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Benzi Sanders, Former IDF Soldier, In Op-End Says Fighting For IDF In Urban Warfare In Gaza Made Him "Fight For Peace"; Israel-Hamas War Divides College Campuses; Senate Confirms New Chief Of Naval Operations And Air Force Chief Of Staff Amid Tuberville Hold; IDF Military Has Completely Surrounded Gaza City. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired November 02, 2023 - 14:30   ET




JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: As Israel ramps up its military campaign in Gaza, the scenario offers grim parallels to 2014. A very different time under different circumstances. However, this is a similar conflict wherein dozens of Israelis were dead along with more than 2,000 Palestinians.

My next guest, Benzi Sanders, saw horrors of urban conflict back then as an Israeli soldier and in an op-ed for the "New York Times" writes, quote, "I fought for the IDF in Gaza and it made me fight for peace."

Benzi Sanders is now the Jerusalem program director of Extend a group that connects Palestinian and Israeli human rights leaders with American Jewish audiences.

Benzi, welcome to the show and thanks for joining us.

You say your experience in 2014 changed your perspective. How so?

BENZI SANDERS, JERUSALEM PROGRAM DIRECTOR, EXTEND & FORMER ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES SOLDIER: Yes. Well, you know, I'm seeing the horrific images of the fighting inside Gaza right now.

And I think back to my experience in 2014, which, like this current conflict, was preceded by horrific terrorist attack in which three young Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered.

Obviously, that seems like a very small number compared to the 1,400 Israelis murdered on October 7th and the hundreds who are kidnapped. But still, we sent in a massive ground force in 2014.

I remember very vividly the combat. I was in special forces infantry unit engaging with Hamas fighters under tunnels, witnessing the massive, massive destruction of Palestinian neighborhoods, residential neighborhoods.

Civilians who were killed in areas that we were operating in. And also the casualties we suffered in my unit. And I remember after that war, I came, I became -- went back to

civilian life and asked myself, what did we accomplish? What is my government doing to ensure that we don't have to fight another war like this?

And what I realized was, not only was my government not doing anything to prevent another war like this from happening. Actually, it was doing the opposite.

Instead of defeating Hamas and striking it a decisive blow, my government, in the years since, has actually strengthened Hamas.

And it's done so in two different ways. Number one, they've marginalized and delegitimized Palestinians who have renounced violence and recognize international law and recognize Israel's existence.

And cooperate with Israel on security issues, like the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian human rights organizations, or designated terrorist organizations, Palestinian diplomatic initiatives, to gain recognition of our designated diplomatic terrorism.


And meanwhile, as Israel defunds Palestinians who recognize Israel, Palestinians -- the Palestinian group Hamas was funded. Israel facilitated transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas.

And this is all part of the strategy, which, which is designed to prevent any future in which Palestinians have independence and have rights.

The same rights that I cherish so dearly for myself and my family are being prevented by -- for Palestinians. And that was what really changed me.

And made me want to seek a solution and made me want to, instead of managing the conflict, to solve the conflict and seek out a partner in both Israeli and Palestinian society.

I take thousands -- spoken to thousands of people over the years since trying to show them the reality that Palestinians face now and in the West Bank as well.

Not only is Israel trying right now to work towards -- to create an alternative to Hamas, which is really the only way to defeat Hamas. Because Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. It's an idea, the idea of armed resistance.

In order to defeat that idea of armed resistance, you need to provide an alternative. Israel's been working as hard as it can almost in recent years to crush that alternative.

The current government's founding documents say that -- that the, the Jewish people have an exclusive right to the land of Israel, political rights of the land of Israel. That means no future. There's no future for collective independence for Palestinians.

DEAN: All right. Benzi Sanders, we have to leave it there. Thanks so much for coming on. We appreciate it.

Threats, property damage and rallies -- the Israel-Hamas war boils over in university across America. CNN traveled to several and spoke to students about what they're experiencing. That's next.



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Many college campuses across the country are under extraordinary stress, as forums for free speech, they've become flashpoints for passionate rhetoric about the Israel-Hamas war. Emotions are running high and some of that fear and anger has curdled into hate.

Several universities reporting threats against students who are Jewish and others reporting threats against students speaking out for Palestinians.

CNN's Elle Reeve spoke to students at three schools, University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and Cornell, where one student had been arrested for making threats this week, about the boiling tensions on campuses lately.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From the river to the sea --

STUDENTS: From the river to the sea --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- Palestine will be free.

