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Situation Room Special Report: Brink of War

Aired July 14, 2014 - 18:00   ET


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

Urgent new moves to stop the warfare between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The U.S. may be getting involved as the death toll reaches a historic level.


BLITZER: We're not exactly sure what's going on.


BLITZER: Another tense day near the Israel/Gaza border. We took cover from incoming fire. Stand by for my reporting from the relentless attacks.

And then a serious scare in the air. We're learning more about why a jet was forced to make an emergency landing, stranding passengers for hours on a remote island.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news here in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convening his security cabinet for emergency talks on a possible cease-fire with Palestinian militants as the fighting rages. Egypt now is putting forward a new truce initiative and the secretary of state of the United States, John Kerry, may head to the region soon to lay the groundwork for an end to the fighting that has been taking a devastating toll.

Officials in Gaza now say 185 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, more than those who actually died during the last military encounter between Israel and Hamas at the end of 2012. Our correspondents are standing by and we will hear from both sides of this conflict.

First, though, more of the latest developments tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You hear? You hear it? Oh, my God.

BLITZER (voice-over): Panic-filled moments like this playing out over and over again for people in Israel and in Gaza. We were at the heavily armed border at a sealed-off checkpoint when even soldiers even took cover and so did we.

(on camera): We just heard shots. We're not exactly sure what's going on.

(voice-over): Israel now says about 1,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza. Some of them have landed in and around the border city of Sderot. They're collected and examined at the local police station.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are a number of different rockets that have landed over the last 24, 48 hours striking in the heart of Israel. These rockets have been fired by the Hamas aimed at women and children and families.

BLITZER: Soon after that interview, sirens blared. A rocket streaked overhead. And the Iron Dome defense system intercepted it, showering the area with shrapnel.

When you're this close to the border, you only have about 15 seconds to take shelter or risk being hit and possibly killed.

(on camera): We're here at a hill overlooking the Israeli town of Sderot. You can see it right behind me over there, a beautiful little town. But it's vulnerable. It's vulnerable to rockets coming from right over here. That's not Israel. That's Gaza.

(voice-over): In Gaza, Israel now says it has struck about 1,500 what it calls terror targets. But the U.N. says 70 percent of those killed aren't Hamas fighters. They're civilians, including more than 30 children, and two women killed when an Israeli airstrike hit a center for the disabled, and a father and son whose bodies were carried through the streets of Gaza. Another funeral as the fighting goes on.


BLITZER: Senior Israeli officials say they're taking a new Egyptian cease-fire proposal very seriously. But when I talked to a Hamas spokesman just a little while ago, he dismissed the Egyptian cease- fire plan, in his word, as a joke.

Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman. He's in Gaza City.

Ben, what are you hearing from Hamas officials there? Osama Hamdan, the spokesman for Hamas in Beirut, he says the Egyptians haven't even delivered this proposal formally to the Hamas leadership.


Well, we did get initial reaction from Fawzi Barhoum, who is a spokesman for the Hamas movement, who simply rejected it and said that Hamas has its own conditions that must be met first before there is a cease-fire.

And, of course, initially when news came out that there might be a cease-fire, many Gazans were quite happy. They're exhausted after eight days of these almost constant airstrikes on Gaza, because if there's not a cease-fire, the future is going to look grim.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): It's a scene repeated hundreds of times in Gaza over the last week, a house blown to bits in an Israeli air raid, its contents blasted into the road. No one was hurt this time here in Jabalia in Northern Gaza.

(on camera): The house next door was hit 20 minutes ago. They received a three-minute warning. The problem is, OK, the house next door might be a target,but this one wasn't. And half of it is destroyed.

(voice-over): The neighbor, Mohamed Abu Hassan, says there was no unusual activity in the house and like many here, he doesn't understand why he and his family are being punished. "My son isn't even here," he tells me it. "He's working in Libya. Only his wife is here. Is she fighting Israel? This is tyranny."

