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Middle East Crisis

Aired July 9, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report.

The breaking news, brazen new targets in the exploding warfare between Israel and Hamas fighters. We have dramatic new video of a seafront gunfight and now there's new confirmation that armed commandos have tried to storm an Israeli beach again.

Israeli troops are massing, ready to roll into Gaza. An invasion in fact could happen very soon. The top spokesman for the Israeli military is standing by. I will also speak with the top Palestinian negotiator about the rising death toll in Gaza, including children, and whether either side can pull back from the brink of full-scale war.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Rockets have been raining down on Israel. Gaza militants firing near a nuclear reactor, but failing to hit it. And a top Israeli official just confirmed another seafront gunfight close to the area that Palestinian commandos stormed yesterday. Two armed militants were reportedly killed.

The Israeli military is warning the attacks must stop now or Hamas will face an intense ground military offensive in the coming days, maybe even in the coming hours. The United States is desperately appealing for calm as a critical and volatile region threatens to explode.

We have a team of correspondents standing by. They are in the hot spots of this conflict where an attack could happen at any moment.

First, let's go to our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman. He's on the scene for us in Gaza City -- Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we have seen a variety of strikes on Gaza this evening. One on a cafe in Khan Yunis, where apparently people were watching the World Cup, according to reports from there, five people dead.

Just up the street from here, a couple hours ago we heard a large blast. Apparently it was a car being driven by somebody for a local TV network. The car was clearly marked. The driver was killed. Several bystanders were wounded.

Now today we had an opportunity to go north from here very close to the border with Israel, where we met a family living on the front lines.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): The attacks on both sides are relentless. Dozens of Hamas rockets firing deep into Israel targeting major cities. Commandos brazenly storming an Israeli beach and dying in a shoot-out. The Israeli military releasing this dramatic new video.

The Israelis' air defenses are up stopping many, but not all of the incoming rockets. And they are expanding their offensive in Gaza right now pounding more than 500 Hamas targets so far, explosions lighting up the Gaza skyline day and night. Israeli tanks are massing at the Gaza border. Up to 40,000 troops are on standby.

And Israel's president acknowledges that a ground invasion could begin at any moment.

SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI PRESIDENT: I'm not going to tell you when and where, but that's the logical conclusion. It may happen quite soon.

WEDEMAN: It's a deadly cycle of violence and bloodshed escalating by the hour. Medical sources in Gaza say more than 60 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive; 11 were children, one just a baby.

OSAMA HAMDAN, HAMAS SPOKESMAN: If the Israelis continue their attacks, the Palestinian people will defend themselves, not only Hamas, all the Palestinians.

WEDEMAN: The Yasgi (ph) family lives in Al-Atatra, northern Gaza near the Israeli border. These boys have heard outgoing missiles before, but they are still not used to it. I asked their mother, Aman (ph), how she deals with the racket of war outside. Do the children cry?

"No, I'm the one who cries for them," she says. 'They don't understand."

Israelis are in anguish too. A wedding apparently disrupted when air raid sirens blare. More than three million civilians at risk of attack and living in fear.


WEDEMAN: And, Wolf, what we're seeing here in Gaza also, more than a 1.5 million Palestinians fearing attack. Many of them now staying inside, and stores are closed. People are really avoiding going out. The feeling is there's more and worse to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I suspect they may be right. Ben Wedeman in Gaza.

Let's go just a few miles north of where Ben is right now on the other side of the border. Let's go to the city of Ashkelon. That's where Diana Magnay is standing by.

I suspect, Diana, there's a lot of tension where you are as well.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is tension here also, Wolf.

We're hearing in the last couple hours there was a barrage of rockets, 45 all in one salvo effectively, heading east from the Gaza Strip towards Beersheba. Now seven of those were intercepted. Also a little south from here, that beach where yesterday commandos from Hamas swam to shore, we're being told and Israeli media is reporting there's another operation.

I know Mark Regev also mentioned to you what we can see from here is that they have flares up in the sky illuminating the ground below. We spoke to the IDF and they wouldn't give us any further details of it, but clearly where Hamas militants could come ashore before, they could come ashore again.

It gives you a sense of how aggressive Hamas is being with its rocket fire, with its attempt at incursions into Israel. And clearly from the Israeli perspective, they have moved from a situation last week where they said they would meet quiet with quiet to a situation where you have Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, saying now that Hamas must pay the price, pay the price for this new rocket attacks into Israel.

