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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Israeli Ground Assault on Gaza Imminent?; Travolta Family Tragedy; Michelle Obama Striking a Balance

Aired January 02, 2009 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with breaking news: new air strikes on Gaza, Israeli tanks massing on the border as we speak, troops waiting for word, some Palestinians taking the chance to flee. Hamas rockets continue to fly. President Bush laying down the law on a cease-fire and the shadowy Hamas leader throws down the gauntlet against President-elect Obama.

KHALED MESHAAL, HAMAS LEADER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Mr. Obama, your beginning is not good. You got involved and you had a statement regarding the issue of Mumbai, but you would not get involved and say anything about the enemy's crime against Gaza. Enough of your double standards, oh western nations.


COOPER: He went on to warn that the Israelis should stay out of Gaza and said Hamas is willing to stop shooting if Israel lifts the blockade of the territory. Meantime, President Bush today taping his weekly radio address says he will not accept quote, "a one-way cease- fire" that leads to more Palestinian rocket attacks.

We have a lot to cover in this hour. We're trying to establish phone contact with someone in Gaza to get a first hand account of the bombardment there right now.

First, let's go to Nic Robertson on the ground in Ashkelon southern Israel. Nic what's the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, we've been hearing jet fighters and helicopters flying overhead. The interesting thing this evening is that we haven't heard a lot of missiles dropping on Gaza, as we've heard in previous nights, that perhaps the biggest difference.

Of course, the buildup of Israeli ground forces around Gaza continues, and the word from the Israeli defense forces is they are just waiting for the order to go in.


ROBERTSON: Around Gaza, Israeli forces continued a slow but steady buildup of armored vehicles, raising speculation here a ground offensive may be imminent. It is impossible to know if the buildup is designed to be psychological pressure on Hamas or the beginning of an actual ground attack.

A Hamas leader in exile in Damascus threatened Israeli soldiers with what awaits them.


MESHAAL: As for you, the soldiers of the enemy whose leadership are getting you ready to enter Gaza in a ground attack, you need to know that doom will await you and you will be killed, injured and captured.


ROBERTSON: Israeli air strikes dwindle to about 30 soldiers a day from more than 100 earlier in the week. This one shown by Israeli defense forces targeting a mosque where the Israelis say secondary explosions prove it was used to store weapons.

The homes of Hamas leaders are increasingly targets, too. Three small Palestinian children among the latest innocent victims, killed while playing close to their homes in the south of Gaza, unintended collateral damage of Israeli missiles targeting a nearby Hamas leader's house.

What began a week ago with deadly strikes killing far more Hamas security forces than civilians is steadily taking an increasingly civilian toll.

Journalists are barred from entering Gaza by the Israeli military but reports, independent and otherwise, emerging from the slender coastal strip indicate Hamas' grip is as firm as ever.

A Hamas spokesman toured one of Gaza's main hospitals.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Hamas is still here. We didn't fall. We are still servicing our citizens despite this barbaric aggression.

ROBERTSON: But in other Palestinian areas, the West Bank and east Jerusalem where Palestinians are freer to accept or reject Hamas' Islamic doctrine, relatively few heeded calls for a day of rage intended to take on the Israeli army and show anger to the killings in Gaza.

In Ashkelon, Israel just north of Gaza, a family had a narrow escape when one of Hamas' most destructive rockets are dragged slammed through the roof of their house. Seconds earlier, their son tells me they rushed to the shelter after hearing the warning siren go off.

He is shaken, he says, no one in their neighborhood expected this. According to Israeli government, Hamas fired 30 rockets into Israel Friday, almost one million Israelis, the government says, are now in range of the deadly missiles.


COOPER: Nic, let's bring in a few more voices, in Jerusalem, Ben Wedeman, joins us in Los Angeles, Daily Views Columnist, Reza Aslan, author of "No God but God" and on the phone in Gaza, a "New York Times" reporter Taghreed El Khodary.

Nic, would Israel really be amassing this number of troops and artillery on the border if they actually were not planning a ground invasion? I mean, is it possible it's just to put pressure on Hamas?

ROBERTSON: No and I think all the indications are that they're going to use this force at some point. The question is exactly what do they use it for? What sort of incursion? What are the aims and objectives when they go in?

But all the indications are there that at some point it's going to happen. Just when, perhaps diplomacy can win out first, but I don't think anyone is holding their breath on that.

COOPER: So it could be a question of them going in to take territory, hold territory or quickly go in and strike and move back out. We just don't know at this point.

But Ben, Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, there's like 1.3 million people living in just 139 square miles. How difficult would any kind of ground assault be?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It will be very difficult, Anderson, because of not only the population density but also Hamas is well aware that this sort of thing was eventually going to happen.

