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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Scores Killed in Central Gaza As Israel's Offensive Rages; U.S. Military Hits Kataib Hezbollah Targets In Iraq; Israel-Hamas War Center Stage in Democratic House Primaries; Winter Storm Hits the Plains, Widespread Travel Disruptions. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired December 26, 2023 - 05:00   ET



OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Omar Jimenez, in for Kasie Hunt. It is Tuesday, December 26.

And we have got a lot to get to here. We're going to start with Israel's offensive raging on in Gaza this morning while the death toll soars. And a warning, some of the images that you're going to see are disturbing.

In Central Gaza, family members mourn their dead out beside the Al- Aqsa Hospital according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry. At least 250 people were killed and 500 injured in the last 24 hours.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was interrupted by angry shouts from family members of hostages still held in Gaza. It happened during a special session of parliament Monday, after he made a second wartime visit to the Palestinian territory, telling stories of a long fight to come, putting him at odds with the White House.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Whoever talks about stopping, there's no such thing. We are not stopping. The war will continue until the end.


JIMENEZ: So, CNN's Nada Bashir joins us from London.

So, Nada, for starters, a source is telling CNN that Netanyahu dispatched a close confidant, Ron Dermer, to Washington for Gaza talks with the Biden administration.

What can we expect from those talks?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Look, Omar, we know that the U.S., the Biden administration, and the Israeli government have been keeping close contact over the course of the war. And this, of course, comes just days after President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the week. The focus has really been that call from the U.S., from the White

House to move towards what's being described as a lower intensity phase of the war. And as you mentioned, this has really put the U.S. at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has said he believes this war will be a long fight ahead. He says that the war is not near being over at this stage.

In fact, what we are seeing on the ground in the Gaza Strip is an expansion of Israel's military operation, both in its air campaign and ground operations in Gaza. We have seen those renewed evacuation warnings telling civilians in Central Gaza and southern Gaza to move. The question of where civilians can actually move under a blockade remains to be answered.

But, of course, there is mounting pressure. Of course, the U.S. is also feeling that pressure. The civilian death toll continues to soar, now topping 20,000 according to health officials on the ground in Gaza.

And, of course, while the U.S. has been calling on the Israeli government to move towards that lower intensity phase, we haven't had that vocal agreement from the Israeli government. Last week we did hear from the White House telling reporters that they had been assured, by the Israeli government, that they would begin to transition their operations towards that lower intensity phase. There are no clear timeline giving as to when we might expect to see that transition.

And, of course, this latest message from Benjamin Netanyahu that the war is, indeed, intensifying by the looks of things really stands against what the U.S. has been saying. So, clearly that is expected to be a primary focus of today's talks between Ron Dermer. This is, of course, somebody who has had a lot of experience in dealing and working with the U.S. government, who did as the Israeli ambassador to the United States under Benjamin Netanyahu, as you mentioned, a very close confidant of Benjamin Netanyahu. He is the minister for strategic affairs.

It'll be interesting to see what comes out of those meetings, but those operation developments will be a primary focus.

JIMENEZ: Well, and, of course, as Netanyahu warns of a long fight to come, you touched on this, the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. And what we have been watching is, of course, what will the efforts groups like the royal food program and the U.N. be able to do? What will they be able to accomplish if for a famine, for example, if this conflict continues, what can you tell us about any efforts on that and towards humanitarian aid and the success of being able to get some of that humanitarian aid actually into Gaza?

BASHIR: Well, look, Omar, the amount of aid that is actually getting into the Gaza Strip is a drop in the bucket compared to what is actually needed.

[05:05:04] We saw that U.N. resolution adopted last week, calling for conditions to be established to allow for the safe establishment of aid programs in the Gaza Strip. We know, of course, that aid has been getting into Gaza via the Rafah Border crossing, which separates Gaza from Egypt. But, as we begin to hear those warnings of an expanded ground operation by the Israeli military, particularly with the focus on the south, we know of course there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians who are now taking shelter in these temporary tent cities. There is mounting concern that we will not see that U.N. resolutions, that call for the unhindered access of aid actually being adopted in practical terms, at least not in the immediate few days and weeks.

