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CNN International: Deepening Concern For Rafah Amid Threat Of Israeli Offensive; Israeli PM: Military Will Soon Shift Focus To Rafah; Hamas Delegation Is In Cairo For Talks On Gaza. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired February 09, 2024 - 08:00   ET




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BIANCA NOBILO, HOST, "CNN NEWSROOM": Hello, and welcome to CNN Newsroom. I'm Bianca Nobilo in London.

Just ahead, President Joe Biden calls Israel's military operation in Gaza "over the top" as concerns over the IDF's anticipated move into Rafah are growing. Then, we're live in Pakistan where officials are still counting votes in a tense and widely-watched election. Plus, the Year of the Dragon is almost upon us. We'll take a look and what may lie ahead this year for some of the world's leading personalities.

No war could be allowed in a gigantic refugee camp. But, the Norwegian Refugee Council and other aid groups are warning of a potential bloodbath if the Israeli military expands ground operations into Gaza's Rafah. More than a million displaced Palestinians have fled to the city close to Egypt's border to escape fighting elsewhere in Gaza. They're crammed into overcrowded shelters or living in tents. U.S. President Joe Biden also expressed his concern. Listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I'm of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, has been over the top.


NOBILO: Meanwhile, a Hamas delegation is in Cairo to talk about its response to proposals for a ceasefire and the release of hostages. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already rejected the Hamas counterproposal, calling it "delusional".

Let's bring in CNN's Nic Robertson who joins us now live from Tel Aviv. Nic, always very good to see you. Are President Biden's remarks with the concerns of the international community about an offensive in Rafah likely to have any operational impact whatsoever on Netanyahu?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, if we look back a couple of months to mid-December when the ground operation into Khan Younis was just getting underway, President Biden called Israel's bombings "indiscriminate". It didn't really have a big impact on the ground. Civilian casualties have been counted in over the hundreds every day since there has been a struggle to get humanitarian aid in, and the situation now, according to the UNRWA chief, is that a lot of people within Gaza are now on the edge of famine in some parts of it, particularly in the north. So, it's hard to see how President Biden's comments alone will make a difference.

We know that when he was here, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent time meeting with not only the Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, but he met with Herzi Halevi, the IDF Chief of Staff, and with the Mossad chief here as well, to get an idea of how they were going to handle a push into Rafah, which is what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said the IDF is on the verge of doing. There was a phone call today between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the Minister of Defense here, Yoav Gallant, again where they discussed the ongoing situation in Gaza, and one can expect the Secretary of Defense to have again gone over the same portions that Antony Blinken will have done. But, these have been conversations that have been had in the past.

But, of course in Rafah, the stakes are so much higher. As you said, it's about 1.5 -- close to 1.5 million people there, about 300,000 were living there before, about a million displaced people are there in very flimsy shelters with not many options of places to go, and this is a concern for the Egyptians too. They're right on the border with Egypt, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister just yesterday said they have a real concern that if there is a military ground operation that goes into Rafah, and as we've seen in Khan Younis, these can be extended and lasts for over -- well over a month. The Egyptians are concerned people will get so desperate in Rafah, they'll try to get across the border into Egypt. And this then takes on a wholly new proportion.

So, will President Biden's comments alone make a difference? The past evidence has shown that perhaps they weren't.

NOBILO: Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv, thank you.

Let's go now to Egypt where a Hamas delegation is discussing its response to a ceasefire proposal.

Nada Bashir joins us now from Cairo. Nada, what mood and approach are Hamas taking into these discussions, and what do we know about the substance of them?


NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Hello, Bianca. We know that for some time now there have been intense discussions and negotiations behind the scenes, particularly, of course, when it comes to Egyptian, U.S. and Qatari officials who have been pushing hard to broker some sort of truce, some sort of ceasefire agreement. We have that confirmation yesterday from Hamas that a senior delegation had been sent to and have arrived in Cairo yesterday morning, led by a senior leader, Khalil Al-Hayya, arriving here for focus -- on discussions focused around a potential truce agreement.

Of course, this comes after that counterproposal was issued by Hamas earlier in the week, focusing, looking at a prolonged phased truce agreement that would see potentially three phases, each, again, lasting 45 days, to see the gradual withdrawal under the framework proposed by Hamas of Israeli troops from Gaza, the gradual release of hostages held captive by Hamas as well as a push for greater humanitarian response effort and, of course, a long-term rebuild effort. And that has suddenly been the focus. We know that international partners have also been pushing for some sort of agreement to come to the fore.

