Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Mass Protests, Strikes, Closures Over Israel's Judicial Overhaul; Rolling Fork, MS Begins Cleanup After Powerful Tornado Levels City. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 27, 2023 - 11:00   ET



PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN HAVANA-BASED CORRESPONDENT: And you heard Elian Gonzalez say that he would like to see Cuban exiles return. Of course, the reality is Cubans continue to leave this island in record numbers, just as his mother did.


JESSICA DEAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Quite a story. Patrick Oppmann, thanks so much.

And thank you for joining us today. Jim, great to be with you as well. I'm Jessica Dean.

SCIUTTO: Nice to have you with me all week. I'm Jim Sciutto. AT THIS HOUR with Amara Walker starts right now.

AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. AT THIS HOUR, protesters take to the streets in Israel paralyzing the country as they demand Prime Minister Netanyahu and his push to overhaul the country's judicial system. Towns in Mississippi picking up the pieces after devastating storms over the weekend left over two dozen people dead. And Prince Harry, Elton John, and others take their fight against the British tabloids to a London courtroom. This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.

And thank you for being here. I'm Amara Walker in for Kate Bolduan. We begin in Israel, which is paralyzed right now by protests over Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to overhaul the country's judicial system. Take a look at this video right now of protesters blocking a highway in Tel Aviv. Police tried to disperse them by blasting them with water cannons.

And while Israelis take to the streets in protest, a historic general strike is also bringing the country to a standstill. All flights at Israel's main airport were grounded for several hours, but they have now resumed. Now this is all happening just hours after Netanyahu fired his own defense minister who had called for a pause in the government's judicial reform efforts.

Critics say the plan threatens the country's democracy and removes checks and balances on the government. So far, Netanyahu has shown no indication that he will drop it. Let's get straight to Hadas gold, live in Jerusalem with the very latest. Hadas we can see all the action there behind you. Update us on what is happening now and just a sense of the scale of these protests, because remarkably, it's really impacting nearly every sector of Israel.

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Amara. Well, for more than 12 weeks now, there have been regular protests hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets to protest against this massive judicial overhaul plan. But the last 24 hours has brought something different after the defense minister was fired for daring to give a speech where he himself called for a freeze in the reform plan. He's a member of Benjamin Antonio's own government and member of his own party. So this is very drastic step to take.

We saw those spontaneous protests in Tel Aviv that I have to say they felt angrier than the protests we've had for the past three months or so. And then this morning, this historic general strike, Israel has never seen a general strike like this in history, it has affected every sector of the Israeli economy, including universities, nurses, and were even McDonald's Restaurants are now closed down as a result of the strike. Even embassies, Israeli embassies abroad, are now closed down as a result of the strike.

Israel has never seen something of this scale, bringing the entire country screeching to a halt. And instead, many of these people have come out to the streets here, especially in Jerusalem to protest against this massive judicial overhaul plant. Now, what is a current fear right now is that the other side, the people who support this reform, the right wingers are also planning to come out to counter protests. And there is a big fear that some fringe elements of the right wing plan to be violent.

And that's why the only thing we've actually heard from Benjamin Netanyahu so far today is not actually about the judicial overhaul itself. But instead this tweet, he says, I call on all the demonstrators in Jerusalem on the right and the left to behave responsibly and not to act violently. We are brother -- brotherly people. Now, earlier this morning, there were reports of Benjamin Netanyahu was going to be coming out and announcing he was going to halt the overhaul.

But we have heard nothing so far from him. In fact, we've only heard from some of his far right wing minister saying that they are vowing to continue for but this calling for the supporters to now take to the streets. In fact, those guys that were just yelling behind me, those are some right wing supporters. So you can already see the mixture of both sides right now on the streets, and this could get very tense and potentially violent.

WALKER: And yes, we could be hearing from Prime Minister Netanyahu in the coming minutes or hours. Of course, we'll monitor that and bring that to you live, when it does happen, but Hadas if we could just take a quick step back because we're hearing protesters, as you say, seem angrier today. They're saying they're fighting for the soul of the nation, Israel's democracy. Tell us how we got here?

GOLD: Well, Benjamin Netanyahu and his far right wing coalition, the most right wing government in Israeli history, they won the election in November with a majority so they have 64 seats out of 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, and they -- at the beginning of this year announced this new judicial overhaul plan. Now there have been calls in the past that there needs to be some changes to how judiciary works. Israel has no written constitution that gives some potential confusion.


