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Erin Burnett Outfront
IDF: Top Hamas Commander Killed In Refugee Camp Strike; Crucial Border Crossing Between Gaza And Egypt Set To Open In Hours To Evacuate Wounded Palestinians; GOP Leaders In House And Senate Split On Israel Aid; Defense Secretary To Iran: "If This Doesn't Stop, We Will Respond"; CNN Poll: Trump Holds 31-Point Lead In South Carolina; FBI Director: Anti-Semitism Reaching "Historic Levels" In U.S. Aired 7-8p ET
Aired October 31, 2023 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, live from Israel -- eliminated. Israel says it's taken out a senior Hamas, but the strike devastating a Gaza refugee camp. One doctor -- one doctor saying hundreds, hundreds have been killed or injured.
Plus, escaping Gaza in just hours. A crucial border crossing is set to open for some of those in danger, as we're learning there are some 400 American citizen stuck in the Gaza Strip. I'll talk to a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza.
And the U.S. putting Iran on notice right now, warning if the attacks on American troops don't stop, the U.S. will respond.
Let's go OUTFRONT.
Good evening. Welcome to a special edition of OUTFRONT. I'm Wolf Blitzer, in for Erin Burnett.
And tonight, live from Tel Aviv, there's breaking news, Israel claiming to have hit 300 targets in Gaza over the past 24 hours alone. One of those targets, a refugee camp just north of Gaza City where Israel says a very senior Hamas commander was located.
Explosions rocked the Jabalia refugee camp just hours ago, flattening apartment buildings and leaving behind a giant crater. CNN capturing a massive dark cloud rising over northern Gaza around the same time as the strike, though CNN cannot fully confirm that the video shows the airstrike carried out of Jabalia refugee camp.
One eyewitness telling CNN -- this is important -- he was waiting in line to buy bread, and several missiles were fired from an F-16. And I'm quoting now: there were seven to eight huge holes in the ground, full of killed people. Body parts all over the place. It felt like the end of the world, end quote.
The doctor of a hospital of a Hamas-controlled area says he's seen hundreds of dead bodies and injured patients.
But an IDF official telling me tonight that the number of civilian casualties has been greatly inflated.
All this comes as Israeli troops are reaching deeper and deeper into the Gaza Strip, claiming it's now killed some 50 Hamas fighters, as well as taking out firing positions, terror tunnels and a large stock of weapons.
Also, tonight, we're learning -- we're learning that the Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return here to Israel this week, his third trip since the attack by Hamas.
We have a lot to cover tonight.
Nada Bashir is OUTFRONT for us. She's live in Jerusalem. Jeremy Diamond is along the Israel-Gaza border.
But I want to start with Nada Bashir.
Nada, what is the very latest? What are you learning about the strike on the Jabalia camp?
NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Look, Wolf, we've been seeing devastating airstrikes like tonight's strike on the Jabalia camp for over three weeks now with a devastating civilian toll. But the images, the videos that we have seen emerging from the Jabalia refugee camp have been horrifying to say the least.
Now, of course, there is still question over the full extent over the civilian death toll and the casualties. We've heard from doctors on the ground who say that there are hundreds among those killed and injured in this latest airstrike. But, of course, as we know, there are still people believe to be buried beneath the rubble of what once were their homes, people still digging, searching, hopeful that there may be survivors.
But as we have seen, for more than three weeks, the devastation like this always comes with a horrifying death toll. Take a look at the scene.
BASHIR (voice-over): Horrifying scenes of utter despair.
Where is she, this man pleads? But everything here is gone.
Part of the Jabalia refugee camp, among the largest and most densely populated in Gaza, now turned to rubble -- the latest target of Israel's relentless air campaign.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give her to me, give her to me!
BASHIR: The IDF has claimed responsibility for the airstrike. The target, they say, a senior Hamas commander, killed in the blast.
IDF SPOKESMAN: We were focused again on a target, a senior -- a senior commander.
