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Brink of War

Aired July 15, 2014 - 18:00   ET


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

Israel is intensifying its assault on Gaza after a failed attempt at a cease-fire and the first death of an Israeli in the barrage of attacks by Hamas. Are Israeli forces now moving toward a ground invasion of Gaza? We're getting new information about an emergency Israeli cabinet meeting under way and the country's top military spokesman is standing by to join us live.

Families in Gaza are mourning. More civilians are dead. I will ask the top Palestinian negotiator what needs to be done now to reach a truce.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: A frantic day here in the Middle East of uninterrupted rocket fire on Israel that shot down and attempted a cease-fire. The breaking news tonight, Israel's security cabinet considering its next moves, an emergency session under way in Tel Aviv, top officials vowing to make Hamas militants pay.

Airstrikes on Gaza, they are under way. The Israelis are sending messages to residents in Northern Gaza to leave their homes right now. Both sides are bracing for this bloody conflict to escalate once again.

Our correspondents are standing by, along with a top spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, but first more of the breaking developments.


BLITZER (voice-over): Tonight, Israel's Iron Dome defenses are up. And the Israeli government is promising to ramp up its military offensive against Hamas militants, now that an Egyptian cease-fire plan is failing to get off the ground.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Hamas have decided to continue and will pay for the price on that decision. BLITZER: Hamas never stopped firing rockets at Israel, even

during a six-hour break in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, while the Israelis say they were trying to give the truce proposal a chance. The military wing of Hamas rejected the plan from the start.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were not consulted in this process, and I think they very much feel slighted.

BLITZER: After hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza, and a week of attacks and counterattacks, the first Israeli has been killed. He was a volunteer delivering food to soldiers when he was hit by a mortar shell.

It happened at the Erez border crossing, where I experienced the threat of incoming attacks firsthand.

(on camera): Did we get the all-clear?

(voice-over): The Palestinian death toll is constantly rising, and, tonight, the U.N. is urging restraint, even as the threat of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza looms.

Hopes for an imminent end to the fighting have been dashed, but the Obama administration says it hasn't ruled out a cease-fire just yet.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Our focus remains on returning, taking every step we can, using every tool in our toolbox to return to the cease-fire. It's in everyone's interest to bring an end to the violence.


BLITZER: In Gaza, Palestinian officials now say the death toll has climbed to 194, with at least 1,400 people wounded from a week of Israeli airstrikes.

Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is joining us live from Gaza City right now.

We're hearing they should be bracing for more Israeli action. Israel's dropping leaflets, sending out messages to people in Northern Gaza, Ben, to leave. I anticipate more action under way soon.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's certainly what appears to be the case, Wolf, not only in Northern Gaza, but east of here in Shaja'ia, which is an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City.

There, people have received phone calls. These are recorded messages in Arabic, clearly identified as from the Israeli Defense Forces, telling the people of that area they should leave and leave by Wednesday. And we already know that people are on their way, on the roads, coming towards Gaza City, where they were advised to go.

But there are already about 17,000 people in 20 U.N. schools. This is really just going to pack more people in those schools. Now, the situation here 24 hours ago, Wolf, was a lot different. People were hoping that this Egyptian mediation effort would result in some quiet, some sort of cease-fire.

But, today, we saw those hopes disappear.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): The Aziz (ph) family is taking away that they can. The apartment above them was hit at 5:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, their home destroyed as well, just hours before an Egyptian sponsored cease-fire was supposed to go into effect.

I asked Clarida (ph) what she wants, cease-fire or escalation? "We hope," she says, "for a cease-fire and peace." By the time we got to their house, any hopes for a cease-fire had collapsed. Israeli airstrikes were back on.

(on camera): So we just saw that strike outside the kitchen window, and we have seen rockets going out all morning long. People want a cease-fire. They want calm. But at this point, it doesn't look like it's going to happen.

(voice-over): Israel announced it would abide by the cease-fire. Hamas said no.

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, rockets roared toward Israel, the prospect of renewed conflict dashing hopes. Mustafa (ph) once worked in Israel. "I'm not happy to see Israeli children hurt," he tells me. "I have grandchildren. I don't want them to be hurt. We want to live."

In the market of the Shati refugee camp, the sound of a distant explosion elicits cheers, and then it's back to business; 65-year-old Abul Ashraf (ph) has seen wars aplenty in his time. What Gaza needs now, he says, is a solution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need peace. But we don't want to still in jail. We are in jail here (INAUDIBLE) jail, you know? (INAUDIBLE) jail. We are not free. I would like to be free, like other people, like Swedish, Norwegian, American, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, like these people, Canada. We are supposed -- we are people, you know?

WEDEMAN: For now, though, Gaza's future may be one of more war and more destruction.


WEDEMAN: And Palestinian medical sources tell us at this point the death toll is at 195, more than 1,400 wounded. The worry is in the coming days, there could be more, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ben Wedeman in Gaza for us. Be careful over there.

Let's get the Israeli perspective now.

Joining us, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner. He's the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.

Colonel, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: So, what does it mean? You're dropping these leaflets. You're warning people, Palestinians in Northern Gaza, Eastern Gaza, leave those areas right now. What should they be bracing for?