We heard from Saudi officials confirming that on Thursday that the Saudi Foreign Minister met with counterparts from Qatar, from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and of course, from Egypt as well, as officials from the Palestinian Authority, again, focusing on the developments in Gaza, but also on calls for a ceasefire, a lasting ceasefire, and also on calls for further humanitarian aid to be brought into the Gaza Strip.

Now, of course, we know that this is a primary concern for many in the international community, not least in the United States. We did hear from President Joe Biden yesterday. He has said that he is pushing hard and working tirelessly for some sort of ceasefire agreement. The hope, according to U.S. officials, is that a prolonged pause in fighting, a prolonged truce, as has been the proposal put forward, at best could allow the space for further diplomatic discussions around a lasting ceasefire. Of course, that counterproposal put forward by Hamas was not a call for a ceasefire, but rather it will be under the framework of that truce for a ceasefire which took place.

As we know, Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have so far dismissed this proposal. Netanyahu describing the proposal as "delusional", affirming that Israel intends to seek what is being characterized as a full victory in Gaza, namely the complete destruction of Hamas. But, clearly, there will be a lot of focus today on what happens in terms of these talks between Hamas and Egyptian officials, and of course, what may come from that. We might see some movement around the exact terms and the framework of this proposed truce agreement.

NOBILO: Nada Bashir in Egypt for us, thank you.

U.S. President Joe Biden got good news and bad at the same moment on Thursday. A special prosecutor said he would not charge Biden with mishandling classified documents after he left the job of Vice President. But, the report also contain remarks about Biden's age and memory that caused the President to lash out. The special counsel said a jury might have trouble finding an elderly man with memory issues guilty. The President appeared visibly annoyed by that, telling reporters "I know what the hell I'm doing."


BIDEN: Their task was to make a decision about whether to move forward with charges in this case. That's their decision to make. That's the counsel's decision to make. That's his job. And they decided not to move forward. For any extraneous commentary they don't know what they're talking about. It has no place in this report. The bottom line is the matter is now closed. I'm going to continue what I've always focused on, my job of being President of the United States of America.


NOBILO: CNN's MJ Lee was at the White House for Biden's news conference. And MJ, you asked the President a question. His response was, I thought very touchy, and I also got the feeling that I was watching quite a formative moment in this long election campaign, given the issue at stake and how the President was responding. What was your assessment of what happened?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I think you just made some really good points. This was as peeved and as amped up as I have seen the President, as he over and over again repeatedly rejected the suggestion in the report that he is an elderly man with a memory problem. I think the issue for this White House and the President's campaign is that it's not just that these details are unflattering, gratuitous, according to the White House, but that they do speak to this broader concern that voters have raised in public polling about his age, about his mental acuity. And as you noted, he was defensive about his memory, saying, I know well what the hell I'm doing.


My memory is just fine. But, this is how the President responded when I raised the broader concern from voters about his age and his mental fitness. Take a listen.


LEE: -- for months when you were asked about your age, you would respond with the words, watch me. Well, many American people have been watching and they have expressed concerns about your age.

BIDEN: That is your judgment. That is your judgment. That is not the judgment of the press.

LEE: They express concerns about your mental acuity. They say you are too old. Mr. President, in December you told me that you believed there are many other Democrats who could defeat Donald Trump. So why does it have to be you now? What is your answer?

BIDEN: Because I'm the most qualified person in this country to be President of the United States and finish the job I started.


LEE: His lawyer said in this report that all of these references to his memory were inappropriate. They were prejudicial language. And one White House official I spoke with after the report came out said that these references were simply out of line. And they said that when Robert Hur, the special counsel, came to the White House back in October to interview the President for multiple hours, and remember, important context, this was the same weekend that the war in Israel broke out, that Robert Hur said to the President, look, I'm going to be asking you a lot of questions that go back many years. Just try your best to recall some of these things that are from so many years ago, and that Hur apparently even thanked the President for doing this interview in the middle of an international crisis.

And they said, look, the President was understandably distracted that weekend, but that they do not speak to sort of the broader problem that the President has with his memory or his recall.