When we left that house, we saw another one being hit. In Shasaiyah (ph), near Gaza City, 20-year-old Mohamed Al-Batsh prays at the grave of his father and 17 others who were killed in an Israeli airstrike Saturday evening, the bloodiest single strike since Israel launched its offensive against Gaza.

He recalls he had a strange premonition the first day of the war. "I looked at my father's face. He looked strange," he recalls. "I went to my room, closed the door. I knew he would die. I put my head on the pillow and cried for my father and all the other people who would die."

There may be more to it than that, however. His father, Nahad (ph) Al-Batsh, was a leader in Hamas' military wing, and in the compound where the extended family lives, we found what looked like reinforced tunnels.

While the war rages on with no end in sight, many in Jabalia are busy with what passes for ordinary life here, lining up at a United Nations center to receive their rations, flour, rice, cooking oil and sugar. Rations like these make the difference between survival and starvation in this impoverished sliver of land, stuck between poverty and war with no way out.


WEDEMAN: On the bright side, however, it's been relatively quiet this evening, the quietest evening we have seen yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And may be an encouraging sign, even if the rhetoric from Hamas continues to be negative as far as this Egyptian cease-fire proposal is concerned. Ben, thanks very much. The fate of the new cease-fire proposal will depend in part on the

leaders of Hamas and whether they can get past of their initial rejection of this new Egyptian proposal.

Let's get more on the Hamas leadership right now.

CNN's Brian Todd has been working this part of the story for us.

Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Hamas' leadership is under immense pressure tonight, but at the same time flexing their muscles.

We have seen one part of the image that Hamas is trying to project, showing off that military sophistication it's using to take on Israel, trying to show the world it's more than just a simple militant group.


TODD (voice-over): This is video of an aerial drone, one of several Hamas says it is sending on missions inside Israel. Experts say the pictures symbolize Hamas' ambition, an ambition they say driven by fractured leadership beset with internal rivalries and divided by military wings that sometimes don't communicate.

KHALED MESHAAL, HAMAS LEADER (through translator): We don't target the civilians. I don't like to shed any drop of blood.

TODD: That's Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' top political leader and often its public face, in a 2012 interview with Christiane Amanpour. A former teacher, Meshaal operates mostly are from Qatar and is known as Hamas' external deal maker getting money and weapons from players like Iran.

NERI ZILBER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Despite his George Clooney-type looks, he's very much a dangerous man because he aids and abets Hamas' very destructive policies and strategies.

TODD: Hamas' two other top political leaders are believed to be operating in Gaza and living in Egypt. One of them, Ismail Haniyeh, just spoke to the media.

They have called themselves the resistance. The U.S. and Israel call them terrorists. But tonight experts wonder if they're still calling the shots.

ZILBER: It's very much believed that the political wing, the political leadership inside Gaza and externally was counseling for restraint. The military wing very much had other ideas.

TODD: That military wing is led by Mohammed Deif, a shadowy, savvy figure who analysts say has survived multiple Israeli assassination attempts. Deif was injured years ago and is believed to have handed some of the operational role to other top Hamas military leaders, like Marwan Issa. His forte, unconventional attacks on Israel, such as the ones which have been happening this month. ZILBER: That could be naval commando infiltrations inside Israel,

which we have seen over the past few days. It could be these kidnapping or offensive type operations through attack tunnels underneath the Gaza border inside Israel.


TODD: And it's that kind of tactic which analysts say may have made Marwan Issa one of Israel's chief targets in this operation, possibly a more high value target than any of Hamas' political leaders right now if there's not going to be a cease-fire imminent, Wolf.

BLITZER: And if there's a real split as there apparently is among that Hamas leadership, a cease-fire acceptance on the part of Hamas obviously becomes a lot more difficult and a lot more complicated. Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Joining us now is the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat. He's joining us on the phone from Jericho on the West Bank.

Saeb, thanks, as usual.

We're getting relatively positive reaction from the Israeli government. They say they're taking the Egyptian proposal very seriously. I spoke with a Hamas spokesman, Osama Hamdan in Beirut. He says the Egyptian proposal is a joke. What does the Palestinian Authority leadership -- and you are among that leadership -- what do you think of this Egyptian proposal that the foreign ministry in Cairo made public?

SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: We welcome it. We welcome -- strongly welcome it.

And I had the conversation with the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, and he also had a conversation with Abbas. He shared with us the exact intention of the Egyptian proposal. They will specify hopefully in the next few hours a zero hour for a cease-fire, mutual cease-fire, and then they will begin speaking to the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian factions.

So now just about 40 minutes ago, Minister Shoukry spoke in the meeting with the Arab ministers convening now in Cairo, and I think the majority or all of the Arab foreign ministers have welcomed the initiative. You know, Wolf, that if there is any possibility for a cease-fire, if there is any possibility to restore the 2012 agreement, it is going to have to be an Egyptian proposal.

That's the political geography. And that's what's needed today. So I believe it's premature to jump to conclusion about what Hamas said or not said, some official, because I know that some other leaders in Hamas have said, we are not closing any doors for any initiative for a cease-fire.

So let's hope -- let's see what Mr. John Kerry will be doing in Cairo. I hope he -- I'm sure that he will put all of his efforts also, as well the Egyptians. I'm sure countries like the Arab League tonight, and the Arab world will put their backing to the Egyptian proposal. Mahmoud Abbas is fully ensuring this proposal. So, I'm sure and I'm really hopeful that we may see some real, real serious sign of a possible cease-fire in the next 12 to 24 hours.

BLITZER: Yes, that would be great if the deaths in Gaza could stop, the injuries, the rockets coming into Israel. An immediate cease-fire would be excellent news. But I want you to listen to what Osama Hamdan, the so much for Hamas, told me within the past hour, Saeb. Listen to this.


OSAMA HAMDAN, HAMAS SPOKESMAN: This is a silly idea. It's a joke. It's not politics. It's a joke. Really, it a joke.


BLITZER: He says it's a joke, a silly idea. And he also says that Hamas has not even formally received the Egyptian proposals in a document. Why would he say that?

EREKAT: I'm sure that once he receives the official Egyptian offer and proposal, he may read it, and then react, because to say it's a joke before even he reads it, and as he said we haven't received it, the Egyptians intend to bring some Hamas leaders as soon as within the next few hours to Cairo to discuss this with them.

As I said, they shared this with us. They shared this with the Arab leaders. They shared it. I'm sure they're sharing this with the Europeans, the Americans, the Russians, everyone. So if there is any sign of hope to stop this cycle of violence, to stop the killing fields out there, to stop the killing of women, this destruction of Gaza, what we need to do now is to exert every possible effort in order to ensure that Egypt will succeed.

That's what we need now. What we need is the de-escalation, deconfliction, and I think the only game in town is this Egyptian effort now. It's political geography. It's Egypt. We fully back this effort and I'm sure that Mr. Khaled Meshaal, Mr. Haniyeh, many leaders of Hamas once they read and share the proposal with the Egyptians, they will be fully on board.

And I was told by some Hamas leaders that they will not close the door in the face of any effort to bring about a cease-fire.

BLITZER: That's encouraging news. Saeb Erekat, let's continue this conversation. We will talk to you again tomorrow. We will see what the Israeli Cabinet decides, and we will see if John Kerry, what is plans are. We will state see how the Egyptian proposal is going with the Palestinians in Gaza, the Hamas leadership.

Saeb Erekat is the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Coming up, we're live here in Jerusalem. Much more on the breaking news, troops still poised on the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion. We're looking at the Israeli military's strategy as the efforts toward a cease-fire unfold.

And later, airline passengers feared they would die when their plane made an emergency landing on an isolated island. We're learning more about that nightmare. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM live from Jerusalem.


BLITZER: We're back live from Jerusalem. Even as there are new moves towards a possible cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Israeli forces remain poised for a possible ground invasion of Gaza.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr takes us inside Israel's military strategy.

Barbara, what are you finding out?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the question now is, with all the talk of a potential cease-fire, how much of Hamas' capability will Israel try to destroy, and what strategy will they use before a potential agreement may go into effect?