So and they have lots of experience dealing with Israeli incursions, not necessarily the kind or the size that may happen in the coming days, but certainly there have been more incursions into Gaza than I can count.

I was in Gaza last February when there was a major Israeli incursion, had the highest death toll of any Israeli operation in Gaza before this current operation. And the Hamas fighters and others had well prepared for it. They had put up roadblocks that had booby traps in them. And that's only on the military side.

On the civilian side, there are people everywhere. So when you start firing tanks and artillery into Gaza, it's inevitable that civilians are going to be killed -- Anderson.

COOPER: Taghreed you're in Gaza. There's a ban on foreign journalists entering there, you're on the ground. U.N. said Gaza is facing what the called a critical emergency. Can you describe what it's like right now for ordinary citizens?

TAGHREED EL KHODARY, "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: Anderson, it's really terrorizing; it's another sleepless night in Gaza. It's been a week now. I myself, I work alone, I have my own place, but out of fear I decided to join a family.

And all the windows are open now because you never know who Israel is going to target. As many as 16 drones hovering in the sky of Gaza, and you never know who is the target, so you keep all the windows open. No electricity and its freezing cold. And you know, everybody is trying to sleep, but there is no way you can manage to sleep.

And Hamas has been in power now in Gaza for a year and a half, and they are on the ground. They are from the people. And it's a reality. Hamas is a reality that Israel is trying to ignore.

COOPER: So how much support is there still for Hamas? I mean, there had been some quarters that had hoped there would be a dwindling support within Gaza for Hamas after sanctions and the like. You're saying that's not happening?

EL KHODARTY: Anderson, I've been talking to many people during this week, and at the beginning, people were blaming here Hamas for their crisis. Others were blaming Abu Mazen.

But in the hospital, in the Intensive Care Unit, when people lose loved ones, who do they scream against? They scream against Abu Mazen, Egypt and Israel. And that was shocking.

COOPER: Reza --

EL KHODARY: You could hear the mixing of opinion in the first few days of this crisis, but yesterday after Israel had killed that Qassam leader with his entire family, voices were different yesterday. People were blaming Israel all of a sudden. They are saying Palestinians have to ignore what is the real issue here. It's the Israeli military occupation. For many people here, they're starting to be aware of it.

And this is what they say: they are realizing that war is not against Hamas. War is against the Palestinians, the citizens who are living in Gaza.

COOPER: I want to bring in Reza --

EL KHODARY: And when I ask why, they say, Israel has been hitting the civic infrastructure. They bombed Ministry of Justice, the governmental compound, and a university and, of course, many Hamas leaders' houses. But they destroyed everything that used to be PA; that used to be places for the people to go, including the civil police.

COOPER: Taghreed, I want to bring in Reza Aslan. Reza, from your perspective, what is Israel's end game? I mean, was it simply to knock out Hamas' military capabilities? Was it the hopes that people would rise up against Hamas? What is their goal?

REZA ASLAN, MIDEAST SCHOLAR: Honestly, Anderson I'm not sure if Israel knows what the goal is yet. For that matter, neither does Hamas. It's difficult to figure out what the end game in this is this is going to be. If Israel is truly planning an incursion here, it has two choices. There has been some talk from the Israeli government about just a brief incursion which would essentially be useless.

I mean, that would be just some boots on the ground, perhaps some more casualties, definitely some more civilian casualties, some more images splashed across the Arab world and then really not getting anything from it.

The other option is even worse, which would be a reoccupation of sorts of Gaza, which nobody in Israel wants.

On the side of Hamas as well, I mean, it's very easy, of course, for Khaled Meshaal from the comfort of Damascus to be making these kinds of threats.

But Hamas itself knows that there is no winning this conflict militarily. I think that we're going to be witnessing what we have witnessed so many times in the past, which is just an extended period of violence followed by a truce or a cease-fire, plus a re-arming of Hamas, a new election in Israel, and then rinse and repeat.

COOPER: Ben, you've seen a lot of this before. Do you agree with Reza?

WEDEMAN: I think that short of political resolution of this conflict, this is going to go on. The Israeli officials say that they would like to see Hamas either removed from power or overthrown by the people.

But we've seen in the past, going back to 1982 with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was aimed at destroying the PLO, that you cannot militarily destroy a grassroots political movement. And like it or not, that's what Hamas is, and, therefore, there will be probably some sort of incursion.

There will be great damage done to the infrastructure in Gaza. Hamas will probably take a beating. But politically it will survive, and, therefore, we're going to be in this cycle for the foreseeable future Anderson, until the political leaders in the U.S., in Israel, among the Palestinians, make a serious decision that they need to pursue peace rather than pretend to be pursuing peace and actually doing the opposite.

