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Brink of War; Temporary Cease-Fire in Israel?

Aired July 16, 2014 - 18:00   ET


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

Children buried. Grieving Palestinians say innocent little four boys were killed by Israeli fire in a harrowing attack on a Gaza beach. We're getting reaction from all sides.

Now Israel is agreeing to a new pause in fighting. Could this a lead to a broader cease-fire, or will Hamas shoot down hopes by refusing to stop its rocket fire into Israel?

Israel's Iron Dome intercepting more rockets. Stand by for my reporting from the region and my close encounters with Hamas attacks.

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: Israel's big guns may soon fall silent. The breaking news, Israel has now agreed to a new temporary cease-fire that could begin within a matter of hours.

The United Nations asked for a pause in military activities to allow humanitarian aid to Gaza. Hamas has not yet signed up to this agreement and says it needs more information about the proposal.

Only moments ago, President Obama spoke out promising the United States will continue to encourage moves towards a full-scale cease- fire. He also announced expanded sanctions against Russia saying Moscow has failed to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

Our correspondents are standing by in Israel and Gaza with all the latest on the Middle East conflict. And the top Israeli military spokesman will join us live here in Jerusalem.

But, first, a look at the other breaking development this hour, including the deaths of four Palestinian children.


BLITZER (voice-over): Medics race along a Gaza beach with a child's body on a stretcher. Local health officials say four Palestinian boys were killed by Israeli military fire. They were between 9 and 11 years old, all from the same family.

The children were taken to the hospital after being carried through the lobby of a hotel used by Western journalists. They were buried hours later. Hundreds were at the funeral.

Israeli military officials say they are investigating. They say they are doing everything they can to avoid civilian casualties. They have been dropping leaflets on Gaza urging families to evacuate and they say those boys would be alive if Hamas had accepted the cease-fire that Israel did.

The Palestinian death toll keeps rising. Local officials say it's now over 200. There are funerals in Gaza every day. The first Israeli to die in the conflict also was buried today, a man who was killed by mortar fire from Gaza while distributing food to Israeli soldiers.

(on camera): I'm here. I'm here with you.

(voice-over): This is the danger Israelis are living with. We had to take cover twice today while reporting from Ashkelon near the Gaza border at a shopping center.

(on camera): All right, so you heard the sirens go off. And we're sort of protected a little bit here, but there were several of those rockets that came in. And you saw the Israeli anti-dome missile system actually working.

(voice-over): And while we were driving

(on camera): All right, we're going to get out. You can hear the sirens.

(voice-over): We could see the smoky remains of a rocket just off the road. The Israeli military says more than 1,200 rockets have been fired from Gaza in the past nine days by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel have now ramped up its attacks on Hamas targets in Gaza after Hamas rejected the cease-fire and kept firing rockets at Israel.


BLITZER: Let's go to Gaza right now, more on those Palestinian children who were killed on that beach today.

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

Ben, you were there. You saw the funeral for those boys. I'm trying to get a little sense. The Palestinians there, I assume they are obviously very angry at Israel, but are they also angry at Hamas for rejecting that cease-fire yesterday? Because the Israelis make the point that those boys would be alive if Hamas had accepted the cease- fire.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Most people at this point don't really blame Hamas because people realize that after more than 200 dead here, after hundreds of homes destroyed, after this huge disruption of the last 10 days, that they want not just a cease- fire that simply will return to the status quo before this began.

They want to see a fundamental solution to the situation in Gaza. They would like to see, for instance, the return of the ability of Palestinian workers to go to Israel. You recall before the intifada in 2000 that tens of thousands of Palestinians made a living in Israel every day. Since then, they have seen sort of their world shrink and shrink.

Before, you could take a taxi from the middle of Gaza City to the Damascus gate in Jerusalem. You can't do that anymore. And they would like to be able to travel to Egypt more easily. One of the demands of Hamas is to extend the area of the sea where fishermen can operate, to allow Palestinian farmers to farm closer to the barrier between Gaza and Israel.

So people you talk to say, look, we live in a prison and we want the doors of this prison to be opened. So, yes, there is frustration with Hamas because of this, but people see beyond that and understand that if there is some change to the situation here, that maybe it will all be worth it.

And of course Hamas is insisting that they are not going to sign up simply for a cease-fire. They want a solution to Gaza's problem. And most people would actually agree with the need to change the fundamental situation here.

Now, as far as tomorrow's pause, U.N.-sponsored pause, we just heard from Fawzi Barhoum, one of the spokesman for Hamas, who is saying they are currently considering this proposal. It's only going to be five or six hours, but it would give an opportunity to people certainly to just breathe a little more easily here in Gaza -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. In the last hour, I spoke with the other Hamas spokesman, Osama Hamdan, and he said they have questions they want to be answered. They haven't rejected the temporary pause, they haven't accepted it. They will get back to us.

Ben Wedeman in Gaza, thanks very much.

Let's bring in Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner. He's spokesman for Israel Defense Forces.

Colonel, thanks very much for joining us.

What happened on that beach?

