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The Situation Room

Crisis in Israel

Aired July 10, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Brink of War."

Breaking news from here in the Middle East. Rockets from Gaza do new damage in Israel, as Hamas militants bombard the country and strain its air defense system. Israeli tanks and troops are now poised for action. A top Palestinian official says he believes a ground invasion into Gaza could happen in the coming hours.

The death toll in Gaza is rising, along with the tension and the anger, as this conflict keeps escalating and children are caught in the line of fire.

We want to welcome or viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer live in Jerusalem. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gaza -- guys, get out of the sky. We need to go under cover. Cover, here, here, get under, get under, quick.


BLITZER: Israelis are on alert for some rocket fire from Gaza at any moment. It's 1:00 a.m. Friday here in Jerusalem. It's been a day of damaging new attacks, including this one in Ashdod near the Gaza border that reportedly hit a car igniting it in flames.

Israel is responding with stepped-up air assaults on Gaza. There are now growing fears that an Israeli ground invasion could happen soon. I personally saw a column of Israeli tanks apparently heading for Gaza earlier today.

Our correspondents are standing by. They're here in the region. They're back in Washington covering the breaking story.

First, more of the latest developments and what I have seen since landing here.


BLITZER (voice-over): This is daily life here in Israel right now, the sirens and the fear, civilians running for cover from incoming rocket fire, several rockets getting through Israel's Iron Dome defense system, landing and exploding near Beersheba, one of the largest Israeli cities, not that far from Gaza.

These are some of the first images I saw when I arrived in Israel, a sign pointing to a bomb shelter, and Patriot defense missiles at the ready. This was the view from right here in CNN's bureau, a smoke trail over the city after four rockets streaked through the sky.

Israel is responding by intensifying its airstrikes on Gaza, pounding more than 700 targets since the offensive began on Monday. Israeli Navy boats are offshore to protect against another brazen assault from the sea by armed militants, tanks and troops on the border ready to roll into Gaza at any time when and if they get the order.

Palestinians in the line of fire. They're burying more of their dead. Officials in Gaza say dozens have been killed in the Israeli airstrikes, including children. This funeral was for a little girl.

This phase of the conflict began with the deaths of young people, three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered, the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, and the brutal beating of his American cousin by police, cause on video. Now an undercover Israeli police officer seen on that video has been suspended for 15 days.

Israeli authorities say they're considering criminal charges against him.


BLITZER: Let's go to Gaza City right now.

Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is on the scene for us.

Ben, you rode around Gaza today. Tell our viewers what you saw.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What we saw really is an area of this part of the world which has really been battered and terrified by what's happening.

We have seen many people killed. Now, our latest statistics are 90 people dead since this blowup began, and I think there was just a blowup right behind me, more than 500 wounded. People sort of fatalistically trying to deal with what's happening, keeping in mind that unlike Israel there is no anti-missile defense, there are no bomb shelters, safe rooms, air raid sirens.

So they are trying to deal with it as best they can, but we went to the far south, the far north, and what we saw is very few people in the street, and those who are out are going about their business as quickly as possible.

Now, up in the northern part of Gaza, we were in Beit Hanoun, where apparently Israeli authorities have informed local inhabitants that they should leave the area. That's a area which in the past has seen repeated Israeli incursions. There are about 100,000 people there. The problem is they have nowhere to go. There's no room in Gaza City, and you cannot leave Gaza.

We were in the far south at the Egyptian border, where they're only letting out those who have been injured in the recent airstrikes, and those with Egyptian or foreign passports. If you're from Gaza, you're stuck here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The rockets, they are clearly continuing from Gaza into Israel. Israeli airstrikes are continuing, and they could be followed by a direct Israeli ground invasion. We're bracing for that. We will see what happens. Ben, stand by.

I'm reporting live from Jerusalem right now, but let's go to CNN's Diana Magnay. She's reporting live from the Israeli city of Ashkelon. That's right near the Gaza border.

Diana, what are you seeing on the area over there, rockets and missiles being launched? I take it folks there are pretty frightened.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Folks are pretty frightened, but the streets are less busy than they normally would be, but according to my producer, who spent a lot of time here during the last separation, the end of 2012, you know, it's still bustling.

