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Reporting Indicates Israeli Bombs Hitting Southern Gaza Near Border Crossing with Egypt; President Biden to Visit Tel Aviv to Meet with Israeli Leaders Concerning War against Hamas and Hostages Held in Gaza; Secretary of State Antony Blinken Negotiating with Middle East Nations to Provide Aid to Gaza. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired October 17, 2023 - 08:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow with Phil Mattingly in New York. Erin Burnett is live with us in Tel Aviv, Israel. And that is where President Biden is headed tomorrow for a high-stakes visit right in the middle of Israel's war with Hamas. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is escalating, and the president is under growing pressure to help get desperately needed aid, food, water, and other aid to the millions of civilians stuck in this war zone.

This morning we are continuing to see Israel strike Gaza. Some of those airstrikes were right near the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. That crossing remains closed as Israel's blockade continues. And this is new video of smoke rising near the border wall there. It is the same border crossing where vital humanitarian aid has been piling up. The World Health Organization is now warning that water is running out for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Satellite images show 30-foot bomb craters blocking the roadway near that crossing. Another top priority for President Biden, securing the release of hostages, including Americans who are being held captive by Hamas in Gaza right now. Hamas has released its first hostage video of an Israeli French woman abducted during the surprise attack. The Israeli military is calling it an attempt at, quote, psychological warfare, and expects more videos to be released. Here is what the woman's mother said this morning.


KEREN SCHARF SCHEM, MOTHER OF MIA SCHEM WHO'S BEING HELD HOSTAGE IN GAZA: I didn't know she's dead or alive until yesterday. All I knew is that she might be kidnapped. And 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.


MATTINGLY: Let's go straight to Erin Burnett live for us in Tel Aviv. Erin, I am struck in this moment of just how many different dynamics are at play, all the variables. Now you have a presidential visit coming on top of hostages, a looming ground incursion, the worst terror attack we have seen in decades. What is the state of play on the ground there?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR, ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT: Well, it's a watch and wait. It is a population expecting something to happen, and frankly, wanting something to happen. And when I say that, obviously, you've heard Matthew Chance talk to soldiers who say they want a second front, they want to work with Hezbollah, too. I don't mean in that context. I mean that people that we are dealing with day in and day out here want whatever it is to happen so they see what comes next and they can start to move on. It's more in that reality.

There is a great fear of a ground incursion, although the expectation that one may be inevitable. But you heard Poppy talking about the IDF Commander Hecht saying that is what the world is focused on, but what they do may be something different. That also comes as Mark Regev, who, of course, is a close counselor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for decades said something similar to us, Poppy and Phil, just a few moments ago. Here's that.


BURNETT: Is there a way for you to defeat them without putting thousands and thousands of IDF troops in Gaza?



BURNETT: It's hard to say whether they are creating room or not creating room. But obviously, in the context of President Biden coming over here, that is the great focus.

And I want to go to Clarissa Ward in Ashkelon. Clarissa, our stringer, someone who is working for CNN trying to gather information from Gaza, reports seeing airstrikes, very specific word, indicating Israeli airstrikes near the Rafah border not long ago. Obviously, hugely significant in the context of the world, Palestinian Americans and Palestinians gathering at the border, aid trying to come in, and the border being closed. I know you just heard a lot of booms where you are as well. What are you able to tell us?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So we have been talking to hospitals and various people on the ground inside southern Gaza, including our local journalists there, and basically what we are hearing is that there have been at least six airstrikes in the area right near that Rafah border crossing with Egypt just in the south. We are hearing at least 60 people have been killed in those airstrikes. Apparently, they hit the homes of six different families.


Again, there is the expectation that that death toll might rise, but it also raises real questions because, of course, Israeli forces had been asking ordinary Gazans in northern Gaza to evacuate that part of the enclave and move into the south. According to the U.N., 600,000 people have moved to the south. And so having this level of bombardment and ferocity of strikes in the south raises real questions about the ability of ordinary Gazans to find anywhere that offers any hint of safe refuge. Meanwhile, just moments ago, we then heard a barrage of rockets coming into Ashkelon. Let me just play you some of that sound for a second.