BASHIR: But this attack, this massacre, as doctors in Gaza are describing it, has hit civilians hardest.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Allahu Akbar!
BASHIR: Emergency response teams who are desperately, in the hope of finding more survivors. But outside Gaza's overwhelmed Indonesian hospital, corpses line the streets. The number of those killed and injured, according to the hospital's director, already in the hundreds.
HOSPITAL DIRECTOR (through translator): They were dressed in their homes, children, women, the elderly. We have no idea what to do. The injured are everywhere.
BASHIR: Inside the hospital, mothers with their children, wounded and traumatized. But outside, survivors continue to dig through the debris of what once where their homes. Desperate to find loved ones buried beneath, but all fearing the very worst. Some of the videos which have emerged from the aftermath of the airstrike on Jabalia or simply too graphic to show.
Doctors tell CNN their bodies were found charred and dismembered. This nightmare comes after residents in northern Gaza were warned by Israel to evacuate southwards. But many simply cannot leave.
And while Israel denies carrying out collective punishment against the Palestinian people, the scenes like this, reflected across the Gaza Strip, show that it is civilians that are paying the price.
BASHIR (on camera): And look, Wolf, there has been fierce criticism of this latest airstrike. As we know, the Jabalia refugee camp is densely populated. It is amongst the largest refugee camps in the Gaza strip. And what we've seen for over three weeks now is the civilian areas in the Gaza Strip.
And what we have seen for over three weeks now is these civilian areas in the Gaza Strip which has been under blockades since 2007, coming under these relentless aerial bombardments by the IDF. We have heard those evacuation orders for civilians in the north to evacuate southwards. But we are still seeing airstrikes being targeted in those southern areas.
And for many in Gaza that we have been speaking to, they have been telling us there is simply nowhere safe for them to turn -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Nada Bashir, live in Jerusalem, thank you very much.
Right now, I want to go to CNN's Jeremy Diamond. He is in Ashkelon. That's not very far from Gaza.
Jeremy, what is the latest where you are and what else are you learning there? JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, even as the images
emerged from the Jabalia refugee camp of wounded and deceased women and children, the IDF is standing by this strike that it carried out on the Jabalia refugee camp, insisting it struck a military target and that it was a military target a very high value. They say that's the case because they say that, in this strike, they were able to kill Ibrahim Biyari, the commander of Hamas's central Jabalia battalion.
They say that Biyari was not only responsible in part for the October 7th terrorist attacks that were carried out here in Israel but also because he was in command of the forces of Hamas fighters in northern Gaza, who have been confronting Israeli forces in that expanded ground operation that was launched five days ago.
What we are also learning, Wolf, is that Biyari, according to the IDF, appears to have been in those underground tunnels beneath these residential buildings alongside other Hamas fighters, and that when Israel struck that site with some kind of munitions that was able to penetrate the ground, the IDF says that the other buildings around it collapsed because of the underground tunnel system, and effectively putting the blame on Hamas for embedding itself in civilian populations, as you look at the civilian death toll here.
Now, Israel claims that it takes extraordinary precautions, of course, as relates to civilian casualties. But we have watched, Wolf, over the last several weeks as the death toll of civilians, when you look at children in particular, according to the Hamas controlled Palestinian ministry of health, more than 3,000 children have been killed in this conflict over these last three weeks.
Now, today, wolf we, were actually in Sderot, overlooking the Gaza Strip, and we saw what appears to have been that Israeli airstrike that was carried on the Jabalia refugee camp, you can see this enormous plume of smoke that and merge from the direction of the Jabalia refugee camp and we saw that at the same time as that airstrike appears to have taken place, at approximately the same time.
Of course, we cannot fully confirm that this was the strike, but you can see that the sizeable crater in the images from the ground and in this video, it's very sizeable cloud of smoke emerging around the same time -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Very disturbing indeed. Jeremy Diamond, live in Ashkelon, Israel, not far from Gaza. Thank you very much.