Maybe that's because it's still early days in this operation. We were down overlooking open countryside towards the border though earlier, pretty much all day, Wolf, and there you had this very surreal display of these two opposing sides' airpower, the rockets streaming out of Gaza. Then there would be an intercept from the Iron Dome missile system, which would be like a ball of cotton wool in the sky, and then these huge blasts of black smoke as the air force, Israeli air forces struck targets in Gaza.

People would come from the neighboring town of Sderot and they would watch with us and on the hilltops overseeing this very surreal image, Rather a macabre thing to be watching, in a way, especially as the terrible situation on the ground in Gaza you just can't feel as you're watching this. We were talking to a hairdresser a little earlier. He said, you know, I cut all the soldiers who work for Iron Dome's hair for free, because I feel that they keep us safe.

And I think that people here are very much feel confident that Iron Dome has their back. And that has certainly proven to be the case so far, Wolf. There's been no casualties on this side, despite the hundreds of rockets that have rained down over Israel. Only 80 of them have been intercepted. The rest have rained down pretty ineffectually.

And people here, although they are scared, they feel fairly confident that they would have to be extremely unlucky if they were to be hit. And of course it's a different case for civilians in Gaza -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, Iron Dome, that anti-missile defense system that Israel created with a lot of U.S. funding in the process.

Diana, thanks very much. Still ahead, our live report from Jerusalem. Could an Israeli

ground invasion of Gaza be only hours away? I will ask the top spokesman for the Israeli military about the timing. He's standing by to join us live here in Jerusalem. And the damage and the fears in Gaza. How will Palestinians respond if Israeli troops move in? The Palestinian representative to the United States is standing by live.


BLITZER: We're reporting live from Jerusalem tonight.

We have just learned new details of President Obama's phone call with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, just a little while ago. The White House now says the president expressed concerned about the risk of further escalation and emphasized the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm.

The United States, he says, remains to prepared to facilitate -- to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 cease-fire agreement.

Joining us here in Jerusalem right now, the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.

It sounds like the president ask the prime minister to accept some sort of cease-fire. Is that what you are hearing?

PETER LERNER, SPOKESMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: Well, the military is preparing itself for further escalation.

Our job at this time is to continue combating Hamas and taking the seriousness that is required to stop the rockets from falling on places like here in Jerusalem. And of course we will carry out the mission that the government puts on our shoulders, and we will do that to our best capability.

BLITZER: But, as of right now, the military -- and you're a spokesman for the IDF -- the military is not preparing for a cease- fire, but preparing to continue the operation against Hamas, whether through the air and maybe on the ground?

LERNER: Indeed, rockets are still coming through. Even as we speak, there are different places in the country which are under fire. it's an unbearable situation, a situation where we have to operate and we have to continue this operation until some sort of arrangement is met and our military goals are met as well.

BLITZER: There's a report by "Haaretz," the Israeli newspaper, now suggesting that Eilat, the southern city of Eilat beachfront has been evacuated due to a suspected incursion by Hamas.

Is that true?

LERNER: There was no incursion. As I was just coming in, I got an update of a report. It seems

that there was some sort of helium balloon on the Egyptian side of the border. There are tensions, so escalation of preparedness and people were just alert. I think this is a situation...

BLITZER: So that was a false alarm basically?

LERNER: False alarm.

BLITZER: False alarm in Eilat, so everybody can go back to their hotels and get a good night's sleep.


LERNER: Some poor kid is extremely is sad that he's lost his helium balloon.

BLITZER: Out of the 40,000 Israeli troops, the reservists who have potential been called up for active duty, how many have actually been told report to your units?

LERNER: In the last hours, we have reached around 30,000.

BLITZER: Thirty thousand have actually left their jobs, left their families, reported to their bases, is that what you're saying?

LERNER: That's right. They left their families and they are now taking up their positions. And we are utilizing that force to enable us to create a substantial force around Gaza, that, if it's required, we will be able to mobilize as soon as possible in a professional manner.

