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Massive Blast Hits Gaza Refugee Camp For 2nd Day In A Row; Rafah Border Opens For First Time To Allow Some Foreign Nationals, Injured Palestinians Out Of Gaza; Biden Facing Tough Questions Over Israel's Strikes On Civilians; Some Progressives Split With Biden Over Support For Israel. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 01, 2023 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Today on Inside Politics, two major breaking stories out of the middle east. Another massive blast at a refugee camp in Gaza. We're getting new video showing the catastrophic damage as people dig through the rubble searching for bodies. We do not know yet who is responsible. Isn't the same camp that Israeli forces struck yesterday.

We're also covering a huge breakthrough. Civilians are now leaving Gaza for the first time since Hamas attacked Israel. Hundreds of foreign nationals and injured Palestinians are waiting to move through the crucial Rafah border crossing. U.S. officials believe more than 5000 could ultimately be allowed to leave as part of a deal brokered by Qatar.

We have CNN reporters across the region, covering the latest on all of these stories. Melissa Bell is in Cairo. We start with Jeremy Diamond who is near the Gaza border in Ashkelon. Jeremy, what do we know about this second blast today?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dana, for the second day in a row, a massive blast appears to have hit the Jabalia refugee camp inside Gaza. This is the largest refugee camp in Gaza, historically linked to refugees who fled the 1948 war and were displaced as a result of that war.

This blast as of now, we understand there is catastrophic damage at this site. It happens in the Fallujah neighborhood of the Jabalia refugee camp. And the images of the destruction are very similar to the images that we saw yesterday in the Jabalia refugee camp. In that strike yesterday, we believe based on eyewitness accounts and doctors at a nearby hospital that hundreds of individuals were injured and killed in that strike.

As of now the Israeli military has not confirmed whether or not they were responsible for this latest blast. But of course, it does happen as the death toll inside of Gaza, Dana, is rising, continuing to rise with more than 8700 people, having been killed thus far in these three plus weeks of war inside the Gaza Strip. Far too many of them, Dana, as you know, include them -- include women and children. BASH: And Jeremy more broadly, what is the IDF saying about just how far they are pushing into Gaza as part of this military incursion that they're involved in?

DIAMOND: Well, we just heard from a brigadier general, one of the commanders in the IDF who says that they are, "at the gates of Gaza city saying we are deep in the strip at the gates of Gaza city." This as we have started to see some public accounts of how far troops are moving inside the Gaza Strip. They have made it several miles at least, on the northwestern part of Gaza along the coastline.

We also know that they're making another axis of advanced on the northeastern quarter of Gaza. And also, true, tanks have been spotted at the southern end of Gaza city along the main road at a main junction there. And so, it's very clear that IDF troops are moving in towards Gaza city, which is a Hamas stronghold.

Today, Dana, we also saw artillery positions, we went to several artillery positions along the border with Gaza. And what we could see is that several of the artillery positions that were further back, those who have been vacated by troops instead, it appears that some of these artillery positions are moving closer to the Gaza Strip to provide a support, artillery support to those troops who are inside.

We know that in this war, perhaps more than any other conflict involving Israel and Hamas, Israeli troops are really making a pretty heavy use of close air support and also calling in artillery fire on specific Hamas targets. They identify these targets. They call in that air support. And then whether it is air support or fighter jets or Apache helicopters then striking those targets. Dana?

BASH: Jeremy, thank you so much for that reporting. Now to the other big story out of Gaza today. For the first time since Hamas attacked inside Israel more than four weeks ago, the border with Egypt and Gaza has opened to let a small number of foreign nationals and injured Palestinians out. CNN's Melissa Bell is covering all of these developments from nearby Cairo. So, Melissa, first is who has been able to leave?


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A very small number of very lucky civilians of this age, Dana, we're talking about a couple of hundred. We don't have the exact figure, earlier it was just over 110. But we understand that that's going up foreign or dual nationals. We don't have their nationalities. But these are some of the first civilians to be allowed out.