That is the primary concern here. As you mentioned, we are now beginning to hear diplomats and aid agencies talking about an impending famine in the Gaza Strip, an acute hunger crisis that is being faced by some 2.2 million people inside Gaza.

And, as the fighting intensifies, as we continue to see airstrikes, not just across southern Gaza but also airstrikes focused on Rafah, the city of Rafah where of course that is the vital gateway of aid from international partners across the board to get in violence convoys, crossing the Rafah border crossing, there is a huge amount of concern that the safety guarantees that these aid agencies need, that these agencies need, simply are not in place and will not be upheld in order to allow for long term aid to get in.

Now, of course, there continues to be cold for a humanitarian port, for a longer term balls, even calls for a cease-fire. That has, of course, been flat out rejected by the Israeli government but there continues to be pressure there. We are hearing from two Israeli sources that a proposal has been put forward by the Egyptian government over the weekend, but no confirmation at the stage with regards to the detail of that plan from the Egyptian government itself -- Omar.

JIMENEZ: Yeah. Nada Bashir, thank you for your reporting as always.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has carried out air strikes on three locations in Iraq used by an Iran-backed militants that carry out attacks on American forces. Now, the group Kataib Hezbollah claimed responsibility for a drone attack Monday morning that wounded three U.S. service members. One is still in critical condition. U.S. central command says early assessment showed the retaliatory strikes by the U.S. likely killed a number of militants, but they say there is no indication of any civilian casualties.

Still ahead, the migrant surge is reaching unprecedented levels creating significant problems for the Biden administration. Plus, a major storm in the plane likely to hamper travel plans today. We're going to be back in a moment.


[05:12:01] JIMENEZ: From the start, the Israel-Hamas war has had significant political consequences for President Biden at home, revealing deep divisions between his party's base and its progressive wing. Those deep divisions are now altering the dynamics of 2024 House Democratic primaries with some of the most high-profile progressive incumbents facing moderate challengers who are hoping to oust them over their vocal criticisms of Israel.

So, let's bring in Samantha-Jo Roth. She's a congressional reporter for "The Washington Examiner", she has been covering this.

Great to see you. Thanks for being up with us.

Look, I want to take a look at some of your most recent reporting. I mean, it shed light on the impact the war is having on these house races, which candidates are likely to be impacted most. Or which candidates do you expect, should I say, do you expect to be affected most?

SAMANTHA-JO ROTH, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Yeah, absolutely, Omar. We're expecting Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Rashida Tlaib who is not actually had a challenger at this time. A lot of these members like Ilhan Omar mar of the so-called "Squad", the Israel lobby is working really hard to recruit candidates to take them on.

It is important to remember that this is a theme throughout a lot of Democratic primaries in the past, but with this war it is going to take center stage. The Israel lobby spent about $30 million in 2022 and they are expected to spend about three times that in these upcoming elections. So, it's going to be really fierce, it's going to be a fierce fight.

You know, obviously progressive leaders are not happy about this infighting within the party and a lot of them are trying to remind folks that, you know, these single-focused interest groups are not always great. If you look at, and the 2022 cycle, AIPAC actually endorsed over 100 members of Congress, Republican members who voted to overturn the election results. So that's something that they're trying to make very clear that, you know, in this upcoming fight.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, and, you know, obviously you are out on Capitol Hill a good bit and a sort of the difference between what folks are saying on the campaign trail might be a little different than what folks are saying in the hallways of Congress. But I'm curious, what does it say to you that Democrats are spending money to primary some of their own, instead of spending money on districts, or that money and districts where Democrats are vulnerable to Republicans.

Do you feel some of that tension on the hill, for example? When you're among some of these Democrats?

ROTH: Yeah, absolutely. This is something that a lot of Democrats are worried about. They are worried that, instead of focusing on getting Democrats elected to office, instead of keeping all of these really important Democrats in place, they are worried about these Israeli lobby groups are going to potentially forget some of these Democrats out.


You know, it's important to remember that these incumbents, it is really hard for this lobby to be able to get them out. A lot of them are very popular in this district's. For example, Rashida Tlaib, you know, is a master at constituent services. They are prolific fund- raisers of their own, but, you know, this outside money certainly is a threat to them.