COOPER: Ben, when you look at the situation, I mean, the Palestinians blame Israelis for killing civilians. Israelis say, look, we're targeting military installations, Hamas installations. But they are hiding weapons in people's homes, they are enmeshed within the civilian population.

Who is right here?

WEDEMAN: Well, I'm not going to go down that way and tell you who's wrong and who's right. But Hamas is part of the Palestinian population. It is an indigenous grassroots political movement that has sincere support among the people.

COOPER: But their headquarters, their buildings are in civilian populations.

WEDEMAN: Yes, that is true.

But as I said, they are part of Palestinian society and, frankly, in a place like Gaza, there's nowhere else to put your installations except among the civilian population because the civilian population is everywhere. It's unavoidable.

COOPER: We're going to have to leave it there.

Ben Wedeman, thank you very much. Nic Robertson, Taghreed on the ground in Gaza and Reza Aslan as well thank you.

We're going to be covering this a lot throughout this next week.

There are protests around the country tonight for and against Israel. You can weigh in, too. Join the live chat happening now at Also check out the live web cast for our crew Friday during the break.

Up next, you heard the Hamas leader lay into Barack Obama. We're going to look at the challenges he now faces in addition to Gaza, there are new developments on the economic rescue package, the Blagojevich mess and a lot more headaches waiting for the President.

Plus, a rare moment: the future First Lady opening up about challenges on the home front, balancing public service and family.


MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: He had to find out, how could he be the kind of father and husband that he wanted to be but still, you know, pursue what he believed was an important career with helping other people.


COOPER: Obama's move to Washington this weekend. We'll have the latest on that.

Later, unraveling the medical mystery behind John Travolta and Kelly Preston's family tragedy, the death of their 16-year-old son. A break first, you're watching "360."



MESHAAL: As the enemy got into Gaza, our people will fight from one street to the next, from one house to the other and on every inch of the land.


COOPER: The exiled leader of Hamas talking tough, as you heard at the top of the program, also with harsh words for Barack Obama. The fighting in Gaza just one more item on the plate for the President- elect, facing quite literally a world of trouble.

More now on that from Samantha Hayes.


SAMANTHA HAYES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As the President-elect packs for Washington, he may want to pack a shovel because the problems are piling up. Top of the heap: the Middle East.

Today a Hamas leader took direct aim at Obama saying his silence on Israel's air offensive is unacceptable.

MESHAAL: Mr. Obama, your beginning is not good; enough of your double standards.

HAYES: Then there's the economy. Obama wants Congress to have a stimulus plan ready to go on day one, but Senate Republicans who still have the power to block action are in no mood to rubber stamp it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Friday, warned Republicans will hold Obama to his campaign promise to go through the federal budget page by page, line by line, eliminating those programs we don't need and insisting that those we do operate in a sensible, cost-effective way, should apply to this.

Translation -- rush us and we'll hit the brakes.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This is critical for Barack Obama, his first big test. Is he going to be a truly different kind of leader or is he going to do what the Democratic leaders want, which is to sign this bill?

HAYES: And then there is the standoff over what to do over Obama's old office; an embarrassment and a distraction at the worst possible time.

The man Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich named to the seat insists he's coming to Washington whether senate Democrats want him there or not.

ROLAND BURRIS, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL, ILLINOIS: I am currently the junior senator for the state of Illinois.

HAYES: How this drama plays out is anyone's guess, but it has the potential to get ugly. The spectacle of a man who would be the senate's sole African-American being refused entry to the senate chamber barred at the door is something no one wants to see.

MARTIN KADY, POLITICO.COM: One of the things the senate can do, I don't know if they will, is seat someone with prejudice, which is a legal term, where they can seat this person -- this Senator but they could revoke it that proves to be tainted or illegal in some way.

HAYES: A wild card? Blagojevich himself. If Blagojevich decides to do some in-person lobbying for his guy, he like any other governor will have to be admitted, though Blagojevich says he has no plans to go to Washington.

A full-fledged foreign policy crisis, pushback from Congressional Republicans on a desperately needed stimulus and the soap opera over his seat -- all before Mr. Obama has even hit the ground.

Samantha Hayes, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Wow and welcome back to Washington. We're going to talk about it, the challenges facing President-elect Obama, with our political panel, Errol Louis and Joe Johns as are here in the studio. Carrie Budoff Brown joins us from Washington.

So what should the first priorities of the new President be? We'll talk about that.

Also tonight, the sudden death of John Travolta's teenage son.


