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Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza Grows; Interview With White House Coordinator For the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk; Israel Makes Hostage Deal With Hamas. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired November 22, 2023 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Hello. I'm Boris Sanchez in Washington, alongside Wolf Blitzer in Tel Aviv, Israel.
We're tracking the critical deal between Israel and Hamas to free dozens of women and children being held hostage in Gaza. Next hour, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet will provide an update on this diplomatic breakthrough. It's set to become a battlefield of reality at 3:00 a.m. Eastern time here in the United States, 10:00 a.m. local in Gaza and Israel.
A four-day pause in fighting will be enacted, which will begin the process of getting 50 Hamas hostages safely to Israel in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinians in Israeli custody -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: But, with that, Boris, with that truce clearly nearing right now, Israel's barrage has not led up at all.
Here, you see what's left after some strikes near a hospital in Northern Gaza, the situation the ground still very volatile before any of the hostages are actually freed.
In moments, we will hear from a top White House official who was inside the room for the hostage negotiations, and I will speak live to someone holding out hope that Hamas will free their relatives under this agreement.
But, first, let's to go CNN's Oren Liebermann. He's here with us in Tel Aviv right now.
Oren, how do we expect this to play out? What will happen when the clock strikes 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning?
OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're now 14 hours away from that moment, and that's when we expect the fighting to stop.
Not a surprise that there's fighting, and we expect to see fighting pretty much up until that very minute. In previous rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas or Israel and Gaza, the fighting, frankly, continues up until the cease-fire or the pause goes into effect. That does not mean the deal is off. Every indication we're getting from the Israeli government, from the
U.S., from Qatar, from Hamas is that this deal is very much on. So, at 10:00 tomorrow morning, the fighting stops, and then a short time after that, 50 Israeli hostages, women and children held in Gaza, will begin to make their way out.
It's unclear exactly how or where they will cross into Israel, whether it's directly into Israel or whether they will first go through Egypt. At the same time, there is another process there; 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails, they will start to be released.
And this plays out in stages over four days. It will be 10 to 12 Israeli women and children a day in exchange for, we believe, a portion of the Palestinian prisoners released each day.
At the same time, the fighting will stop, more humanitarian aid expected into Gaza, that very much a demand not only of Hamas, but also of the World Health Organization and so many who are trying to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza.
BLITZER: So, Oren, just to be precise, is the fighting expected to continue right up until the time -- until the last minute when this deal is supposed to begin?
LIEBERMANN: That's very much what we expect.
We have seen the videos coming from Gaza, Northern Gaza, in particular. We have seen the IDF statements. They're working on trying to focus in and essentially consolidate their gains and push harder against what they see as Hamas strongholds there sort of east of where we were in Gaza over the course of the last couple of days.
We have seen red alerts coming from Gaza indicating incoming rocket fire. So we very much expect that fighting to go up until perhaps the very last minute. It is also worth, at the same time, keeping an eye on Israel's northern border and Hezbollah on that side, as well as off of Israel's Southern border, the Houthis in Yemen.
Both have engaged in attacks on Israel, Israel defending itself and striking back, at least on the northern border. They're obviously not a party to this agreement or this pause in the fighting. So that may very well continue, even if there is no fighting inside Gaza for several days.
BLITZER: Yes, there's still enormous fear this war could escalate. Let's hope it doesn't.
Oren Liebermann, thank you very much for that report.
Boris, I understand you just wrapped up a very important interview.
SANCHEZ: Yes, Wolf, I spoke with Brett McGurk just moments ago. He's one of the key U.S. figures in the hostage negotiations.
McGurk is the White House coordinator for Middle East and North African affairs, and he's worked in Middle East diplomacy for more than 15 years.
Here's our conversation.
SANCHEZ: Brett, thank you so much for sharing part of your afternoon with us.
Let's start with the mechanisms that are in place to ensure that all sides respect this truce. What's the plan if it's broken?
BRETT MCGURK, WHITE HOUSE COORDINATOR FOR THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA: Well, thanks so much for having me.