LERNER: So, here's what the situation has developed.

We stood by for six hours, hoping that Hamas would respond and close down and stop and prevent the rocket firing. And they didn't. So over those six hours, they launched some 60, Almost 60 rockets into Israel and throughout the day we have seen extensive rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, mostly from the northern areas.

Over the last two years, Hamas has created an underground Gaza in those areas using the underground facilities to load and launch and maintain their rocket capabilities. They are using and abusing the houses, the infrastructure there in order to carry out these attacks. We really don't have any other choice.

BLITZER: Does that mean you're going to go in on the ground, to these underground facilities? A lot of tunnels they have built over there as well, is that the target?

LERNER: Our target is to safeguard and restore security for the state of Israel and the people who are under attack and have been under this barrage of rockets for the last week-and-a-half.

It's unacceptable. We have to strike those capabilities, the terrorist capabilities, the tunnel capabilities and the rocket capabilities. Over half of what we have struck since the beginning of the operation has been rocket launchers. It's about 900. And they are still launching. Even as I was coming in, we had some more in Ashkelon. So this is the type of scenario and this is the type of situation we have to deal with.

BLITZER: But those tunnels and those underground bunkers, those facilities, airstrikes are not going to do anything there. If you're going to deal with them, at least what Israeli military commanders have told me over the past few days, you have to send ground troops in there, clear out that area, go in there and blow those places up. Is that what you're planning on doing?

LERNER: I think there is a huge realm and a vast spectrum of what we can actually do before actually having to send ground forces in.

We have good intelligence so we know where to strike. We know how to -- I have seen Ben's reports earlier today showing, you know, houses and that have been struck and indeed infrastructure tunnels leading from them. So there are ways to deal with it. Indeed, it's an extremely challenging task, but the ground force option needs to be our last option. It's on the table. Our forces are prepared and can go at the order of the government.

BLITZER: I assume the government, the security cabinet -- it's after 1:00 a.m. here in Israel right now. I assume this is on the agenda, what they do next. Is that what they're discussing?

LERNER: Well, clearly, the situation is grave. That's why we're investing so much into the thought process of what are our goals and how are we going to achieve them?

The Iron Dome is doing an amazing job in safeguarding the state of Israel with an interception rate of over 90 percent. So in 170 cases, when rockets would have struck residential areas, jeopardizing the lives of Israelis, it saved lives.

BLITZER: But you know that the civilian casualties in Gaza are awful right now. You have heard the numbers. And it's very painful to see those young kids, elderly killed in these kinds of operations.

LERNER: Well, this is clearly a human tragedy. And what Hamas is doing, holding the people of Gaza hostage, is absolutely -- it's terrible.

I would also say be careful with the figures that the Hamas authorities are handing out to journalists. We have to look at them with a very open eye. Not necessarily -- we should not just rule out that those are as they are. These are not the 10 Commandments.

BLITZER: Because they say some 200 people have been killed. You're saying that that number is not accurate?

LERNER: I'm saying we have to be careful with the figures that they are handing out to journalists and other people.

Hamas have, over the course of the last eight days, lied time after time after time about everything that it's done, from carrying out attacks against Israeli forces with great heroic outcome, when they have met a rock, a brick wall every time they have tried to carry out some sort of attack.

The future, the coming hours, the few days ahead of us, I think we will be a lot clearer about where this thing is going. You know, 10 days ago, we appealed to Hamas, calm will be met with calm. This morning, six hours where we were under bombardment, it's the most unnatural thing for a defense force to sit on its hand idly by waiting to do something while the country is under attack.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, thanks very much for joining us.

LERNER: Thank you.

BLITZER: We will check back with you tomorrow, as we try and check back every day.

Coming up, we're live here in Jerusalem, as Palestinians lose more homes and their loved ones. Is there any way to convince Hamas militants to accept a cease-fire? I will ask the top Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat what happens next. Stand by.

And we will also go to an Israeli city targeted by new rocket fire where residents fear the worst may be yet coming. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM live from Jerusalem.


BLITZER: We're back here live in Jerusalem.

We're awaiting word on an emergency meeting of the Israeli security cabinet. It's well after 1:00 a.m. here in the Middle East. As soon as we get word on what they have decided, we, of course, will let you know.

I just spoke to the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.

Let's get the other side with the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

I want you to listen, Mr. Erekat, to something that former Vice President Dick Cheney told our Jake Tapper.


DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the big part of the problem is Hamas.

And if you look at Hamas, where it came from, it's a spinoff from the Muslim Brotherhood. It's a radical terrorist organization. It's supported by the Iranians, among others.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right, so why not provide an alternative?

CHENEY: You are never -- I don't think you can negotiate a settlement with Hamas. I think they're absolutely sworn to fight to the death for the destruction of Israel.

TAPPER: Well, what's the solution? They're the governing body of Gaza.

CHENEY: There may not be a negotiated solution. You may be in a position where Israel has to defend itself against terrorist attacks.