MALAK ABUHASHIM, STUDENT, CORNELL UNIVERSITY: I'm Palestinian. I have family in Reza (ph). So this has been an issue that's affected me my entire life. Like, I'm calling them and there's bombs in the background. They need to go somewhere safe.

ZOE BERNSTEIN, STUDENT, CORNELL UNIVERSITY: I have a lot of family and friends in Israel just having so much hate thrown at and so much misinformation as well about what's going on just shared on campus and on social media has been challenging.

ELLE REEVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's tension at hundreds of colleges across the U.S.

At Tulane, a fight broke out after someone tried to burn an Israeli flag.

At Harvard and Columbia, a doxing truck showed up on campus naming students who allegedly belonged to organizations that released an anti-Israel statement. EVE M. TROUTT POWELL, MIDDLE EAST HISTORY PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF

PENNSYLVANIA: I'm shocked at the temperature on campus. I could never have imagined it would be like this. There's a level of -- I don't want to say hatred but anger and fear.

BENI ROMM, STUDENT, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: The AEPi, the Jewish fraternity, was hit with a graffiti attack of "The Jews are Nazis" earlier this weekend.

REEVE: CNN visited three campuses where the response to the war has had major consequences, the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel, where students were part of a nationwide walkout in support of Palestine, and Cornell, which this weekend faced anti-Semitic threats.

TALIA, STUDENT, CORNELL UNIVERSITY: I was on my way to the kosher dining hall when I looked down and saw the threats.

REEVE (on camera): How did you feel?

TALIA: I mean, it's terrifying. Like, this isn't -- this isn't anything that we thought we would ever have to deal with in the United States.

REEVE (voice-over): The posts on a Greek Life website threatened to shoot up a kosher dining hall and kill Jewish students. They were signed "Hamas Soldier."

But on Wednesday, Patrick Dai, a 21-year-old Cornell student, was arraigned on a federal charge for making online threats.

BERNSTEIN: I think that the quick response by the university really did quell a lot of students' fear.

I know a lot of people are choosing to do Zoom options for their classes. They're asking for special accommodations because they just don't want to put themselves at risk.

REEVE (on camera): What did you think when these anti-Semitic threats were posted online?

ABUHASHIM: I think those were very hateful things to say. It's very disturbing to see such hateful comments being made in the name of Allah. I feel like that's very disrespectful.

Anti-Semitism will never be accepted in our movement. And hateful comments such as these, whether they be Islamophobic, et cetera, have no place on our campus or anywhere, really.

REEVE (voice-over): Abuhashim is the head of Cornell's Students for Justice in Palestine, a group whose national chapter has drawn a ton of criticism for saying the Hamas attack was a historic victory.

And some other college chapters have posted images of paragliders.

But Abuhashim says her group acts independently and she doesn't get talking points from the national chapter. ABUHASHIM: Cornell SJP, we make statements based on what our students are feeling and what needs to be said. Just having that equal treatment from administration.

REEVE: Some Muslim students say they're frustrated they're constantly asked to denounce Hamas. That it's a distraction from their message about Palestinians.

REEVE (on camera): There is a lot of concern that pro-Palestinian students are pro-Hamas and pro-terrorist tactics --


REEVE: -- going all the way up to the national politicians.


TAAL: Yes.

REEVE: Is that true?

TAAL: Absolutely, not true. My condemnation is inconsequential. I think it's quite racist and Islamophobic that before I'm allowed to have a view on genocide I have to condemn a terrorist organization.

REEVE: But is it so hard to say, like, yes, I condemn Hamas?

TAAL: But what does that do? Why is there immediate association I support Hamas? I can say clearly, categorically, I abhor the killing of all civilians no matter where they are and who does it.

I don't go around asking white people, do you condemn the KKK? Why is the assumption that you support the KKK in the first place?

STUDENTS: From the river to the sea --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- Palestine will be free.

REEVE (voice-over): "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," heard in many campus protests, has become a lightning rod.

YOUSSEF RAFEH, STUDENT, DREXEL UNIVERSITY: A free Palestine is when Palestinians can live with food, water, electricity, and have the equal rights that all humans deserve.

SEAN, STUDENT, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: You're completely ignoring the fact the people chanting that have lost all their family members, have had neighborhoods wiped out.

REEVE: Many Jewish student leaders see the chant as a threat, a call for Jewish genocide in Israel.

BERNSTEIN: "From the river to the sea, the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, Palestine will be free."