BLITZER: The last time Israel sent ground troops into Gaza, I was here. This is in November of 2012. You remember that incursion well. At that point you activated about 30,000 reservists as well, is that right?

LERNER: In 2012, we didn't have people on the ground. That would probably be in 2009.

BLITZER: In 2009. How many did you activate in 2009? And how many did you activate in 2012?

LERNER: It was about the same type of figures.

In 2012, we had around 70,000 people called up, so it was quite a substantial number then, and we -- it's managed -- it's manageable. I think what's important about our presence on the ground is Hamas, they have two main components of terrorism which are really concerning to us.

Obviously, the rockets, which we have seen now and everybody, you know, having to keep close to shelters throughout the country of three million people under potential fire, but there's another concern that we have there, tunnels that they want to use to infiltrate the state of Israel. These tunnels, they want to carry out mass murders, they want to carry out hostage scenarios.

BLITZER: And these tunnels from Gaza into Israel?

LERNER: From Gaza into the south of Israel.

They want to actually be able to perhaps even abduct more people. The forces that are physically there now, there job is defensive to prevent that from happening.

BLITZER: But, Colonel, you know a lot of innocent Palestinians, including women, children, elderly are being killed?

LERNER: The situation is grave indeed.

I would say primarily the IDF uses weapons to safeguard its civilians. Hamas uses its civilians to safeguard their weapons. It's a grave situation. We are operating in a professional way. I would also add, the IDF is the only military that calls up its enemies and tells them, please evacuate the premises of your command-and-control office, leave the room, we are intending to attack.

We then send a non-explosive projectile, knock the roof and make sure they leave. Only after we have visual confirmation that they have left, only then do we carry out the strike. We go to great extent to try and minimize the civilian casualties. The other side, what do they do? They encourage the population to go on the roofs and then they start shooting the rockets from the alleyways of the cities, of the towns.

Last night, they launched a rocket adjacent to an ambulance parking lot. This is, you know, internationally recognized safe symbols, and they launched them at our civilians.

BLITZER: Colonel Lerner, thanks very much for coming in. We will check back with you tomorrow. Thanks very much.

LERNER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Peter Lerner, spokesman for the IDF.

Let's get the other point of view right now. The Palestinian representative to the United States, Ambassador Maen Areikat, is joining us on the phone.

Maen, thanks very much for joining us.

I'm hearing from all sorts of sources that an Israeli ground invasion appears to be imminent. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, seems to be convinced of that. What are you hearing?

MAEN AREIKAT, PALESTINIAN REPRESENTATIVE TO UNITED STATES: Well, I think that would be a major mistake for the Israelis to undertake.

You know, this is a deja vu. We have seen this before. We have seen it in 2008, 2009. We have seen it in 2012. We are seeing it now. We will see it again in two years unless Israel, the government and the people are also entitled -- the Israeli people are also entitled to ask their government, for how long is this going to go on between and the Palestinians?

The root cause for everything is Israel's military occupation. We need to resolve the conflict once and for all and defuse all the elements that will bring us back to this stage once again in the next two years, in the next three years.

I listened to the spokesperson. You know what? I cannot believe that a spokesperson of the Israeli military says that we send projectiles to destroy the roof of the house before we actually bomb the house. These are roofs built of cement, not of wood, like in the United States. If they destroy them and fall over the heads of the residents, they can kill them.

Recently, they have stopped calling these homes to notify them of any imminent strike. So you listen to them and you look at the rising death toll, 89 people so far, 601 -- dead, and then we continue to call it self-defense?

Palestinians are being killed by the dozens, and Israel still calls this self-defense. I cannot understand that.

BLITZER: Why is Hamas continuing to launch rockets and missiles into Israel?

AREIKAT: Well, there has to be a solution in which both sides will stop attacking each other.

Everybody thinks that this only started three days ago. The kidnapping of the three teenager settlers on June 4, which Israel accused Hamas of perpetrating, and it still yet has to produce the proof for that.

It's part of the launch campaign by the Israeli military in the West Bank. I was in Ramallah during that period. I have seen Israeli soldiers entering cities, including Ramallah, shot and killed a resident one evening there. And they arrested 650 activists from Hamas, raided and closed and destroyed organizations belonging to Hamas.

