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Gaza Humanitarian Crisis Grows As Half a Million Flee South; John Kirby Says the U.S. Won't Rule Out U.S. Boots on the Ground in Gaza; Gazan Citizens Fleeing Gaza Say the Rafah Border Crossing is Still Closed. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 16, 2023 - 05:00   ET



KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Good day to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm Kasie Hunt. It's Monday, October 16th, 5:00 a.m. here in Washington, noon in Israel where a humanitarian crisis is growing worse in Gaza with Israel closing all crossings into Gaza, supplies of food, fuel and medical supplies have been cut off.

No fuel means no electricity and no pumps to distribute water. Israel estimates half a million people have fled northern Gaza for the south. Israeli officials say that's where they're working with the United Nations to establish a humanitarian zone to provide those vitally- needed supplies.

With Israel clearly preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza, President Biden said in a "60 Minutes" interview aired Sunday, it would be a big mistake for Israel to re-occupy Gaza as part of its effort to eliminate Hamas.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What happened in Gaza in my view is Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don't represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake to -- for Israel to occupy Gaza again.


HUNT: By the numbers, the State Department says 30 Americans have died in the Hamas attack, 13 still unaccounted for. The Israeli military says Hamas is holding a total of 155 hostages in Gaza. CNN's Clare Sebastian is live in London. Clare, good morning to you. The worsening humanitarian situation is pressuring everyone here as Israel, Hamas, Egypt, the U.S. Is it fair to say it's nothing compared to what might happen after Israel invades?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Kasie, it's -- you know, it's hard to imagine given how bad things are now, but if you look at the size of the force that Israel has amassed, up to 300,000, including reservists. There are tens of thousands on the border with Gaza right now. If you look at the fact that if they go in, which they are, sort of

heavily hinting that they will, calling this a new phase in the operation that's coming, saying it will involve significant ground operations, then they will be engaging likely not only with Hamas who has proven itself to be very well prepared for this, but also likely other militant groups in Gaza as well.

And that will worsen the humanitarian situation. We know that although Israel says more than half a million people have evacuated to the south as they were told to do a few days ago, many are left, including according to the World Health Organization in hospitals, the more vulnerable patients, doctors making the very difficult decision to stay behind to care for them.

In addition, it would be increasingly dangerous if this becomes a ground operation to bring aid in which we know has not yet happened. A lot of focus this morning on the Rafah Crossing down in the southern border of Gaza with Egypt. Both sides, Hamas and Israel denying that a ceasefire or humanitarian corridor has been arranged as of yet.

But there are truck-loads, plane-loads of aid waiting on the Egyptian side, and on the flip side, civilians trying to get out. We've seen live images of civilians waiting at that border this morning. This is why you see the diplomacy intensifying, Secretary Blinken has now arrived back in Israel, will be pushing for more humanitarian assistance, and of course, stepping up efforts as the U.S. has been doing since the start of this, to try to prevent the conflict from spreading. Kasie?

HUNT: Yes, extremely important. All right, Clare Sebastian in London for us, thank you very much for that. And moments ago, Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived back in Tel Aviv in the latest whirlwind American diplomatic effort aimed at stopping the war in Gaza from expanding. This comes as humanitarian aid deliveries accumulate at Egypt's Rafah Border Crossing where thousands are waiting to cross from the Gaza side, including hundreds of Palestinian-Americans, after Blinken met with Egypt's president on Sunday, he promised that goods and people would start flowing.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Rafah will be -- will be open, we're putting in place with the United Nations, with Egypt, with Israel, with others, the mechanism by which to get the assistance in and to get it to people who need it.


HUNT: So today, Blinken meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their president and the security cabinet.

Let's go to CNN's Jennifer Hansler. Jennifer, good morning. There has been a lot of back and forth about the Rafah Border Crossing here. It doesn't seem to be clear how, when, it might open, because the Israelis are saying something different than what it seems the Americans are saying. What's going on for real there, and what is the goal of Blinken's trip?

JENNIFER HANSLER, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT PRODUCER: Well, good morning, Kasie. Blinken told reporters yesterday the goal of his trip, he wanted to return to Israel to be able to talk about everything he has heard and learned over his past several days of meetings.


We have seen him go to six other countries in the past three days, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. And he wants to be able to brief Netanyahu and those other senior officials on what he learned in those meetings.

He also said he wanted to, quote, "talk about the way forward with our Israeli allies and friends, and this comes of course, as the stakes are incredibly high ahead of that imminent ground incursion by Israeli forces as we have seen 2,600 civilians in Gaza be killed in those Israeli air strikes according to the Palestinian Health Ministry and as the humanitarian situation there is incredibly dire.

We expect him to bring up that situation in his meetings today. We saw the Biden administration yesterday appoint a special envoy on those issues. He will likely press Netanyahu on the civilian safe zones that were discussed in their meeting last week. And of course, he will probably discuss the Rafah Crossing situation where there is just so much confusion as you noted.