JOHN TRAVOLTA, ACTOR: Well, with my son, again, it was about seven years ago, and I was obsessive of about cleaning his space being clean. So we constantly have the carpets cleaned. And I think between him -- the fumes and walking around maybe picking up pieces or something, he got what is rarely a thing to deal with, which is called Kawasaki syndrome.


COOPER: A disease that afflicted his son, did it also contribute to his death? His body was found today. Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us with the latest.

Also, Sarah Palin speaking out about her daughter Bristol and her new son, Sarah Palin insisting her daughter and her boyfriend are not high school dropouts. And she talks about the challenges they now face.

And later a woman caught on tape allegedly hiring a hit man to kill her ex and his new family. Except the hit man was a cop and she was a cheap skate. Just wait and see how little police say she wanted to pay for the rubout.


COOPER: The scene outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. tonight; several hundred protesters chanting their opposition to Israeli attacks in Gaza. While in Los Angeles, pro-Israeli demonstrators voiced their support to the potential ground assault, shaping up to be the first major foreign policy crisis for Barack Obama. And it is our breaking news tonight.

Movement into Gaza by Israeli forces looks to be imminent. Troops amassing on the border, Nic Robertson is on the ground in Israel hearing jet and helicopter activities we're not sure what exactly what that means. We're going to check back with him in just a few minutes.

But first, let's dig deeper with our panel, Joe Johns and Errol Louis here with me in the studio, Errol is a columnist with the "New York Daily News" and from Washington, White House reporter Carrie Budoff Brown. It's good to have you all with us.

Errol, what kind of position does this put Barack Obama in? We heard the exiled Hamas leader basically throwing down the gauntlet to the President-elect.

ERROL LOUIS, N.Y. DAILY NEWS COLUMNIST: Well, it certainly throws away all of his plans. I mean, he had a nice first day in office are laid out for us where --

COOPER: It's going to be the economy, the economy, the economy.

LOUIS: Well, he's going to tell the generals, --

COOPER: Right.

LOUIS: I want to plan today for how we withdraw from Iraq. And that was going to be the whole foreigner agenda and then he was going to turn to the economy. Clearly that's not going to happen. That he's going to have a crisis on his hands from day one.

COOPER: Carrie, how does Obama deal with this or do we know how Obama is going to deal with this differently than the Bush administration? I mean, Bush has clearly been blaming Hamas. Will Obama do the same?

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN, POLITICO.COM: Well, throughout the campaign we did hear him talk about recalibrating the peace negotiations in terms of coming in with a more balanced approach.

But he's also pretty much indicated that he will follow -- you know, he's a strong supporter of Israel. He went to Israel over the summer and said, as we all know, if he were in Israel and missiles were raining down on his house, he believes that Israel has the right to defend itself.

So he's given indications that he will try to change the balance a bit in peace negotiations, but in terms of a 180 shift, I would say we shouldn't be looking for that.

COOPER: It certainly, though, seems, Joe, that this would be more on the front burner than it has been for the Bush administration. The Bush administration especially for the first couple of years I mean is basically in hands-off on this.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. They definitely have to deal with it. They don't have any choice. You sort of take the world as it is when you get sworn in.

On the other hand, they cannot put the economy on the back burner. It's pretty clear that Barack Obama is going to meet on Monday with the bipartisan Congressional leaders to talk about that.

They're going to have to deal with that, they're going to deal with Israel and all the other things that come. Might as well start juggling things early because this is the way the world is right now.

COOPER: I want to get to Caroline Kennedy in a second. But I also want to talk about what's going on with Blagojevich. Carrie, the President-elect is moving to Washington this weekend just as his would-be successor Roland Burris arrives at Capitol Hill to try to get seated in the new Congress. This is kind of surreal. How much of a distraction is this Burris situation going to be for the Obama camp?

BUDOFF BROWN: I mean, it's a sideshow for him. It's going to get headlines for a day at least. But the problems as we're discussing right now are so huge, he literally has crises at home and abroad.

You're going to see headlines. You're going to see Roland Burris potentially showing up there. It will be a bit of a circus, but I think with so much else going on and so many other major discussions happening that we're going to see the discussion move forward.

COOPER: But Joe, and we have a situation where the Sergeant at Arms in the Capitol says he will physically prevent Burris from entering.

JOHNS: She is -- Carrie is right. This is a sideshow. On the other hand, they need to get a negotiated agreement on this thing because they want to get their message out. They're getting ready to have these new Congressional majorities sworn in.

They have important issues they have to deal with. They have to deal with the economy; a hundred other issues out there. And we're faced with the notion of some 71-year-old man being pushed, whatever, out on the Capitol steps. It's ridiculous. This is something that the Democrats don't need and don't want, and they need to fix it.