WARD: I will say that those rockets are getting closer and closer by the day. Most of them are interpreted by the Iron Dome, but two of them did make landfall not too far from us this time. It doesn't appear that they hit any particular house or anything like that. We don't have any reports of casualties or injuries. And of course, it is worth saying yet again that whereas the Iron Dome exists here in Israel and intercepts the vast majority of those rockets and missiles, there is no iron dome in Gaza, which is why, or one of many reasons why you are seeing that death toll continuing to soar, nearly 3,000 Palestinians now killed in Gaza, Erin.

BURNETT: And so interesting what, Clarissa, you were just saying about six targets in the south. And obviously, we don't know what that is. We don't have a comment from the IDF. Some context here. I was with a unit yesterday that's been going out to gather the weapons that Hamas left behind in the attack. And as part of that, they are finding the bodies of the dead Hamas fighters. And those bodies are -- they are worried about them being booby-trapped, but of course, they're finding that they were wearing Go Pro cameras and they have been able from that to I.D., and that's what they're doing, trying to I.D. every single one of those fighters, because when you get an I.D., you get a name. And when you get a name, you get a family and you get a home and you've got a place, and that's what they are painstakingly doing.

And I know, Clarissa, of course it begs the question as to what these strikes are, whether they are related to something like that or not. We simply don't know right now. But we do know that with every one of those strikes, civilians can die and hostages can die. And we have that one hostage video. I know we can get more, and you have spoken to some of these hostage families who are just -- they have a rage even at their own government because they are not getting answers about their family members who are held in Gaza.

WARD: That's right. Some of them have now been holding vigil for their loved ones outside the military headquarters in Tel Aviv for four days now, Erin. They are very angry at Israel's -- or the Israeli government's handling of this crisis. They are very concerned about the escalating violence and tension. A lot of them really would like to see a deal made, a deal struck, negotiations, some kind of a prisoner release.

But I spoke to one former Mossad officer who was involved with hostage negotiations in the past, and he said this time he just does not see that Israel is interested in negotiating some kind of a prisoner swap. He says that when we have done that in the past, that is what has resulted in Hamas's leadership being let out of jail and able to return and plan attacks like the ones we saw last Saturday. He said there is no appetite for that at the moment. The preference would be to go into Gaza, to uproot Hamas, and then to try to rescue as many of those hostages as possible in sort of operations on the ground.

Now, of course, as you know, Erin, rescuing hostages in active operations like that is incredibly risky, and those words likely to strike fear in the hearts of many families who are just desperate to get their loved ones home and see an end to the violence.

BURNETT: Right, right. When the choice presents itself to decapitate Hamas or save hostages' lives, that is a choice Israel faces. Clarissa, thank you very much.

And Phil and Poppy, back to you.

HARLOW: What a choice that is, indeed. Erin, thank you. Clarissa, as well.

President Biden's trip comes as Israel weighs the potential game changing escalation in this war on Hamas.

MATTINGLY: Israel Defense Forces are expected to begin a ground operation into Gaza any day now. An IDF spokesman telling CNN that he does not anticipate any delays over President Biden's planned visit.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president's visit to Israel, does it complicate or delay that ground incursion in any way?


JONATHAN CONRICUS, IDF INTERNATIONAL SPOKESMAN: Not as far as I understand. I think the president also said that Hamas needs to be destroyed, and that is exactly our military aim.


Joining us now from the White House is John Kirby. He's the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications.

John, we'll start there. I know you've answered this question a couple of times, but trying to get some specifics. Would the president go over on this trip if he thought Israel would launch its counteroffensive while there?

KIRBY: The -- the -- what the operations are on the ground, that -- that's not dictating the -- the president's desire to go at this very critical moment here in this conflict between Israel and Hamas. We will let the Israelis speak to their operations. That's appropriate. We're certainly not going to do that from Washington, D.C. But the president believes that this is exactly the right time to go to Israel and to go to Jordan to -- to -- to speak to other leaders in the region about the humanitarian assistance that we want to make sure gets into Gaza, about Israeli plans and intentions going forward, how this is unfolding on the ground, and absolutely to continue to talk to regional partners about those hostages and getting -- and see if we can -- getting them home back to their families where they belong.