You know, money isn't everything, but it certainly helps when it comes to an election. So this is a theme that we're going to watch throughout the rest of this cycle, but I think you can definitely expect this issue to be front and center in the 2024 election for sure.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, even so, of course, we're going to see it on the campaign trail. But even in actually doing their jobs on Capitol Hill, we know that they have had difficulty passing a foreign aid package, even before the holiday recess. Now, it is tied up in potential border security spending. We know the Senate was trying to work out a deal. No matter what they work out it is probably going to run some issues on the House side of things as well.

So, what do we know about where some of those negotiations are going to pick up once we get back from the holiday here?

ROTH: Well, you know, right before we left the Senate was in session trying to work towards a deal. And important to note that whatever passes in the Senate also has to pass in the Republican-controlled House. So that is going to be an uphill battle. You are also looking at, there is a huge funding fight regarding government shutdown. That is totally separate.

You have all kinds of issues that need to be funded, in addition to foreign aid. So this is going to be a very busy, jam-packed couple of weeks in January. Where lawmakers have a lot to do and a lot of folks are worried that this aid is going to fall by the wayside when you think about all of the other important appropriation battles that are about to be taking place on Capitol Hill.

JIMENEZ: So, what you're saying is, if -- if people are off right now, they should get their seat while they can because when we get back in January it's going to be a lot?

ROTH: Yeah, absolutely.

JIMENEZ: I can't wait.

Samantha-Jo Roth of "The Washington Examiner", thank you so much.

ROTH: Thank you.

JIMENEZ: All right. Israel believes thousands of a former farm workers have fled in fear after many were killed or taken hostage by Hamas during the attacks on October 7th. CNN's Nic Robertson spoke with some of Israel's farmers who are now struggling to keep their farms going after the exodus.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice over): In a safe room on a dairy farm, a respectful recovery is underway, ten foreign workers murdered in here by Hamas, October 7th.

The farm's camera recorded others taken at gunpoint, later found executed. Twenty-three foreign workers on this farm, mostly Thai, some Nepalese, brutally killed.

Some of them taken through this door.

STEVIE MARCUS, DAIRY FARM MANAGER: Every time I come out, I have a I see the safe room where ten foreign workers were slaughtered and living quarters where another six or seven were killed. So it's always there.

ROBERTSON: Stevie Marcus runs the farm, Gaza, close across his fields. His surviving foreign workers all fled. And that's a problem.

MARCUS: Basically the foreign workers ran the farm.

ROBERTSON: He has 730 calves and cows, 350 producing milk. A shortage of skilled labor is limiting productivity.

MARCUS: We have four volunteer milkers.

ROBERTSON: But this is a technical business as well. You need skills.

MARCUS: Yes. So, we're doing the bare minimum we need to do, making sure they have food and clean water, milking them.

ROBERTSON: This is where the Thai workers were living. It's completely torched and destroyed. According to the Thai government, before October 7th, there were about 5,000 Thai workers, and what they describe as the danger zone around Gaza.

So, you got your weapon after the attack?


ROBERTSON: Why is that?

INBAR: Because we need to protect ourselves.

ROBERTSON: Yosi Inbar is a vegetable farmer. His farm close to Gaza too. Half his foreign workers fled, volunteers saving his crops.

INBAR: I can't stop smiling, you know, all the time, thank to them, and tell them how we're grateful about it, because without them, I just close the water and everything, you know --

ROBERTSON: Everything would die, you'd lose the whole crop without them.

And that could be bad for the whole of Israel. According to Israel's Farmers Federation, 40 percent of vegetables consumed in Israel are produced close to Gaza.


It's what motivated Avi Leibovich to use his day off from his tech job in Central Israel to help on Yosi's farm.

AVI LEIBOVICH, FARM VOLUNTEER: It seems like they need us to come and support them, to support us, because without them, probably the markets will be empty.

ROBERTSON: Danny Parizada is on a day off from his tech job too, came despite the dangers of rocket fire from Gaza.

