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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Israel

Aired August 1, 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: He directly accused of Hamas or its allies of abducting the soldier and destroying the last attempt at a truce. Hamas leaders are disputing that.

This conflict taking now some more dangerous turns, especially in recent hours.

We have our correspondents, our newsmakers. They're all standing by. We're covering all the breaking news here in the Middle East and around the world.

But, first, more on the broken truce, the captured soldier and what could happen next.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): And the ugly haze of war, a new cease-fire shattered after only 90 minutes in a new round of fighting and blame.

MARK REGEV, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESPERSON: This clearly is Hamas violating the U.N.-sponsored cease-fire.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, PALESTINIAN PARLIAMENT MEMBER: Hamas says that those who broke the cease-fire were to the Israeli side.

BLITZER: This is where the cease-fire fell apart, in or around the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Israel says its forces were in the area destroying a Hamas tunnel like this one in compliance of the terms of the truce when they were suddenly attacked.

PETER LERNER, SPOKESMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: When they came out of the ground, a suicide bomber blew himself up killing two soldiers and within the gunfight there, they went back down in the hole and abducted one of our boys.

BLITZER: The IDF immediately launched a house-to-house search for the soldier believed to have been captured. He's a 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant named Hadar Goldin. Israel says the abduction has all the hallmarks of Hamas, but one Hamas official raised doubts about whether his group is holding Goldin.

OSAMA HAMDAN, HAMAS SPOKESMAN: We don't have any story from our people in the field. They did not say anything about capturing an Israeli soldier or officer.

BLITZER: Hamas claims that the Israelis made the first move in Rafah, shelling civilians. Local officials say more than 60 people were killed and hundreds wounded. The United Nations says it has no independent means to verify exactly what happened. But the United States is backing Israel's version of events.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have and I have unequivocally condemned Hamas and the Palestinian factions that were responsible for killing two Israeli soldiers and abducting a third almost minutes after a cease-fire had been announced.

BLITZER: Middle East experts believe that one thing is clear. With the collapse of another cease-fire and the apparent capture of an Israeli soldier, this deadly conflict is likely to drag on even longer, with devastating consequences for the region and the world.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Tonight, another Palestinian militant group in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, also denying capturing that Israeli soldier.

Let's go live to Gaza right now. CNN's John Vause.

You went to Rafah in southern Gaza, where one of those strikes occurred today.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sorry, Wolf.

If I can interrupt, there was an airstrike just moments ago. That is the second airstrike in a matter of minutes that we have had here. It's in the southeast of Gaza City, and just a few minutes before that, there was an airstrike. And then just before that, there appeared to be two drone strikes, missiles fired from drones in that same area as well.

This is a part of Gaza which the Israelis have been hammering with artillery for most of the day, ever since that cease-fire collapsed. There does seem to be an uptick in activity here tonight. We can hear a lot of drones ahead. They seem to be concentrating their firepower as I say on that area, east, southeast of Gaza, the Shaja'ia neighborhood, which we have heard a lot about.

But in particular, that's where they're looking at as well. They have also been focusing on the Rafah area. Have to keep an eye on what is happening out there, but Rafah has also taken a pounding by Israeli artillery and tanks. I was down there earlier today.

I spoke with some of the residents who say it just went on and on and on. They were warned by the Israelis to stay inside. We went down there. Many of the streets were deserted. Others decided it was best to get out. They crammed into cars. They tried to get to Khan Yunis.

We have also just heard from the Israelis and they're warning Palestinians not to drive on that road from Rafah in the south to Khan Yunis, which is in the central part of Gaza. It seems that one of the reasons why the Israelis hit Rafah so hard, it was a deliberate strategy to try and prevent militants from getting that captured Israeli soldier out of the area.

If that worked, at this point, we just don't know. Wolf, since the cease-fire collapsed, Hamas has also renewed its attacks on Israel, firing at least 38 rockets once the truce basically came to an end -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that truce did not last very long, 90 minutes to be precise.

John Vause, stand by. If you get more activity behind you, we're going to come right back to you.

But I want to go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's back in Washington talking to his sources.