They're now doing a very good job of it against the current Hamas attitude. Once Hamas took over Gaza, and as long as they're part of a governing coalition, my own belief is that Hamas' radical ideology, one of the most extreme out there, that there's no way that they're going to agree to any kind of a settlement. It just is not in their basic fundamental belief system.


BLITZER: Let's discuss what's going on.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, is joining us once again.

Saeb, thanks very much, as usual.

Is there any way out of this current crisis right now? Any way Hamas will rethink what it's doing and accept that Egyptian-brokered cease-fire?


President Abbas is exerting every possible effort in order to achieve this. He is now -- I'm talking to you. I am with him. We're on our way to Cairo.

We have to exert maximum efforts in order to assure the success of the Egyptian effort. From Cairo, the president will head to Turkey. We are touch with many Hamas leaders in (INAUDIBLE) and I hope that all the clarifications being asked by Hamas and other factions will be addressed.

And the achievement, the success of this Egyptian effort is a must for all of us, is a must for all of us. It's in the interest for all of us. And if we allow things just to deteriorate, I think it's going to be a disaster all over.

BLITZER: I think you're absolutely right.

I spoke with a Hamas spokesman, Osama Hamdan, in the last hour. He said that the Hamas never even got a formal proposal in writing from Egypt. That's why they rejected it as a joke. Is he right, Mr. Hamdan?

EREKAT: Well, it's not -- I don't know. I don't really know what happened between Egypt and Hamas.

But all I know is that the president is that now -- the president is on his way to Egypt in order to ensure that all the points are verified, in order to -- because, look, no one has the potential of success in a cease-fire than Egypt. No one has the potential to succeed in achieving Palestinian reconciliation and go ahead with it more than Egypt.

It's a political geography, its interest. Now the region is really boiling. And now what we need to do is to see to it that the Egyptian effort succeeds. Failure is not an option here. OK, we can say whatever we want. We can analyze. We can do whatever it is. But at the end of the day, failure is not an option to any of us.

We began. The Egyptian effort and the Egyptian initiative signified a beginning of a de-escalation, deconfliction. Now, it's not going to be easy. The road is not going to paved immediately and things will calm down. There will be many hurdles in the way.

But the most important thing is to ensure that we create the support system for the Egyptian initiative in order to succeed here. We need the United States' good offices, and I know that Mr. Kerry is going to be traveling to Qatar tomorrow, that he's in contact with many, today that President Abbas met Minister Steinmeier of Germany and Mr. Federica of Italy.

And he was in touch with Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey. And he's going to fly from Cairo to Turkey the day after. So we have to give this initiative the chance it deserves and that we are determined to achieve the cease-fire and the success of the Egyptian effort.

BLITZER: Well, give our best wishes to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. Saeb, tell him we're hoping he succeeds in his efforts. I know he's got a busy agenda and you're with him right now. We will touch base with you tomorrow as well, Saeb Erekat with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Just ahead, live from Jerusalem, rockets fall from Gaza, rain down on Israel, despite that cease-fire proposal. We will hear from Israelis who live closest to the launch sites in Gaza.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM, live from Jerusalem.


BLITZER: We're coming to you live from Jerusalem.

We're following the breaking news, an emergency meeting of the Israeli security cabinet still under way right now. It's approaching 1:30 in the morning local time. It all follows the collapse of a cease-fire proposal, which Israel accepted but Hamas rejected outright.

CNN's Diana Magnay has more.


DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rockets from Gaza streak through the sky over Ashkelon just hours after Israel said it would hold fire if Hamas did, too.

(on camera): Various intercepts in the sky above our head. You can hear the sirens still sounding. There have been 50 rockets, the IDF says, since -- in the first six hours since the cease-fire was meant to go into effect. Now Israel has said the military operation will resume, and that is why.

(voice-over): Ashkelon is less than 15 kilometers from the border with Gaza. People here live under the constant threat of rocket fire, and they want it to stop.

MERAV DANIELI, RESIDENT OF ISRAEL: It's a difficult situation. And I know Gaza has a difficult situation also. We don't like -- we don't feel -- we feel for them, we feel for them, but you can't live in your own country and someone will bomb you all the time. It's not a normal situation.

MAGNAY: Now attack helicopters are heading back towards Gaza, Israel on the offensive, promising to ramp up its military campaign, just what Ashkelon's mayor wants. ITAMAR SHIMONI, MAYOR OF ASHKELON, ISRAEL (through translator):

I want to see more decisive action, wider activities, going into Gaza, hitting the heads of Hamas, hitting the missile infrastructure and launchers. Then I would feel better.

MAGNAY: The hard-liners in the cabinet feel the same, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under fire from his own foreign minister, who wants Gaza back under Israeli occupation.

Artillery and tank brigades are poised and on the border, ready for their marching orders. But ground operations could be long and bloody and could cost Mr. Netanyahu popular support. And so the airstrikes resume, while the diplomacy needed to end this crisis seems to be going nowhere.

Diana Magnay, CNN, Ashkelon, Israel.


BLITZER: Please be sure to join us again tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can certainly watch us live or DVR the show so you won't miss a moment.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM, live tonight from Jerusalem.