COOPER: Errol, let's talk about Caroline Kennedy. AP reporting, two sources close to Governor Paterson say this is all but a done deal.

LOUIS: Well, based on a reading of New York politics, in which everybody has decided to back off. Governor David Paterson has made clear in no uncertain term it's going to be his decision. He's tired of all the speculating, he's tired of all the jockeying, he's tired of all the favor-seeking that's going on.

He doesn't want to play that -- he doesn't want it played out in the press. Of course, the real answer is going to be for him to actually name somebody, and he can't do that until this complicated dance takes place in which Hillary Clinton resigns and is appointed and approved as Secretary of State.

So we've got this whole chain of events that are all --

COOPER: What's the timeline on this?

LOUIS: Well, as far as I can tell, it's going to be up to Hillary Clinton. She's got to give her letter of resignation, there's got to be a vacancy. At that point says the governor he'll name somebody; then and only then will we know really who it is. He's really playing his cards very close to the vest.

COOPER: All right, we're going to leave it there. Errol good to have you on this as well, Errol Louis, Carrie Budoff Brown as well and Joe Johns thanks very much. Have a great weekend everyone.

Still ahead tonight, the future First Lady revealing her family struggle to bring up two daughters.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has more to say about her new grandson and his teenage parents.

And sudden tragedy for John Travolta during a family vacation in the Bahamas.


COOPER: (AUDIO GAP) family in Paris -- the tape shows him next to his teenage son, Jett. Tonight sad news to report, the 16-year-old Jett Travolta was found dead this morning. The actor and his wife, actress Kelly Preston, reported Jett suffered a seizure on a family vacation in the Bahamas. An autopsy is going to be conducted to determine the exact cause of death.

Travolta said Jett was diagnosed with a disorder called Kawasaki disease that primarily affects children under the age of five. Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us with more.

Sanjay, this is strange. I mean, is there any known connection between seizures and Kawasaki disease?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's one of these things. Kawasaki disease is sort of your immune system going into overdrive. It's unclear exactly why that happens. It typically tends to affect your lymph nodes; you get swollen lymph glands and in rare cases, but potentially lethal cases, it affects the blood vessels in the heart called the coronary.

There is a relationship with seizures but it's pretty rare, Anderson, and it typically occurs in very young children. Kawasaki as you mentioned typically isn't after the age of five, but the seizures are in children even younger than that, Anderson.

COOPER: And how long does that last? I mean, is this something that's treatable?

GUPTA: It is treatable. And the key is to try and -- you get this immune system in overdrive, you have to try and knock the immune system down a little bit. If you do that, you can often have a pretty good resolution of the symptoms. Lymph glands start to go down, the dilation or swelling of the coronary arteries -- again those blood vessels of the heart -- start to shrink back down to normal size. It can be treated.

If it's not diagnosed early enough, you can get aneurisms around the heart and that could be a problem, but otherwise it's a pretty treatable thing.

COOPER: We showed some of this earlier. But I want to show -- this is John Travolta on "Larry King" talking about his son's illness back in 2001.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN TRAVOLTA, ACTOR: With my son, it was, again, it was about seven years ago, and I was obsessive about cleaning, his space being clean. So we constantly had the carpets cleaned. And I think between him -- the fumes and walking around, maybe picking up pieces or something, he got what is rarely a thing to deal with called Kawasaki syndrome. It is very easily handled if you identify it. And we did and it was handled within 48 hours. But that 48 hours was --

LARRY KING, HOST, LARRY KING LIVE: I wonder what happens to him? Is he knocked out?

TRAVOLTA: No, he wasn't knocked out. It was the immune system overreacts because they have almost the equivalent of metallics, chemicals, and their body is responding to it.

KING: You knew that right away?

TRAVOLTA: No. The doctor knew that. We didn't know what was wrong.


COOPER: His son was two years old that's -- when he was talking about that. He was 16 when he died. Sanjay, is Kawasaki something that is known to cause fatalities these many years later?

GUPTA: Not typically, Anderson. Again, the age group tends to be much younger and it's very rare -- we were looking through all the papers today on this -- after the age of eight it's very unusual for it to cause significant problems. Once you've had it, you have a chance of having it again, but it's very unlikely.

What John Travolta was talking about there, interestingly, there was a paper back about 20 years ago almost that did show an association between having your rugs cleaned and problems with the cleaning chemicals from that process and possibly inciting a Kawasaki disease- like state. But it was more of a link than an association. No one knows exactly why Kawasaki comes on.

COOPER: What else could cause a seizure in a 16-year-old boy?