I have to say, this deal was really negotiated really over the last five weeks. And it is a detailed -- without anything really being left a chance. I think everybody understands exactly what they need to do. There's a very detailed text of what has to happen once this goes into place tomorrow morning.
But, look, I mean, I have to be honest. We're dealing with Hamas. So even though we have this agreement, it is a major, major breakthrough. The president has been directly engaged over the last five weeks with 14 engagements with President Netanyahu, with President Sisi, with the emir of Qatar, really kind of driving this towards an agreement.
We finally have it. But now we actually have to implement. And the onus is on Hamas to release these hostages. I would just make one more point. This deal is structured to incentivize the release of all hostages. And we could not have gotten this deal under these terms even two to three weeks ago.
So we expect to see, under the terms of the deal, 50 women and children come out over the first four days of this humanitarian pause period that we hope will start tomorrow. That includes toddlers. It includes babies. It includes a 3-year-old American toddler.
But then, if you want the pause to continue, the onus is on Hamas. For every 10 additional hostages, the pause will continue. And we hope to see that, because we want to see all these hostages come home.
SANCHEZ: No question about that.
You mentioned the one American toddler that would be among those 50 getting released. CNN's reporting indicates that at least three Americans could be among them, likely including that toddler you mentioned.
Did President Biden receive any guarantees that Americans would be among the first of those released?
MCGURK: I don't want to get into the schedule. And a lot of -- some of this is left to -- in terms of the schedule, who comes out when, is left to some logistics and how they come out. This has been worked out in some tremendous detail. But we are --
anticipate -- we anticipate that three Americans will come home. One is the toddler Abigail and two other American women. And, of course, then we have about 10 total Americans unaccounted for. But we're not going to rest here. This is a breakthrough.
This is welcome news, but we are not going to rest until the 50 hostages come out over phase one of the deal and until all hostages come out, and including, in particular, unaccounted-for Americans.
SANCHEZ: And on that note, part of the deal includes the Red Cross getting access to the hostages.
Do you know if they will be able to have access to some of the 180 that will still be held captive?
MCGURK: Well, this has been a problem.
And one of the sticking points in the negotiation is that Hamas was failing to produce any, not only proof of life, but even identifying characteristics of the hostages it said it would hold. It eventually came forward with a list of 10 names, 10 women and children. That was inadequate.
It eventually, then, over weeks of very difficult negotiations, and, frankly, as Hamas came under increasing military pressure, came forward with a list of 50 women and children that it could identify with identifying characteristics that would come out in this first phase.
But, no, we demand proof of life and to understand the conditions of all these hostages. And, to date, that has not happened. I was asked earlier, do we know if the 50 are alive and well? We understand they're alive, but they're certainly not well.
These 50 women, children, again, toddlers, it's just unimaginable what they have gone through. But we're going to make sure that they get the care they need when they come home. And, again, we hope to see this under way tomorrow and over the Thanksgiving weekend here.
SANCHEZ: So, to be clear, do you have any confirmation that the Red Cross might be able to access the other hostages, those that aren't being released among these 50?
MCGURK: I'd say we're hopeful, but I cannot confirm that, nor could I guarantee that.
But we are demanding to understand the conditions of the other hostages.
So, Israeli officials have said, as you noted, that they would consider keeping the temporary truce in place if 10 or so hostages are set free per day. I mean, that could potentially mean a two-or-three- week break in hostilities. Is that actually realistic? Wouldn't that potentially hurt the IDF's
MCGURK: Well, the Israelis -- this is a very difficult decision. And President Biden has made decisions like this, although not on this scale. And I'm sure President Biden will likely speak with the prime minister later today.
A very difficult decision that had a full-day debate yesterday in the Israeli government. But the way the deal is structured, I think we feel pretty good about it. The incentive is for the continuous release of hostages. But that doesn't come for nothing. If Hamas wants the pause to continue, we need to see more hostages coming out.
Now, I will say, we do favor humanitarian pauses, irrespective of a hostage deal. We helped negotiate a U.N. Security Council resolution in New York. We did not vote for that resolution, because it failed to condemn Hamas, which we demand as a fundamental principle, but we did not veto that resolution.