Free of what? Free from who? What will happen to the people who live there? That, to me, sounds like a call for genocide or an ethnic cleansing. And that really does terrify me, honestly.

ROMM: Chanting slogans of "from the river to the sea" and intifada, right, is never going to invite a conversation with Jewish students of, hey, look at me, I'm also experiencing and suffering as a result of the events in Israel.

STUDENTS: Free Palestine.

TAAL: What "from the river to the sea" means is that Palestinians will live freely in that region away from secular violence. That's not calling for the extermination of Jewish people.

STUDENTS: From the river to the sea --

POWELL: This condemnation, it works two ways. I mean, I don't hear people talking about Israeli violence pre-October 7th. I'm not hearing it. If the term makes you uncomfortable, then ask why it makes you uncomfortable.


REEVE: The students at the heart of this remain proud of who they are.

TAAL: In my lifetime, it may never change, but I feel encouraged. At the end of the day, I feel like we are on the right side of history and I can go to bed quite comfortably.

BERNSTEIN: I'm very, very proud to be a Jewish student on this campus.

Seeing the resiliency of community and seeing the unity of my community, it really has only strengthened me and my pride since October 7th. And I hope that will continue for a very, very long time.


SANCHEZ: Our thanks to Elle Reeve for that story.

Despite heavy backlash, even from members of his own party, Senator Tommy Tuberville isn't budging on blockade of military promotions. His colleagues are trying to find a work-around to confirm a top Navy official. Details how Tuberville's stand is affecting military readiness, next.



DEAN: Senators today voting to confirm Admiral Lisa Franchetti as chief of Naval operations and, moments ago, approved General David Allvin as Air Force chief of staff.

Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville's hold is forcing time consuming work where they've having to approve these nominees one by one in the Senate.

Joining me now is CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

Great to have you here with us.

Walk me through some of these promotions still on hold by Tuberville, specifically related to U.S. positions and the posture in the Middle East with Israel and Hamas war ongoing.

And some of these positions include the deputy commander at U.S. Central Command, the command and deputy commander of the Fifth Fleet, deputy commanding general Joint Special Operations Command. Those are big, lofty titles.

What does it say to you --


DEAN: -- about readiness?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. I could name a bunch more, Jessica. And some of them I know personally and they're terrific officers.

You know what? It matters to national security. Elected civilians have the right to be wrong. Military officials don't determine policy. We trust our civilian leaders to do that.

But also we trust them not to put our military profession at risk, damage our institutions, or to be cruel.

We've got to a point now where Senator Tuberville is not only being irrational but being cruel to both the military officers and their families.

This is now language for seven months, and as you pointed out a lot of different people are affected. Many of them are in the fight.

Many of them are working double jobs and, in some cases, as I've experienced it in the past, this in the past on a hold, they are prevented from going into the position.

Because there's a rule, a regulation, called Presumption of Position. You can't do that unless you've been confirmed by the Senate.

So all of these things are contributing to a national security risk.

And I guess it's more important for the Senator to continue this reformative politics and being cruel than for him to sit down and write legislation and maybe have his fellow Senators vote on it, which they wouldn't do.

So this is just shameful, to be truthful.

DEAN: I want to talk before I let you go. We have new information from Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces saying its military completed its encirclement of Gaza City. This is just breaking from the IDF.

What does that mean to you? And help explain that to us civilians.


HERTLING: Well, there's a couple of things. We're talking somewhat of a siege of this city. There's -- it's evidently driven by Israeli intelligence that they know there's a significant number of Hamas terror cells either in the city or more likely under the city.

They have also conducted these strikes that generated such outcry in the last couple of days, that seem to have destroyed cells and killed key leaders.

What they're attempting to do now is squeeze Hamas into that one city of Gaza City.

After they do that, Jessica, I suggest they'll go other places, because when talking about the miles and miles -- in fact, hundreds of miles of tunnels and facilities underneath Gaza City -- Hamas made this their main stand.

And they're using the civilians in that area as protective shields. Not only civilians but their facilities. They've placed these tunnels underneath hospitals, underneath administrative facilities, under camps, under civilian dwellings.

I think what Israel's trying to do is basically surround so the Hamas leaders can't get out and their fighters can't get out of the city and they're going to continue to conduct the offensive to try and kill or capture many of these Hamas terrorists.

DEAN: General Mark Hertling, thanks so much. Always great to see you. We appreciate your analysis there.

Hundreds of foreign nationals fleeing the violence in Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. Our special coverage from Israel continues right after this short break.