GUPTA: There's a lot of things and that gets to the -- one more general category. It was said that he fell. Trauma certainly to the brain, to the head can cause seizures. An infection of the brain, toxins within the bloodstream, drugs, certain medications can cause this, having low blood sugar, not enough oxygen to the brain. The list becomes very large.

I think that's what they're going to try and figure out, that very question. But I have to tell you, having been in the situation before, having seen patients in this situation, the answer may come back, we don't know. We're not sure. We did the autopsy and it's still not conclusive, Anderson.

COOPER: We do know that a 16-year-old boy is dead and his family has just got to be destroyed. Our hearts go out to them.

Sanjay, thank you very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

COOPER: Up next, we're going to have more on our breaking news. Israeli troops on the border. How long until a ground assault into Gaza begins? Will it begin? We'll have a candid conversation about that coming up.

Also, the next first lady talking about her family and the challenges; Michelle Obama speaking out on balancing the public and private sides of being married to Barack Obama.

Plus, a bizarre story: murder for hire.


ELIZABETH BEIMER: This is something nobody expects out of me. Let's put it this way, this is Beth Goody-two-shoes who does nothing wrong.


COOPER: Well, Beth Goody two-shoes allegedly hired a hit man to kill her ex-husband. Find out how she got caught. Ahead on 360.



ROBERTSON: That's the siren going off again. I'm beginning to lose count of how many times I've heard the sirens going off. Okay, the sirens stopped now. You just wait maybe 20 seconds or so. But having just come from where we've been a few miles away where a missile literally went over our heads and landed close by -- there's a bang. It's down there. I'm just very wary, that's all.


COOPER: Wary and dangerous, Nic Robertson last night in the seaport city of Ashkelon, Israel as sirens warned of another round of Hamas rockets. Since the fighting began seven days ago, four Israelis have died.

In Gaza, the bloodshed has been far, far greater, the death toll now over 400. And at this hour, there is talk of a possible ground assault. We're getting reports that Israeli tanks and troops are massing near the border. We've been talking about that. A ground assault could be imminent. We're going to continue to monitor the developments.

Right now let's go back to Nic Robertson live in Ashkelon. Nic, what are you hearing? What are you seeing?

ROBERTSON: Well, the source that told us earlier on that the possibility of a ground incursion could come tonight is one we took really seriously and continue to take seriously. What we've been seeing while we're standing here is helicopters and jets flying over, going in the direction of Gaza, coming back.

But, you know, the most surprising thing I think at the moment is there have been no big missile strikes that we've heard so far in Gaza. When you put all this together, this night has been different from other nights. The reports of the possibility of incursion stronger than previous nights, but it's not adding up to the troops going in but it's just creating that greater sort of psychological pressure on Hamas on the inside. I know when I've been in places that have been bombed before, you get used to the bombing to a degree. Then it pauses and you wonder what's happening. Then it comes again and psychologically that can be really damaging -- Anderson.

COOPER: We talked about this a bit before with Ben Wedeman. But a ground incursion, whether it's trying to hold territory, whether it's just going in striking and coming back out, I mean, no matter what it is, how you call it or how you define it or how long it lasts, it is an extraordinarily difficult thing in such a densely populated area.

ROBERTSON: There are a lot of civilians. The opponents Hamas know that you're coming. They kind of mined the road. As Ben told us before many, many times the Israeli army has been in, Hamas has been there and faced them. So both sides have been through this before.

But when you move the troops in, what is the military goal? Where do you stop them? Do they stay in there? How do you then define success? Will Hamas really stop firing their rockets? How far into the buildup areas, which is what mostly Gaza is, how far in would you have to go?

That's the kind of environment one where your enemy is standing there waiting for you, knows the roads you're going to come down and has very probably mined them in advance of you getting there. And they can hide among the civilian population, which is what the Israeli government says Hamas does a lot. And that just makes it very, very difficult to take them on.

COOPER: We saw how difficult it was against Hezbollah a couple of years ago when we were reporting there. It would be even probably more difficult in Gaza, a more densely populated area.

Nic we'll continue to check in with you.

Coming up, Michelle Obama in her own words, revealing her struggle to create a normal family life for her two daughters. They are moving to Washington this weekend.

First, Erica Hill has the "360 Bulletin" -- Erica.

AirTran Airways apologized to a Muslim family removed from a New Year's Day flight after other passengers reported hearing a suspicious remark about airplane security. FBI agents cleared all nine members of the family along with a friend after questioning but AirTran agents refused to rebook them on another flight. The airline is now offering to reimburse them for the other flights they had to buy as well and also fly them home. Prosecutors in New York say a bus driver's helper knowingly left a 22- year-old man with cerebral palsy in a freezing bus depot on New Year's Eve. The special needs man is recovering in a hospital. The helper was fired and now faces reckless endangerment charges and up to seven years in jail.

