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The Situation Room

Now, Israeli Evacuation Order In Gaza, Hamas Tells People To Stay; Israeli Troops Search For Hostage During Raids In Gaza; House GOP Taps Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) For Speaker Amid Division, Uncertainty; Sources: U.S. Intelligence Warned Of The Potential For Gaza Clash Days Before Hamas Attacked Israel; Israel Orders Northern Gaza Evacuations, Hamas Tells People To Stay. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 13, 2023 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Manu Raju, thanks so much.

Join me this Sunday for State of the Union. I will speak with the White House's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, Israel's Ambassador to the United Sates, Michael Herzog, Republican and Presidential Candidate, former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, plus former Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney in her first interview in a year, as well as Republican Senator from Florida and the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Marco Rubio. That's this Sunday at 9:00 A.M. and noon Eastern, only here on CNN.

Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I will see you Sunday morning.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, rising fear in Gaza as bombs fall and Israel tells 1.1 million people in the north to leave. Hamas telling Palestinians to stay put, while U.N. officials call the evacuation impossible and warn of, quote, devastating humanitarian consequences.

As more of Gaza is reduced to rubble, the Israeli military reveals it has been conducting local raids there and searching for hostages held by Hamas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel's nearly week- long response to the Hamas terror is just the beginning, as the region braces for a potential ground invasion.

Tonight, we are also learning more about the lead-up to the war, sources now telling CNN that U.S. intelligence warned of the potential for a conflict in Gaza in the days before Israel was attacked.

We are also following breaking news on the struggle to elect a new speaker of the paralyzed U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans nominating hardliner Jim Jordan, after their initial choice, Steve Scalise, dropped out. Jordan's prospects in a full House vote are very uncertain this hour.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM. There is certainly a lot happening in the Israeli-Hamas war tonight, with the crisis in Gaza clearly escalating and Israel possibly on the brink of a major ground invasion.

Our team is covering all the breaking news in the region as well as here in the United States. Let's begin with Erin Burnett. She's live in Tel Aviv for us. Erin, the IDF confirmed today they have been carrying out raids in Gaza as Israel is telling more than 1 million civilians in Gaza to evacuate.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: That's right, Wolf. And they have been dropping leaflets trying to tell people to leave. Hamas was telling them not to leave. In the meantime, you did have Israeli Special Forces, they were carrying out raids, as you say, in Gaza. That seemed to be over by the time that they announced it, when they said they had done that.

And, by the way, Wolf, still you have skirmishes and incidents on the Israeli side of the Gaza border. When you get to checkpoints, you see some of those are happening. Today, an IDF soldier told me that late last night, they had gone into a house, in a kibbutz, the doors were locked. They say, why the doors locked? Everything here is burned or destroyed. It turns out, as they opened the doors, Special Forces, there were still Hamas terrorists inside who threw a grenade out injuring three IDF forces.

So, they do believe that there are still Hamas terrorists, some of them possibly in on Israeli side, as well as the tunnels, whether others could come through, and there are those raids already in Gaza which could presage a broader ground invasion.

BLITZER: Erin, you were near that southern border of Gaza, close to Egypt earlier today, and you saw quite a buildup of Israeli troops, right?

BURNETT: Yes, Wolf, all the way along the border. And, of course, that border only a couple of dozen miles. But as you go down that border, you can see the Israeli military everywhere, the buildup of tanks, the armored personnel carriers today. There was a tank brigade that actually been one of the first to go in. They told us they were the first to go in Saturday afternoon at about 3:00. And they were there basically regrouping and getting ready. They, again, were along the southern tip of the Israeli-Gaza border, just a few miles away, as they had pulled back.

But you see it all the way along the border, Wolf. We see buses. They are bringing in soldiers on buses. So, they come in, big white tourist coach buses, like you might see, drop off 50 or so soldiers at a checkpoint, and they go back and get more. So we're seeing more and more of that, just an incredible amount of force pushing right in along that border.

And, Wolf, today, a state of readiness that we didn't observe yesterday at least, in terms of the intensity of the soldiers, their stated desire to go in, and also the way that they were conducting themselves, the intensity, the readiness with their weapons as well as their personal protective equipment and all wearing helmets.


So, it is very clear that that force is there and that force is increasing in its readiness, Wolf.

BLITZER: Erin Burnett, thank you very much. And, of course, we will see once again right at the top of the hour for Outfront. Erin, stay safe over there. I appreciate it very much.

