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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Heavy Israeli Airstrikes Kill Dozens in Gaza Overnight; U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin Says the U.S. is "Concerned About Potential Escalation" in Israel-Palestine War; Antony Blinken Cites the Need for a Plan for Gaza After Hamas. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 23, 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 is Monday, October 23rd, 5:00 a.m. here on the east coast, noon in Gaza where Israel's military says they struck 320 terror targets in air strikes overnight, killing at least 26 people at a northern refugee camp according to Palestinian officials.

Hamas says their fighters also clashed with Israeli troops inside Gaza. A senior Israeli official tells CNN, there will be no ceasefire. IDF troops are amassing at the border, but Israel's ground incursion hasn't begun, while the U.S. and Qatar work to free the more than 200 hostages being held by Hamas.

The Palestinian Health Ministry says more than 4,600 Gazans have died and the humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day. Meantime, Israel has agreed to the U.S. request to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE, UNITED STATES: When I hear the stories, when I see the pictures of young children who have lost their lives in this conflict of Hamas' making, whoever they are, wherever they are, whether they're Palestinians, whether they're Israelis, whether they're Jews or Muslims, it hits me, that's why it's so important to do everything possible to protect them and why it's so important to do everything possible to get assistance to those who need it.


HUNT: At least, 14 aid trucks entered at the Rafah Crossing with food, water and other supplies on Sunday, but fuel is still scarce, and patients are overwhelming Gaza's hospitals. Doctors say infants on ventilators won't survive without electricity. Report Elliott Gotkine joins us live from London. Elliott, good morning to you. Let's talk a little bit about these increased Israeli airstrikes, what's the latest there and when do we expect this ground incursion? Is there any time line at this point?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: There's no time line, Kasie. We've been expecting this ground incursion pretty much since Hamas' terrorist attack of October the 7th. Israel has been carrying out airstrikes over since then, troops have been amassing assets, tanks and armored personnel carriers and the like have been amassing around the Gaza Strip.

But we still don't have a time line. And to be fair, I suppose it's understandable that the IDF isn't going to give us a specific time line because it wants to at least keep some element of surprise. In terms of these airstrikes, the IDF says it was going to be ramping up airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, and to that extent, it's been true to its word.

As you say, more than 320 targets hit according to the IDF in the last 24 hours, that may be the largest number of targets hit since the beginning of this war. Certainly, that's what the IDF -- well, they're looking into whether it's specifically the largest number. But we heard from our Nic Robertson in Sderot, that they -- to his mind and to his ears, was the heaviest bombardment of the Gaza Strip since the start of this war.

Israel saying that it was targeting everything from militant tunnels to operational command centers, including those which actually had militants from Islamic Jihad and Hamas inside. Also, hitting military compounds and anti-tank firing -- anti-tank missiles, says as well. Also saying that it's hitting targets in order to reduce the threat, targets that pose a threat to its troops that are on next to Gaza.

And of course, we saw the first clash on the ground inside the Gaza Strip between the IDF and militants yesterday. That resulted from an anti-tank missile being fired by militants towards the Israelis and the deaths of one IDF soldier and three more were injured. Hamas claiming to have destroyed a couple of military bulldozers and a tank.

So skirmishes have started, but this doesn't seem yet to be the starting gun on a full-blown ground invasion, Kasie.

HUNT: Well, and Elliott, there were some reports from CNN over the weekends, some conversations about the role the U.S. was potentially playing and the typing here, whether there was an ask for a delay that of course, potentially related to the hostages. I mean, what do we know about that?

GOTKINE: Well, we understand from our reporting, Kasie, at CNN that the U.S. has been leaning on Israel to delay its ground invasion, to allow for more negotiations to release hostages, and we saw two Israeli-Americans being released by Hamas out of more than 200 that it abducted from Israel on October the 7th.


The U.S. wants to see more of those released and is being helped to that end by the Qataris. On top of that, of course, we know that when President Biden was physically here in Israel, that, that may have led to some kind of delay, because Israel was never going to go in on the ground while President Biden was in town. As far as the U.S. is concerned, they say that this is a decision Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when asked, said that this is a decision for the Israelis as to when to go in.

The Israelis have dismissed the story, saying it's not true. President Biden, when he was asked, simply replied that I am talking to the Israelis, so not giving anything away there. But we do understand the U.S. has been leaning on Israel to delay a ground invasion. We haven't seen it happen to date when we had expected it to happen.

So, those two elements would suggest there has been some kind of delay, but there could be other reasons, whether it's fresh intelligence as to where the hostages are, or even the weather which could be delaying this ground invasion which we've been waiting for pretty much for two weeks now. We seem to be getting closer to it, but we seem to be getting close to it all the time.