Joining me now, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus. He's the Israel Defense Forces international spokesperson.
Lieutenant Colonel, thanks once again for joining us.
As you know, Israel said it took out a top Hamas commander on the strike in the Jabalia refugee camp earlier today.
Hamas strongly denied that that official was even at the camp. Are you absolutely certain, Lieutenant Colonel, he was there, and you
LT. COLONEL JONATHAN CONRICUS, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES SPOKESPERSON: If Hamas said so, then of course we should believe it, shouldn't we? They are only a terrorist organization that has the longest track record of lying, killing, murdering, abducting and mutilating bodies.
In all seriousness, yes, Ibrahim Biyari was killed and, along with him where dozens of other Hamas combatants. They were running operations, military operations against our forces in a tunnel complex underneath the Jabalia area. They were in a very big tunnel. We struck that tunnel after we understood that Biyari and the other terrorists where there.
I can confirm that he is dead, and just as we have issued names, faces and titles of more than 50 Hamas operatives that we have been able to eliminate over the last few weeks, his name is now on that list.
I want to say, we do not target the civilian population. We target Hamas operatives. And the fact that there may be civilians affected by the fighting is because Hamas embeds itself under the civilian population, and uses them as their human shields.
BLITZER: So, as you point out, the IDF keeps on saying today that it killed approximately 50 Hamas terrorists, and hit 300 targets in Gaza over the past 24 hours or so. How many more Hamas members does the IDF want to get? And how many targets you have left to hit before you in this military operation?
CONRICUS: That's a good question. But it's difficult to say. Because what we are trying to achieve here is the overall effect. The effect here and the military aim is to dismantle Hamas, to get to its leadership, and to make sure that there are no military resources and capabilities in the Gaza Strip that would be used again in order to target Israelis as we saw in the atrocities of October the 7th.
At this stage, I cannot say how many operatives that would mean, and how many seniors we would have to kill, and how many tunnels, et cetera. What I can say is that our troops are now on the ground, and going and searching, and engaging with the enemy on the ground in their strongholds, and Jabalia was a Hamas stronghold. That is why our troops are there. That is why we struck it. And we will continue to do so.
We are committed, focused on defeating Hamas and making sure that never again will a terrorist organization in Gaza have the ability to strike Israeli civilians.
BLITZER: As you probably know, Hamas just said tonight that none of the hostages that the group is holding in Gaza have been rescued, despite the IDF saying yesterday did in fact rescue an Israeli soldier named Ori Megidish. Hamas suggested the soldier could have been held prisoner by another group.
Do you know if that's accurate? CONRICUS: Anything that Hamas says his first considered ally, and it's
only proven true if someone else verifies it. That is how we regard anything coming out of Hamas's mouth, especially when it comes to the psychological warfare efforts that they are conducting using those poor Israeli hostages that they are holding. We are talking about more than -- not more than -- but 240 Israelis that are currently in Gaza, held by Hamas and under the responsibility of Hamas.
And frankly, I don't think it matters so much who held them, and what and where she was held. The important thing is that she is now home, reunited with her family, and we are very committed to getting each and every of those Israelis, 240 that are being held, illegally, in direct violation of humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict.
They are holding civilians and military personnel illegally. And of course, we are going to get them out, whatever the efforts need to be taken.
BLITZER: Hamas also said today, Lieutenant Colonel, that it will free some of these foreign nationals, the hostages they're holding, in the coming days. What can you tell us about that?
CONRICUS: Well, I can say that there are 240 Israeli hostages held in Gaza, probably underground. And I know that Hamas is also holding other people in the Gaza strip, and preventing them from exiting, many dual nationals and internationals. Hundreds and perhaps even thousands of them. And they're holding them and preventing them from exiting as well.
So, it's no surprise that the Hamas, they have this practice of holding people against their will, above and below ground. We have tried to coordinate the safe evacuation of internationals twice, and twice it has been thwarted by Hamas. They don't want internationals to leave.