I want to get some more now on the evacuation order in Gaza and warnings that it could have devastating consequences. CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is in Ashdod, Israel, for us, just north of Gaza. Clarissa, this order for more than 1 million people to leave North Gaza, is it even possible?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is absolutely not possible, Wolf, and we have been seeing that through the scenes that are playing out right now and all throughout the day in northern Gaza, a state of confusion, chaos, panic, people packing whatever belongings they can grab, setting out, some in cars, some on foot, but with no real clear destination, because, frankly, these people have nowhere to go. There is no safe place right now in Gaza. Even in Southern Gaza, the shelters are already completely overwhelmed, despite the efforts of the international community to try to facilitate some agreement with Egypt on the establishment of a humanitarian corridor. So far, those efforts have been fruitless.

And we heard from the head of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency, who called Israel's evacuation order within 24-hours, quote, horrendous. He said that Gaza is quickly turning into, quote, a hellhole.

We managed to speak to a young dentistry student, 22-years-old, she is in Northern Gaza. She has not been able to leave yet. She is petrified. But she says she has nowhere to go. Take a look.


YARA ALHAYEK, STUDENT: I'm actually terrified. I'm trying not to show it. But it's -- all of the situation around us, it's like they are saying that you could die at any moment. You don't know -- I don't even know if I'm going to live through the next minute. So, yes, it's really terrifying.

WARD: I hear the voices of young children in your house. How do you protect them from this?

ALHAYEK: Yes. It's actually terrifying of that, of just imagining if anything would happen to them. And when any bombing happen, I could see the look on the four-year-old, my nephew, my four-year-old nephew, he would look terrified. So, it's really heartbreaking.

WARD: Have you lost any friends or family throughout the strikes of the last seven days?

ALHAYEK: Yes. There's a friend. She actually got out from her house to her cousin's house. When she was there, like the area was targeted. And the house got bombed down. She's gone.

WARD: What was she like?

ALHAYEK: She really liked to joke a lot, laugh with us a lot, even though in school, we had tough times, she just always -- she just always knew how to make us laugh. Sorry.

WARD: Don't be sorry. Don't be sorry.

ALHAYEK: We just want peace. That's it.


WARD: Yara said, Wolf, that she and her family do want to leave. They do want to get to safety. They simply don't know where they should go. And important also to say that Hamas, meanwhile, has been telling people not to leave, to stay in place and to stand their ground, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Clarissa, I understand you have exclusive reporting about how Hamas actually prepared and trained for this terror attack against Israel. What did you learn?

WARD: Well, Wolf, as you know, there has been a huge amount of conversation around these military but primary intelligence failures in the run-up to last week's atrocious attacks. We have been working very closely with Paul Murphy from our open source investigative unit. He has combed through two years of satellite imagery, social media videos, and some of the findings are quite shocking. Take a look.


WARD (voice over): Propaganda videos put out by Hamas reveal chilling details about the years of preparations that went into Saturday's bloody attacks right under Israel's nose.


Analyzing metadata from the videos, a CNN investigation can reveal the presence of at least six training sites inside Gaza, one just 720 meters from the most heavily fortified and patrolled part of Israel's border.

In that camp, Hamas recreated an Israeli compound with elements of the nearby border crossing, including an insignia of the Erez battalion. The videos show they practiced taking prisoners and zip-tying their hands at the camp. Satellite imagery indicates the camp was constructed within the last year-and-a-half.

At two other locations in the southern part of Gaza, Hamas trained for their audacious paraglider assault, rehearsing take offs and landings. At all six sites, two years of satellite imagery reviewed by CNN shows no indication of offensive Israeli military action. The imagery instead shows that in the last two years, some camps even expanded into surrounding farmland and that there was activity in the last several months at the camps. The stunning revelations raise questions as to how Hamas was able to train so openly, so close to the border, for so long, and why Israeli officials were unable to pick up on and prevent the October 7th attack.


WARD: Now, Wolf, of course, the IDF has in the past often hit camps. We reached out to them and asked them about these ones specifically. They did reply. They said, we cannot provide answers to your questions since they relate to the complex analysis of intelligence at the same time that we are fighting a war. This topic together with numerous other issues will be investigated by the IDF at the end of the war, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa Ward in Ashdod, Israel, stay safe Clarissa, thank you very much.