We -- it hasn't happened yet, and we really don't know when it's going to happen, but we do expect it to happen at some point. Kasie.

HUNT: All right, Elliott Gotkine, thank you very much for your reporting this morning, I really appreciate it. And coming up here, the Pentagon worried about a wider war as they bolster U.S. troops in the Middle East. Plus, Jim Jordan is out! So who is in? Nine candidates vying for that unattainable, basically, gavel. That's next.



HUNT: Welcome back. The U.S. military sending additional troops to the Middle East on prepare-to-deploy orders. Officials have already stressed there are no plans to put American boots on the ground in the war between Israel and Hamas. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warns the U.S. is worried about a wider war.


LLOYD AUSTIN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, UNITED STATES: We're concerned about potential escalation. In fact, what we're seeing is a -- is the prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region. And because of that, we're going to do what's necessary to make sure that our troops are in the right position and they're protected. And that we have the ability to respond.


HUNT: All right, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton joins me now. Colonel, good morning, always wonderful to start the week with you. How close are we here? And how would the U.S. react if there were some sort of attacks on U.S. troops in the region? Obviously, it could come from many places that were, you know, not directly related to the Israel-Hamas conflict, but obviously, tensions are very much heightened. How do you think the U.S. would respond in the event there were some sort of incident?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, good morning, Kasie, it's great to be with you as well. The big thing I think for the -- from the U.S. perspective is what's called force protection, and Secretary Austin talked about that. So, any time you put forces potentially in harm's way, the biggest thing a commander does is they take a look, how can I protect my troops?

And if they were to be attacked, if there were something, you know, from any of the possible players in the Middle East or anywhere else, I think the response from the U.S. would be pretty strong and pretty swift, as long as they could figure out who did do the attack, who conducted the attack? So that's going to be the key thing.

The intelligence would have to be really good in determining where the attack came from, and then I think there would be a response, probably a proportionate response, depending on the nature of the attack. But anybody who would risk attacking U.S. troops would risk getting attacked themselves.

HUNT: Can you help me understand this quote-unquote, "prepare to deploy" order? I'm just --

LEIGHTON: Right --

HUNT: Not familiar with that. What does it mean?

LEIGHTON: So, it basically means what it says, finally there's something that the Department of Defense, which actually means pretty close to the English language. So --

HUNT: Who knew?

LEIGHTON: What you do -- yes, who knew? Exactly. So what you're -- what you're dealing with is, you're telling a unit to get ready to deploy. So what does that mean concretely? It means that they will get themselves ready so that when they're given the deploy order, they will move out within 24 hours. So prepare to deploy, in other words, is kind of like the yellow light, the green light then is you have a deployment order, a deploy order as it's called.

And then that's sent out to the unit and then they move out, and everything is basically put in place, the logistics, you know, all the material that they need to make sure that they've got all their weapons at the ready, and that they can then move that step forward, all the equipment, all the personnel, move that forward to a predetermined location.

And that's basically what prepare to deploy means. It means get ready to go, and then -- you know, the next step, of course, would be to actually deploy.

HUNT: Got it, understood. So there was an incident in Israel, kind of along the border fence is my understanding with Gaza, where there were -- there was an anti-tank missile fired at an Israeli operation. What happened there? And how does it connect with what we expect to be a planned incursion into Gaza by the Israelis?

LEIGHTON: Yes, so, it's kind of murky, the details are kind of murky on this incident, Kasie. But as far as we can tell, the Israelis may have done something, what is known as a reconnaissance in force into a portion of Gaza, or they may have been shot at from the Gaza side by Hamas, and then responded to that. So there are several possibilities there.

But basically, what happens is, as a military tries to get into a particular area, they'll send reconnaissance units, basically like scouts into an area to determine what the soft points are, how can they move forward, what are the vulnerabilities? What are the points of access? Things of that nature.


So the Israelis were probably conducting a mission like that, and Hamas responded and shot the anti-tank weapons at them, and that resulted in the death of at least one Israeli soldier and the wounding of several others.

HUNT: All right, so sir, I was just talking a little bit earlier with Elliott Gotkine about some of the CNN reporting around the U.S. urging potentially a delay. The president was asked about this over the weekend, all he would say in response was that he was talking to the Israelis. But could you help us understand the military reasons why the U.S. might be urging the Israelis to kind of slow their roll on the incursion into Gaza?

LEIGHTON: Yes, Kasie, so the real issue for -- from a military standpoint is that, if you get into a place like Gaza, it's going to be really hard to extricate yourself. So from a strictly military standpoint, putting all of political and diplomatic stuff aside for a second, which is very relevant to this, actually, but in a military sense, what they're doing is they're telling the Israelis, hey, we've had some experience with this.