You have new details about the Israeli soldier's capture. What are you learning right now, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

I have been speaking to an Israeli source who gave new details of the circumstances in which this Israeli soldier was captured and the others killed. I'm told that an element from the Givati Brigade -- this is an elite brigade of the Israeli armed forces -- in these anti- tunnel operations, they entered a house in southern Gaza, near Rafah, a house that they believed had an entrance to one of these tunnels, a very common place to hide these entrances.

As they entered the house and gathered around the entrance, that's when the suicide bomber popped out, detonated his explosives, killed the two Israeli soldiers, and then three or four other soldiers emerged from the tunnel, militants, I should say, emerged from the tunnel, and grabbed the third soldier to abduct him.

It is believed that this third soldier was injured at least because of his proximity to the explosion when the first suicide bomber set off his explosives. But not known if he survived that explosion. But it gives you just some more detail as to how this played out in those very early moments of the cease-fire, as the Israelis carried out these anti-tunnel operations which as you and I know they were allowed to continue under this cease-fire agreement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's what Secretary of State John Kerry said specifically when he made that statement in New Delhi last night. He said Israel could continue the destruction of the tunnels even during a cease-fire.

Jim Sciutto, don't go too far away.

Let's go to Sara Sidner right now, and she's in southern Israel, very close to the Gaza border.

What are you seeing right now, Sara?

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are hearing, mostly, very, very big booms, sometimes what it sounds like airstrikes, a lot of F-15s flying over and what sounds like artillery over and over and over again.

I will give you some idea of where it's happening. It is very dark here up on this hill looking down behind me into Gaza on my right. You will notice how dark it is. And you know the power has been out because the power plant was hit a few days ago.

On my left you can see some lights twinkling. That is Israel. You're getting some idea of what is going on but all of the sounds are coming far to my right. You're hearing it over and over again, those deep sounds of artillery going off.

And every now and then, that was one of them. Every now and then, you will hear an F-15 flying overhead and you will hear the sound of an airstrike -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you're hearing occasionally -- anybody who is in Israel nowadays, you occasionally hear the Iron Dome interception going up to intercept an incoming rocket or missile and blow it up in the sky before it can cause any serious damage on earth.

The U.S. Senate today, Sara, unanimously approved, unanimous consent, another $225 million for Israel to help build or get more of those Iron Dome anti-missile systems.

When you're there, you're talking in southern Israel, in Sderot or Ashkelon or Ashdod, some of the towns down there. What do they say to you about, A, That Iron Dome and, B, they know that the United States has been funding and helped Israel develop that anti-missile system. What do the folks say to you about that?

SIDNER: You know, it's really interesting, because when you do talk to people about it, we were just talking about it when the sirens went off and everyone went and tried to take cover.

Basically what you're hearing is there is no way that there would be this few amount of people injured and killed if it was not for the Iron Dome. It has saved us. Those are the words of folks that are just in the streets, in the restaurants.

And in some places, you know, like Ashkelon, where we have been quite a bit, at nighttime when people want to come out and eat, some of them will come out and sit outside. The sirens go off and they go inside. It's almost like a regular day because they feel very confident that the Iron Dome is going to work. You can hear it going off.

It actually sounds like a missile itself going off and hitting the rocket coming over. And everyone knows the difference, the sound that the Iron Dome makes once it knocks out a rocket. It has given people a bit of a peace of mind, if you will. But, still, there have been injuries and deaths, as you know, from these rockets, from mortars. And the mortars have been coming over quite a bit today too -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, there were several dozen of those rockets and mortars on this day there was supposed to be a cease-fire. It didn't last very long. Sara Sidner near the border between Israel and Gaza in southern Israel for us, thanks very much.

Let's bring in the spokesman now for the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.

On that Iron Dome, I assume you, like all Israelis, must be grateful to the United States for helping fund and develop that anti- missile system.

LERNER: Absolutely. It's a great piece of technology.

When we put our minds and assistance of our allies together, we have a great solution. That has kept Israeli lives safe almost 600 times, when these rockets were supposed to strike our populated areas. They're just safe. Today, nine times, rockets were intercepted, and these rockets were supposed to strike populated areas.