And now to some new CNN reporting on U.S. intelligence assessments in the days leading up to the Hamas attack against the Israel. Our Chief National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt has been working his sources for us. Alex, what are your sources telling you about what U.S. officials actually knew and when they knew it?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've been told by sources familiar with the intelligence that there were intelligence warnings and indications that there could be an attack by Hamas from Gaza but nothing on the level of what we saw last weekend.

We have been told that in the days prior to last Saturday, October 7th, there were three distinct pieces of intelligence, two American, one Israeli, the first on September 28th. That was a report that indicated that there could be a cross-border Hamas attack using rockets. And then a couple of days later, on October 5th, a broader CIA wire that talked about the growing possibility of a Hamas attack.

And then, Wolf, just one day before the attacks last weekend, there was an Israeli report that was disseminated among U.S. officials that indicated that there was something unusual about Hamas behavior. And then, of course, we know what happened the next day.

But, again, those three intelligence reports, Wolf, did not speak at all to the scope of what we ended up seeing, the brutality, the lethality, the fact that Hamas militants were able to break through the wall and fly over the wall and carry out those massacres.

So, sources are telling us now that the sense was that if something were to happen, that it would possibly have looked like what we have seen in the past. That's why there was not that much alarm, that maybe there would be a flurry of salvos of rockets flying out of Gaza, that they would be intercepted by the Iron Dome, that Israel could respond and there could be several days of fighting, but certainly, nothing on that level.

We did hear from an administration official who told us there was no information warning about the terrorist attack in advance.

So, the sense that we are getting, Wolf, from officials both here in Washington and in Israel as well, is that they thought that if something were to happen, that it wouldn't be nearly as big as what we saw last weekend, and that there was a general sense of complacency that had set in, in Israel.

And, now there are growing questions of, everything that we knew, this series of warnings, plus warnings, I should say, from allied Middle Eastern countries, both to the U.S. and to Israel, whether there shouldn't -- whether there really was the appropriate sense of what could happen in Israel. Wolf?

BLITZER: Excellent reporting. Alex Marquardt, thank you very much.

Just ahead, we'll get another live report from Israel, as crucial U.S. military supplies arrive.

We are following breaking news up on Capitol Hill. Congressman Jim Jordan is now the latest Republican nominee for speaker of the House. Can he unite his party on the House floor?



BLITZER: We will get back to breaking news on Israel's escalating war right now against Hamas in just a moment, but there's other breaking news we are following right now here in Washington. House Republicans have just nominated Congressman Jim Jordan for speaker of the House. But Jordan's path to a majority on the House floor is still very much unclear, at least at this hour.

Let's bring in our Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju. He is up on Capitol Hill. So, Manu, what are Republicans saying about whether Jordan can ultimately win enough votes on the floor of the House to become speaker?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, many of them are concerned, Wolf, that he simply will meet the same fate as others, including Steve Scalise, who initially won the Republican nomination to be speaker after the historic vote last week to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speakership, which has left this house paralyzed. They need to elect a speaker in order to move on any legislation at all.

Scalise had to back down because he did not have the votes. And at the moment, Jim Jordan also does not have the votes. In fact 55 Republicans voted against him in a secret ballot election behind closed doors saying that they would actually oppose him if this came to a vote.

Now, at the moment, Jim Jordan is planning to work behind the scene, trying to convince those members to come along.

[18:20:01] There's a problem here, Wolf, he can only afford to lose four Republicans max in order to get the 217 votes he needs to be elected speaker of the House.

Now, I caught up with the former speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, about this just moments ago in the aftermath of this vote. He still believes Jordan can get there and he had some poignant words about how this reflects on the GOP.


RAJU: How do you think members have so many reservations -- 55 members have so many reservations of Jim Jordan right now?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I don't know so much if it is Jim Jordan as it is maybe with the eight who -- 4 percent who caused this problem and all the Democrats. I think that's more of the reservation.

RAJU: People just don't feel like they should have new leadership, that's why?

MCCARTHY: Well, I don't think about new leadership. I just think they saw eight people work with all the Democrats to disrupt the country. And I think that's a real problem.

RAJU: How do you get past that?

MCCARTHY: It's not easy.


RAJU: Indeed, it is not easy. Republicans have been struggling to try to figure out any way forward after McCarthy was pushed out of the speakership.

Then the question, Wolf, is what happens if Jordan simply cannot get there. They have scheduled a vote at the moment for Tuesday to try to pressure members to fall in line. But if they don't, what is plan C for the GOP? They don't have one. There may be other members who decide to run. But can they bridge this bitterly divided conference with many frustrated members about everything that transpired? That's a key question.