DANNY PARIZADA, FARM VOLUNTEER: But here they don't have enough people are afraid to come next to the Gaza Strip, fear of bombs. You know, if something happens, we only have 15 seconds.

ROBERTSON: Yosi knows his farming on borrowed time. Eventually, the volunteers will go back to their regular routines.

But can you really make a business here in the future if there isn't additional security around?

INBAR: No, no, nobody will come back.

ROBERTSON: At Stevie's dairy farm, the same concerns.

MARCUS: At the end of the day, everyone is going to come and live here, and it's not safe, that's not just for the farm, it's for the population, the whole population.

ROBERTSON: What does being safe look like here?

MARCUS: Quiet.

ROBERTSON: And that seems a very, very long way off.

Nic Robertson, Alumim, Israel.


JIMENEZ: All right. Thank you, Nic Robertson, for that report.

Coming up, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene swatted on Christmas. More on what police thought they were walking into, next.



JIMENEZ: Quick hits across America now. Authorities are investigating a Christmas Day swatting call made on

GOP Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene's house in Rome, Georgia. Police say a man claimed he shot his girlfriend there, which, of course, turned out not to be true.

"The New York Times" reports pressure is mounting on Harvard's governing board, two members were told by current and ex-faculty members to do more to address the ongoing fallout consuming campus.

Now to weather. Of course, we can't go too long without weather because we've got a lot of it -- heavy snow, freezing rain, powerful winds, all likely across the plains today that could significantly impact some travel plans and create some dangerous whiteout conditions in the north.

That's why got meteorologist Derek Van Dam here to break it down for us.

So, Derek, what we're looking at?

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, we've got blizzard conditions for people traveling home from grandma and grandpa's house, right? This is not the type of weather that you want to get outside. And look at the snow blanketing the roadways here. You can to see how clear the winds are driving that snow. So it's going to reduce the visibility and, yes, we are meeting the criteria for blizzard conditions. I'll show you just that in one moment.

But look how expansive the storm system, is stretching from the southeast all the way to the Canadian border, even towards the Colorado Rockies. Zooming in a little closer, we have a full on ice storm taking place across northern Minnesota and into North Dakota, parts of South Dakota. This is really just snow, but, again, being blinded and driven by this very strong powerful wind out of the north.

We have roughly a half million people under with blizzard warnings right now. Ice storm warnings across the Dakotas. So it's really focused in on the planes at the moment. When we talk about reduced visibility because of the blowing snow, look at Cheyenne, Wyoming, about three quarter visibility. That is a combination of heavy snow and also the winds gusting over 35 to 45 miles per hour, reducing that visibility for a sustained amount of time. That needs to blizzard criteria.

Winds will not relax for that part of the eastern plains until Wednesday evening when the system finally says goodbye to the central parts of the country. But we're still feeling its impacts as we head into the east coast for the next couple of days. In fact, we have rainfall that is causing flash flood concerns over the Appalachian mountains. We have flash flood watches in place across western North Carolina. So, take care, a couple of extra inches on top of what is already fallen.

And then look as we head into the late Wednesday and Thursday. We're going to focus our attention across the I-95 corridor, New York City, Boston, all the way to the nation's capital. That is where we have a marginal risk of flash flooding and you can see just how that will evolve over the next couple of hours as the system combined with low pressure just off the coastline.

So, heading back to your holiday plans or perhaps getting ready for the New Year's weekend we will certainly be impacted by rain along the east coast. The good news is, Omar, we'll keep that ice and blowing snow away from the major East Coast cities.

JIMENEZ: I was going to say, though, I've been on some of those Nebraska South Dakota roads when it's starting to snow in white out conditions, it is not fun.

VAN DAM: You don't want to be driving in that, no.

JIMENEZ: Yeah. No, thank you.

Derek Van Dam, thank you so much.

VAN DAM: All right, Omar.

JIMENEZ: All right. Coming up next, Secretary of State Blinken -- Antony Blinken, is preparing to meet with Mexico's president this week to discuss what is becoming an Achilles heel for the White House, the migrant crisis at the border. What this means for President Biden.

And, chief Putin critic Alexey Navalny is back on the radar after a nearly two-week disappearance. The State Department's latest concerns, that's next.