BLITZER: Iron Dome, it's an amazing system indeed.

Let's talk about this missing Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin. What's the latest you have on where he might be?

LERNER: We don't know.

In the immediate aftermath, we did carry out some search in the area, into the tunnel, according to our procedures. We have extensive, I would say a checklist of things that we need to do in order to try and intercept in a hot pursuit about what's going on.

Unfortunately, we haven't caught up with him yet. But we're using all of our intelligence capabilities, boots on the ground, and extensive activities on the ground in order to try and find where he is.

BLITZER: Mark Regev, the spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told me that he believes and the Israeli believes that terrorists did kidnap, did take the Israeli soldier, but it's unclear if it's Hamas, Islamic Jihad or some other splinter Palestinian group. What's the latest information, Colonel, you have?

LERNER: We have also seen reports of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad saying they have nothing to do with it. I got back to what we were speaking about earlier today.

Hamas has this modus operandi of abduction. They openly declare that it's something that they want, they strive to do, and they have tried to do it throughout the operation several times, even to try to abduct body parts. I'm pretty confident that they're behind this.

BLITZER: You told me earlier today it was absolutely certain that Hamas was responsible. LERNER: I think we can say that with confidence that they are

involved, definitely behind this. And ultimately they are responsible for what goes on in Gaza. They have the full responsibility for the well-being of our boy, Hadar Goldin.

This is a grave situation. We have seen over the recent days several attempts by their activities, their terrorists squads, their militants to try and abduct. We have seen that they -- and we know they have had extensive training in order to carry out these types of attacks. They have been trained with Iranian capabilities. They have Iranian trainers and they have gone and they have brought home to Gaza people that are doing the training in order to carry out such attacks against Israelis.

Indeed it was something we took into account when going into the mission. This is a scenario that is possible and therefore we're operating according to our premeditated plan of action in order to try and deal with it.

BLITZER: You heard my interview with Osama Hamdan, the spokesman for Hamas, denying that Hamas really knows if there's any Israeli soldier missing or anything like that, not flatly denying, but he says basically can't confirm or deny.

But he also says Israel was responsible for violating the cease- fire first, that your troops moved 2.5 kilometers into Palestinian territory in Gaza and that's what caused the collapse of the cease- fire.

LERNER: That's preposterous and it's just outrageous.

We were 90 minutes into the cease-fire. Israel was holding its fire on all fronts from our forces in the north to our forces in the south. We were carrying out the mission we were intended to do in accordance to the agreement, searching for these tunnels, trying to decommission them and then they attacked us.

They used, abused, exploited the cease-fire to carry out this attack. They attacked us. They killed two soldiers and abducted a young officer, Hadar Goldin, that we don't know where he is now. They are responsible for his well-being. We're operating in order to bring him back.

BLITZER: Do you have hard evidence that you're able to present that will confirm your side of the story?

LERNER: You know, I don't feel the need to present evidence against this terrorist organization.

We know it happened at 9:30. I received the report in my office when I was sitting in Tel Aviv at 9:40. This is what's going on. That is when the organization woke up and everything was poised to try and bring him back.

BLITZER: Because I had heard -- and you can correct me if I'm wrong -- that Israel was sharing some information, sensitive information with the U.S. on this specific issue and that in part convinced the secretary of state, John Kerry, the president of the United States that Israel's information was accurate.

LERNER: We heard what the president said. And indeed we convey and discuss our concerns with our allies. And I can imagine that the relevant authorities conveyed the relevant information.

BLITZER: Peter Lerner, thanks very much for joining us, lieutenant colonel, the spokesman for the IDF. Appreciate it very much.

Let's get a Palestinian perspective. once again, the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is joining us on the phone right now from Jericho on the West Bank.

I know you were so hopeful, Saeb, last night when we spoke, and you were so upbeat that the cease-fire had finally been achieved, it was going to work. What is your analysis? What happened? Why did it collapse?

SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Well, I told you yesterday that it was a major thing that we were able to achieve what we achieved in Doha.