And, Wolf, there's also talk right now about potentially propping up the powers of the interim speaker, Patrick McHenry, to oversee legislation. That cannot move at the moment on the House floor. So many questions as the Republicans, their divisions internally have paralyzed the House and no legislation can be acted on because of it. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, so much at stake. Manu, thank you very much, Manu Raju, reporting.

I want to get back to the Middle East right now, in Israel's war against Hamas. CNN's Jeremy Diamond is on the ground for us in Ashdod, Israel, just north of Gaza. Jeremy, you were at that key Israeli air base today, when the U.S. secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, actually arrived in Israel. What did you see?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. We were granted exclusive access to the Nevatim Air Base in Southern Israel as a U.S. military C17 cargo plane landed at that base, delivering fresh U.S. weapons and munitions to Israel as part of that show of support and vow of support that President Biden issued earlier this week.

These shipments include U.S. precision guided munitions. They include artillery shells as well as fresh interceptor missiles for the Iron Dome Missile Defense System, which is, of course, intended to protect civilians from those rockets being fired by Hamas.

I was also able to catch up with the U.S. secretary of defense, and I first asked him what the messages that the U.S. is trying to send with these shipments.


LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It's not just a show of support. It is support. And it's the leading edge of more to come.

DIAMOND: We have already seen civilian casualties in Gaza. What kind of assurances do you have from the Israelis about how they will use the munitions? What kind of assurances?

AUSTIN: Jeremy, this is a professional force. It's well-led. So, I'm sure they will do the right thing.


DIAMOND: And you can see that Secretary Austin seemed a bit uncomfortable about answering that question. Instead today, the large focus was really on showing that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel as it relates to its campaign against Hamas.

But there were some words from the secretary of defense today as he stood alongside his defense counterpart here in Israel about the responsibility that democracies have to uphold what he called the laws of war.

And he also mentioned that the U.S. would be willing to share its expertise in trying to minimize civilian casualties in carrying out urban warfare and also in creating humanitarian corridors for civilians. All of this, of course, as the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. More than 1,900 people have now been killed. Of those 1,900, that includes 614 children.

And we know, Wolf, as this military campaign is expected to widen with the possible ground invasion that will undoubtedly mean more casualties inside of Gaza, including more civilian casualties. And so as the United States is providing additional weaponry to Israel, the question is, how much of a responsibility are they taking in urging Israel to respect the rules of international law and of war. Wolf? BLITZER: All right. Jeremy Diamond, reporting from Israel, thank you very much.

Coming up, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces joins me live in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have a lot to discuss.

I will also speak with a woman who was on a call with President Biden today about her sister and niece, both missing, and both believed to be held hostage in Gaza by Hamas.



BLITZER: This hour, Israelis clearly are on alert once again for new Hamas attacks after more rockets flew across the border earlier today. Take a look at this very tense moment in Tel Aviv just a little while ago, as our own Anderson Cooper was reporting live.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Sirens are going off, which has not occurred here for really today certainly or the last several days. They are quite extensive sirens. You hear them all over Tel Aviv right now.

This just started about 15 seconds, may be 30 seconds ago. So, it remains to be seen if rockets do come. Generally, they come from that direction.


That sounded like Iron Dome interception. That was a rather large explosion. That is something we have not heard very much here in Tel Aviv.


BLITZER: Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city.

Anderson is joining us right now. Anderson, first of all, has it been quiet since then?

COOPER: It has, Wolf, certainly in Tel Aviv. I haven't been down to the border areas or in Ashkelon or Sderot. But today in Tel Aviv, that was really the largest -- that was the only time there was such a city-wide air raid siren that I heard.

BLITZER: As you know, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said today, and I'm quoting him, he said this, quote, this is just the beginning. What are people you talk to in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel telling you about ground incursion into Gaza?

COOPER: I think people are expecting a massive response. I think they are anticipating a very difficult fight. I think they are anticipating a lot of casualties, both Hamas -- I think they are girding themselves for Israeli casualties as well and civilian casualties, certainly, in Gaza.

As you know, Israel's government has dropped leaflets asking people -- more than a million people to move south into Southern Gaza. They say to get out of the areas that there is going to be fighting in, that they have 24 hours.