It is very unclear who is at fault for this hold-up. But we have seen hundreds of civilians waiting, some of them days, to try to get out of Gaza into Egypt. U.S. officials have blamed Hamas for the hold-up. They say that the group is not letting civilians out. They say Egypt is not the holdup, Israel is not the holdup. But we will likely see him press for especially Americans, Palestinian-Americans, we know 500 to 600 of them are in Gaza.

Not all of them might want to leave, but some of them do, he will likely press the Israeli leader to figure out how to get these Americans out. And of course, the other key issues he brought up on his trips in all of his meetings was the need for Hamas to release these hostages for partners who have sway over Hamas to push for that, and also just stop this war from expanding. And it's unclear if he did actually make progress on those fronts. Kasie?

HUNT: Yes, we were just looking a moment ago at the plane, Antony Blinken, we're expecting him to de-plane in Israel any moment now. And of course, we're also watching to see, though, we have been reporting that President Biden is considering a trip to Israel, so we're going to update folks on that when we get more. Jennifer Hansler, thank you very much for being with us this morning, I really appreciate your time.

And coming up, could there be U.S. boots on the ground in Gaza if the war expands? Plus, divided house Republicans pick Trump ally Jim Jordan as their nominee for speaker. More on his uphill climb for the gavel.




JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: There's no plans or intentions to put U.S. troops on the ground to fight -- in this fight between --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: With troop of Americans --

KIRBY: Israel and Hamas. We are actively trying to find out exactly where they are.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you absolutely rule out the possibility of any kind of U.S. forces being on the ground there?

KIRBY: What I won't do is rule anything in or out when it comes to getting our hostages home.


HUNT: That was National Security Council spokesman John Kirby not ruling out the possibility of U.S. boots on the ground in Gaza. And President Biden calls rescuing the American hostages the top priority. Let's bring in CNN military analyst, Colonel Cedric Leighton. Colonel, good morning, it's always great to see you. Can I just get your take on how Kirby framed that. What's he saying or not saying there?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Good morning, Kasie. I think he is leaving his options open at this point in time. Now, when you look at the relationship between Israel and the United States, it really may be rare for U.S. troops to even come close to going into Israel. Now, there's been training between the Israeli forces and American forces in the recent past.

In fact, just in the run-up to this particular event, you know, over the last about eight-nine days ago now. And that, you know, shows that there's some maybe ventral probability between U.S. and Israeli forces. One possibility is that U.S. forces would be used not in a hostage rescue role, but in a humanitarian role. That's one possibility.

The other possibility, of course, is hostage rescue force, normally, the Israelis would want to take that responsibility themselves, and make sure that they were in control of any hostage rescue operation.

HUNT: Well, that's interesting. I mean, what do you think that U.S. special forces could -- I mean, you're basically saying that there's not really anything the U.S. could add to a mission like that. Is that right?

LEIGHTON: Yes, the basic thing is this, Kasie. The U.S. special forces are great, but they are not, you know, in that neighborhood. In other words, that have not worked in Gaza. They have not worked in any of those other areas that are under Palestinian control like in the West Bank, for example.

And that is usually been the province of the Israelis. Now, could they do something? Yes, they could train-up very quickly and try to do a rescue operation or something like that. But it would be very difficult to do that because you're talking a very tough target, you know, especially if the hostages are in the tunnels. So, I think it's highly unlikely, but nothing is impossible. And so that's something you ought to keep an eye out for.

HUNT: OK, let's -- we're all obviously waiting to see -- there's this wide expectation Israel is going to launch this ground invasion of Gaza, they've obviously asked people to evacuate. But the Rafah Border Crossing is --has been closed. People are kind of amassing there. There seems to be a lot of confusion and finger-pointing about why it's not open, what's really going on there.

Do you have an understanding of how the situation at that crossing plays into Israeli decision-making about the timing of any invasion?

LEIGHTON: Yes, so, I think what you're looking at is, you know, the Egyptians are saying the border is open, but they know it really isn't, because from the Gaza side, Hamas has not opened the gates.


And the road to the Rafah Crossing area has been damaged in air strikes. So the Israelis are making -- taking note of that and they're saying we can't -- we might not be able to mount an operation at this point in time when there's so many people that have fled from Gaza city in that particular area.

I think that what we may be seeing is the possibility that Israel might want to use an avenue of approach, not just from the north with the northeast, but possibly one from the south as well, and, of course, they want people out of the way who are coming in from the south.

HUNT: Right -- no, it's of course. What is your sense of the other factors at play here? I mean, I know we've seen reports about weather perhaps affecting their timing. I mean, you've been in -- you have an understanding of how militaries make decisions in these kinds of situations. What else are they thinking about?

LEIGHTON: Yes, so, on the weather point, there is -- you know, that factor of rain. In fact, this morning in Gaza, it did rain. And that makes it a little bit more difficult for armored vehicles to come into a particular area. It makes it a bit more difficult for other military operations to take place. So, depending on the severity of the storm, I don't think it was that severe.