And then, you know, what happened, things went out of hand, you know, between -- the story I heard is that between 6:00 to 8:00 a.m., the Israeli army destroyed 19 Palestinian homes. Between 8:00 until 9:25 they destroyed another 21 homes, as they said they were searching for tunnels.

The clash took place and five Palestinians were killed, two Israelis were killed. And then up until now 151 Palestinians were killed today. And we, what do we do? What do we do?

I think as Palestinians, we will be sending our delegation to Cairo tomorrow to reiterate and to reconfirm the cease-fire. We need the cease-fire to work. I hope that the Secretary Kerry and others will convince the Israelis to send their delegation to Cairo and to reconfirm the cease-fire, because, you know, we can, you know, finger- point, we can do this, do that.

At the same time, look at Gaza. Gaza is totally in rubble. There's a Palestinian child that's being killed every three hours, Wolf. That is the honest truth. There are more than 1,600 Palestinians killed so far, 8,500 wounded. Gaza is in total rubble. You should hear what I'm hearing from my colleague (AUDIO GAP) and friends from various places in Gaza.

So I think the only way is to give the cease-fire another chance. The Palestinian delegation will go to Cairo tomorrow. And the Israeli delegation I believe should go to Cairo. And we should have the Egyptians take a shot at trying to see (AUDIO GAP) to days and then to see how to solve all of these problems in Tel Aviv, the human suffering in Gaza, in terms of providing electricity, water, medical supplies.

It's a total, total disaster area in Gaza, Wolf.

BLITZER: yes, it looks like it. We show the pictures to our viewers every night. Our reporters in Gaza show all the horrible images.

Saeb, you have been talking, you have negotiating with the Israelis. You know the Israelis for 20 years-plus. You know what the attitude is here. Do you think it's realistic to think there can be a cease-fire as long as that Israeli soldier is being held by someone in Gaza?

EREKAT: Well, that's -- they should go to Cairo and raise all issues, because they have captured God knows how many Palestinian fighters.

I don't know. They said they are interrogating in their media. And all of the issues would be on the table, all issues. That's the whole reason is to go between the two sides in order to broker a permanent cease-fire and in order to address lifting of the siege, providing supplies, and dealing with this captured soldier, if he's captured. I don't know the story. I can't verify it from anyone. Everyone I talked to denies that they have a soldier.

So, now, the choice is, will the killing machines and destruction continue? And now we have a total eruption tonight today in West Bank. Two Palestinians were killed, dozens were wounded. And, as I told you, it's a pressure cooker situation. We don't want things to get out of hand.

The only thing that we can do, realistically speaking, is to see if we can revisit the cease-fire. And I think we should. And I think the Palestinians will send our delegation tomorrow to Cairo, because this is the only way to deal with it. What's happening now is escalation, conflicting. And what we need is to employ the mechanism of de-escalation, deconfliction. And that's what needed.

BLITZER: Do you believe there's a real split between the political wing of Hamas and the military wing of Hamas?

EREKAT: I don't think so, because when I was in Doha meeting with Mr. Meshaal and others, I think they were -- I mean, I heard this before, but I told things that I cannot go into the details now. I don't think it's appropriate for me to discuss.

But I think when we got the word from Meshaal that he is on board and then Jihad and then other -- five, six factions gave me their word last night that they would be on board, and everybody was on board. And Secretary Kerry was informed that everyone was on board and Ban Ki-Moon was informed.

And this is why the announcement came. And I think the loophole there was two sentences, one sentence that the Israelis insisted that they continue with their operation to destroy tunnels, which meant that they will destroy homes. There would be friction in turn.

And the other side, the Palestinians preserved, we preserved all rights of defense. So, this was the fractious points in the agreement yesterday. This was the loophole. I believe we should revisit the cease-fire, and there should be a total, total unconditional cease- fire and that's what's needed now.

BLITZER: Because the Israelis, as you know, they got what they wanted in that deal. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Israel could go ahead and continue destroying those tunnels with or without a cease-fire, including during that 72-hour proposed cease-fire.