And so but part of this overhaul, the way -- the reason it's been criticized is because, A, how quickly it's being pushed through. B, that it's coming through without any input from the opposition because the opposition says they will only discuss a potential reform if the legislation is halted, whereas the coalition government says they're just going to keep pushing forward.

We can talk while we push for the sole decision. But also keep in mind that Benjamin Netanyahu, a sitting Prime Minister is facing an ongoing corruption trial. Now, while he regularly denies that this judicial overall has anything to do with this trial, and he denies the wrongdoing, you can't ignore the fact that if the Israeli government, the parties in power can select judges, it can overturn High Court's decisions, it may have an effect on that corruption trial. Amara?

WALKER: Yes. Hadas, right in the middle of it all. Hadas Gold, thank you very much. Let's get to the situation now on the ground at Israel's main airport. Nic Robertson is live outside Tel Aviv. Nic, we know the airport workers joined in on the strike, they halted all departing flights earlier today for hours. What was the scene like for you when you arrived?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, it really feels like the airports are getting back to normal to a degree. The departures board is over there. And if I look at that, you can see about half a shade, half of the departures are shaded red, half the departure shaded green. And the reds are cancellations. So you can see it's not business as usual. But coming through at passport control, baggage reclaim, at customs, it was Ben Gurion, busy airport, working without major issues.

And looking behind me here, at the lines of people waiting to get on flights, I'm watching that line work its way down. So it feels despite a few cancellations, it feels like the airport is back up and running. But listening and talking to people here. There are folks arriving saying, hey, we got again today. But what's going to happen in the coming days. Will we be able to fly out? Will we be able to leave? So people are worried about that airport itself seems to be on an even keel and been working despite a few cancellations.

WALKER: Yes. And speaking of how you feel, Nick, because I know, you know, you know this region very well. You've been covering all kinds of political crises and wars in the Mideast for decades now. What strikes you about these protests and doesn't feel like to you that Israel really is at a tipping point?

ROBERTSON: I think there's a sense that there's a potential for escalation as Hadas was saying that some of the far right politicians have been calling for their protesters to come out and protest in favor of the government position. And there's a concern that there could be extremists among them. So that feels worrying. And I think that gets to the heart of what Israel's President said last week, Isaac Herzog said, look, we feel like we're on the brink of a civil war.

When you hear the President of Israel use those words, it really makes you pause. So I think the number of people out protesting, the number of locations where people are coming out, there's a real sense that, that the voice of the people in opposition to all these judicial reforms is being heard but it's not so far being responded to by the government.

So my sense at the moment is this is a situation that is tense that could get worse. And I think the general strikes will add into all of that, and I think it's going to be very much depend on the leadership of politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu to slow things down, potentially. And ease this country through what is an incredibly difficult time. It feels difficult right now, tense.

WALKER: Nic Robertson, appreciate your analysis, and your reporting there on the ground. Thank you. Let's talk more about what's happening. And joining me now is former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. He's also a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador, really appreciate your time. First off, when you see the pictures of these massive protests in the country's main airport being at a standstill for hours, what's your reaction?

DAN SHAPIRO, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL: Well, it was a spontaneous eruption, a very emotional reaction last night to the Prime Minister's decision to fire the defense minister, when he spoke up and said even though he supports the judicial overhaul that's been proposed, he felt pushing forward to it at this time, but actually be dangerous for Israel security. He said so because so many reservists in the IDF, including Air Force, pilots were refusing to serve a government they felt was straying from democratic principles, and because of intelligence about how Israel's enemies might take advantage of this chaos.

And while there had been demonstrations, as was said earlier, these felt angrier, there was certainly spontaneity to them. And it's so spooked members of Netanyahu's own coalition, that by this morning, it was clear that he was going to need to announce a suspension of those legislation. We've been waiting all day to hear that announcement. And in the meantime, the general strike has been called which has brought the country to a standstill.

WALKER: Is that your biggest concern right now, the national security of Israel, and if so, you know, again, tell us what you think Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to do now?


SHAPIRO: Well, when the defense minister who himself is a career military officer, very distinguished, and a member of Netanyahu, his own political camp says, because of the way our own soldiers, those we depend on to defend ourselves are reacting, when they're concerned that they may be asked to carry out orders, that they're not sure whether they should listen to the government or listen to the Supreme Court, if those two branches of government are challenging, each challenging each other for authority.

When a security minded defense minister says that the readiness of his military and the opportunity that some of Israel's adversaries see, create a security crisis, that's really something that the Israeli people take very seriously. It's not the only concern, of course, the general stability and the economy. Many Israeli economic leaders, bankers, high tech investors, have said that they don't see the likelihood that Israel's economic success can be sustained in the case where there's a concentration of power in one branch of government and a weakening of the Supreme Court.