What's been remarkable about the Rafah crossing and we spent much of the day there. Yesterday is how little has gotten through, either aid getting in, or indeed anyone coming out. Until now, we've really only seen a handful of hostages released through this crossing so closed, had it remained because of the huge complication of the many parties that need to be involved in anyone getting through.

And that is, of course, Israel, Hamas, Egypt, at this mediation through Qatar and in coordination with the United States, really a remarkable breakthrough the way and we're ready to go window this morning. That will allow all of the foreign and dual nationals that are trapped inside to make their way through the crossing are really remarkable development, of course, huge relief for the families who are waiting for news of their loved ones.

There is also as part of the deal, the possibility for the most severely wounded Palestinians to get out, to get emergency medical treatment. 81 are expected to make their way to the crossing day. They're being taken to a field hospital. Egyptians have setup nearby. But again, we are talking about the lucky few. What we've also been hearing from the crossing today is that a further 28 trucks have gone in, Dana, that is a tiny proportion of what is needed inside.

So, the people that you're seeing coming through the Rafah crossing today, and that you're going to continue seeing over the coming days, including those American nationals are people that have been hoping, waiting to get through now since this conflict began. They'd been told early on to head south and that they would get through. They're finally getting through, but it has been a long and difficult wait, Dana?

BASH: We sure has, but it is good news. And we will continue to monitor that. Thank you for that report, Melissa. I want to bring in Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. Lieutenant General Hertling is a former Commanding General for Europe and the Seventh Army. Nice to see you again. I appreciate you coming on. Can we just start where we ended with Melissa and talk about the fact that you do have foreign nationals leaving the Palestinian territory, leaving Gaza, I should say. And how long it has taken for this to happen?

LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING, FORMER COMMANDING GENERAL EUROPE AND SEVENTH ARMY: Yes. I believe, Dana, that this is a strategic move by Hamas. They are releasing international citizens as more condemnation comes against Israel by the world for some of the strikes. So, they see it appropriate to garner more support for what they're doing and to heat more damage on the Israelis for continuous bombing and the kinds of attack.

So, the combination of releasing international citizens from Gaza, and also the potential for releasing international hostages, non-Israeli hostages. I think it's part of the strategic plan by Hamas.

BASH: And General, back to what we started with in this program. Yesterday, there was a bombing in Jabalia that is a bombing that Israel says that they were responsible for in order to kill Hamas terrorists. There was another blast that near that region today. We do not know who is responsible for that yet. We want to underscore that at this point. But from your vast military experience and perspective, can you assess this?

HERTLING: Yes. A little bit, Dana, and I'm not a crater analyst. But the first time I saw the pictures of yesterday's bombings and what are reported as today's bombing, it's a singular bomb, a precision device with a very large explosive. And because the crater is so big, it tells me that this is a hardened casing. The air force, the Israeli Air Force can deliver what they call BLU bombs, that have a hardened casing and an extreme penetrator to get underground before it explodes.

So, it doesn't explode on the surface, like we've seen already, with some bombs hitting buildings, and then the buildings crashing down. These bombs were meant to go deep. And what you see not only around the crater, but you see some collapsed buildings. And that's not just architectural problems, that's a result of collapsing from the foundation.

So, it tells me number one, that evidently Israel had some very good targets in some underground tunnels there. They haven't given any information for this. And then to have a second strike when the world is beginning to condemn them, tells me that they have some pretty good intelligence of the movement of the terrorists that are underground. So, I can understand why the world is upset there, humanitarian crisis here, but also, I can understand why these are being targeted in the way they are.


BASH: Yes. And General Hertling, I'm sure you can understand as well that we are being very careful about who was responsible for the second strike today until we know for sure. We know, we believe that it happened and see that it happened with their own eyes. We don't know who is responsible for that.