A number of humanitarian organizations, international humanitarian organization say that's just not possible, it's going to be a catastrophe. Hamas is actually telling people not to leave Gaza, which you can look at for political reasons. They don't want Palestinians leaving Palestinians areas.

You could also look at areas that they are going to be fighting in because it because it helps them to prevent Israel fighting more effectively against them. But it is -- I think everybody here is expecting, whatever occurs, it's going to be painful, and it's going to be very violent and it may go on for a long time.

BLITZER: I know you are getting ready for your show AC360 later tonight, 8:00 P.M. Eastern. You are going to be live from Israel, of course. What are you focusing on tonight?

COOPER: Tonight, we are obviously covering all the day's events. We are also looking -- yesterday, we went to the site of the Supernova Music Festival, which is, as you know, the single biggest site of -- the biggest death toll in any one particular attack that took place on Saturday. More than 260 people were killed. We got access to the site. We will going to take a look at what we found when we went down there, what Israeli troops have found.

And also we have some extraordinary video from inside a shelter that was attacked by Hamas gunmen with some 20 people inside. They threw grenades inside. We have a survivor from that attack who has video during that attack inside the shelter. So, we will be bringing you that story tonight.

BLITZER: Yes, we will be watching. Anderson, thank you very much, stay safe over there in Tel Aviv, AC360 8:00 P.M. Eastern, later tonight, right here on CNN.

And joining me now is Spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus. Lieutenant Colonel, thank you so much for joining us.

Israeli forces are carrying out initial raids into Gaza, looking for signs of hostages, Israeli hostages, American hostages, other hostages. What can you say about how these missions are going right now? Have you been able, first of all, to rescue or locate any of these hostages?

LT. COL. JONATHAN CONRICUS, SPOKESPERSON, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES: Hello, Wolf. Thank you for having me again. No, we have not been able to locate or rescue as of yet. We are trying to solve a 1,300-piece puzzle. 1,300 being the amount of Israeli casualties, the number of Israelis killed. And we have been able to identify the bodies of more than 1,000 but there are still questions about people that are either missing, dead or taken hostage.

The operations that we executed were oriented exactly at establishing or getting more information about the whereabouts and the identity of people that are held hostage. We did, indeed, acquire new information that perhaps sheds a little bit more light on the situation. But it's a very, very complex situation.

We understand that the hostages are held by Hamas. They are probably underground, most likely in separate locations, making it more difficult to identify and, of course, to rescue.


But I can also say that this is a national priority. We have the best and brightest -- hundreds of intel officers from various services working nonstop on this task and on this task only. The chief of staff said yesterday that we will not rest until these people are returned home.

BLITZER: Everyone is bracing for an Israeli ground invasion into Lebanon, to go after Hamas targets, to find those hostages. Israel has warned, as you know, Lieutenant Colonel, the more than 1 million residents of Northern Gaza to leave their homes in advance of this upcoming Israeli assault, supposedly in the coming days. The U.N. is calling this Israeli order impossible to achieve and says it will result in a humanitarian catastrophe.

Does the IDF, Lieutenant Colonel., acknowledge that the likely result of the Israeli ground incursion is going to be enormous civilian casualties in Gaza?

CONRICUS: I think history will prove that statement wrong and I think that it is possible. And I think that people, when they understand that they are in mortal danger, they are capable of doing quite extraordinary things.

What we are trying to do here is to do the right thing. We are at war. We are fighting against Hamas. We know that our next area of significant combat activity is in Gaza city and we are aware of the fact that it is full of civilians.

So, in order to minimize the risk to those civilians, we are telling them to leave. I think that is the humanitarian thing to do and it's the right thing to do. And I am appalled by the fact that Hamas is ordering Palestinians not to go.

Again, a display of how cynical -- how cynically they use their own population for the benefit of their politics and military operations, not only do they hide in human shields, which is well established and known, but also when we tell them evacuate for your own safety, they stop them and tell them not to go.

BLITZER: But so many of these people in Northern Gaza right now, as you know, Lieutenant Colonel, they are elderly, they're children, they're women, pregnant women, they have no place to go. Where should they go? CONRICUS: You know, two days after the attack in Israel ended and when we had regained control of Southern Israel and went into each and every community in Southern Israel, the first thing we did after we started to find the bodies and bring them -- try to bring them to burial, which, by the way, state is ongoing, we evacuated civilians.