But for this humanitarian pause to continue, we have to see more hostages coming out. Now, I will say we do have some assurance that, even beyond the four-day period, on day five, day six, we will meet that benchmark to extend the humanitarian pause, at least by those period of days.
But I can't guarantee that. We have to see. And, again, we're dealing with Hamas, a terrorist group here who's holding toddlers and babies at the other end of the table.
SANCHEZ: Yes, we understand that some key issues still remain, specifically around aid shipments to Gaza.
We understand the U.S. is the lead facilitator in getting that aid in. Can you give us any insight into how much and what kind of aid is being discussed?
MCGURK: What you said is correct.
The United States of America is the number one funder, facilitator, driver of getting humanitarian aid into Gaza. We have had teams in place since President Biden's trip to Israel, in which he brokered an agreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Sisi of Egypt to begin, to begin the entry of aid.
At that time, nothing was getting in. And we have since ramped up to about 100 trucks a day. I just spoke with David Satterfield, our humanitarian coordinator on the ground. We are working to get as much in as possible.
But it has always been the case that, if you talk to the humanitarian groups who are facilitating this aid, that you need a pause in hostilities to really significantly ramp up. So we have been preparing for this moment. We're hopeful that, starting tomorrow, you will see a significant increase in aid. That's something we want to sustain.
But we're ready for that. But this won't go perfectly. This is a very, very difficult situation. We do want to make sure trucks are inspected, obviously, so that Hamas cannot rearm during this period. But we have those inspection mechanisms in place. And I'm very hopeful that you will see a significant increase in aid, which is needed.
And we're working every day, even before this deal was put in place, to make that happen.
SANCHEZ: As the humanitarian crisis grows and the Palestinian death toll has risen, President Biden has faced domestic pressure in the United States, specifically among his own party, perhaps most intensely.
Has the White House advised Israel to shift the intensity or the targets of its attacks once the fighting resumes? Do you anticipate any change?
MCGURK: We are in a daily, intensive discussion with the Israelis.
When the president went to Israel, first wartime leader to visit Israel in a state of war, first American president to visit Israel in a state of war, he spoke publicly, and he said wartime decisions are the most difficult. You have to ask hard questions. You have to be deliberative. You have to constantly ask, are your policies advancing toward the objectives that you set? Have you set objectives you can meet?
And that kind of rigorous inquiry is how we are dealing in our partnership here with the Israelis. It's constant. It's ongoing. I have to say, they adjusted the land invasion plan to account for this hostage process, because we were hopeful to get a hostage deal, that they would be able to pause and support a pause in operation should we get it.
And we got it. But, yes, as we go forward, we will be in very close consultations with the Israelis. We want to see Hamas separated from the Palestinian population. And civilian protection is fundamental. So this is something that we are very much engaged in. It's also a very difficult situation, because Hamas is using hospitals and civilian infrastructure for its war aims.
That's just an undeniable fact. And Hamas started this war. And we cannot forget that Hamas started this war. This would not be happening in Gaza if not for what Hamas did on October 7.
SANCHEZ: Sir, there have been at least 66 attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel by Iranian-backed militias in the region since October 7.
It doesn't appear that those militias have been deterred by the U.S. response so far. I'm wondering, have military commanders on the ground asked the White House to authorize more actions in response?
MCGURK: Well, just last night, we conducted a series of airstrikes actually in Iraq targeting Kataib Hezbollah, who is the number one Iranian proxy group, a designated terrorist group, who has been responsible for those attacks.
And even before those airstrikes last night, U.S. military forces found the group that was launching an attack against us and destroyed that target. So, this is just over the course of the last 24 hours.
So, look, we're going to act to protect our people. The president is very focused on this. We also have two carrier strike groups in the region, one sitting in the Mediterranean and one now in the Gulf region. And so we are prepared for any contingency. And we are going to act to protect our people, just as the president ordered last night with those airstrikes.
SANCHEZ: So if and when these civilian hostages are released, what's your sense of what Hamas has planned for the Israeli soldiers and reservists that they have captured?
Are they looking to strike another, bigger deal for more Palestinian prisoners?