HARLOW: Admiral Kirby, what can the families of their loved ones being held by Hamas, the hostages, what can those families expect from the president on this trip, and also the innocent Palestinian civilians who are trying to escape? That includes one of our colleagues, Ibrahim Dahman, and so many others. What can they expect, in concrete terms?

KIRBY: They ought to know that -- that their loved ones and civilian life writ large are going to be very, very high on the president's agenda on this trip, and will be represented in virtually every conversation that he has with Israeli officials, including the prime minister, as well as President Sisi of Egypt, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and certainly, King Abdullah of Jordan. We -- we all share concern here for the respect for civilian life, innocent life. We want to get those hostages home. That'll be very, very much top on -- on his agenda.

MATTINGLY: John, how much of -- my understanding is there's intensive significant work done on humanitarian aid proposals between the secretary of state and his team and their counterparts...

KIRBY: Yeah.

MATTINGLY: ... over seven and a half hours. How much of that has been either delivered or presented to the other leaders President Biden will be meeting with in the second leg of his trip in Oman (ph)?

KIRBY: You're right. Secretary Blinken held a marathon meeting yesterday for some seven hours-plus with Israeli officials and made good progress towards a -- a framework to get humanitarian assistance in and to also work towards safe passage out of -- of Gaza.

Now, as you and I are speaking, Phil, that aid hasn't started yet. We're hoping that that -- that that will happen very, very, very soon, and certainly, that conversation didn't just happen in a vacuum. Obviously, it was a result of Secretary Blinken's shuttle diplomacy throughout the region with Arab partners as well to see if we can't find a way to -- to -- to break this logjam and to get food, water and medicine...


KIRBY: ... in to people that desperately, desperately need it.

HARLOW: I mean, and to that point, the U.S. gives Egypt more than $1 billion in aid every year, and it's one thing to get that crossing the Ra- -- Rafah Crossing open safely for people to leave; it's another, as Aaron (ph) just asked (inaudible) about, to -- to -- to get aid in that way.

KIRBY: No, that's right, and we'll...

HARLOW: Is it believed that will change because the president is having this meeting with El-Sisi?

KIRBY: We are optimistic. As Secretary Blinken said last night that -- that we've made some significant progress toward an arrangement to get humanitarian assistance in. Now, you know, we're going to obviously have to watch this continuously very, very closely, as we have been. We have thought it was going to be open, and then it didn't open.


KIRBY: So we want to make sure that -- that -- that it actually does open.

And -- and Poppy, your -- your point's a good one. It's not just about opening the gate and letting stuff in, you know, for a few hours. We've got to make sure there's a framework in place that humanitarian can be sustainable at some maintenance level so that the food, water and medicine that does get in doesn't run out again. So there's a lot of -- there's a lot of work left to do here.

MATTINGLY: Admiral, Congressman McCaul, who's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said something last night. I -- I want to play it for you and get your response. Take a listen.


REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL, R-TEXAS: My committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, is a committee that is responsible for either declaring war or an authorized use of military force. So actually, I'm currently preparing a draft of that in the event it is called upon and is necessary, but most importantly, supported by the American people.


MATTINGLY: John, has the administration had any conversations with lawmakers about drafting an AUMF at this point?

KIRBY: I -- I don't believe that's an active part of the conversation right now. And again, I think it's important for people to remember the additional military forces that are either being prepared or are on their way to the region is really about sending a signal of deterrence. We don't want to see this conflict escalate and widen. There are no plans or intentions to put U.S. boots on the ground in combat in Israel. Everything we're doing right now is about sending a strong signal of -- of deterrence.


HARLOW: Let me ask you about the hostages and Israel's position, which is, according to the National Security Council head, not to negotiate. To quote him, John, "Israel will not hold negotiations with an enemy that we avowed to wipe from the face of the Earth." Does the U.S. support that position and that strategy, given we know Israel has negotiated for hostages in the past?