STARR (voice-over): Israeli tanks and ground forces massing, firing into Gaza from the Israeli side of the border. This is just a fraction of the 3,000 tanks and nearly 1,000 artillery pieces in the Israeli arsenal, overwhelming firepower if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orders a ground invasion.

On CBS' "FACE THE NATION," he didn't rule it out.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: We use whatever means are necessary to defend our people.

STARR: So far, 40,000 reservists have been called up, but Israel knows the human toll of a ground war potentially catastrophic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How long can both sides hold out? And whether both sides will now turn to some type of diplomatic option. Israel I know would like to avoid a ground invasion of Gaza that would probably cost a great number of Israeli lives, as well as certainly a greater number of Palestinian lives.

STARR: Ground action so far remains limited.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It looks to me like the Israelis are trying not to have to go in there on the ground. It's very densely populated. There are going to be a lot of civilian casualties. There's no way to avoid it.

STARR: But Israel shows no letup in its punishing airstrikes in Gaza that have resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, according to Palestinian authorities. With more than 100 fighter jets, Israel could keep it up indefinitely, but the question remains, could an Israeli strategy of airstrikes and limited ground action change the situation?

FRANCONA: The Israelis have hit 1,400 targets and they have yet to stop Hamas from firing rockets.


STARR: Now, look, the U.S. position remains it wants to see de- escalation of this crisis, but if we are coming up towards a potential cease-fire, one of the things the U.S. is watching very carefully is to see whether Israel escalates, gets more aggressive with its attacks in the final hours, what may be the final hours of this crisis if there were to be a cease-fire agreement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

And, as I reported, the Israelis are taking this Egyptian cease-fire proposal very seriously in advance of their special Israeli special security Cabinet meeting. They have gone basically on radio silence. We have had two Israeli guests who were booked to be on this program here in THE SITUATION ROOM, but Mark Regev, the chief spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, they were both supposed to be here.

But now they have decided they are not going to say anything in advance of the Israeli cabinet meeting. So they asked not to come in tonight. Hopefully, they will be back tomorrow.

Just ahead, a plane takes dramatic action as passengers fear for their lives. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're live from Jerusalem.


BLITZER: We're coming to you live from Jerusalem, where we're following developments in the skirmishes between Israel and Hamas.

We're also following a frightening ordeal that unfolded high over the Pacific ocean.

CNN's Tom Foreman has details.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The evening flight from Honolulu to Guam took off three hours late too soar over some of the most desolate waters on the planet. But passengers say, halfway to their destination, a strong odor filled the jet.

KAREN VON MERVELDT-GUEVARA, PASSENGER: We could smell chemical smell like burned wire or heated wire, burned insulation, something like that. And it was wafting through the cabin.

FOREMAN: Some passengers say the stench nearly gagged them, and tensions rose rapidly as the crew made the dramatic decision to divert to the tiny island of Midway, riding out turbulence and at one point suddenly dropping 40 feet.

VON MERVELDT-GUEVARA: I think after the 40-foot drop it got really silent in the cabin. People pray. We all prayed. I prayed.

FOREMAN: A nail-biting hour later, touchdown.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's nice to step on land.

FOREMAN: The airline now says the problem was an equipment cooling fan not necessary for flight.

KEITH WOLZINGER, THE SPECTRUM GROUP: There's the regular one and a backup fan. So if the primary one fails, the backup will kick in automatically.

FOREMAN: But Keith Wolzinger, who flies 777s like the one in question, says especially over so much open water, caution is critical.

WOLZINGER: Well, if you're not sure what the problem is, the first rule is to divert, get the airplane on the ground and worry about it later.

FOREMAN: The passengers spent seven hours on the island with few services, mostly hanging out in a gymnasium and, when another plane finally arrived, cheering for the end of their long, nerve-racking journey.


FOREMAN: A potentially deadly conclusion narrowly averted -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

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

CROSSFIRE with Paul Begala and Newt Gingrich starts right now.