MCGURK: I think it's fair to say -- and I would defer to the Israeli government when it comes to this -- the Israeli soldiers will probably be in a future phase as one of the most difficult criteria.
But I don't -- I know the Israelis are committed to getting all of their people home. And so, as we advance towards this first phase, which is the women and children, you then have other categories.
Look, you have elderly males. Hamas has refused so far to release those. You have third-country nationals. You have a number of bodies from October 7 that we believe are in Gaza that need to be returned.
And so the Israelis are very focused on this. We have been engaged every single day with the countries, the Egyptians and the Israelis, in this process. I think we did a pilot about a month ago with the two Americans, mother and daughter, that we were able to get out. That was really the pilot for whether or not this could work.
It was really that process that led, finally, after a month or so since then, to this breakthrough yesterday.
MCGURK: We're hopeful we will get through this phase. And then I do think the potential is there to get all the hostages home. That is certainly the intent.
SANCHEZ: Our thanks to Brett McGurk for taking the time.
And back to Wolf in Tel Aviv. Wolf, it struck me, as you heard from McGurk there, that the United
States appears to be optimistic that this could lead to a longer- lasting truce, though, for that to happen, a lot of things have to go right.
BLITZER: Yes, so much is up in the air right now. Let's hope that optimism is warranted.
A good interview, very good interview, Boris. Thank you very much.
My next guest is hoping he will be seeing his loved ones very, very soon. Dori Roberts was born and raised in Israel and now lives in Texas. He learned through a social media video that Hamas had abducted his cousin and her daughters at their kibbutz.
They are 34-year-old Doron Katz and her daughters, 4-year-old Raz Asher and 2-and-a-half-year-old Aviv Asher. Tragically, Dori's Aunt Efrat, Efrat Katz, who had also been taken hostage, was found dead. His aunt's partner, Gadi Moses, is also a hostage right now.
Dori Roberts is joining us now live from Austin, Texas.
Dori, first of all, my deepest condolences for the loss of your aunt. Thank you very much for being with us today. It's an important day.
First of all, what have you been told about the pending hostage release that's supposed to begin in the coming hours?
DORI ROBERTS, FAMILY MEMBER OF HAMAS HOSTAGES: Well, first of all, thank you so much, Wolf, for having me on your show today.
It is looking to be an extremely hopeful Thanksgiving for all of us here in the United States and hopefully around the world. As we all followed the news developed and hearing about the cease-fire and the agreement that was struck last night with the Israeli government, we all got our hopes up that we will see our loved ones back with our families in Israel.
Me, like my family home, are looking forward to any piece of information that comes from the Israeli news and the government, the officials. The last thing we know is that the pilot will be small groups at a time. The names were not going to be sent to the families right away, and we will have to wait until a confirmation from the Mossad of those on the list actually being released.
And then, after a medical exam in the hospitals and the military base, we will be able to join them at the hospital and meet them for the first time in 47 days.
BLITZER: Are you hopeful, Dori, that your family members, especially the kids, could be among those released?
Like everybody else, we are very -- trying to keep our hopes up and hopefully to see them coming into us in the next couple of days. We don't know the exact order of who's going to be released on each day, but we're trying to do our best to keep our hope up and our pressure in the past few days, as you have seen in Israel all the marches and all the attention on the government to execute this amazing cease-fire and return of the hostages as our first priority.
Since it's a war, and it was given to the generals to lead the war, it was our job and our mission to remind the community around the world and the government in Israel that our loved ones and our family members are still having captive as the hostages by the Hamas.
And we demanded our -- their immediate return, their release as a first priority to our government. And it seems like this has been working very well so far. We're trying to keep optimistic. And we're trying to keep our hopes up that we will see them in the next few days back with our families and loved ones all well and healthy, so we can join again and rejoice our family and loved ones in the holidays, in the Hanukkah, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
And this has been a very exciting time for me and my family.
BLITZER: I know -- I have spoken to many of these hostage -- of your fellow hostage families.
Throughout this entire agonizing uncertainty since October 7, you have been told of potential, potential deals. But I assume this one does feel different. Are you as skeptical as many of the hostage families have been in the past? Or are you very hopeful that this is the real thing?