Whether it uses ground forces now is clearly the key question. Public opinion is largely behind this operation as it now stands, but you can be sure, Wolf, if it drags on, if ground forces become involved on the ground and if Israeli soldiers are killed, then public opinion may start to swing the other way, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what happens in the coming hours. Diana Magnay, be careful over there as well.

The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, says Hamas has been warned and Israeli ground forces he says are ready to roll into Gaza.

CNN's Becky Anderson spoke with Shimon Peres. Becky is joining us from Jerusalem.

His message was, Becky, I take it that this ground invasion could happen literally at any moment.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he certainly didn't rule it out being imminent, although he didn't say when he expected it to start. I have spoken to a number of people who are part of the Israeli Defense Force tonight, Mark Regev, the spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu, you have also spoken to tonight.

There's no sense that there is a definitive time here. I'm in Jerusalem tonight and I have to say this is a fully functioning city I drove through today with the interview with Shimon Peres earlier on. It is quiet. It is 1:00 in the morning. But behind closed doors, there's clearly tension here. This time last night, a barrage of rockets coming into or just outside of Jerusalem.

Now, three of those were intercepted by the Iron Dome military defense system, but two of them landed just about 20 kilometers away from here. I'm just at the entrance to Jerusalem here in the bureau. So clearly some concern among residents here, see the sort of images that Ben has been reporting on. Clearly, they are concerned.

I put it to Shimon Peres, what did he know and how did he explain what might happen next. This is what he said.


ANDERSON: The world should expect to see a ground offensive at any time from the Israelis. You have called up reservists.

PERES: We -- whatever we can do without armed forces, we shall do. So we waited. We didn't start the war today. They started it already several days ago. And they continue and they spread the fire on more areas in Israel.

ANDERSON: How long will Israel wait?

PERES: Until we should reach -- or the moment we should reach a conclusion that this should be the next step. We shall take in dates. Nobody will do it. It may happen quite soon.


BLITZER: So obviously the situation is extremely tense. Becky Anderson, stand by. We will get back to you as well.

There's a lot happening right now. The airstrikes are escalating. A ground offensive, as you just heard, could be next. I will ask a top spokesman for the Israeli military what it will take to give those Israeli troops marching orders to move into Gaza.

And I'm also about to speak live with the top Palestinian negotiator. We will get his response. Saeb Erekat is on the West Bank. We will talk about the threat of an imminent ground attack in Gaza. Both sides are standing by as this breaking story unfolds.


BLITZER: Let's back to our SITUATION ROOM special report, Israel under attack by Hamas rockets and now threatening to invade Gaza with ground troops, Israeli airstrikes continuing in Gaza right now.

Let's get the latest from the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, and Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner is joining us once again from Jerusalem.

A quick question on this Hamas rocket attack. Was it directly aimed at Israel's nuclear facilities in Dimona? Is that what we're hearing?

PETER LERNER, SPOKESMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: Good evening, Wolf. Israel over the course of the day has been exposed to about 90 rockets

launched at several locations throughout the country. The farthest they have actually reached was almost Haifa. And I think that they are trying to make a statement there. And indeed, if they have the range to reach Haifa, they can reach Eilat, they can reach the midst of the Negev. They could reach the town of Dimona and they could reach anywhere in the immediate vicinity, basically putting over three million Israelis under direct threat of Hamas rockets.

BLITZER: I raised the questions of Dimona. Dimona is a city in the Negev, but that's where Israel has its nuclear reactor. How close did that rocket get to Dimona?

LERNER: There were some rockets that were launched in the direction of Dimona. They were intercepted by the Iron Dome and back to normal.

BLITZER: How close are you to moving ground forces into Gaza? Because right now we know that Israel is continuing its airstrikes. But what about moving tanks, armored personnel carriers, Israeli commandos into Gaza? Is that about to happen?

LERNER: Well, the Israeli Defense Forces on the border with Gaza today have reached a level of about three brigades, infantry, some armored capabilities and also artillery, as well as special forces.

And indeed we are taking all of the necessary steps in order to be prepared if that is required. We don't want to go there. We are taking the steps. Hope is not a method. Wolf, we have to be prepared for that escalation. The rockets are still coming over from Gaza. We are trying to control that.