A new statement from Alaska governor Sarah Palin on the birth of her latest grandson; the one-time Republican VP nominee calls the birth of Tripp Johnston on December 27th a "amazing, joyful blessing." But Palin also admits she initially felt some fear and despair when she learned her unwed teenaged daughter was pregnant.

And a snack food attack trapped a 21-year-old man in Sacramento. Police say they arrested a man for burglarizing a food store after following a trail of popcorn that led them straight to his apartment.

COOPER: No way. I don't buy that one.

HILL: Yes.

COOPER: Really? How can that be like such a long trail of popcorn?

HILL: It must have been a large box of popcorn.

COOPER: Or he lived above the store. I'll leave that one be.

Time now for our "Beat 360" winners; our daily challenge to viewers to come up with a better caption than the one we come up with everyday for a photo that we put on our blog. Tonight's picture, Japanese monkeys kicking back easing into the new year with a soak in a hot spring in central Japan. Our staff winner tonight, Jack, his caption: "The years have not been kind to the cast of the Golden Girls."

HILL: I like it. Good stuff.

COOPER: It's funny.

Our viewer winner is Charles in Harbor Springs, Michigan. His caption: "Dude, stop with the bubbles. If I wanted a jacuzzi, I'd be hanging out at the AIG junket."

HILL: Also very clever.

COOPER: Very good, Charles.

Your "Beat 360" t-shirt is on the way and less offensive to the cast of "Golden Girls."

Up next: balancing work and family, it is tough enough. But what if your husband is the next president? How Michelle Obama does it in her own words.

And the polar opposite of that story, a wife who allegedly paid $500 to have her ex-husband murdered. Her only problem? The guy she tried to hire was an undercover cop. Be right back.



MICHELLE OBAMA, WIFE OF PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I was -- spent a lot of those years, you know, without him by my side, even though when he was there he was very there. But, you know, you've got a spouse who's traveling back and forth to Springfield, is home on the weekends, not there most of the week.


COOPER: Frank talk from Michelle Obama. We're going to hear much more in a CNN special report on the Obama family airing this weekend. Suzanne Malveaux sat down with the president-elect and the next first lady; talked with them about among other things juggling politics and family.

Tonight a preview: Here's Michelle Obama in her own words on the difficulties she and Barack Obama faced after their two girls were born.


OBAMA: That created stress and tension that I think a lot of couples find themselves in. And we had to really work through that time in our lives and figure out -- I had to figure out how I got the sort of support that I needed without getting it from him because he couldn't be there. He had to find out, how could he be the kind of father and husband that he wanted to be but still, you know, pursue what he believed was an important career with helping other people.

And it took us some time. It took us a few years to sort of figure out how to strike that balance and then move on together. But I'm happy to say we reached the other side of that.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What did you talk about? Can you talk a little bit about the discussion that the two of you had to try to work that out, to get over that hurdle?

OBAMA: A lot of the conversations that we had were about, you know, our views and our vision about life and what was important to us and how could we make accommodations to provide each other the support that we needed. Where was the compromise going to come from? And I think Barack, you know, found that he was taking more of his own personal time in making sure that he was a part of the family and that we had good weekends together, and we've developed some pretty hard and fast traditions as a result of that.

MALVEAUX: Friends have told me that you're the taskmaster.

OBAMA: Yes. You know, probably compared to some people I may be, but I like order. And I thrive in stability. So, you know, we're pretty much in an out of control, unstable part of our lives so I try to keep some level of control over the things that I can. And I find that my kids thrive in the same regard so some of my taskmasterness is intended to protect them. Because when they can count on stuff, when they know mom's going to be here at this time, dad's going to be here the next time, I know my parents are going to be at our parent/teacher conference. And I know when my bedtime is. And I know when it's bedtime we read. And I know in the morning we get up and we cuddle and we can talk.

You know, when you have a busy life, in order to fit all that stuff in, everything else has got to be pretty much in order, in order to fit those kind of fun things in with the kids that they expect and love.


COOPER: Michelle and Barack Obama revealing much more in a one-hour CNN Special this weekend; it's called "The Obamas." You can see it here Saturday and Sunday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next, a mother determined to end a bitter custody battle. She allegedly settles on murder as the solution. But the hit man she thinks she's paying off turns out to be an undercover cop and of course it's all on videotape. We'll have that for you ahead.

And what's about to happen in Gaza. Israel troops could be on the verge of a ground assault. We'll update our breaking news, ahead on "360."



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bludgeon them with a crow bar, baseball bat --

BEIMER: I don't care.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- and then disappear. I'm out.