When I spoke to Osama Hamdan, the spokesman for Hamas, he said that was unacceptable to him and to Hamas. Was there confusion there what Israel could do offensively and defensively as part of this deal?

EREKAT: No, I think this was the point.

The point is the Israelis insisted that they continue to destroy what they call the tunnels. And our side insisted that they have the right to self-defense. And that's why when they entered that home, Palestinians were defending themselves. That's the explanation.

And that's why things got out of hand. This was a major loophole in the cease-fire. Israelis insisted to continue destroying the tunnels, which meant they would invade homes, destroy homes, go anywhere they want. And this created friction. And we, the Palestinians, insisted that we have the right to defend. And that's why things did not last for more than 90 minutes.

BLITZER: Saeb Erekat, let's continue this conversation in 24 hours. We're going to have a special Saturday SITUATION ROOM. We will talk to you then. Let's see what happens over the next 24 hours.

Saeb Erekat is the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Still ahead, we will have more on the captured Israeli soldier, how the Israeli government may respond. Could this in fact be a game changer in the conflict?

And later, President Obama's blunt new remarks about U.S. torture and America's terror fighting tactics after 9/11. What's really behind his latest comments? More of our special report in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

We're reporting live from Jerusalem, where Israelis are on edge tonight after a soldier was apparently captured by Palestinian militants. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but it is certainly not the first time an Israeli soldier has been seized.

Our Brian Todd is joining us now. He's got more on this part of the story.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some observers tonight calling this the most dangerous moment in the conflict, a cease-fire broken, more Israelis and Palestinians killed, and now the abduction of an Israeli soldier.

Hamas says it doesn't know about the capture. Islamic Jihad is denying it. The fear on both sides, that the next shoe to drop could make what's come before look tame.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): While destroying tunnels in Gaza, Israeli officials say 23-year-old Lieutenant Hadar Goldin was captured by Palestinian militants. An Israeli official tells CNN the IDF is "exhausting every means" to find Lieutenant Goldin.

The soldier's father is counting on that.

SIMCHA GOLDIN, FATHER OF MISSING ISRAELI SOLDIER (through translator): We're certain that the army will not stop under any circumstance.

TODD: Israeli combat veterans tell us that includes going house to house.

ADAM HARMON, IDF RESERVIST: There is also intelligence gathering that is taking place now, both with the many Hamas terrorists that have been captured, as well as with the intelligence assets that have been in place within Gaza for a long time.

TODD: IDF soldiers say Palestinian militants moving through tunnels and other battlefield areas are equipped with kidnapping kits, needles, anesthetics, plastic restraints, stretchers, to be able to snatch an Israeli soldier quickly.

IDF troops say they are under strict instructions, do whatever is necessary to prevent a soldier from being kidnapped alive.

SGT. BENJAMIN ANTHONY, IDF SOLDIER: That can unfortunately include having to face down the prospect of opening fire at the terrorists, even at risk of killing our brothers in arms.

TODD: How much of a game changer is Goldin's capture in this fighting?

MICHAEL EISENSTADT, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: This could be a game changer because Hamas came out of this or it was looking like it was coming out of this without any kind of achievements, and that could change things now.

TODD: Hamas may have another Gilad Shalit. That Israeli soldier was abducted by Hamas using underground tunnels in 2006. He was held for more than five years, then released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

One analyst says this time the Israelis may not want to let Hamas have that kind of bargaining chip. EISENSTADT: Their concern is that Gilad Shalit led to this. And

if they trade more prisoners for this Israeli soldier, it will just encourage Hamas to do this again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Another potential game changing result of this soldier's disappearance, the Israeli military, now very angry and wanting to punish, might start to escalate the conflict.

Analysts say even though they're working intensely to rescue him, the IDF likely won't let Lieutenant Goldin's apparent capture hold them back from turning up the pressure on Hamas. Wolf, it could get very nasty in the next few days.

BLITZER: And you're hearing, Brian, from Israeli sources new concerns about the fate of this soldier, is that right?

