyahu have the blessing of the White House to do

whatever he needs to do, whatever he feels he needs to do in Gaza? He announced there's going to be a protracted campaign. Does he basically have a blank check to do whatever he wants?

BLINKEN: Jake, the Israelis have to make these decisions about their security.

TAPPER: So, yes?

BLINKEN: We've been very clear in defending Israel's right to defend itself.

The question is, how do you balance out what they've already been able to achieve which is significant, what would be required to continue and what the implications of that would be, including in terms of rising civilian casualties?

The problem as you said it a moment ago, the further you go in, the denser the population. The more civilian casualties will rise despite Israel's best efforts.

So, they have to weigh all of that in the balance. It's our assessment they've made significant progress in dealing with the threats imposed by the rockets and posed by the tunnels, and the question now is whether through a cease-fire we can gets to a place where these issues are dealt with in a sustainable way.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the other big subject in international affairs right now, the downing of Malaysia Air Flight 17. You announced more sanctions are coming do you think the pike against Russia.

The White House keeps imposing sanctions. Putin seems to be continuing to get increasingly brazen. Is it time possibly for stronger stuff to try to make Russia a pariah state? For instance, what do you think of the call made here in the U.S. Senate and also abroad in the U.K. to pull the world cup from Russia in 2018? What do you make of that?

BLINKEN: Look, Jake, what we've already seen as a result of President Obama's leadership in bringing the world together to impose significant costs on Russia is exactly that, real costs. The economy in Russia is feeling the weight of these sanctions and this pressure. Growth projections are now down to zero. They've been at 2 percent. We're seeing the flight of foreign investment.

TAPPER: So, you've got Putin right where you want him, Tony, right?

BLINKEN: Listen, what we've seen repeatedly from Putin is, when the pressure increases he makes tactical retreats and tries to say the right thing in public but unfortunately he's playing a double game and trying to use ironically the cover of the air crash to increase the support for separatists across the border.

But the bottom line is this: we have as a result of the policies we pursued created space for the Ukrainians to have elections and produce a very strong government. They signed the agreement with the European Union which was exactly what precipitated this crisis in the first place.

That said, there's real urgency in trying to get the Russians to turn the corner and finally start to de-escalate, which is exactly why we're in full agreement with the Europeans that we need to proceed with additional steps that will be significant in the days ahead.

TAPPER: It's hard to imagine what his response will be.

Tony Blinken at the White House, thank you so much answering our questions.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: I appreciate it.

When we come back, target number one for Israel, a network of secret tunnels from Gaza. What is Hamas smuggling in these passageways and why is Israel so determined to take them out?

And later, catching the suspects. Who is tracking down the individual who's shot down Flight 17? Anyone?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And continuing coverage of our world lead now. Israel's military texted reporters today saying that Hamas militants tried to ambush Israeli soldiers and that those terrorists emerged from below, springing the attack from a tunnel.

Now, the Israeli military says it thwarted the attempt, killing one of the militants, but the tunnels are an ongoing problem for Israeli troops, using tunnels has been the tactic of choice nor underfunded outmanned and outgunned enemies for thousands of years.

One historian says Gazans used to use tunnels back in the days of the siege of Alexander the Great, back when the region was controlled by Persia. It was an effective way even then to subvert a superior army at least in the short term.

Hamas hopes these underground channels used for smuggling things like cars or cows or cigarettes from Egypt into Gaza can also now be used to export death from Gaza into Israel.

It's for this reason Prime Minister Netanyahu is now labeled destroying the spindly subterranean infrastructure priority number one.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): The horror going on the surface of the Israel- Gaza conflict is all too apparent. Israeli missiles, Hamas rockets -- the loud echoes and cries of war.

But there is also a terror underneath it all -- dark and silent, a network of secret tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel.

The Israeli army says this video shows Hamas militants attacking Israeli soldiers after emerging from these concrete fortified passageways inside Israel. Hiding in the brush and killing four Israeli soldiers, then attempting to retreat back inside.

JENNIFER PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We recognize the threat that the tunnels pose to the Israeli people. I can't imagine waking up every morning and fearing that a member of a terrorist organization was going to come through a tunnel into your city. That's what they're facing.

TAPPER: The Israeli military has known about these tunnels for quite some time. In 2006, Palestinian extremists used a tunnel to ambush an Israeli outpost killing two Israeli soldiers and kidnapping Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

And in this current conflict, the Israeli government has discovered more than 30 tunnels from Gaza into Israel. Finding in some of them they say tranquilizers and handcuffs, with which presumably more Israelis would be kidnapped. The Israeli government says it has completely or partially destroyed 16 of these tunnels using heavy equipment.

But how many more remain?

Israel has reached only a fraction of these Palestinian tunnels, says this is Hamas spokesman in this edited Internet message. He says the thousands who "dug these tunnels with their fingernails will dig many more, God willing."

These dusty cylinders were originally used to smuggle items into Gaza from Egypt during crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockades of Gaza -- food, weapons, livestock, chemicals, electricity, all of it came through the elaborate network, yet, another sign of Palestinian desperation.

These same kind of tunnels from Egypt into Gaza have quite literally been lifelines for Palestinians.