All of the communities in Southern Israel, they are empty. They are like ghost towns. It's a ruined houses, burnt villages and empty. Why? Because we understand that it's a combat zone. And we don't want our civilians to be near combat, because we understand that this is going to be or can be potentially a very hostile environment, same thing regarding Gaza.

And yes, of course, I understand that there are people who have difficulties and challenges and there are people in hospitals with special needs, et cetera. I wish there were another solution for us to provide, but we are doing the best we can.

We are going to fight in this area. There's going to be significant activity. And we are advising people to get out. That's the best we can do in this almost impossible situation that was not initiated by us. We didn't ask for it but we are responding to it, and that needs to be remembered as well.

BLITZER: How much time do they have before this ground invasion begins to get out?

CONRICUS: So, we called on them this morning to take their belongings and leave, vacate as soon as possible. We are monitoring, just like the images on the screen are showing. We are monitoring the movement of people, urging more and more people to go, everybody to vacate.

At this point, I wouldn't want to give a schedule for events. But I can only say that it's abundantly clear that we are not going to strike civilians. And I think it should be clear by our actions that we want these people to get out of the combat area and move to a safer area in Gaza, which is the south. Once that is completed, then the next stage of higher intensity operations in the northern part of the Gaza strip will start.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, thank you very much for joining us.

CONRICUS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Here in the United States, President Biden spoke a little while ago about this crisis in the Middle East and has called with the families of some 14 Americans missing after the Hamas attack. Listen.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: Going through agony not knowing what the status of their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, children are.

[18:40:04] It's gut wrenching. I assured them my personal commitment to do everything possible to return every missing American to their families.


BLITZER: I want to hear now from someone who was on that call, on that conversation with President Biden earlier today. Saray Cohen is joining us from Northern Israel right now. Her sister Judith and her niece Natalie, who are dual U.S.-Israeli citizens, have been missing since the Hamas attack and are believed to be hostages in Gaza right now. Saray, thank you very much for staying up and joining us. We are so sorry for what's going on with your family, what you are going through right now.

I want to get to your meeting with President Biden earlier today. But, first, how are you and your family doing?

SARAY COHEN, SISTER AND NIECE BELEVED TO BE HOSTAGES IN GAZA: Thank you for having us on. Actually, we are devastated. We're worried. We have no idea what is Natalie and Judith's situation.

I can tell you that we got a message a few hours ago that they are definitely in Gaza. And they're -- we know that they have been kidnapped. However, we have no idea about their situation at this time. We don't know if they are alive or dead, healthy or wounded. But we do know for certain that they have been taken to the Gaza strip by the Hamas.

BLITZER: This is so heartbreaking. Can you tell us, Saray, more about what President Biden said to you and to other families on your call earlier today?

COHEN: Well, I can say that it was very touching, because President Biden found the time to speak to each and every one of us, each and every family of an American citizen captured. And it was -- he reassured us that the United States will do everything in its power to get them back home and to get a sign of life from them. And we are confident that we are in good hands.

BLITZER: Saray, were you or other family members -- were you or other family members able to speak directly to President Biden? And if so, what was your message to him?

COHEN: Actually, my brother was the one who attended the meeting with President Biden. And, yes, he did speak to him in person. The message was that we want to have a sign of life from them that we are asking the American authorities to have any channel with Hamas to get a list and to know what is their situation.

We are very worried about my sister and my niece. My niece, she's not even 18. She's supposed to be celebrating her birthday on the 24th of this month. And we know that young women are being raped and injured. And Judith is -- she's not very, very healthy.

And what we want from President Biden is to make sure that there's an open channel with Hamas and with the Red Cross and to get any sign from them.

BLITZER: Saray, I'm so sorry to hear what you are going through right now. I know you also have some other loved ones who are missing as well. Just how much has that attack impacted your family and, indeed, your entire community, for that matter?

COHEN: Well, we have my sister and my niece kidnapped from Kibbutz Nahal Oz and we have another 11 members of my family kidnapped from Kibbutz Be'eri. So, as you can imagine, we are devastated and we are having quite a hard time. We are worried sick about them.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, good luck to you, Saray Cohen, thank you very much for joining us. And let's stay in touch. And if there's anything we can do to help, of course, we will be happy to help. Saray Cohen, thank you. Good luck.

COHEN: Thank you, Wolf, for having us on.

BLITZER: Of course, and we will be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news.

We're getting reaction right now to the news that U.S. intelligence was warning of an increased risk of an Israeli Palestinian conflict just days before the deadly Hamas attacks against Israel.

