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CNN This Morning

Today, Biden Departs for High-Stakes Trip to Israel; Vital Humanitarian Aid Piling Up at Gaza Border Crossing; Israel Prepares for Next Stage of War Against Hamas. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired October 17, 2023 - 07:00   ET





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Israel will do all it can in order to release these prisoners.

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We still don't know the condition of those hostages. The president has made very clear that that is a top priority.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Phil Mattingly with Poppy Harlow in New York.

Erin Burnett is live with us in Tel Aviv, Israel. It is 7:00 A.M. here on the East Coast, 2:00 P.M. in Tel Aviv, where President Biden will be heading for a high-stakes trip later this evening. He'll be going into an active war zone as Israel's war with Hamas intensifies and the humanitarian crisis escalates in Gaza.

President Biden is undergoing pressure to get desperately needed food, water and other aid into Gaza while also supporting Israel and trying to save American hostages currently held captive by Hamas.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: He's coming here at a critical moment for Israel, for the region and for the world.

The president will hear from Israel how it will conduct its operations in a way that minimizing civilian casualties and enables humanitarian assistance to flow to civilians in Gaza.

It is critical that aid begin flowing into Gaza as soon as possible.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Overnight, the Israeli military continued to bombard Gaza ahead of a possible ground invasion. The IDF says Biden's visit will not delay its planning for potential future operations in the Gaza strip. Vital humanitarian aid has been piling up at the border crossing in the south in Egypt. That border crossing, the Rafah crossing, remains closed and the World Health Organization is now warning that water is running out for hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians.

Take a look at these satellite images. What you're looking at are 30- foot bomb craters blocking the roadway near that crossing.

Let's go to our Erin Burnett who joining us live in Tel Aviv. Erin, good morning to you.

And the Israeli military said moments ago it is concerned about the humanitarian situation, but there is no ceasefire yet. And you also just had that, I think, very illuminating interview with adviser to the Netanyahu, Mark Regev, who talked about the fact that we may have to go in on the ground.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Right. And, Poppy, we all picked up on that. We may have to. I mean, you know, decision perhaps that is-- that cannot be undone has already been made. But at least the words out there are still we may have to. They've also talked about the fact that they've killed more than ten Hamas commanders in Gaza and then bombardment continues. We have plumes of smoke, thick plumes this morning. We have already heard thuds, less so than in prior days.

But important to always remember here, this war has now been going on for ten days. Gaza has been completely bombarded. It's not as if we're awaiting for some invasion for this to start. It has already started. It's a matter of what it does next and what it escalates to.

And President Biden's trip to Israel tomorrow is intended to reaffirm U.S. solidarity with Israel but also to serve as a message to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah as this possible does escalate.

CNN's Arlette Saenz joins us from the White House. And, Arlette, coming at a moment like this is incredibly high-stakes because walking out with nothing is a very, very tough pill to swallow. So, what is President Biden hoping to accomplish?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erin, President Biden, as he's set to depart for Israel later today, is hoping that he can prevent this conflict in Israel from spreading into a wider crisis in the region. His trip is a dramatic show of solidarity for Israel but also will act as a sign of deterrence to those adversaries in the region, who president has warned against trying to take advantage of this situation.

But the president is heading to Israel, hoping to accomplish a few things. And one of the key challenges is addressing the humanitarian concerns as Israel continues its campaign to root out Hamas in Gaza.

Now, while the president has stressed that Israel has the right to defend itself, you have also heard this steady uptick in warnings about the need to protect civilian life. His Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent more than seven hours meeting with Netanyahu and his war cabinet to talk about getting humanitarian aid into Gaza and also the need to protect those civilians. Officials say that that is something the president is hoping to stress during parts of his visit.

But, additionally, on top of traveling to Israel, the president will also be making a critical trip to Amman, Jordan, where he will meet with Arab leaders, the president of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the leader of the Palestinian authority.