KIRBY: That's for Israel to decide and for them to speak to. It's a sovereign decision that they have to make. What I can tell you, Poppy, is that we are working literally by the hour to -- to develop options to get our hostages home and to work on that, and we working very closely with partners in the region, partners who have communications, open communications, with Hamas. We're focused on -- on -- on making sure that we can get our American citizens home to where -- to where they belong, where their -- with their families.

Again, we don't have a whole lot of granular information about where they are or how they're being kept, what condition they're in, and we still believe it's a very small number. But we are working on this very, very hard.

HARLOW: What I'm -- what I'm trying to get at, because it is believed that Americans are being held with those Israeli hostages, is does the U.S. believe that with a position like that from Israel at this point, you can successfully get them out?

KIRBY: I want to be careful what we say publicly, Poppy. I mean, and -- and when you're dealing with a situation like this, the less you say probably out there, the better, in terms of your chances of success. All I can tell you -- I can't speak for the Israelis. All I can do is speak for President Biden and this administration. We know there's Americans in that hostage pool. We want to get them home to their families where they belong, and we are working on this literally by the hour in coor- -- in coordination and consultation with partners in the region.

MATTINGLY: John, I know there've been both very clear, and I'm told, public and private messages to Iran or Iranan -- Iranian intermediaries to stay out, to -- to -- don't, as the president and top officials say, get involved in what's been happening right now.

KIRBY: Right.

MATTINGLY: There's been an uptick in escalation of the rhetoric from Iranian officials, saying they're running out of patience, they're losing patience, talking about what's happening. Have you seen any warnings or any signs that Iran is starting to engage in a way they hadn't before?

KIRBY: Outside of the rhetoric, Phil, no, we haven't, and we're going to watch this very, very closely. Again, the president's signaling was very, very clear, and he backed it up with the addition of some military forces in the region. We do not want to see this conflict escalate. We do not want to see it widen, and we have very significant national security interests in the region writ broad -- writ -- writ large, and we mean to protect and defend those interests.

MATTINGLY: All right, Admiral John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council -- very busy time. The president leaving later this evening. We appreciate your time, as always, sir. Thanks.

KIRBY: You bet. MATTINGLY: Well, President Biden gets ready to head to Israel. One of his biggest GOP rivals is making some harsh claims about the potential for refugees from Gaza to come to America. Christiane Amanpour and David Axelrod will join us next to discuss.



MATTINGLY: President Biden's trip to the Middle East comes at a crucial time in the Israeli war effort and Biden's own presidency. A new CNN poll shows a mixed reaction over how much trust Americans have in the President to make the right decisions in Israel, with only 47% feeling positive.

Joining us to discuss are CNN chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour and CNN Senior Political Commentator David Axelrod. Christiane, to start with the trip itself, it's a risk without question. It was a surprise for many people. What's your read on what the end game is here?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, look, I think you heard what John Kirby was saying, you've just put up a poll. So, let's talk about the polls from Know. More than half the Israeli people listened to President Biden's speech when he made that speech in defense and support of Israel's right to its own self-defense.

And it turns out that it appears that Israelis are craving leadership right now. They do not trust their own government, according to the most credible Israeli polls. And so, President Biden knowing that the only influence that the US. President can have in the Israel- Palestinian story, particularly with the Israelis, is if he has the confidence of the Israeli people.

So presumably President Biden is thinking, well, we're going to shore up that confidence with the Israeli people so that whatever happens, whenever I say or do anything, they will know I have and they will trust me to have the best interests of Israelis at hand.

So, I think that is a big issue, and then the other issue, of course, is to ensure that these horrendous, humanitarian disastrous pictures from inside Gaza do not inflame those people around in, you know, in the wider Middle East to pressure their own leaders to get more involved, I e. Avoiding a wider war.

And not only that, of course, to relieve the pressure on those civilians inside Gaza who are being made to pay for this terrible atrocity that Hamas committed.

HARLOW: David, how does President Biden on this trip walk the line between fully standing side by side and supporting Israel, while also reiterating what Secretary Blinken has said a number of times, which is how Israel does these matters while also getting Egypt to play ball and open the crossing while also focusing on the hostages and trying to get them out with Israel that says at this point, they're not going to negotiate with Hamas. DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Poppy, I think the

answer to your question was contained within it. This is a really complicated matrix for the President. He wants to show solidarity with the Israelis. He's done that very well so far, wants to send a strong message of solidarity, at the same time privately counseling discretion, because the story, as it unfolds out of Gaza, is going to shape a global opinion.