Joining us now to discuss this and more, the former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

As we've been reporting this hour, U.S. intelligence warned of a potential clash with Hamas in the days immediately before the attack. The assessment was based on intelligence provided by Israel.

What do you make of the failure of Israel to put together the warning signs that this was all coming in?

JEH JOHNSON, FORMER U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: It's odd, Wolf. I suspect this will be studied for months and years. You know, the reality is, we in the United States rely on Israeli intelligence when it comes to things going on in their backyard. So, it is puzzling. And I'm sure we'll learn more about this.

BLITZER: President Biden has point of threats to the Jewish community, in the wake of the Hamas terror attacks. We have seen an increased police presence in cities across the United States, including in New York City, the NYPD says there are no specific threats to the city but it did put all officers in uniform as a precaution. How long do you think this heightened security posture should remain, here in the United States?


JOHNSON: Well, you can't -- you're right. You put every single police officer in New York and uniform. You can't sustain that forever.

Here in that New York area, I've been very impressed by the way New Yorkers have handled themselves. We are a tough and resilient people, and the NYPD is the best police force in the country. They know how to do this. There have been large demonstrations in the New York City area here, simultaneous Israeli and Palestinian, but there's been very little if any physical violence.

People have been vocal. They've been angry, but have for the most part comported themselves well in a very, very tough situation.

BLITZER: Let's hope it stays like that.

What worries you most, Mr. Secretary, about the potential ground invasion into Gaza by the Israeli military? A lot of us anticipate that could happen fairly soon.

JOHNSON: Right now, Wolf, Israel has the support of most of the civilized world on a per capita basis, this terrorist attack on Israel was larger than 9/11. Hamas is counting on Israel to overreact, costs affiliate casualties, cause death of innocent Palestinians and cause the Arab world to pull back from Israel, despite the fact that they've been on a chorus of normalization now in the region.

Hamas is a terrorist organization. It's as bad as ISIS, al-Qaeda. They're counting on Israel to overreact. There are not interested in the safety of Palestinians. They're more interested in seeing the Israelis overreact and causing the death of innocent civilians.

The IDF is very good. I have a lot of confidence in them. They're walking a tight rope right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: You're also speaking as the former Defense Department general counsel. Do you see, Mr. Secretary, the Biden administration 's decision to refreeze that $6 billion in exchange for five Americans wrongfully detained in Iran as an admission that this entire deal was a mistake to begin with?

JOHNSON: No, not necessarily. I think that the Iranian involvement at this moment is a murky picture. And they're doing the right thing. They're holding this money, freezing this money and Qatar until the picture is clearer for the time being.

BLITZER: Secretary Jeh Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

BLITZER: The United Nations meanwhile is calling Israel's order to vacate more than 1 million people from northern Gaza impossible and is warning of devastating humanitarian consequences.

CNN's Nada Bashir filed this report. We want to warn our viewers, some of the footage you're about to see is very graphic. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER (voice-over): As dawn breaks in Gaza, now under bombardment from Israel just for seven days, a sinister warning from the skies. Pamphlets from Israel Defense Forces telling all citizens in northern Gaza to evacuate southwards.

We're seeing our children killed right in front of us. They're starving us of food, of water. We have no electricity, nothing. This is not a life. And now they tell us that we have to leave, and we don't know where we will end up.

Hamas leaders have called on civilians to remain steadfast and stay put, accusing Israel of engaging in psychological warfare.

But families desperate for some semblance of security gather their belongings. And while they are unsure of what awaits them in the south, one thing is clear. There is no guarantee of safety wherever you are in Gaza.

It happened to our grandfathers, and now it is happening to us. We are being forced out. Gaza is being destroyed. Nothing is left. It's a catastrophe.

More than 2 million people live in a tiny besieged Gaza Strip, still under a blockade enforced by Israel in 2007. More than half of those are now being told to move.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has characterized the evacuation order, which holds no guarantee of safe return as an act of forcible transfer. In other words, a war crime.

Meanwhile, the U.N.'s Refugee Agency for Palestine says that the scale and speed of the unfolding humanitarian crisis is bone chilling.

TAMARA ALRIFAL, UNRWA SPOKESPERSON: On the move are more than 1.4 million people in Gaza. These are ordinary Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip with their families, including pregnant women, children, children with disabilities.

An ongoing siege means access to food and safe water is quickly running out. The U.N. World Health Organization has warned that hospitals here have only a few hours of electricity each day, pushing Gaza's already crumbling health care infrastructure to the brink of collapse.