And it is there where the president is also expected to talk about this situation in Gaza. Each of those leaders has condemned the situation on the ground there. You had earlier today King Abdullah of Jordan saying that it would be a red line for Palestinians to be displaced into Jordan. He said that there would be no refugees in Egypt or Jordan. You've also heard the Egyptian president saying that this campaign that Israel has been waging against Gaza is collective punishment on civilians.


So, that is something that President Biden will have to navigate as these Arab leaders will be key as this conflict continues.

But there are also huge security concerns with President Biden traveling into an active war zone. That was seen just yesterday when Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to shelter as air sirens went off in Israel. But the president's steam says they acknowledge this is a tense situation, that they have assessed the security situation, White House Spokesperson John Kirby saying that they've done their homework in assessing it is safe for the president to travel to Israel at that time.

Of course, this will be the second trip the president has made just this year to a war zone. Remember, he made that secret trip back earlier in the spring as he traveled to Ukraine. But later today, he will be departing here to Israel as he is trying to make this show of solidarity with Israel, but it also will mark a key test for President Biden as his presence there could further tie him to the Israeli response in this war.

BURNETT: All right, Arlette, and that's certainly the case.

And, Phil, I know you have so many sources you have been speaking to, but there is that risk and there's also what Israel says, which is, at least they say, and, I mean, this is diplomacy, but they say that Biden coming hasn't impacted their plans at all. Then there'd been widely discussion on the ground, well, Biden is coming, Netanyahu isn't going in there because that would just look Biden bad and tie him to this in an incredibly tight way.

But what risks is Biden taking on and what are your hearing about his goals?

MATTINGLY: The risks are very real in terms of they want deliverables. You're sending a president over, president deciding to travel into war zone, on the front end of a war, obviously, Kyiv and the secret trip there was a dramatic moment but one that had come where hostilities were kind of in a static phase. This is a very, very different moment, and yet it's one that-- we were just talking to Kate Bedingfield, the president's former closer adviser, she made clear, which is something I heard from other officials last night, they weren't actually surprised.

One, face to face diplomacy is critical for this president. He talks about it often, so often that it's kind of just become a known truism that he wants to meet with people face to face. He feels like that's where he's most effective. But that also comes in the context of what we have seen play out over the course of the last several days. The secretary of state traveling to Israel twice in between traveling to several Arab states as well to meet with leaders, each time reporting back to the president, briefing him on where things stood. The president was having his own phone calls as well.

And I think the critical piece of what you heard from Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, last night, after that 7.5 hour meeting between he, his team and their counterparts, their Israeli counterparts, where I'm told they were separating into rooms working through shuffling paper, trying to figure out ways to hammer out some type of humanitarian answer here is an understanding that while the U.S. is certainly completely supportive of Israel, while they have made clear they will stand side by side to them, give them whatever they need militarily to succeed in the offensive that's likely ahead, they also understand that the other players in the region, most specifically about Egypt. Obviously, we talked a lot about the Rafah crossing, the president of Egypt, El-Sisi, will be in Amman, the second visit for President Biden, King Abdullah of Jordan, who Arlette was crossing there, about the red line and their concerns, but also meeting with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who the president has spoken to. They are critical players here as this moves forward here.

What people are saying publicly, these officials aren't surprised by it. It's what they do behind the scenes and whether or not a humanitarian corridor or aid agreement or safe zones can actually be locked in. That's critical not just for the ability for Israel to conduct the offensive ahead but also the long game for here for an operation that I think U.S. officials know is going to be both very painful and very lengthy.

BURNETT: Painful and lengthy, and the world just hopes it does not escalate beyond that, but no matter what painful and lengthy, and in part because of the hostage situation.

Sara Sidner is with me here. I know, Sara, that we got this hostage video from Hamas with the mother of one of the hostages. Obviously, we're not airing it, but there's a lot that it tells, not just about the situation and how they treated her, in the video, but about what they're trying to signal, that they are alive. You don't put that out unless you want to do a deal of some sort, it would seem. You actually were with the mother of this hostage this morning.

SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. What Hamas is doing is part of their propaganda war. That is always a part of any war. And what they are doing is basically signaling to the world that if you come in here, if you have a ground offensive or if you decide to try and rescue these hostages, like they're still alive. It's a pawn for them, I think, in this, if you look at it from 30,000 feet for the family. It was the very first video out, first time anyone, anyone in the world, has seen one of the hostages since Hamas took themon Saturday.


BURNETT: It's the first time that anyone even knew, I mean, at least one of them at some point after the festival was alive, right? That's the first time.

SIDNER: And that's what her mother-- so, Mia Schem is a beautiful young lady who went to this rave party, was there to dance and enjoy herself and she ended up in a horrible situation, that surprise attack on Friday. Her mother had been waiting all this time. She said I knew she was alive. I just knew she was alive. But she didn't have any confirmation. And then yesterday, the confirmation came. She got it along with the rest of the world. So, we all saw at the same time that her daughter was alive.

Her daughter looks-- she has been injured. She has what is clearly a broken arm, probably from a bullet wound. She is all sewn up, not well. You can see bandages around her arm. Her mother is watching all this. I mean, when you think about this from the perspective of a mother, a family member, and you imagine what that is like to see your child in pain and also parroting what she believes parroting words that Hamas has asked her to say.

BURNETT: Right, saying that she's treated well.

SIDNER: That she's being treated well, right? She was being treated in the video. So, that was also, again, a propaganda move on Hamas' part to say, look, look at our humanity, look, we're taking care of her, and yet they're the ones that injured her and they're the ones that stole her.

BURNETT: Right. And that's, of course, why we're not airing it. It was interesting one of the hostage negotiators from SEAL Team 6 was saying to me, he also noticed that they had tried to do her hair and make-up.


BURNETT: They tried to make her look better.

SIDNER: Better than she actually was.

BURNETT: And he also was talking-- and, again, this is what-- I mean, he's an expert at these things but this is his interpretation that he heard ventilator noises in the background, which would be consistent with being underground and consistent with what the IDF has told us, which is that they believe these hostages are being held under ground in different locations.

SIDNER: Right. And because if they were to hold them in all one location and Israel had intelligence, they would go in. They know that the possibility is that they might actually get rescued. But if they do it all over, it is much more difficult.

I do want to let you hear from Keren Schem, who is the mother of Mia Schem who was taken by Hamas on Saturday. It was incredibly, as you might imagine, heart wrenching to hear this mother suffering. Listen.


KEREN SCHEM, MOTHER OF MIA SCHEM WHO"S BEING HELD HOSTAGE IN GAZA: I didn't know she's dead or alive until yesterday. What I knew is that she might be kidnapped. I'm begging the world to bring my baby back home. She only went to a party, to a festival party, to have some fun, and now she's in Gaza.


SIDNER: Hearing that is hard, I mean, excruciatingly hard. Being in the room, you could feel it. You could feel that-- sorry, you could feel that hope and you could that pain all at the same time. Her brother was also-- the brothers were also there talking about her.

And you see these pictures of this beautiful young woman. They probably picked her for a reason, to be the first video that was sent out. But we don't know when the video was taken. That's the other thing. We don't know how many days ago or if it was most recent. The likelihood is it wasn't today, that's the likelihood, or yesterday. So, this mother is just begging people in the world to pray for her daughter and to get her daughter home. I can't tell you how impactful it was to be sitting in that room.

BURNETT: I can only imagine these families. I mean, the pain is-- to the world, hostages, people feel sorry for them. They feel upset. When you see that pain, it is a human pain.

SIDNER: Unimaginable.

BURNETT: An incredibly unimaginable human pain.

Sara, thank you very much.

And just in, the IDF says shots have been fired along the security fence between Israel and Lebanon, right. This is, of course, the fear of that second front opening in the north. A short time ago, an anti- tank missile was fired toward an IDF post along the border with Lebanon. That's according to the IDF. Israel is now responding. So, there's artillery fire in response to that.