We are trying to take out the rocket launching capabilities. We're trying to strike the command-and-control facilities of Hamas. It's a tough question. We have to be patient. This is a, I would say, a clear, design, crafted mission. It's not something we're just doing out of a gut reflex.

I think a great credit goes to the Iron Dome missile defense system that actually gives that ability to the decision makers here, to our leadership to sit back, look at the situation, and judge what is best for Israel.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner of the Israel Defense Forces, we will of course stay in close touch with you. Thank you very much for joining us.

Let's get the other side right now. The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is joining us from the West Bank. He's joining us on the phone right now.

Saeb, what is the latest? How can this be ended and both sides go back to a cease-fire? What is being done? Because I believe the Palestinian Authority has an opportunity to get involved and tell Hamas, tell the Israelis in effect stop it.

SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Yes, Wolf, that's what's happening.

President Abbas just finished a phone call with President Sisi of Egypt, the emir of Qatar, and Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the U.N., and Nabil Elaraby. And he's in touch with Khaled Mashal of Hamas. And he's in touch with the American administration.

I think the only way to begin a de-escalation and deconfliction process for the benefit of both sides is to restore the agreement reached between the two sides in November 2012.


BLITZER: Saeb, the last time that agreement was achieved, the president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, was in charge. He did it. He had good relations with Hamas. But the new leadership in Egypt, President Al-Sisi, doesn't have good relations with Hamas. That's why a lot of us are looking to your president, President Mahmoud Abbas. Maybe he can do it.

Give us a ticktock. Tell us exactly what he's trying to do.

EREKAT: He's trying to restore the cease-fire, Wolf.

And I think Egypt can play an important role. It's in the interests of Egypt to sustain the cease-fire and to end the hostilities. It's in the interest of Israel, the interests of Palestinians as a whole. It's the interests of the whole region.

I don't think -- so far in Gaza, 61 persons have been killed, including 18 children. I think that this cycle of violence will serve no interest whatsoever, will not provide peace and security. We urge the international community to stop Israel from moving on the ground, to stop this escalation.

And the only way is through appointing a zero hour, a zero hour for both sides to stop attacking each other. This can be done. The U.N. must be involved. Egypt is involved. President Abbas is leading all the effort with the secretary-general of the U.N., the secretary- general of Arab League. And now he has just, as I told you, spoken to the emir of Qatar, because Khaled Mashal is staying in Doha.

And every effort is being exerted now to begin this de-escalation And deconfliction part.


EREKAT: If things get out of hand, we will all stand to lose, Wolf. We all stand to lose.

BLITZER: Of course. So, here's the question. Are you also in touch with the prime minister, Tzipi Livni, your counterpart, on these peace negotiations? Is there a dialogue going on through you, through the Palestinian Authority to reach some sort of cease-fire?

EREKAT: Unfortunately not. We are not -- at this stage, I think anger and mistrust between the two sides is so high. This is why we need the intervention of the third party. And we're

urging all those countries who can excerpt their effort now in order to restore the agreement reached in November 2012. I think it's in the interest of all parties to stop this escalation and to being the de-escalation process.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Saeb, that if Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel, the Israelis will stop their airstrikes?

EREKAT: That's what I meant when I said that we need to specify a zero hour for both sides to be committed.

I don't think it's in Israel's interest to have further escalation. I don't think it's in Israel's interests to make a major landing incursion to Gaza. This will just add fuel to the fire.

What we need is to stop it, restore the agreement and then to begin a serious dialogue of how to end the situation. This occupation must come to an end. We need to restore the negotiations. We need to restore sanity. We need to get to the point where we can achieve a two-state solution, because this is the only way to provide peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

BLITZER: Is there anything the Obama administration, the secretary of state or the president can do right now that you want them to do, Saeb?

EREKAT: Absolutely. I think they can do a lot in terms of -- and I think they are. They are using their offices in order to reach restoration of the 2012 agreement.

We need their offices. We need their influence and many, many countries. And I think we can do it all together. And that's what President Abbas -- he's spoken to Secretary Kerry last night. And he's spoken to many other American officials today, many European officials, I hope we can succeed.

BLITZER: I hope so too. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, we will continue this conversation hopefully tomorrow. Thanks very much. Hopefully, it will be under better circumstances, but we shall see. Thank you very much, Saeb.

Let's get some perspective now from the historian, the scholar Shibley Telhami, who is the author of the important book "The Stakes: America and the Middle East."