But going back to one of the things you said, let's just focus on what happened yesterday, because we have more information about that, about sort of the crater here and about the tunnels. And what it tells you that that this blast was so big and so deep. What it tells you about how deep these tunnels likely are, where Hamas was potentially, where the leadership was located, where some of their, maybe some of their headquarters are even located.

HERTLING: Yes. It isn't just the kinds of tunnels we've shown on CNN, Dana, where you see the single file. They also have meeting rooms under there. The Israeli intelligence have had this kind of information in 2014. They went into some of these tunnels in 2021. The last time Israel went into Gaza, and they were amazed at how you basically had an underground city.

So, there are the passageway, there also rooms. Places where Hamas can store ammunitions that have been built up. And they are about from all indicators between 100 to 150 feet underground. So, you have to have a pretty large penetrator to get there. And I think, after three or four weeks, based on what they learned in 2014, 2021, and now today with intelligence gathering, Israel knows that that these tunnels are extensive.

They're moving fighters around under the cities, and they are in areas like this neighborhood, and also underneath hospitals that have not just human beings have shield, protective facilities as shields, hospitals, schools, neighborhoods. So, all this is part of the way Hamas fights using that victim doctrine that I've mentioned before. BASH: Yes. It's so manipulative, and so crass. And I mean, I kind of think of another word to describe the notion of doing that to your own people, evil, evil, evils, people will do it. General, thank you so much for your expertise. I appreciate it.

HERTLING: Thanks, Dana.

BASH: And with the death toll in Gaza continuing to rise, President Biden and his top national security officials are increasingly facing tough questions about Israel's commitment to minimizing civilian casualties. CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is live at the White House for more.

Priscilla, what are you hearing from your sources at the White House about trying to balance the commitment to Israel, the commitment to Israel's democracy and right to exist, versus the criticism that the president is hearing from within his own party in particular, about some of the tactics that Israel is using to retaliate against the terror attack in their country?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Dana, it's certainly a delicate balance. And what the last 24 hours have shown is that the Biden administration is walking a tightrope in its support for Israel, because they are both maintaining that Israel is trying to contain casualties, while also grappling with the images of destruction coming out of Gaza, which is fueling public outrage.

Now, these casualties weigh heavy here at the White House, among officials as they ratchet up pressure on Israel to make sure that they are protecting innocent civilians in their fight against Hamas. So, these concerns go all the way up to President Biden, who was also discussed this with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even this weekend. In their call, again, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself, but that they also need to make sure that they are protecting innocent civilians at all costs.

Now, aides to the president believe that these warnings are best stress and are most effective in those private conversations that they have with their Israeli counterparts. But the reality here for the White House is that they are facing this public outrage over the destruction in Gaza, the dire humanitarian crisis there, and that all of this risks are eroding international support for Israel at a time where they need it. And so, all of that is what the president is keenly aware of, and White House officials are monitoring as this continues to unfold. Dana?

BASH: And Priscilla, real quick, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is going to go back to the region this week.

ALVAREZ: That's right. This is his third trip to Israel. According to a spokesperson, he will be meeting with members of the Israeli government. But this will be the first visit after that ground invasion, or the expanded ground invasion that we saw in the last several days, and also after this airstrike on that refugee camp. So, get another important meeting for the secretary there in Israel.


BASH: Priscilla, thank you so much. Appreciate your reporting. Joining me now for more reporting is CNN's Kasie Hunt, PBS's Laura Barron- Lopez, and CNN's Natasha Bertrand. Thank you all for being here. I want to start with the president, and the fact that understandably right after the unbelievable attack that killed in a most brutal of ways more than 1400 people inside Israel. He was incredibly clear about what Israel could and should do, which is whatever they feel that they need to do. And his rhetoric has changed just a bit in recent times. I want our viewers to listen to some of the differences.


JOE BIDEN, 46TH U.S. PRESIDENT: Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop, let there be no doubt. The United States has Israel's back. We will make sure the Jewish and Democratic state of Israel can defend itself today, tomorrow, as we always have.