Let's go to Ben Wedeman. He is there in Southern Lebanon. And Ben, what are you learning and able to observe yourself?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Erin, what we have been hearing is fairly distant thuds. We understand that most of the action is going on to the southwest of us. And this is really sort of in line with what we've seen over the last four days. Hezbollah will attack Israeli military positions and the Israelis will respond, this sort of level of violence is at a level where perhaps you can say the water is being kept hot but not boiling over, because it would appear that at the moment neither Hezbollah nor Israel want to become involved in a full-scale war at the moment.

However, we are hearing statements from Iranian leaders, Iran, of course, the main backer of Hezbollah, which would indicate that this holding of the line in terms of maintaining a certain level of violence but not crossing what the Israelis have called the threshold of escalation.


The supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, has said, if atrocities in Gaza persist, Muslim and resistance forces could lose patience and no one can prevent their actions.

Now, that's just one statement from a variety of Iranian officials, which would indicate that they're holding out the possibility that if Israel goes into Gaza full-scale incursion with the bloodshed that will inevitably result, that perhaps Iran and its allies, such as Hezbollah, will not simply be sitting on the sidelines occasionally firing at the Israelis, but will go one step further. Erin?

BURNETT: Ben Wedeman, thank you very much there in southern Lebanon. Poppy?

HARLOW: Erin, thank you very much. We'll get back to you soon.

And as President Biden prepares for this visit to Israel and then the broader region, the U.S. House of Representatives still doesn't have a speaker. A vote is expected today. We'll be joined next by Democratic Congressman Jim Himes. He's in studio.



HARLOW: Today, President Biden is preparing for a high-stakes trip to Israel. The president will land in Tel Aviv tomorrow morning where he is expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden will then travel to Jordan. He will meet with King Abdullah of Jordan, then Egyptian President El-Sisi and then the Palestinian authorities leader, so a significant trip.

Also new this morning, Iran's supreme leader is weighing in on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and calling it, quote, ethnic cleansing, also saying, quote, Muslims and resistance forces could lose patience.

Israel has maintained it is making efforts to minimize civilian casualties by warning civilians in Gaza to move out of the north and into the south of Gaza. The total number of deaths reported this morning by the Palestinian Health Ministry there stands at nearly 2,800.

Joining us now is Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. He is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Good morning. Thank you for being here.

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Good morning, Poppy. HARLOW: What do you think President Biden needs to achieve on this trip, not only in Israel, but in the region, to make the risk worth it?

HIMES: Well, I think what President Biden is doing is the same thing that two aircraft carrier strike groups, a couple of air wings, a couple of very clear statements by the secretary of state is doing, which is telling Iran and Iran's client, Hezbollah, to stay out. Nothing says stay out quite as much as the president's presence on the ground. And along with supporting the Israelis and trying to identify the location of the hostages, that's probably their top priority right now.

This is a bad situation to begin with. Were Hezbollah to come across the border, start launching missiles in force, that would be a massive escalation.

HARLOW: Specifically, let's say Egypt does not play ball and the Rafah crossing, nothing changes there, and we just heard Mark Regev, who's a senior adviser to Bibi Netanyahu, saying, we may have to, when Erin asked about a ground invasion, and Israel has been clear, the president coming is welcome, but it's not going to change any of their plans on the ground, what if that happens while the president's there? Is it still worth it?

HIMES: Well, I've been heartened by the fact that the Israeli leadership in the last couple of days in particular has come off of the understandable, emotional, enraged statements that they were making ten days ago and come to grapple with the reality that a ground incursion into Gaza would be a brutal thing for Israeli soldiers, as well as for obviously the Gaza and civilian population. They've come off this notion of cutting off the water in the south. They are talking now with our people and with others about the humanitarian situation. Egypt needs to play ball.

Now, Egypt, like Jordan and like Saudi Arabia, the leaders there worry about their street, about popular uprisings. These are not necessarily popular leaders, particularly in Egypt, where they've got huge economic problems. So, all of the leaders of those countries in particular will be saying things designed to keep their own domestic politics in a box, as it were.

MATTINGLY: As part of -- you mentioned the aircraft carriers that have been sent or the strike groups that have been sent as well, the U.S. military assets, the president now. Deterrence has been a critical piece of this. The president and his team repeatedly saying don't to Iran, to Hezbollah, to other actors in the region. Have you seen or have you heard of any intelligence related to spillover effect actually starting to take place?