But depending on that, that could impact operations. You know, one of the most famous ones was D-day, which was delayed for 24 hours before Eisenhower launched that operation. So, weather plays a huge factor in military operations. So the Israelis may be looking at that, waiting perhaps for things to dry out or for something else to happen.

HUNT: All right, Colonel Cedric Leighton, always appreciate your expertise, sir, I really appreciate your time.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Kasie.

HUNT: All right, right now, America's top diplomat back in Israel after a six-country Arab tour. What his pitch was and how he was received. Just ahead.



HUNT: Welcome back. Egypt's president says Israel's response to the Hamas attacks has gone beyond self-defense, and is now, a quote, "collective punishment" against Gazans. This concerns were echoed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both leaders met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he criss-crossed the region over the past several days.


BLINKEN: Purpose of seeing all of our partners was first and foremost to listen to them. To hear how they're seeing this crisis and to look at what we can do together.


HUNT: All right, let's bring in CNN's Max Foster in London. Max, good morning to you. So Blinken just landed in Israel again. He has also been, of course, working overtime to try to convince Arab leaders to condemn Hamas and to prevent this war from expanding. I mean, it's a Herculean task, and the sort of balance around the sentiment towards what's going on is really on a knife's edge.

MAX FOSTER, CNN ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, the first part of it asking them to condemn Hamas isn't as hard as it sounds, because many of these countries aren't fans of Hamas. They obviously are very concerned about Palestinians more generally and the casualties coming from that and also their -- you know, the effort to get aid in there.

It's just not getting in there and it's a grim situation that you've been reporting on that, of course. We did have this very stark language from the Egyptians talking about this collective punishment. This idea that Israel has a right to defend itself, but it's tipped into collective punishment. That was very stark. And actually, over the course of the morning, we've seen that being echoed around the world really.

We had similar language from the Chinese, and even the Irish prime minister, would you believe. So, this is a real challenge for Israel. So, I think he's going to be going back to Israel and saying, you know, you've got to protect civilians. You can't target civilians. You've got to get aid in there. And that's going to be his big challenge right now.

I spoke to the IDF earlier today, they made it very clear that civilians aren't their enemy here, and they're doing all they can to protect them, it's Hamas that made them vulnerable.

HUNT: Yes, I mean, that's the argument the Israelis are making, essentially hate, Hamas is trying to keep these people in their homes so that they can use them as human shields. Now, of course, the reality -- we were just showing some video of the Rafah Border Crossing. There's a lot of confusion about what is going on there because their -- you know, countries are saying the intent is for this to be open.

But the reality is we have not seen that. There are -- we know from here, Americans that are waiting to cross, Palestinian-Americans who would like to leave. You know, I'm sure you're probably more right in than I about, you know, citizens around the -- from the rest of the world who are looking to cross.

And obviously, you mentioned the humanitarian aid -- the Egyptians play -- I mean, this is the border with Egypt. Where are they in this?

FOSTER: Well, the -- I think fundamentally, well -- it's so complex, isn't it? And who knows really what's going on behind the scenes. But the sort of --

HUNT: Right --

FOSTER: That we're getting is that Egypt won't open the border until there's a promise that aid can get in. And what we're hearing from the Egyptian -- from the Israeli side is that they're not going to open the border until they -- you know, the hostages are released. That's fundamentally, I think, the broad argument there. The Egyptians are obviously hugely concerned about sending their truck drivers in if they're going to be hit by strikes as well.

So they want to know there's going to be a ceasefire to protect those aid convoys. As you say, people have been told to go to the border and gather there. All those dual citizens, American, British, you know, from all around the world, they're being told to gather there. Because if there is a window for it to open, it's going to be very tight.

So they're going to have to rush through, but it's not going to be a big evacuation of people. It just isn't.


And a lot of Gazans don't want to leave because they're saying why should we?

HUNT: Right -- no, of course. And you are right to point out for folks who are trying to decide what to do there, that they are advising people, hey, go, be nearby, because we're not going to get a lot of warning when it opens, and so we're going to be opened for a short period of time. All right, Max Foster, thank you as always, my friend. See you soon --

FOSTER: Bye, Kasie.

HUNT: Meanwhile, Iran now warning of consequences if Israel doesn't stop attacks on Gaza. More on fears of an expanding global conflict.


HUNT: Good morning. Just before 5:30 here on the east coast, thank you for being here early with us, I am Kasie Hunt. There are concerns this morning over the possibility that the war between Israel and Hamas could spread into a wider regional conflict. Over the weekend, the U.S. sent a second carrier group into the eastern Mediterranean to try and send a message of deterrence with Hamas and Hezbollah, which has bases in Lebanon along Israel's northern border, are considered proxies for Iran.

But President Biden says that there's no evidence that Iran is behind the Hamas attack on Israel.