NOBILO: MJ Lee for us at the White House. That is a tough question to put to the President directly. Great journalism. You really are in the thick of it. Thank you.

A day after polls closed in Pakistan, the final vote count has yet to be released. But, early results show independents, most of whom are loyal to jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, are in the lead with more than half of those seats counted. The lead-up to the vote was marred by violence in several districts that prompted police and Islamabad to ban gatherings as the votes were counted. The government also shut down mobile internet services for more than 12 hours.

Sophia Saifi joins us now from Islamabad with the details on that. Sophia, how are these election results shaking out, and what implications might the results have for Imran Khan and his imprisonment and ability to stand for office in future?

SOPHIA SAIFI, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Bianca, at the moment, a lot of people are very incredulous, because Imran Khan's party, it didn't have an electoral symbol. All of their candidates were running as independents. And most people, most analysts were not very optimistic that they would do well at all in this election. And what we've seen overnight, again, this is a very delayed result, very slowly are results trickling in. Polls closed over 24 hours ago. People are frustrated. People are annoyed that this has taken so long. They're angry because last night on local credible television channels, it was showing that Imran Khan's party was in the lead, and then suddenly there was nothing, nothing from the Election Commission of Pakistan. At least in about five in the morning, there are no results at all. Those have now come out.

But again, this has already become a very tainted result to begin with. Both parties are claiming that they have won, but again, very neck to neck. The independents who are backed by Imran Han, who is currently sitting in jail, barred from contesting in these elections, is immensely popular amongst the youth of this country. There was a huge hullabaloo that this was the fifth largest democracy in the country -- in the world. 128 million voters expected to come out, and these voters are young, and they are now waiting to see what the results are going to be.

So, the issue is that because of this delay, because of the crackdown on Khan's supporters in the lead up to this election, there have been many fingers pointed at the authorities, at the military. The military has denied that it's responsible for a crackdown on Khan's supporters. But again, this continued delay, no final result yet, is going to raise many more questions about rigging, about what lies ahead for the future of this nuclear-armed nation. Bianca.

NOBILO: Huge amounts at stake. Sophia, lovely to speak to you. Thank you so much.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says last month was terrifyingly violent in Haiti. He said January was the most violent month in Haiti in two years. More than 800 civilians were injured, killed or kidnapped in clashes between gangs. The commissioner also said that he was especially worried about gangs recruiting children to join their ranks.

Still to come, it's been a particularly busy week for U.S. presidential candidates with Joe Biden and Donald Trump both experiencing some ups and downs. We will explain.




NOBILO: Three big stories involving both the current U.S. President and his predecessor. Former President Donald Trump has won the Nevada Republican caucuses, taking him one step closer to gaining that Republican nomination. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court justices seem likely to back Trump's arguments against the state of Colorado. State leaders disqualified Trump from the presidential ballot for his ties to the January 6 riot. Trump got a gift from the U.S. Special Counsel who has decided against prosecuting Joe Biden for document mishandling. Robert Hur citing concerns over Biden's age and mental fitness, though. Now, it's a campaign issue despite Biden insisting his memory is fine.

CNN's Kristen Holmes joins me now live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Kristen, how much of a boost were these last 24 hours for Trump's campaign for reelection?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN U.S. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it really comes to what you view as a boost. We don't know if it led to any sort of fundraising or any sort of supporters coming over. But, it is arguably the best 24 hours that Donald Trump has had since he announced his candidacy for the White House back in November of 2022. As you noted, it started with those Supreme Court arguments, Donald Trump watching them like we all were. I'm told that he told his advisor that he was pleased with his lawyer, and then he came to the same conclusion that many of our legal experts did, that he was poised for a victory.

Now, shortly after reveling in those arguments, he was given, as you said, nothing short of a political gift with that special counsel report on Joe Biden's handling -- or mishandling of classified documents. Donald Trump seizing on that almost immediately, trying to link his case, the special counsel case into his handling of classified documents with that case of Joe Biden, saying that it was unfair that he was being prosecuted, and that Joe Biden wasn't being prosecuted, really trying to blur the lines there. Although we should note that these cases are two very different cases. For one, Donald Trump did not cooperate at all to the point where the FBI had to issue a search warrant on his Mar-a-Lago home to receive some of those documents.