So there's a lot at stake here that's been motivating these protests. But I do think the security issue was kind of the tipping point.

WALKER: Yes. And so far, Benjamin Netanyahu has planned not to halt the judicial overhaul plan. We'll see what he says in the coming hours if and when he does speak, but we are starting to see members of his own Likud party calling on him to do just that. How long can Netanyahu hold out before he's forced to change course?

SHAPIRO: At 10:30 this morning, local time, it was announced by his office that he would be making a speech. And that would be when the announcement would be made about a suspension of this legislative initiative. That's now some seven hours ago. And it still said that that statement, that speech will be coming very soon, of course, in the meantime, as your reporters mentioned, there's been an attempt to bring out supporters of the legislative initiative to demonstrate maybe to counter demonstrate and with some risk of clash if these two groups are in the same space.

But what he seems to have spent most of the day doing is negotiating with other members of his coalition, not from his own party primarily, but from some of the far right coalition partners who are deeply committed to this overhaul. And they have made various demands, and they have tried to use the leverage. They've even threatened to resign and bring down his government. And so he's had to spend several hours sorting out the coalition politics to enable him to do what really his own party and just the events on the ground have made inevitable.

He's also hearing, by the way from the Biden administration, that they believe that the time has come to suspend this legislation.

WALKER: Yes, yes. We'll see what he says and hopefully we don't see an escalation with those competing protests if they do happen. Ambassador, Dan Shapiro, thank you very much.

Let's turn now to another big story we're following, severe weather, more storms expected today in several states in the South. The latest storm threat comes just days after a series of devastating tornadoes killed more than two dozen people over the weekend. And as you can see in this video, the tornadoes left nothing but devastation in the wake with the town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, particularly hard hit. Nick Valencia is there he's joining us now live, Nick, just what a devastating situation. What are you hearing from the residents today?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's sobering Amber to see these images in a few days now since the storm has hit, you know, hard hit Rolling Fork here in Mississippi. For some, it's now starting to hit them the experience that they went through and we're joined now by Mary Cockrell. Mary, your home was just leveled by this. What was it like going through what you went through on Friday?

MARY COCKRELL, FRIEND OF TORNADO VICTIMS: It was scary. Very scary. We were sitting down on the patio and we heard -- we could see the lightning was really bad. And you could hear roar and some folks say it seemed like a train. It was bad, but I didn't connect it with the train. But I told my husband, Harvey we got to get in the house quick. And we got in the house. And I said let's get in the hall. That's the only thing I know, get in the hall. We grabbed our little Yorkie tripper. We got it in the hall. We had two blankets. We covered each other the blankets. He wouldn't -- he kept standing over me. He didn't want to move. And I said you're going to have to move us that tree. I see it coming down through the --

VALENCIA: You had a tree crash on top of your home?

COCKRELL: Yes, that tree, a big oak tree, old oak tree. And he knelt down and I said, well, I think the rafters called it. And it did. It didn't come down on us. That's God was just with us.


VALENCIA: I know you are so grateful and we were talking here you're one of your best friends didn't make it. We've been reporting in front of their home here. Tell us about, tell us about the couple here.

COCKRELL: Melissa Neil Ivers (ph) that bring him the community for a long time. She had worked at the prison in Mars for a long time. He was an avid fisherman and hunter and everything. I was closer to her. We shared coffee together in afternoons a lot of times.

VALENCIA: We're so, so sorry. We're so, so sorry.

COCKRELL: We just -- she'll never be replaced.

VALENCIA: We know you have a lot to, to get to today. Your home is, you know, parts of it is still standing. This neighborhood though, has just been wrecked. Mary, thank you for taking the time with CNN.

COCKRELL: Thank you so much.

VALENCIA: We're reporting as you see some of this heavy machinery coming in here. People just, you know, helping their friends out here. Local residents helping each other out chipping in doing what they can even though basically everyone here has been affected. Amara?

WALKER: We're standing it's that neighborhood or, you know, whatever it is, is completely gone. And it is so sad to see. Nick Valencia, thank you.

WALKER: Joining me now is Brian Trascher. He is the Vice President and spokesman for the United Cajun Navy, a group of volunteers who help with search and rescue. Brian, tell us more about what your teams have been doing what kind of help they've been lending.