And I am frankly -- each and every press statement issued by Hamas, every movie of hostage is that they release, and each and every piece of information, it's lies and more lies and nothing but lies. They have said in the past that, if we wouldn't stop bombing, this was two and a half weeks ago, if we wouldn't stop bombing them, they would execute hostages and show videos of it.
And then they are saying, oh, actually, hostages have been killed by Israeli bombardments. And now they're saying different things. It is less important what they say. But what matters is what is done. What is done is that we have saved one of them, rescued one of them, and we are committed to getting all of them out by whatever means necessary.
BLITZER: Lieutenant Colonel Conricus, thanks once again for joining us.
CONRICUS: Thank you, Wolf.
OUTFRONT next, our breaking news continues. The U.S. is revealing tonight that there are approximately 400 Americans -- American citizens -- stuck in Gaza, as a critical border crossing is now set to open for some of those desperately trying to get out of the Gaza Strip.
Plus, the battle over protecting Israel, the divide evening between Republican leaders over providing Israel with crucial funding.
And new evidence tonight that Trump's grip on the Republican Party is actually tightening, even as his legal troubles continue to mount.
BLITZER: We are back with our breaking news, live here in Tel Aviv. The Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza is now set to open the next few hours to allow 81 seriously wounded Gazans to receive medical treatment in Egypt. That's according to an Egyptian border official.
But still, no word on when that crossing will open to the thousands who are trying to get out of Gaza right now, including some 400 American citizens, according to the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
Also tonight, Israel's prime minister under growing global pressure to increase humanitarian aid into Gaza, following that strike on Hamas targets in the largest refugee camp in Gaza.
And joining us now, Hisham Mhanna, he's the Red Cross spokesperson who's been based in Gaza since 2019. He's currently in southern Gaza for us.
Hisham, thank you very much for joining us.
As you know, an IDF attack on the largest refugee camp in Gaza has caused many casualties. Are you hearing anything about this blast? What do you know?
HISHAM MHANNA, RED CROSS SPOKESPERSON IN SOUTHERN GAZA (via telephone): Thank you for having me.
We're receiving from Jabalia refugee camp, which is, by the way, one of the most densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip and the world, are completely tragic. The footage we are receiving about babies coming out of the rubble is heartbreaking. And this is one of the things that we have warned about since the very early hours of this escalation, that civilians always pay the heaviest toll (AUDIO GAP) and we urge all parties to spare civilian lives.
BLTIZER: The IDF also, says Hisham, that it struck 300 targets inside Gaza, over the past day or so. The devastation, clearly, is growing.
What are conditions like where you are in southern Gaza?
MHANNA: (AUDIO GAP) Gaza is clearly tragic. I mean, I can see endless lines of people waiting for long hours, waiting for some bread and bottles of water that is not even fit for human consumption. We have been -- we have tried to (AUDIO GAP) manage to visit some of the hospitals across the Gaza Strip. (AUDIO GAP)
And we witnessed tens of thousands of internally displaced families without any access to the basic need. No water, no food, no -- zero privacy and complete lack of hygiene, which could potentially lead to an environmental risk (ph) or spread of cholera, for example. But also create an extra, you know, pressure on the humanitarian and medical teams working in operating in hospital for -- nonstop for many weeks now without any reinforcements.
BLITZER: So, what do you need most right now, Hisham?
MHANNA: This is exactly what we need, a sustainable entry and flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza Strip. We appreciate all the efforts that led to the entry of this number of aid trucks, or trucks loaded with humanitarian aid.
But this remains a drop in an endless ocean of increasing humanitarian need as time passes. Each hour, each extra day in the lifetime of this conflict equals more devastation, more dire need in the humanitarian sector in Gaza. And this could only be solved by humanitarian pause and sustainable base and secured entry for the humanitarian aid.
One of the key challenges that the Red Cross (ph) faces is the lack of safety and security for our team on the ground in Gaza. We cannot get, so far, to all the areas of the Gaza Strip, you know, on a timely basis.