BEIMER: That's fine.



COOPER: Yes. She doesn't care. Caught on tape: a contract to kill; that's what officials in Washington State say this police video shows. The suspect insists she is innocent. Authorities believe her own recorded words prove otherwise. We're going to let you be the judge in tonight's "Crime and Punishment" report.

Here's Randi Kaye.


BEIMER: This is something nobody expects out of me.

Let's put it this way, this is Beth Goody-two-shoes who does nothing wrong. RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A goody-two-shoes laughing over what sounds like a lethal plot. Beth Beimer may think she's hiring a hit man to kill her ex-husband and his family. What the 28-year-old mother from Washington State doesn't know is that the assassin is actually an undercover cop and their entire meeting is being taped by a hidden camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are there guns in the house?

BEIMER: Yes, there are but they're all kept in the closet and they're not loaded.

KAYE: Caught in a bitter custody tape, Beimer allegedly was ready to pay $500 to rub out not only her children's father, but his current wife, even his parents. And police say she was deadly serious.

DET. SGT. SCOTT NEAR, AUBURN POLICE: She contacted a friend who she wanted to help her find somebody to kill the family. And so eventually he came forward to us and he was very concerned that she was going to have these threats carried out.

KAYE: That's when this rendezvous was set at a motel room under surveillance with a camera rolling inside and cops watching from just outside the door.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's nothing you want out of the house?

BEIMER: Nothing I do want. Ain't got nothing worth anything to me.

KAYE: In a matter of fact tone, the two discuss how the victims should die.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bludgeon them with a crow bar, baseball bat --

BEIMER: I don't care.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- and then disappear. I'm out.

BEIMER: That's fine.

KAYE: Beimer allegedly brings along this steel rebar and suggests it as a murder weapon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To make it personal I'll use the rebar.

BEIMER: Go for it. Just wipe it down and don't leave it there.

KAYE: Police say beamer showed the detective a floor plan of the home and photographs of the target. She also had a warning about her ex.

BEIMER: Now, he's a quick runner.


BEIMER: So he is the quickest out of all of them. KAYE: After the deal is done, Beimer heads out of the room where instead of waiting for the plot to be carried out, she will be arrested and led away in handcuffs. Beimer was charged with solicitation to commit murder and faces decades in prison if convicted. She's pleaded not guilty.


COOPER: She's pleaded not guilty. What does she say and what do her attorneys say about these tapes?

KAYE: Well, we spoke to her attorney. She isn't talking but he is very disappointed in the release of the video. He says it's premature. He doesn't think it's a good idea. He's deeply disappointed. He says that he's worried that this could taint public opinion. That they're going to have a hard time seating a jury because, obviously, you could see what's on these tapes; how people might react to that.

COOPER: Right.

KAYE: He's just worried it's going to hurt their case so that's the very latest on that.

COOPER: Unbelievable. She pointed out that her husband was the quickest runner.

KAYE: He's a quick runner. She told him to get him quick.

COOPER: Yes. Randi thanks. Appreciate it. Tonight's "Crime and Punishment."

Still ahead, think Kathy Griffin and I had a tough time dealing with drunken revelers in Times Square -- maybe you heard about that -- take a look at this. A reporter in Lake Tahoe enduring much, much more in Times Square.


COOPER: All right. Time now for our "Shot" Erica. Last night, we should you some of the highlights and lowlights from our New Year's Eve coverage. The audio problems, the cat calls, we thought we maybe had it rough. But it doesn't compare to what a reporter from Lake Tahoe had to endure in Times Square. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hey. We're coming in to 2009. Excuse me. Oh, wow. Brian. Yikes. Let me get in front of the camera here. All right. I guess you guys are continuing on with me.


COOPER: This was in Lake Tahoe. I'm sorry. I thought this was in Times Square. Even worse. And look there --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sorry. Thank you very much. I needed that hat.


HILL: You say, well, I guess you're continuing on with me.

COOPER: Her name is L'Amor Shelimar (ph) -- that person I would just head butt; that woman right there -- from KRNG TV.

HILL: If only you knew how to head butt properly.

COOPER: If only I knew how to head butt. I've been curious how to head butt.

HILL: You could work on that in 2009.

COOPER: That is my resolution in 2009. I want to learn how to head butt. I see it in movies. I don't understand how it works.

HILL: It can be done. By the way, it may not be real in the movies.

I'm just saying, maybe, maybe. Online, it is all true.

COOPER: So that was our "Shot" for tonight. You can see all the most recent shots at Is the program over yet?

HILL: I think so.

COOPER: That does it for "360." Have a great weekend. I'll see you Monday.