BRIAN TRASCHER, VP & SPOKESMAN, UNITED CAJUN NAVY: Well, thanks for having us, Amara, for covering the story. After the tornado tore us down Friday night, our Mississippi chapter volunteers rushed to the scene next morning participated in search and rescue efforts for about 48 hours. And, you know, we've now transition to what we call our supply drive where we have sent trucks from our warehouse in Baton Rouge full of food, water, hygiene products, clothing, all the things that we know people need after disaster. They arrived yesterday.

Were set up in Silver City, Mississippi at the post office working directly with the sheriff's office there in Humphreys County, setting up a point of distribution so that people will be able to get some relief.

WALKER: I can't imagine just seeing this devastation, we've covered so many tornadoes, I've been on the scene of tornadoes here in the south. And the random nature of it is what is really striking. But when you look at the images from Rolling Fork or Silver City, there's really nothing standing. What are the biggest needs that you're hearing about from the ground?

TRASCHER: Well, you know, initially, people are going to need food and water, a lot of that stuff comes in usually is enough for food and water to go around for anybody that needs it. But these people lost everything, just in their homes with people think about everything that's already close every creature comfort that you used to in any given day of life.

And so we, you know, we're -- we've done this a bunch of times now. So we kind of know what the most popular things are, especially like I mentioned the hygiene product. And a lot of times we don't have access to like a shower or things like that, and there are certain types of things that women need that more than men and we make sure to have things like that. Just try to keep people comfortable, because as you know, it takes it takes a little while for the government resources to get organized and show up and we try to fill that need from when disaster first strikes to when the Calvary arrives. We try to plug that hole in the middle and try to keep people comfortable and give them some help.

WALKER: Are you able to you know, give us a sense of how this destruction compares to other storms your group has responded to?

TRASCHER: Yes, so this is I think is our third deployment for tornadoes. And what's different about tornadoes versus hurricanes, is that Hurricane, you have some warning, and you have pat downs themselves, they're very hard to predict where they're going to go. This was an F4 Tornado, extremely wide destruction path, extremely long destruction path, and it went through several towns and it looks like a few of these towns are just completely destroyed, like almost nothing left just almost like a war zone.

So in addition to people's homes and businesses, those local governments are going to have to find new structures to operate out of because they're going to be dealing with FEMA and HUD eventually just trying to rebuild their towns and they just don't have any infrastructure to do it. So, you know, people are going to need a lot of help. They're going to need a lot of prayers. Now the Red Cross is there, there's going to be, you know, organizations helping raise money for these folks.

I want to alert your viewers though that there's other groups out there that call themselves Cajun Navy that have been on the scene they follow us everywhere we go and try to pretend like they're us and raise money. We have one clown on side of the road with a shirt, collecting cash donations but fortunately the police were able to shut him down but trying to warn people that the United Cajun Navy is the only real Cajun Navy organization. We're the only ones authorized to be in Mississippi right now.


WALKER: Well, good to know. And thank you for all the work you do. This was a massive tornado that was on the ground for over an hour that spanned about 59 miles so the need will be humongous. Brian Trascher, thank you for your time. And for more information on how you can help the storm victims in Mississippi go to

All right, some breaking news into CNN, a deal that could help to ease the tensions in Israel and end those protests that have paralyzed the country. We'll bring you that after a quick break.



WALKER: An update now to our top story, a deal to postpone the judicial overhaul in Israel, that move by Prime Minister Netanyahu had provoked huge protests and paralyzed the country. Let's get straight now to Hadas Gold. She is live in Jerusalem with the very latest. What are you hearing?

GOLD: Well, Amara, this actually came out from the right wing party Jewish party -- Jewish power that's led by Itamar Ben-Gvir. He's the Minister of National Security. And it goes to show you how beholden Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are to the right wing fringe now of Israeli politics, because that's where we're hearing this announcement from.

Now, we just got the statement saying that the Prime Minister agreed with the Minister of National Security, that government will be given an extension until the next parliamentary session to pass the reform through negotiations. But at the same time they had this was what they were given. It was agreed between the two that they need to step to increase governance, the establishment of the National Guard.

The new National Guard, which doesn't exist in Israel until now will be approved at the next cabinet meeting. So clearly, this was part of the negotiation that was likely going on all day today while we're waiting to hear from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it's incredibly notable that this announcement about a deal to halt the legislative process on this massive judicial overhaul is coming from this right wing party in the Israeli government and not from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

WALKER: Yes, well, this appease the protesters. We will see because they're calling for a halt not a delay. Thank you so much Hadas Gold.

Next up, is the water safe? That is a question people in Philadelphia are asking after a chemical spill over the weekend. What officials are saying this morning, next.