There have been some mistakes made, you risk getting involved in something that you can't really extricate yourself from, and that's the danger. Have a plan to get in, get out, and do it quickly is the basic message.

HUNT: All right, Colonel Cedric Leighton, thank you very much as always for your expertise, sir, I'm sure I'll see you soon.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Kasie.

HUNT: All right, and Israel will one day find itself considering the same question in Gaza that the U.S. did in Iraq. What would, as we were just discussing the exit strategy be? That's next.




BLINKEN: Something needs to be found that ensures that Hamas can't do this again, but that also doesn't revert to Israeli governance of Gaza, which they do not want and do not intend to do. (END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNT: That was Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking about who might govern Gaza after the war is over. He also said this.


BLINKEN: One thing is for sure, Israel cannot go back to the status quo.


HUNT: Israel's Prime Minister has vowed to, quote, "wipe Hamas off the face of the earth", end quote. Blinken's remarks appear to be the first time the administration has publicly urged Israel to come up with a strategy for what will come after that. CNN's Max Foster joins us now live from London. Max, good morning, it's always good to see you.


HUNT: So, we've been discussing, you know, and as the Israelis are contemplating going into Gaza, talking about it with Cedric Leighton, you heard President Biden when he went to Israel talk about how it was understandable that the Israelis were angry, that they felt rage. But he urged them not to be consumed by the rage.

And he compared it to the American experience of 9/11. He said that America went into Afghanistan and Iraq to look for justice, they got justice, but that we also made mistakes. And that does seem to be kind of instructive here in terms of how everybody is thinking about this situation. I think there's a military component to this, and also, of course, the governance and diplomatic concern as well, which we can talk about.

But I mean, strictly on a military basis, if they do wipe out Hamas after they go in physically to the Gaza Strip, they do need to have a plan to get out of there, no?

FOSTER: They do have a very clear plan, and it's an exit strategy for Israel, but it's not an exit strategy for Gaza. So, there's a big question about what happens to Gaza afterwards. The Israeli defense minister was speaking to a parliamentary committee last week, and essentially said, the first phase of their strategy is to take out Hamas and all the infrastructure of Hamas and Hamas.

And then it will be about taking out pockets of Hamas, and then it is withdrawing. They have no intention, they say, of staying in Gaza. So the third phase, according to the defense minister will require the removal of Israel responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel.

As you know, Kasie, Israel supplies basic necessities to Gaza, and that is seen by the U.N. as a responsibility, effectively, for occupying that Arab land. I don't know how Israel looks at this, but by withdrawing completely, do they still occupy it? The question is, if Israel pulls out, all services to the Gaza Strip after all of this is over, how does it continue forward?

HUNT: Right, I mean, it's impossible, right? I mean, and it also raises the question, too, of, you know, what rises up in its place? Because something does need to -- someone has to govern Gaza. I mean, even if the Israelis are providing -- you know, as we've seen, they had the capacity to cut off the water, the food and the fuel, so they're providing that, but they're not administering it day to day.

I mean, the reality is, Hamas doesn't get along with the Palestinian -- the PLO, that -- you know, the organizations that run the West Bank, for example. It's really difficult to see who is going to administer the day to day?

FOSTER: And the Palestinian Authority is the only representative of the Palestinians, and the talks that they're going to happen effectively with the rest of the world about what happens with governance in Gaza afterwards. So, it's a huge question. Egypt is the only option for getting stuff into Gaza after all of this. How is that going to work? Does it want that responsibility?

How is it going to get support from other countries to do that? I mean, there are huge questions here about Gaza, and how it's going to survive after all of this is over. And the Palestinian Authority is seen by many as a corrupt organization with very weak leadership.


So and other organizations --

HUNT: Right --

FOSTER: They have to emerge to sort of fill the vacuum. The big worry, of course, is that when -- if you destroy Hamas, do you just create another Hamas under a different name afterwards that then replaces it? If Israel is no longer part of that process or you know, having any involvement in that, then, you know, who is?

HUNT: Right, I mean, there's -- it's a cliche -- power upholds a vacuum is a cliche for a reason. And you know, in the event that, OK, they destroy one organization, what's to stop another group from rising up in its place, especially considering all of the young people who are experiencing what's happening to Gaza right now, and the potential for, you know, what happens next with many people who are going to be extraordinarily, honestly, devastated by what's happened and react to that. Max Foster, thank you very much for being with us this morning --

FOSTER: Thanks, Kasie --

HUNT: I really appreciate it. Just ahead, Israel's military says it's taken out hundreds of terror targets in Gaza. And at the U.S. Capitol, nine Republicans, just one gavel, who is going to get it? Any of them, who knows? We'll be back.


HUNT: Good morning.