They launched an attack on Hamas before they even could prove that the perpetrators received instructions from Hamas to kidnap the three teenage settlers. It all started after the 12th of June. It did not start in the last four days. Hamas did not fire any missiles on Israel last week.

There were some smaller factions in the Gaza Strip who used that to retaliate for what Israel was doing in the West Bank. They have been good about the cease-fire for the last two years. And now Israel is bombarding the Gaza Strip and preparing for a land invasion, making the same mistake all over again. I don't think that there is a military solution to this problem.

BLITZER: Let's hope that there can be a cease-fire and the deaths can be ended. Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us. We will, of course,

continue to stay in touch with you.


AREIKAT: Thank you. Stay safe.


BLITZER: Maen Areikat is the PLO ambassador, representative to the United States.

Thank you very much, Maen, for that.

Coming up, we're going to continue to watch the breaking news. I'm live here in Jerusalem. We will continue our special report. We will have more on the explosive situation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, inside Israel, the bloodshed that ignited old tensions and hatred. We will be right back.


BLITZER: We're back live here in Jerusalem with our special report, "Brink of War."

The Israeli military offensive in Gaza could turn to an actual ground invasion very, very soon. Hamas militants show no sign of pulling back on their rocket and missile attacks into Israel. Now the United States says it's prepared to facilitate a cease-fire, but the tensions, the history are deep and very, very dangerous.

Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, has more.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Israel and Hamas yet again in open warfare, ignited not just by the violence of the last few weeks.

Tensions were already raw at the end of April, Israelis and Palestinians blaming each other for the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks, driving Palestinian President Abbas into a unity government with Hamas. Then the first spark, June 12, three Israeli teens kidnapped in the West Bank. Israel pointed the finger at Hamas.

An Israeli manhunt for suspects left two Palestinians dead. On June 30, the Israeli teens were found dead.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Hamas is responsible. Hamas will pay. Hamas will continue to pay.

LABOTT: Though Hamas denied in the role in the killings, Israelis arrested hundreds of Palestinians, and launched airstrikes in Gaza. Days later, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was burned alive, an apparent victim of revenge for the dead Israeli teens. SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI PRESIDENT: That Jewish mothers that lost

their children called up Arab mothers that lost their children and vice versa, and there was a hidden empathy and understanding on both sides.

LABOTT: Then a video showing his American cousin brutally beaten by Israeli police.

SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR (through translator): The Israeli government today is responsible for all that happens.

LABOTT: Riots and clashes rocked the West Bank and Jerusalem. Hamas rockets flying into Israel were met by more Israeli airstrikes.

NETANYAHU (through translator): We are in the middle a battle.

LABOTT: But how does the battle end?

LISA GOLDMAN, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: And when there's lots of destruction and a few -- and lots of dead people, at some point everyone will just lift up their hands and cry uncle. And someone will broker a cease-fire. The question right now is who.

LABOTT: Brokers to end the cycle of violence are in short supply.


LABOTT: And former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood played a key role in negotiating the 2012 cease- fire, but the current president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, treats Hamas like a terrorist organization, Wolf, and U.S. credibility with the parties also very low this week.

A top White House official, as you mentioned earlier, speaking in Israel slammed the Israeli occupation on the West Bank as wrong, calling it a recipe for continued incitement and instability, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we know that the new president of Egypt, General al-Sisi, he believes the Hamas organization very closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood that he's put under arrest, basically, so don't expect a lot of behind-the-scenes efforts on the part of the Egyptians to achieve some sort of cease- fire. They wouldn't mind if Hamas is weakened dramatically at this point.

I will be heading down to the border tomorrow to see up close what is going on, as I continue our special coverage. It's been a very, very long day here in Jerusalem. Not that long ago, there were sirens going off right behind us here in Jerusalem, and a lot of folks are scared, not only here, but in Tel Aviv, elsewhere, and certainly what is going on in Gaza is terrifying as well.

Much more of our special report coming up tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead, tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

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That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting live from Jerusalem.