TODD: That's right, sources on the Israeli side telling us they're concerned that Lieutenant Goldin may be quickly moved far away, possibly even smuggled into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

We're told the IDF has very likely moved quickly to block the streets, seal off that immediate area in Rafah where he disappeared, trying to contain it, trying to keep him from being moved far away. But that situation very, very dicey in that part of the Gaza Strip right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Thanks very much, Brian Todd.

Let's get some more now. Joining us once again, our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto and CNN's global affairs correspondent Elise Labott.

And Jim, we heard the president address a question about U.S. influence in the world. He said apparently people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world. You hear that and your reaction when you hear the president of the United States say that is what?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think it fits in with their broader foreign policy strategy as they've articulated it in recent weeks. You'll remember the president's speech at West Point several weeks ago and then a briefing to reporters that administration officials gave afterwards with the now- famous line with the theory, in effect, is don't do dumb stuff, although they used a different word than "stuff" in describing that theory. Which is partly a reaction to reigning in the aspirations of the Bush administration, you know, nation building, et cetera, wars of choice in Iraq, which of course you know President Obama opposed very strongly; reigning in expectations, in effect, and saying that the U.S. will act when its interests are directly threatened. But won't go as far, in effect, as the previous administration did, because that got us into more trouble than it gained us when it gained us anything.

And I think, you know, that's effectively what he was saying today, as well. That "Listen, we can't solve all the world's problems. And I think the administration believes that when the president says that that he is speaking in line with what the American public believes and wants.

The trouble is, Wolf, and you know this as well as I do, that when you travel abroad and you speak to Europeans and even folks in the Middle East, they will often say, "Well, where is America?" You know? And it's one of those things where, you know, you're damned if you do; you're damned if you don't. Because I certainly spent years in the Middle East where you'd hear from Middle Easterners or Europeans that America was acting too much. But, you know, the administration's point of view that they have this right now.

BLITZER: And Elise, we heard the president also give a very strong defense of his secretary of state, John Kerry. He called the criticism that's been leveled against Kerry lately "really unfair." Those were the president's words. We've certainly seen some pointed criticism of the secretary earlier from some Israelis. So what's going on here?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I mean, as you know, you've been talking to U.S. officials. The criticism of John Kerry and the Israeli press -- and we're not talking about columnists here. We're talking about kind of quotes from Israeli officials calling Secretary Kerry's peace plan, quote, "a strategic terrorist attack," calling him a friend of Hamas, saying that he doesn't have Israel's interests at heart and really kind of hit the U.S. below the belt. In the fact they say with all the support that the U.S. has given Israel over the years, the Iron Dome is protecting the Israeli people. At the United Nations, the U.S. is standing alone.

And John Kerry, while sometimes may not have the exact best plan or may not be the most artful diplomat, he's really working his tail off on behalf of the Israeli people and their security, as well as the Palestinians.

So they say Israel doesn't have a lot of friends right now. They do have the United States and John Kerry, and they'd like to see a little more appreciation there.

BLITZER: Yes, well, certainly, they appreciate what the president of the United States and the secretary of state said today, basically completely -- almost completely accepting Israel's version of what happened in the Hamas being accused of breaking the cease- fire.

Who potentially, Elise -- you've spent a lot of time thinking about this -- could be a real mediator in dealing with these sensitive issues in the Middle East?

LABOTT: Well, you know, it doesn't really appear, Wolf, that any one party can really deliver the Israelis or the Palestinians. On the U.S. side, although you saw a very full-throated defense by President Obama of Israel's actions, we know that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have, shall we say, a very frosty relationship. And Prime Minister Netanyahu asked him what he thinks are the best interests of the American people doesn't have a lot of influence at this point.

And on the Hamas side, look, you don't have the same Egyptian government that you had in 2012, when President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was negotiating a cease-fire. The relationship after the crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood by this president, Al- Sissi, is also very difficult. They see things much more in line with the Israeli point of view.

And then you have Qatar who is, you know, considered a friend of Hamas, certainly gives them money, but their influence obviously seems to be limited. A lot of people seem to think that Qatar could put more pressure on Hamas, perhaps maybe this wouldn't have happened. They wouldn't have taken this Israeli soldier if the Qatar government were to put more pressure.