But, the day did end with him winning the caucuses in Nevada, a state where the GOP party has really become the party of Donald Trump. So, all in all, it was a day of victory for the campaign.

NOBILO: Both candidates are subjected to criticism about their age. Biden is 81. Trump is 77. But, the aging-related mental acuity concerns seem to be a bigger problem for Biden than for Trump.

HOLMES: Yeah. That's right. And I think that a lot of that is perception and a lot of it is messaging. Donald Trump has made a core part of his strategy and campaigning to be about not just Biden's age but his mental fitness. They put out videos of Biden falling. They seize on every verbal misstep that Biden has, and they really had tried to paint a picture of an older man.


Now, I will tell you that when I talk to voters across the country, all of them are concerned about the ages of both candidates. They do believe that they are very old. However, they do seem more concerned about Joe Biden. The other part of this is that Donald Trump has often sought to message himself as a strong man. He is always talking about how fit he is, how mentally sound he is, what he is doing, how he doesn't sleep at all. Messaging is very important to the former President, and it's something that he and his team do well, and I think that it becomes more and more clear that they continue to do it well, particularly as you see polls in the United States showing that people's confidence in Biden's mental acuity is actually going down.

NOBILO: Kristen Holmes, thank you so much for joining us for that discussion today.

Coming up for you, Happy New Year. The Year of the Dragon is almost upon us. We'll show you what may lie ahead for some top newsmakers this year, after a little break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOBILO: Welcome back. This Saturday marks the start of the Lunar New Year, the year of the dragon. And along with the celebrations come the predictions about the fortunes which may or may not lie ahead.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports from Hong Kong.


KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (VOICE-OVER): It's a time of raucous joy with festive parades and massive firework displays. This year, the Lunar New Year falls on February the 10th. That's when we enter the Year of the Dragon. Most know the basics, the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle is represented by 12 different animals. Your animal is determined by your year of birth. When a new Lunar New Year approaches, some consult a feng shui master to find out what lies ahead.

STOUT: Let's look at the destiny --


STOUT: -- of Taylor Swift. She was born of the Year of the Snake. What does the Year of the Dragon hold for her?

LO: When we look at her birthday, she is born on the day of fire, and she is born in mean time. That is, December 13 is winter. Winter fire is quite weak. So, that was who needs the support of wood. So, that's why the last few years of wood actually brings her good luck.

STOUT: She has had some very good last few years.

LO: That's why.

STOUT: But, what about the next year?

LO: Continue to have good luck in the next few years.

STOUT: The Swifties would love hearing that. OK. Now, also born the Year of the Snake is the Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

LO: He is a strong fire person. He is also like Taylor Swift. But, he is born in summer. So, that's why his fire is strong. So, when fire is strong, it likes earth because fire fulfills earth. Earth is the outlet for the fire to take action. That's why actually the dragon year is good year for a strong fire person.

STOUT: 2024 is a big U.S. election here.


So, I got to ask you about U.S. President Joe Biden --

LO: Yeah. Yeah.

STOUT: -- about his challenger Donald Trump --

LO: Yeah.

STOUT: -- about his challenger Nikki Haley.

LO: Donald Trump is a strong earth person. There is earth person born in summer already supported with a lot of fire. So, therefore, he doesn't like more fire. Unfortunately, the coming year, we have strong fire coming up. So, therefore, it doesn't support him in his luck. Nikki Haley is a strong metal lady. She has good luck. Fire means power to her. So, therefore, she is running for the President and hoping to get the power. But, she has a lot of competition. Joe Biden is a weak fire person. Weak fire person likes wood and fire. Joe Biden's not so good year is actually just passed, 2023. And then, comparing with the Donald Trump, I think Joe Biden seems to be in better luck.

STOUT (voice-over): And if you're dragging in a dragon year --

LO: The dragon (inaudible) is the dragon itself. So, usually, that's not an auspicious year for you.

STOUT (voice-over): So, be prepared for a few bumps, but no, you're not alone. There are a number of famous dragons out there, and their fortunes may vary. Kristie Lu Stout, CNN, Hong Kong.


NOBILO: Thank you for joining me here on CNN Newsroom. I'm Bianca Nobilo in London. World Sport with Amanda Davies is up next.