ROBERTS: I'm very hopeful. I must say that I'm very hopeful this -- it's hard to go back to sleep at night that I might be missing something.
So, I'm trying to stay in touch with my family and friends back in Israel. I'm attached to the news all the time, trying to get any updates I can as they come in. And I am very hopeful. But this is not it. We have another 180 hostages or so held by the Hamas.
And we will not sit down, we will not rest, we will not be quiet until each and every one of them is being sent home back to Israel to their families and reunited with their loved ones. This is our -- that was our mission so far. And that will be the mission until we're done with every single one of the hostages.
BLITZER: Let's hope that happens.
Dori Roberts, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you and to your family. Appreciate it very much.
ROBERTS: Thank you. Bye-bye.
BLITZER: The deal between Hamas and Israel includes convoys of much- needed aid and fuel into Gaza. The humanitarian situation there is clearly dire. More than 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced.
We're going to speak to a U.N. official about that. That's coming up next.
Stay with CNN. Our special coverage continues right after this short break.
BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Tel Aviv.
Today, explosions, flares, and smoke were seen across Gaza just hours before tomorrow's humanitarian pause is scheduled to take place. The scale of the destruction is almost unfathomable, as the crisis inside Gaza widens. An analysis of radar satellite data show up to half of the buildings in Northern Gaza have either been damaged or destroyed.
According to the United Nations, nearly 1.7 million people have been displaced in Gaza since the Hamas terror attacks of October 7. The population there is just over two million, by the way, and children under 18 make up nearly half of that number.
This humanitarian pause that's supposed to begin tomorrow will allow for more aid, convoys, and fuel to get in as well. This is so important.
Let's discuss this and more with Tamara Alrifai, the director of external relations and communications for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, as it's called, the agency for Palestinian refugees.
Tamara, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for all your important work.
How will this truce impact your work on the ground?
TAMARA ALRIFAI, DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL RELATIONS AND COMMUNICATIONS, UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY: Hi, Wolf.
It is a bit premature for us to tell before the actual humanitarian pause kicks in, and before we know what the conditions are and whether these conditions will effectively enable my colleagues with their trucks and their food, medicines and clean water to go across the Gaza Strip, particularly to the north, with a reminder that the north has been almost entirely sealed since the beginning of this war.
So, this will be our first time going in. And we will be able, hopefully, to bring in some much, much-needed humanitarian supplies, mostly into our shelters, the schools of the north that have received over 160,000 people in the north.
BLITZER: Do you have any clarity, Tamara, on the specifics of this deal, in terms of what aid will be allowed in and at what scale? ALRIFAI: This scale is, for now, up to maybe between 60 and 100
trucks of humanitarian supplies, and that includes food and medicine, and finally some fuel.
However, I really want to reiterate that, even with 100 trucks a day or 150 trucks a day, because these are the figures floating around, that remains way below the needs of the people. You rightly said around 80 percent of the Gaza population, 1.7 million people, are currently displaced out of their homes, most of them in UNRWA shelters, with only on them the clothes they left their homes in, with very little access to food, and mostly very little access to clean drinking water.
So anything that comes in is welcome, but, really, we need a substantive increase in the number of trucks of assistance and fuel every day for this humanitarian operation to be really meaningful.
BLITZER: Will these trucks come in simply through the Rafah Border Crossing in the southern part of Gaza along the border with Egypt?
ALRIFAI: Yes, for now, the agreement is to use the Rafah Crossing, which isn't logistically prepared to get more than a certain number of trucks in per day.
And that is the crux of the delay and the low number of trucks that also need to undergo verification inside Israel. Rafah has not prepared to receive a large number of trucks. And we at UNRWA, as well as the entire U.N., have been calling for the use of more crossing points, including Kerem Shalom in Israel, if we really want to get a minimum 500 trucks per day, which is the number that preceded this war.
BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about what to expect in the first day of this new deal, assuming it begins tomorrow, as is scheduled.
What is the plan first day when it comes tomorrow?
ALRIFAI: Well, first, we do welcome that deal, including the humanitarian pauses, the release of the hostages, and the prisoners.
So, any halt.