So it really doesn't seem as if one nation can step in and really mediate this. And that's why Secretary Kerry has been working with the Egyptians, the Turkish government that has some relationship with Hamas, the Qataris, the U.N., all trying to piece together this strange bedfellow coalition to see if they can get some action going, Wolf.

BLITZER: And Jim, you heard the president also up touch on a sensitive issue, namely that there are different factions within Hamas and that maybe the military faction isn't on the same page as the political faction. What are you hearing about that?

SCIUTTO: This is a huge problem. Because it raises an immediate challenge and a long-term challenge. The immediate challenge is, if there are those divisions, those factions in Hamas, leadership cannot control them, who do you negotiate with for the release of this Israeli soldier, for a short-term cease-fire?

But longer term and more of a concern, who do you negotiate with for a more enduring cease-fire and, in fact, down the line, hopefully some sort of longer-term agreement for peace for an end to the hostilities in Gaza? If Hamas doesn't truly control the militant groups in Gaza, that's a real problem going forward.

BLITZER: I want you guys to stand by, because just ahead we're going to continue our special coverage. President Obama's surprise remarks about torture tactics conducted by the United States. Why is he being so suddenly blunt right now?

And new fears that Russia won't stop in Ukraine. U.S. troops may be called on to protect some NATO nations. New information coming in. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're showing you live pictures from Gaza right now.

I want to go right to John Vause. He's in Gaza City for us. I understand there's been a lot of military activity in the last ten minutes. What happened?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, since we last spoke there have been maybe five airstrikes. We've counted, concentrating on that same area, the eastern part of Gaza. We're hearing from Palestinian officials that the targets of the air strikes appear to be Howser (ph). They've told at least us they know of at least four people that have been killed so far. But five air strikes in that area. Pretty certain that death toll will rise as they get more information.

So they continue to hammer away at the same part of Gaza to the east.

We're also hearing some more information coming to us from the south of Gaza, the rougher area where that Israeli soldier was captured. Palestinian officials again telling us that 23 people have been killed there in the last two hours. That now brings the death toll in Rafah alone to around 95 since that cease-fire collapsed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll get back to you, John.

John Vause in Gaza, thanks very much. We're going to stay on top of the breaking news here in the Middle East, but I want to go back to Washington for a moment. President Obama making waves with an important statement at the White House today at his news conference, using his strongest language yet on the subject of American use of torture after 9/11. Our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, was there at the news conference. Tell our viewers, Michelle, what the president said.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We have heard President Obama call waterboarding torture once before, but this is really the first we've heard him state this so bluntly. Even incorporating American responsibility into it. I mean, he said, "We tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be -- that needs to be understood and accepted.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOSINSKI: So she also said he understood why this happened, referring to these enormous pressures that were put on the national security team after the attacks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski at the House. Thanks very much.

Just ahead, he may be one of the only Israeli leaders still holding out hope for a peace deal with the Palestinians. My exclusive interview with the now former president of Israel, Shimon Peres, that's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're live here in Jerusalem.

The prospect of peace is fading as this conflict rages on and escalates, one prominent Israeli leader, though, still optimistic. I sat down with the former president of Israel, Shimon Peres, for his first interview since stepping down in the past couple of weeks as president of Israel.

Listen to what he says now what is necessary to try to find an end to this conflict.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: When you see the pictures of what's happening in Gaza right now, the enormous number of civilians, children, elderly, women, who have been killed over the past -- this is now week four of this war, the criticism of Israel is that it's reacted disproportionately. You say?

SHIMON PERES, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't know in that case what is a proportion. Imagine that you see a child on your knees on their knees and somebody is shooting at the child and yourself. What is the proportion? Not to shoot back?

I mean, they put before us an impossible question. But we cannot escape it. We wish we could have left to do it. We have nothing against the people. We don't like to see anybody being killed. It's not our purpose.

But if they put it in their homes with the children and there they plant the rockets and the different weapons they collected, what can we do?