You and I have, we have covered these kinds of horrible stories over the years. Is there a way out right now?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, ANWAR SADAT PROFESSOR FOR PEACE AND DEVELOPMENT, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: Well, yes, there is a way out, in part because I think neither side really fully wants an escalation.

And actually, initially, both Hamas and certainly the Israeli prime minister tried to tone it down. They were being dragged into a -- it was an emotional environment in which this happened where you had the killing of boys on both sides, raw feelings.

It happened also at a time -- I happened to be there when these boys were abducted. I was in Jerusalem and Ramallah and my feeling was it was 1987 all over again, 1987 and the start of the first intifada.

The reason for it is, the Palestinians felt they were being ignored, because everybody in the Arab world is preoccupied with their own issues. In '87, they were preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq war. And the leaders were losing contact with the public. And both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas were feeling a little irrelevant.


BLITZER: Did this explode right now in part because the U.S.-led peace process ended?


But let me just say this. It's not because the U.S. tried and failed. The U.S. extended the hope a little bit longer. We have seen the polls before the U.S. even started when people were saying to John Kerry, why are you doing this? Well, people both in the Israeli and the Palestinian side had given up on the peace process. So I think the administration ought to be commended for trying.

BLITZER: They should be commended for trying. Unfortunately, it didn't work out.

Thanks very much. We will continue our conversation, Shibley, as well, Shibley Telhami joining us.

Just ahead, what, if anything, can the United States realistically do to stop the attacks, the bloodshed? What's going on? The stakes are high. So are the frustrations in the White House.


BLITZER: A new plea today from the United States for the Israelis and the Palestinians to de-escalate tensions in Gaza and the attacks that are threatening civilians on both sides.

That may be all the Obama administration is prepared to do, at least now after so many years of dashed hopes and failures in the Middle East.

Here's our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. hoped the Israeli who of force would be enough to pull both sides back from the brink.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: It's not a surprise that they are taking steps to prepare themselves, but certainly our preference is to de-escalate the situation.

LABOTT: In an op-ed in a leading Israeli newspaper, President Obama called for an end to the cycle of violence, writing: "All parties must protect the innocent, and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution."

It's a familiar scenario, but with a new twist. Hamas, a terrorist group, is now part of the Palestinian government, raising the question, what role can the U.S. play in stopping the conflict from escalating and did it play a role in starting it by pushing the parties into peace talks?

AARON DAVID MILLER, PUBLIC POLICY SCHOLAR, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR SCHOLARS: When you raise expectations, when you see a huge investment by the United States, when you take parties to the top of a mountain and the top of the mountain turns out to be a valley and a pretty dark valley, then there are implications and consequences.

LABOTT: Ten months of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry ended in April with the collapse of peace talks, causing Kerry's chief negotiator to leave his post in frustration and driving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to join a unity government with Hamas, the very group Israel is now targeting.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to sit at the peace table with Abbas as long as Hamas is in the government.

MILLER: I don't think unless you got a profound change on Hamas's views that Hamas is going to be an acceptable partner, either for Abbas or frankly for the Israelis and certainly not for the United States.


LABOTT: And U.S. officials say their current focus is not restarting peace talks, rather than to stop the cycle of violence, but they point out that without a functioning peace process, there's a vacuum and thus the potential for the kind of violence we're seeing now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As far as you know, Elise, are there any plans for Secretary of State John Kerry to go to Israel, to meet with the Israelis, to meet with the Palestinian leadership?

LABOTT: Right now, no. Certainly, he's on the phone, he's been on the phone constantly with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He's planning to talk to Abbas I think in the next 24 hour or so.

But it's not the same as when the U.S. negotiated that cease-fire with the Egyptians in 2012, if you remember, because that Egyptian government, President Morsi tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, was much closer to Hamas. Right now, you see an Egyptian government that's more antagonistic toward the Palestinian Hamas, and really it's really unclear what the U.S. can do at this point, certainly just urging calm -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise Labott, reporting for us. Thanks very much.

Remember you can always follow what's going on. You can follow me on Twitter. Tweet me, @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show, @CNNSitRoom.

Please be sure to join us again tomorrow. You can watch us live. DVR the show so you won't miss a moment. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Now let's step into the "CROSSFIRE," with Van Jones and S.E. Cupp.