HIMES: Well, you know, as you've seen these skirmishes in the north, it's not like the north is quiet. And, you know, there is a point. Hezbollah has their politics too. Iran, which likes to see itself as the purest -- we all know this is baloney, but the purest and staunchest supporter of the Palestinians, they have their politics too, which is why, apart from the moral reasons of making sure that Palestinian civilians are protected, which is why it's important that the images that come out of Gaza are not such that Hezbollah feels like they have no choice, Iran feels like they have no choice.

And by the way, complicating matters is Hamas has every interest in getting Hezbollah and others into this. So, it's going to be a very dicey couple of days.

HARLOW: I want your reaction to our Clarissa Ward, who's been doing remarkable reporting on the ground there, spoke with the son of a hostage and she asked if he wants war. Here's what he said. Let's play it.


YOANTAN SEIGEN, SON OF HAMAS HOSTAGE: Nobody wants war, but I think people are willing to accept war because you'll hurt and you want to stop the pain. So, you see the demon in front of you and you want to vanquish it. I don't think it's realistic. Whatever we do to Gaza now, it would come back.


HARLOW: Israel has negotiated in the past for hostages, but right now, the line out of Israel is Israel will not hold negotiations with any enemy that we have vowed to wipe from the face of the Earth.


Is that a mistake?

HIMES: Well I, think the reality is whether Israel is doing it directly or indirectly, the civilized world is going to do everything they can to get those hostages out. You've been talking about it on your show this morning, people, civilians held by terrorists is just about as excruciating a moment as you can imagine. I actually had a constituent who was part of the individuals released by Iran and I worked with the family for years and it's just the level of pain is incredible.

I think the Israelis and, again, you can only imagine, we felt it on 9/11, the rage out of the leadership ten days ago was understandable. I think they've come to realize two things. One, they can no longer live with Hamas. They will ultimately -- the world will hopefully ultimately participate in the elimination of Hamas as a political force. But I think the Israelis have come to realize that it doesn't necessarily need to happen in days or weeks, that this is a lengthy project and that acting rashly could have bad implications for the hostages, for Hezbollah and for other players.

So, I sense a sort of sitting back on the part of the Israelis and saying, hey, we need to do this, but let's do this driven by the best ideas rather than by rage and emotion.

MATTINGLY: There's been significant public support in the House, bipartisan, for Israel in the wake of the terror attack. With 15 of your colleagues, progressive members of your caucus yesterday introduced a resolution calling for the Biden administration to seek an immediate cessation of hostilities and a ceasefire. What's your view of that?

HIMES: The word ceasefire -- and I understand the instinct, particularly when you're talking about as densely populated an area as Gaza, there's just no way to conduct war in a place like Gaza. We learned this in Iraq, in places like Fallujah, in a sanitary way. It just can't be done. So, I understand the instinct.

But calling for a ceasefire is like calling for the United States to stand down and do a ceasefire on September 12, 2001, right? It's an ugly world out there. And you can't after you have been brutalized the way the Israelis have been brutalized, say, guys, take a deep breath and don't do anything about this. That's just not realistic and it's not right.

HARLOW: What's not right? To make the call?

HIMES: To say that you should not respond militarily to a terrorist attack that killed well in excess of 1,000 of your people.

I understand the instinct. And, look, people who remind us how horrible war is, I will never say that those people are absolutely wrong. We always need that voice. But when you have been brutalized the way we were on 9/11, or the way the Israelis were, you go to war.

HARLOW: Congressman Jim Hines, thank you for being here.

Thousands of Israeli work permits are granted to Palestinians each year. Now, many of those same workers are trapped in refugee camps in West Bank while their loved ones are facing a mounting humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Our colleague, Jeremy Diamond, spoke with some of those men as they made their plea for their loved ones.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel like I can't sleep. I'm super worried about them.

If I was there, I would be the one taking them from one place to another to protect them.