BLITZER (voice-over): As tensions continue to rise in the region, so does the concern of extremists on both sides.

(on camera): I've been here now for three weeks. Almost every day, I look at the papers. This is "Haaretz". There's a story on the front page, three Jews arrested in mob beating of Palestinians.

How worried are you, Mr. President, about apparently some growing intolerance, extremism, revenge among Israeli Jews towards Arabs?

PERES: It's terrible. No excuse. The only thing I can say is these troops (ph), 300,000 troops that are going in shouting as they are -- many are upset, shouting about Iranians. Nothing like it.

I don't like and I shouldn't forgive (INAUDIBLE). They will put in prison. No way of excuses about it.

Not only because of them, because of us. It's not us. It's not Israel. It's not Israel I want to. Or my friends want to. We're not going to submit to emotions or evil emotions. It's not

the reason and the purpose for which Israel was built. And there is no way of compromise. And the way for us to understand that the Israeli police cannot be divorced from a moral position, doesn't understand their strength and the depth of Israel.

BLITZER (voice-over): Peres says there is only one way to bring warring parties together, step by step, building trust along the way.

(on camera): Everybody know what's the end result of these negotiations is going to be. Israel, Palestinian, basically along the 1967 lines with some mutually agreed adjustments, right?

PERES: Well, I wouldn't like to use your words, but I say equal state solution. And I think even if Palestinians are not talking now about the borders, but about the size of the land. And they agreed to exchange land. So there is more or less an agreement.

BLITZER (voice-over): At age 90, Shimon Peres has spent a lifetime in Israeli politics, serving in the highest offices, including prime minister. And he knows what it takes to reach a peace deal.

As foreign minister, he won a Nobel Peace Prize, along with then- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat for reaching a historic 1993 agreement, the Oslo Accords. After decades of progress and setbacks, Peres tells me he is hopeful about the future.

PERES: Humbled (ph) but still optimistic.

BLITZER: And the possibility of a lasting peace.

PERES: But there is no real solution for the Palestinian, for us without having real peace. I think the fight in the Middle East today is more about the future than about the past.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Shimon Peres speaking with me yesterday. We discussed what is going on here in the Middle East.

Just ahead, NATO's new fears about Russian aggression. Stand by for details of what has officials so concerned right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're live here in Jerusalem, but we're also following this breaking news story. New fighting in Ukraine comes amid fears Russia may be trying to expand its reach.

Here is our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): CNN has learned the U.S. military is backing a NATO proposal for U.S. and European troops to be able to respond within 48 hours of any Russian military aggression against NATO members. The move meant to send a stern warning to Russia. But also reflecting a fundamental worry that in the future, NATO and the U.S. cannot dismiss the threat that Russia could decide to move beyond Ukraine into NATO's eastern flank.

GEN. ADRIAN BRADSHAW, NATO DEPUTY SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: We need to be absolutely sure that they understand that they can't apply this sort of pressure to a NATO nation.

STARR: The deputy military commander of NATO tells CNN that air, land, and maritime forces would be on higher alert -- all a response to the nearly 15,000 Russian troops now within what one U.S. official calls spitting distance of the Ukraine border and the continued flow of heavy weapons into Ukraine.

BRADSHAW: Our business is to be ready for the worst.

STARR: Currently, NATO forces, including U.S. troops, have up to 30 days to respond to a threat. If finalized, the new two-day window will be part of a new military headquarters in Europe for quick response.

BRADSHAW: This is not an aggressive response. It's absolutely defensive in nature.

STARR: But Ukraine is not a member of NATO. There is no obligation to defend it. The president today said there are limits.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have done everything that we can to support the Ukrainian government and to deter Russia from moving further into Ukraine. But short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: What the U.S. is doing right now is U.S. intelligence is watching that Ukraine-Russia border region around the clock for any additional Russian military moves -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much for that.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

This programming note: there will be a special Saturday SITUATION ROOM tomorrow. Saturday SITUATION ROOM special report live from Jerusalem, 5:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll see you here tomorrow. Until then, thanks very much for watching.

The news continues next on CNN.