BLITZER: Even as you work to bring relief to, others, Hisham, I know you are all living through this yourself, with your wife, your young son. I certainly understand your wife is pregnant and could give birth as soon as potentially tonight. First of all, how is your family doing?
MHANNA: Well, thank you for mentioning this. My wife, we are expecting a baby any time soon. And it has been one of the scariest nights, a few nights ago, when the communication system was completely cut off across the Gaza Strip. Many families could not call for an ambulance or civil defense to come rescue them.
Hospitals received news about the casualties, and influx of casualties from -- and the casualties themselves a manage who arrive to the hospital via their neighbors or friends or cabdrivers who deliver them to the hospital.
BLITZER: Hisham Mhanna, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you. Good luck to your wife, and your entire family. And let's stay in touch.
MHANNA: Thank you so much.
BLITZER: OUTFRONT next -- the new Republican speaker of the House is trying to pass an aid package for Israel. But the bill is causing a divide among Republicans. Can it even pass?
Plus, the U.S. issues a direct threat to Iran -- direct threat to Iran -- warning it will respond if the attacks on U.S. forces don't stop.
BLITZER: Welcome back to a special edition of OUTFRONT, live from Tel Aviv.
Tonight, the new House speaker, Mike Johnson, announcing he plans to hold a vote Thursday -- Thursday -- on a $14.3 billion funding bill for Israel. With that bill already may be a nonstarter for both parties, first, because Johnson plans to fund the bill with $14.3 billion in cuts to the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS.
The bill also leaves out any funding for Ukraine's war against Russia, something that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is against, and has created a clear split among Senate Republicans.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): It would be a huge mistake to separate this package.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): So I think the speaker is smart to separate out the Israeli aid.
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): It's not acceptable to abandon Ukraine.
SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): He's not going to put Ukraine aid together with aid for Israel. And I completely agree with it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: CNN's Melanie Zanona is OUTFRONT for us out on Capitol Hill.
Melanie, given what we just heard, what's the fate of this bill?
MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, it's really uncertain at this moment. House Republicans are supporting the Israel- only approach, but Democrats are against it. And meanwhile, Senate Republicans are really divided, which has just further complicated matters up on Capitol Hill.
In one corner, you have Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and defense hawks like Lindsey Graham, who argue it is in the interest of national security to have a broader package that includes Israel, Taiwan, Ukraine, border security money. But in the other corner, you have Senate conservatives who say they don't support anymore money flowing to Ukraine, and are insisting that these two issues be de- linked. So, really, it is all of Mitch McConnell against members of his own
party, and put him in line with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MAJORITY LEADER: The House GOP package is woefully inadequate. It has the hard rights fingerprints all over it, making aid to Israel, who just faced the worst terrorist attack in history contingent on poison pills that help ultra wealthy tax cheats.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: We'll see if the bill comes out of the House, and if so, what kind of margin it has. My own view, I just expressed, is we need to treat all four of these areas -- all four of them -- Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and the border.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZANONA: So, the House and Senate are really on a collision course here. And meanwhile, there is also a divide in the Senate today over the confirmation of Jack Lew, to be the next ambassador to Israel. This has been a post that has been vacant since July. But there is a new sense of urgency to get this done since the war broke out.
But Republicans had concerns over Jack Lew's role in the controversial Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Lew has served under the Obama administration in numerous capacities, including White House chief of staff and also treasury secretary. But in the end, this vote was 53 to 43, with just two Republicans voting to support him, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Just need a simple majority to be confirmed as the U.S. ambassador.
Melanie Zanona, thank you very much for that report.
OUTFRONT now, Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. He sits on the House Armed Services Committee, and served four tours of duty with the U.S. Marines in Iraq.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for your support, your involvement in all of this.
If the House does vote on the stand-alone funding bill for Israel, do you plan to support it or oppose it?
REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): I mean, from what I have seen right now, Wolf, I can't support it, because the speaker is politicizing aid to Israel. He's politicizing our relationship. And fundamentally, politicizing our national security. We all know that Ukraine and Israel are both fighting for freedom. They are both important to our national security, to send a message to terrorists and dictators around the world that you cannot mess with us or our allies.
And the way that they are trying to separate them -- I mean, it's interesting that the two quotes you got, Rick Scott and Rand Paul in the Senate, supporting separating these out, to isolationists who know nothing about national security, whereas Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham, they are to Republicans I don't often agree with. But they certainly understand national security. Understand that Ukraine is important for national security as well and that's why they want to keep this package together.
BLITZER: The Secretary of State Anthony Blinken today, tried to make a clear link between what is happening with Israel's war against Hamas and Ukraine's war against Russia. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is all one fight. We have to respond in a way that recognizes that. If we start to peel off pieces of this package, they'll see that. They will understand that we are playing whack-a-mole while they cooperate, increasingly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you say, Congressman, to your fellow lawmakers, who don't see this the same way?
MOULTON: One of Hamas's biggest allies is Vladimir Putin, he came out and supported Hamas.
So, we are going to send a message that we don't like Hamas in Israel, and therefore, we are giving aid to Israel, and yet we are supporting Vladimir Putin's, you know, essentially, victory over Ukraine by not providing Ukraine the defenses that they need to maintain their freedom? I mean, this doesn't make any sense.
And of course, I said on the China committee, Wolf. One of the things that we understand is so boring to deterring in preventing more in the Pacific, preventing Xi Jinping from deciding that he should go ahead and invade Taiwan is showing the world that dictators will be stopped.
Xi Jinping is watching Ukraine like a hawk. He wants to understand if we're going to give in and let Vladimir Putin win, because if we do, that sends a message to Xi Jinping that he can go ahead and invade Taiwan and potentially start World War III in the Pacific.
So, Ukraine and Israel, they're both allies. They're both important to our national security, and that's why we need to continue support them in their fights.
BLITZER: In a related development, Congressman, today, we learned of even more attacks against U.S. forces in both Iraq and Syria, a total of at least 27 known attack since October 17th, 16h in Iraq, 11 in Syria, according to the Pentagon, including areas you know very well from your own service and Iraq. This as U.S. officials have warned of an elevated risk of a spillover war.
How should the U.S. respond to these attacks? MOULTON: It's a great question, Wolf. Because the administration, the
U.S. military, have a very difficult deterrents challenge on their hands. They need to send a message to countries like Iran and the militant groups that they support that they cannot get away with attacking U.S. troops. But at the same time, they need to send that message in a way that does not spark a wider regional war, a war that Iran might well like.
They know it would be very challenging to Israel to have to fight on multiple fronts, and so Iran, a state that has declared that Israel should not exist, might be quite happy to have a regional war.
So, what the administration is trying to do is both deter these tactical level attacks, these low-level attacks on U.S. military facilities, while at the same time making sure that the larger picture, the strategic level of deterrence out of regional conflicts stays in place. That's a challenge that I think the administration has meant well so far. But this is going to get increasingly difficult as the war in Gaza deepens.
BLITZER: Yeah, there's enormous concern among top U.S. officials this war could expand to include others in the region.
Congressman Seth Moulton, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.
MOULTON: Good to see you, Wolf.
BLITZER: OUTFRONT next, we'll have more on Iran's flexing its military muscles. Washington is warning Tehran to back off or face the consequences. A special report is next.
Plus, a new poll from an early primary state shows Nikki Haley surging into second place. But how does highly fare against Donald Trump?
BLITZER: Tonight, Iran put on notice, the U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with a stern warning tonight after Iran-backed groups have carried out more than two dozen attacks on U.S. forces in both Iraq and Syria.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LLOYD AUSTIN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: If this doesn't stop, then we will respond. We maintain the right to respond. We have a capability to do that, and we will respond at a time in place of our choosing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: A senior defense official telling CNN -- and I'm quoting now -- Iranian fingerprints are all over the attacks.