If you have an opportunity to alleviate the pain, you should do it, period. And if you don't, you're going to lose credibility worldwide. We also have to remember that Hamas does not represent. Let me say it again, Hamas does not represent the vast majority of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip or anywhere else.


BASH: His position has not changed. But the incoming that he has taken has stepped up particularly from within his own party, Kasie?

KASIE HUNT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It has. I mean, and I think that, look, when I was listening to you kind of describe what happened, it was a massacre, right that Hamas committed against Jewish people indiscriminately against civilians. And the president, the administration, and I think the world has been clear in saying, at least the western world has been clear in saying, there's a difference between people who indiscriminately kill civilians on purpose because they're trying to so terror.

And people who are trying to achieve a military objective with military targets that results in civilian casualties. However, it is very clear that the damage in Gaza is wearing on the psyche of the world. It is horrifying to see bodies of children pulled from the rubble, it just is no matter, you know, who you are or where you come from.

And it does seem to me that there are a couple of things. I mean, there's geopolitical pressure on the president, on the United States and on Israel, to do a little bit more to try and minimize these casualties. But as you point out, there is increasing -- that there's an increasing challenge from President Biden's left and he comes out of an old school. Democratic Party has a longstanding relationship with Bibi Netanyahu that goes back years, people forget, Bibi went to school here, et cetera.

BASH: Yes. You're exactly right. One thing I would point out, is that not everybody in the western world, said it was OK to criticize these terrorists who went into Israel, including some Democratic members of Congress. There was a resolution that passed overwhelmingly last week, standing with Israel, but also criticizing the notion of terrorism about, you know, beheading babies.

And there were a number of Democrats who either voted no or voted present, and you see them on the screen there. And they might be a sort of a small minority within the Democratic Party, but they represent a very vocal group of progressives out in the world and America right now.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: And I think that some of those Democrats would say that the reason that they voted no, in part was because of their very strong criticisms of the Israeli government, not because they don't think that it was a massacre, which some of those Democrats have said that it was a massacre that occurred and condemn the action of Hamas.

Because they are very strongly against the actions of Netanyahu and what they see as his even degradation of Israel's democracy, and then his forceful attack now on Gazans and on civilians. But you're right, Dana, which is at the president has may not have shifted his position. But he has shifted his rhetoric. And he has started to say more and more, and so have his national security advisors.

And so, his Secretary Blinken, all of them across the board have started to say, more and more that they think that there could be -- it could be a time for a pause in the fighting. They will not call for a ceasefire at all at this point, but that they think that there should be a pause. John Kirby at the NSC, just said that yesterday, because they are very aware of the fact that that scene these dead civilians in Gaza is something that that they don't want to see and that they don't want to be.

BASH: Natasha, what are you hearing from your sources like state department?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: I mean, this is exactly what the Biden administration was worried about in terms of the response because I mean, that is why they had been advising Israel to do a more limited ground operation, limited airstrikes basically make this proportional because of the risk that the Hamas terror attack would be completely overshadowed by Israel's response and that would in turn a road, kind of international support for the Israelis.


And so, the message from United States to them consistently since this attack happened has been we support you, we support everything that you feel you need to do to eliminate Hamas. But now that they see this operation, kind of having taken on a life of its own, in terms of the administration, really not having a ton of influence at this point over what the Israelis do.

Yes, they took some of their military advice in terms of the airstrikes, in terms of the ground incursion. But as we have seen, I mean, there hasn't been a humanitarian pause. There haven't been some of these things that the administration has been asking them to do. And so, that right now is the focus is saying, even if they're not kind of backing it up with actions threatening to withdraw support, for example, from Israel, they're still advising them to be careful.

BASH: Guys, standby. Thank you so much. On this conversation, we're going to have much more coming up, especially on the breaking news. A massive blast hit the largest refugee camp in Gaza for the second day in a row. I'm going to talk to an IDF spokesperson, Major Doron Spielman, next.