It's going to potentially, as Christiane mentioned inflame other actors, to get involved and may cause moderate Arab states that were moving toward Israel to move away from Israel. There are a lot of implications here, and on top of that, you've got American hostages.

And so as important as what he says publicly when he hits the ground in Israel will be what he says privately to the Israeli leaders and what he says to the Arab leaders he's meeting with in Jordan, who can be enormously helpful here in getting humanitarian aid in and getting hostages out.

MATTINGLY: Christiane, to the point of hostages, you spoke to the Israeli opposition leader about that issue. What did he tell you?

AMANPOUR: Well, I did. And, you know, as David says, and as you all know, America has hostages. America has dead in Israel, Britain as well.


There are reports that at least two British people may be among the hostages, and some are dead. So, this is a very, very live issue, including, obviously, for the Israelis, who've lost many, many inside Israel. So, I asked Yair Lapid, what is the priority for this ground invasion, this major offensive that you're planning?

Is it to get the hostages or is it to decapitate Hamas? In other words, is there a number one, he said "There is no priority per se. Both, we have to do both." And this is obviously going to be really difficult. I will say let's just play this part of this sound bite from my interview, where he clearly puts the blame for all the humanitarian crisis in Gaza right on Hamas's shoulders.


YAIR LAPID, ISRAELI OPPOSITION LEADER: Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza alike are the victims of Hamas. So, for every question you might have about humanitarian issues, you should direct at Hamas. This is not our wrongdoing. Everybody around on both sides of the border, in Israel and in Gaza are the victims of Hamas.

This is why we must go in there and make sure Hamas is eliminated once and from all. We will not have Hamas on our border anymore.

AMANPOUR: Is your first priority the hostages? Because now you say there are 199. What is your first priority when you go in?

LAPID: Well, I wish we could have a first priority. We have to deal with both issues at the same time. Of course, the first thing we want is our babies back home, and we're going to do everything in our power to bring them back home.


AMANPOUR: So, of course, you've been reporting about the first hostage video that's been released, and this will be psychological warfare, and everybody is prepared for it. On the wider war issue, the US, you heard John Kirby say they have no evidence that beyond rhetoric right now, Iran is planning to get involved, or indeed, that Hezbollah is planning to get involved.

And if you wouldn't mind, I just want to read you something very instructive from Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah after the 2006 war, which essentially, they fought to a draw with Israel, which I covered. He basically said afterward on television, "We didn't think, even 1%, that the capture of the troops, the Israeli troops that he captured, would lead to war at this time and of this magnitude.

If you asked me if I'd known on July 11 that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say, no, absolutely not." That is a remarkable thing for the leader of Hezbollah to say back in 2006. And one assumes that they're not preparing there's no evidence of this right now for any greater involvement beyond skirmishes at the northern border.

HARLOW: That's really interesting. David, before you go you've given counsel to Presidents making the hardest of decisions before. If you were counseling President Biden on this decision as he takes off tonight, what would you say?

AXELROD: I would say there's danger all around here. And what you say publicly is important. What you say privately may be more important. And the deeper you get in, the more you are a coauthor of the story. So, make sure that the story is one that you shape and that you don't merely cosign.

MATTINGLY: Do you think it was a mistake to make the trip?

AXELROD: No, I do not. I don't think it's a mistake to make the trip. I think for a variety of reasons, some kind of prosaically political, which is he's a central actor here and he ought to behave like a central actor. Secondly, this is a critical moment, and I think to show the seriousness of our support and our concerns, the President's presence will be meaningful.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, enormously consequential and has been center stage throughout this. Christiane Amanpour, and David Axelrod thanks guys, appreciate it.

HARLOW: We were just talking about the hostages. That number that counts at this point is 199 hostages being held by Hamas. That's according to Israel, at least 14 of them Americans. We are going to be joined by a family member of two women who are still unaccounted for. You see them right there. That's straight ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)