CNN's Fred Pleitgen is OUTFRONT with more on the countries growing influence in the region. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen with a show of force, while only hitting U.S. and Israeli flags in this exercise, the Houthis say they also launched a massive long-distance attack on Israel using ballistic and cruise missiles as well as drones.
The Yemeni armed forces affirmed that this operation is the third in support of our oppressed brothers in Palestine, the spokesperson says. Israel confirmed the attacks, saying its defense forces managed to thwart it using modern air defense system.
But both the U.S. and Israel have long accused Iran of providing the Houthis with long-range weapons. We got a we are chance to film some of Iran's drone and missile arsenal at the military fare in Tehran in 2019.
As the Israel-Hamas war continues, the Iranians are now also flexing their own military muscle. A recent large-scale exercise meaning to show Tehran's defense capabilities while one of the commanding general making clear the Islamic Republic's goal is to destroy Israel.
Regarding a message to the Zionist regime, he says, in fact, we announced the destruction of this regime, and God willing, we will witness it soon.
Iran's military is not nearly as moderate as the U.S. is or Israel's. Many of its weapons are U.S.-made from before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, like these Vietnam War era cobra attack helicopters. But Iran influences or control scores of militias around the entire Middle East, which Tehran says it can mobilize to not only attack Israel, but U.S. assets throughout the region.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Iran's president threatening escalation.
The events we're seeing in Gaza are all red lines that are being breached by the Zionist entity, he says. The killing of women and children, the killing of more than 3,000 children, it's not something that any human being can reasonably, or by conscience, accept.
Israel maintains it does not target civilians in its campaigns against Hamas in Gaza. And the U.S. has sent two carrier strike groups and additional surface to air missile batteries to the region.
The Biden administration warning Iran to back off.
JOHN KIRBY, NSC SPOKESMAN: We will take our national security interest very seriously. We will protect and defend our troops.
And we'll do it at a time and manner of our choosing.
(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Fred, we know Iran and its proxies are a threat for Israel. But just how far-reaching is Iran's influence over there?
PLEITGEN: Well, the Iranians, Wolf, certainly believe they can challenge both the U.S. and Israel in the Middle East region. It's not just the Houthis in Yemen and certainly also Hezbollah in Lebanon that they're strictly close to the Iranians. But we've seen a flurry of Iranian and pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq and in Syria as well, especially in Syria after the civil war. They are, of course, Iran was on the side of Bashar al-Assad.
There was one thing that a former senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran told me. He said, look, the U.S. needs to understand that next to every American outpost in the Middle East, there is a militia that's loyal to Iran that could strike at any time, Wolf.
BLITZER: Very disturbing developments indeed. Fred Pleitgen reporting for us, thank you.
OUTFRONT next, Trump's lead in a crucial state is growing according to a new poll now up by more than 30 points. Are there any Republicans who can stop him?
And a warning tonight from the FBI director about the rising antisemitism and Islamophobia in the United States. We have details when we come back.
BLITZER: Tonight, Donald Trump is tightening his grip on the Republican Party. A brand-new CNN poll in the critical early voting state of South Carolina has Trump leading with 53 percent among Republican primary voters. That's a 31-point lead over his closest competitor Nikki Haley, who is notably the state's former governor. Her fellow South Carolina native, Senator Tim Scott, is trailing in fourth place.
OUTFRONT now, Kristen Soltis Anderson. She's a Republican strategist and pollster. And Ashley Allison, the former national coalitions director for President Biden's 2020 campaign.
Kristen, let me start with you. Looking at these polling numbers in South Carolina, is Trump the inevitable nominee?
KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He's not inevitable, but he's pretty close. He's definitely the favorite and his lead is very large. At this point, the best thing he has going for him is that there are so many other people in the race that it's hard for non-Trump Republicans to consolidate around a single candidate. So long as both Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley stay in the race, that's the best thing that can happen to Donald Trump.