At the Al-Shifa Hospital, the bodies of those killed in the airstrike lay shrouded outside.


There is, doctors say, simply not enough space in the morgue.

They were all innocent civilians, women, children. The airstrikes came suddenly and destroyed all of our homes. With children are still inside, and now we don't even know where we can bury our dead. Enough, please, enough.

In less than one week, Israel has dropped more than 6,000 bombs on Gaza. The equivalent to the total number of air strikes carried out during the 2014 Israel-Gaza War, which lasted 50 days. And while there continues to be widespread condemnation of the collective punishment the people of Gaza are being subjected to -- there is every indication that this war will only intensify, and many here feel that the world has abandoned them.

Nada Bashir, CNN.


BLITZER: Thank you, Nada.

For more on this situation, I'm joined by Omar Shakir. He's the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch.

Omar, thank you very much for joining.

As you know, the U.N. says this Israeli evacuation order for about 1 million Palestinian civilians to move from north Gaza, southward, is impossible. That according to the U.N. What are civilians and groups and hospitals for that matter facing as the try to relocate? And what are you hearing on the ground?

OMAR SHAKIR, ISRAEL AND PALESTINE DIRECTOR, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: What we're hearing on the ground is it's simply impossible. We're talking about a 25 by seven mile strip of land that has more than 2.2 million people. For the warning to be effective, there must be a safe way to leave and there must be a safe place to go.

There is nowhere safe. Israel is dropping bombs thousands of them. People are now, as we speak, sleeping in Gaza, not sure if they'll state the sunlight again. I just spoke with my colleague who his family on the ground. And she's worried that at any second, her family will be simply erased.

There have been strikes by Israel have wiped entire families. There have been strikes that have reduced neighborhood blocks to rubble. There is significant concern of what might come. We are descending to a depth of darkness I simply haven't seen.

BLITZER: Egypt and other partners have not opened the only humanitarian corridor out of Gaza in the south.

How do Palestinian civilians go ahead and try to protect themselves if there is no place they can escape to?

SHAKIR: That's exactly the problem, Wolf. There are no shelters, there's no safe place to go in Gaza. Gaza's health ministry reported several hours ago, that 40 people were killed trying to leave Gaza City. Gaza City is home to the Shifa hospital mentioned in your last segment. You saw the Israeli army spokesperson talked about what the Israeli government has done. But Gaza is less than 2 percent the size of Israel proper. We must

remember that Gaza has been under this closure for 16 years. People have been under occupation for more than a half century. Eighty percent of the population relies on humanitarian aid, 70 percent of the population are refugees, denied the rights to return to their homes.

This as a population where the U.N. said will be unlivable in 2020. And now, here we are in 2023, and we're seeing really unprecedented levels of humanitarian strike on the ground.

BLITZER: What do you say that Israelis are advising these people to find someplace to leave and get out of harm's way, whereas Hamas is telling these people, don't leave and stay put?

SHAKIR: Look, I think -- I think that reality here is that the population of Gaza is not Hamas. I mean, Hamas might have their own interest in saying those statements. The Israeli government does as well.

But we have seen statements from the Israeli government that made clear such as the defense minister said earlier today they're going to eliminate everything in Gaza. The reality is the crimes committed by Hamas were heinous, taking hostages, deliberately targeting civilians. Those are war crimes.

But to punish the entire people of Gaza over the actions of individuals, that's collective punishment. That is a textbook war crime.

Ultimately, we need Israel to adhere to international law, impunity for abuses over the years, impunity for Israel's apartheid against Palestinians, and for unlawful attacks by Palestinian armed groups and Israeli armies precisely what we're seeing this unprecedented level of repression and violence.

BLITZER: Omar Shakir, thanks very much for joining us.

SHAKIR: Thank you.

BLITZER: One last night before I go, in southern Lebanon, a journalist for "Reuters" has been killed and six others wounded while covering the war between Israel and Hamas. Issam Abdallah was a videographer for the Reuters News Agency. CNN teams on the ground say the projectile that hit the journalist came from the Israeli side of the border.

Video from before and after the attack clearly shows the group wearing press label jackets. According to the committee to protect journalists, at least ten other journalists have been killed since the beginning of this war.

And for information about how you can help humanitarian efforts in both Israel and Gaza, go to or text relief to 707070 to make a donation.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT", live from Israel, starts now.