(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BASH: Welcome back to Inside Politics. There is a lot of news this morning out of the Middle East. For the first time since the war began more than a month ago, the border between Gaza and Egypt has opened up to allow a small number of foreign nationals and injured Palestinians to get out.

And also, a massive blast hit Gaza's biggest refugee camp for the second day in a row. The Israeli Defense Forces say yesterday's strike on the camp targeted a top Hamas commander who was hiding among civilians.

Joining me now is IDF's spokesperson Major Doron Spielman. Thank you so much for joining me. First question is about this blast today. CNN is reporting that it was a second blast that hit the Jabalia refugee camp. Is the IDF responsible for this blast?

MAJOR DORON SPIELMAN, SPOKESPERSON, IDF: Thank you for having me, Dana.

I would say that all of our operations right now in Gaza, ultimately, the responsibility lies at the feet of Hamas. We cannot ignore that behind all of this situation, especially Jabalia refugee camp, where Hamas is embedded, literally embedded, as we said before we went into Gaza, get ready because Hamas is embedded within the civilian population.

There are terrorists that are currently firing rockets at Israel. I think it is fair to say that all of the responsibility is at Hamas's feet.



BASH: We haven't forgotten what started this. And it was a terror attack inside Israel. My question is about this particular blast today, which is, did the IDF drop the bomb or shoot the missile or whatever it was that caused this blast?

SPIELMAN: I don't have specifics, Dana, on this exact incident, it will probably be coming out in the coming hours. What I can tell you is that if it did happen, and of course, we will come forward and say, if it did happen, it is because there are terrorists that are embedded there. And we have to understand the situation. The IDF right now is fighting in face-to-face combat with Hamas terrorists inside Jabalia.

They're running into tunnels, underneath medical clinics, inside universities, all of a sudden you see, want the terrorists that are going into schools, they don't come out again, because there's a terror network underneath. And what we saw yesterday, when we eliminated one of their top terrorists, is that there was a second implosion of an entire tunnel network.

And this is the same network that we see Hamas taking selfies of themselves, running on their way to carry out terrorist attacks in Israel. They purposely put it there. And therefore, even if we did hit this site, ultimately speaking, the collateral damage, and this is very clear, is on Hamas's shoulders.

BASH: Going back to yesterday's strike, which you say was the IDF. Can you provide proof that your strike was successful in killing the senior Hamas leader that you said Israel targeted?

SPIELMAN: All of our information, all of our intelligence information, points to the fact that, yes, that terrorist was eliminated, along with around 50 other terrorists that were all holed up in that exact same area. We have to understand that this was the planning terrorist segment that actually armed and trained and sent, the morning of October 7, the terrorists who came into Israel and brutally murdered those people. All of our intelligence pointed to them being there, and from what we understand, they were eliminated.

BASH: Is there a way that you can show that to the world, that proof?

SPIELMAN: Eventually, it will become clear if that (Inaudible) does not resurface and things happen under the ground. We eliminated the terrorists, we have confirmation. But you never know until time goes by. We will say yes. And we'll see as time goes by if he was eliminated, certainly, we evaluated that his death, the death of 50 other terrorists' commanders warranted that strike.

We have to understand, again, that while we make decisions at all points in time, the complications of the IDF is to ask yourself, what is the amount of casualties that we are willing to endure? And this is a horrible thing to even have to think of, in order to kill the same terrorists that not only massacred our civilians, but that are planning to massacre them again. These things do not operate in the -- -


BASH: You know, that was a question I was going to ask you, which is, can you take us through the process of weighing that, which is choosing to go forward with an attack that you say was successful in killing Hamas leaders, knowing that there would be steep civilian deaths? How does that process work?

SPIELMAN: Like most normal, rational Western countries of the world, putting Hamas terror organization aside, which has no assessment, the opposite assessment, you look at a military target and you vet, you evaluate, is this a credible military threat?

In this case, you're looking at a person who is the leader of the entire area of the Gaza Strip. He's the battalion leader that sent in the forces into Israel to massacre.