BLITZER: Ashley, the Department of Justice, as all of us know, has charged Donald Trump for interfering in the 2020 presidential election. But look at this, 67 percent of South Carolina Republicans say, if the charges are true, it is not relevant to his fitness to be president of the United States. Trump has consistently had a strong showing in GOP primary polling numbers nationally.
It seems like there's solid evidence now in his new poll that his legal problems are not necessarily hurting him. Is that right?
ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that seems to be the case, especially after multiple indictments have come down over the last year, and what we saw when those indictments fell was that his poll numbers went up, his fundraising went up. On a voter --
BLITZER: Kristen, Nikki -- go ahead, finish your thought.
ALLISON: (AUDIO GAP) even when we found (AUDIO GAP) South Carolina voters are saying, even if he is guilty, it doesn't matter. That seems to be the trend, and is really telling on where Republican voters are and mostly likely will help him secure the nomination.
Kristen, Nikki Haley has moved into second place in a recent Iowa state poll, and support for Ron DeSantis -- Ron DeSantis keep slipping and slipping.
And just moments ago, she had this to say about her rise in the polls. Let's listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's pretty remarkable. We've gone up 10 pints in the last two months. We continue to try and touch as many hands as we can, and answer every question.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BLITZER: Does he have enough momentum to keep gaining ground on Trump?
ANDERSON: Well, she'll need a really strong performance in this third debate next week. If you believe that the first two debates didn't matter, just take a look at Nikki Haley's poll numbers and Vivek Ramaswamy's poll numbers.
She put the hurt on him. And it really, really has shown with her rise and his fall. But that doesn't mean if he has a strong performance in the next debate, she still has got a very tough road to go, and a lot of people would need to get out of the race in order to make space for her to go after Trump one-on-one.
BLITZER: Yeah, that next Republican debate in Miami that is coming up in the coming days.
Ashley, should Democrats be worried about Nikki Haley?
ALLISON: I think Democrats should be worried about whoever is going to be the Republican nominee. Now election is for sure going to go to one candidate or not. I don't think, right now, the way it is trending, it does not seem like Nikki Haley, potentially, has enough time. And based on the poll numbers we just discussed, and that there are so many candidates in the Republican field still, that she could potentially overcome Trump and become the nominee.
But if she is the nominee, or if Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, the Biden-Harris campaign is going to have to take this election serious, have boots on the ground, talk to voters, meet them where they are. They cannot take this election for granted.
The poll numbers are too tight, and there's too much at stake for our country.
BLITZER: Good point.
Ashley Allison, thank you very much. Kristen Soltis Anderson, thanks to you as well.
OUTFRONT next, a new warning tonight from the FBI director that threats against the Jewish community in the United States are reaching, and I'm quoting now, historic levels. We will have that when we come back.
BLITZER: The war between Israel and Hamas is having alarming consequences in the United States. Today, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, said it's becoming more and more dangerous for Jewish Americans, and that antisemitism is veering what he called historic levels.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: The Jewish community is uniquely, uniquely targeted by pretty much every terrorist organization across the spectrum. And, when you look at a group that makes up 2.4 percent, roughly of the American population, it should be jarring to everyone that that same population accounts for something like 60 percent of all religious based hate crimes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, says antisemitic incidences are up nearly 400 percent, since October 7th.
New York's governor, Kathy Hochul, announcing that a person is in custody, in connection with antisemitic threats against Jewish students at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. That's just one, of several incidences on college campuses across the country, since the war began. And it's not just antisemitism that's on the rise. It's also Islamophobia.
The Council on American Islamic Relations says complaints of incidences targeting Muslim Americans have increased nearly threefold, since October 7th.
And thanks very much for joining us. Erin will be back tomorrow.
I'll be back here live, tomorrow in Tel Aviv, starting at 4:00 p.m. Eastern. Also, for "THE SITUATION ROOM" starting at 5:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow.
"AC360" starts right now.