PETER LERNER, SPOKESMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: Well, we have opened our investigation in order to understand exactly the circumstances. Clearly, it's a tragedy and we have to get to the bottom of the occurrences.

BLITZER: Do you know if there was a legitimate Hamas target that the Israelis were going for? And have they just made a mistake? Is that what you suspect? Or was it a patrol boat, was it a ship, was it air fire? What happened? LERNER: There was -- from the preliminary information that I have to date, there was a Hamas target that we were following. But the outcome is clearly a tragedy. And we have to see what exactly were the circumstances that led to this.

BLITZER: Mark Regev, the spokesman for the prime minister, says an Israeli general has now been ordered to investigate this tragedy?

LERNER: We have a policy to investigate all civilian deaths.

Civilian deaths in this conflict are a tragedy. And Israel has voiced that over the last 10 days. It's not something that we want. It does not serve our military objectives. Hamas, on the other hand, they celebrate Israeli deaths.

BLITZER: The Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan in Beirut that we spoke to in the last hour, he says they are considering the temporary U.N. cease-fire for six hours from 10:00 a.m. local to 4:00 p.m. local time tomorrow, but they want questions answered. Specifically, they don't want to give Israel, the Israel Defense Forces -- you're the spokesman for the IDF -- an opportunity to regroup, if you will, to make it easier for them to launch a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza. That's what he told us.

LERNER: Well, in the last 10 days -- tomorrow will be the third time we are holding fire. Yesterday, we held fire for six hours and we received a huge barrage of rockets.

I honestly hope that tomorrow will be a cease-fire not only on behalf of the IDF, because we have orders. We're an organized military. We will hold our fire. I hope that Hamas will also reciprocate with that and respond accordingly. Honestly, I'm not holding my breath.

BLITZER: If there's no rocket fire coming into Israel during those six hours, and Israel doesn't launch airstrikes, will you just allow it to continue?

LERNER: Perhaps. We have to see where it leads. Hamas has not proven themselves worthy on this over the last 10 days.

Every time we have reached some sort of crossroads of an opportunity to calm things down, they have done the exact opposite.

BLITZER: If there's one or two incidents during those -- the temporary pause, let's say a rocket comes in, one or two, but may come from Islamic Jihad, may not necessarily come directly from Hamas, are you willing to be patient to see what happens over those next several hours starting at 10:00 a.m. local time tomorrow morning?

LERNER: We have voiced our concern that if they do not abide by the cease-fire, then we will not be able to...

BLITZER: Does Hamas control Islamic Jihad?

LERNER: They have proven in the past that, when they have wanted to, they control it. And, indeed, if they want to, they can. BLITZER: Does the IDF see a difference between the military wing of Hamas as opposed to the political wing of Hamas?

LERNER: There's absolutely no difference. They are deeply intertwined, deeply -- the orders that one side gives and the other side give, they are one voice with one agenda against Israel.

BLITZER: One final question. If it's not honored, that temporary cease-fire tomorrow, will Israel move ground troops into Gaza?

LERNER: That's an option that is on the table. It has been for the last week or so. We are preparing that and we will be prepared if the orders are given.


BLITZER: How many reservists have you mobilized?

LERNER: We have about 40,000 at this time. We have an approval for another 8,000. So, we have a substantial force.

BLITZER: They have already left their jobs, their families. They are in the military?

LERNER: That's right.

BLITZER: Peter Lerner, the lieutenant colonel, spokesman for the IDF, thanks very much for joining us.

LERNER: Thank you. Good evening.

BLITZER: Let's hope the cease-fire lasts and holds.

Coming up from Jerusalem, we will have more on the breaking news. Israel has accepted a temporary cease-fire for humanitarian reasons. I will ask a top Palestinian negotiator about that, Hamas' refusal at least so far to accept the plan. They are leaving it open, though. They say they want questions answered.

Also, this, the relentless Hamas rocket attacks. We will see how Israeli children are coping with the constant danger and the fears.

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


BLITZER: We're back with you live from Jerusalem with the breaking news.

Israel says it has now agreed to a six-hour humanitarian cease-fire, but Hamas militants aren't on board, at least not yet. Israelis endured another barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza today, scary for adults, even scarier for so many of the children.

Here's CNN's Diana Magnay.


DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Intercepts over the Israeli town of Ashkelon. Iron Dome, Israeli's missile defense shield, is getting plenty of work, as these rockets are destroyed midair. But Iron Dome isn't foolproof. When Gaza fires multiple rockets, some make it through.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A few seconds after the alarm started, I hear a huge explosion and the door of the shelter is getting open, and I hear like a sound of broken glasses. And then I go out of the shelter and I see that almost everything is ruined, and I get that it's like here in my house.

MAGNAY: So far, in this latest round of conflict, Israel suffered just one fatality, thanks to Iron Dome, the siren alerts and ubiquitous shelters.

Kindergarten and summer camp have decamped to bomb shelters now, where soldiers from Israel's defense forces oversee the kids. This family spends their days here. There's no safe room back home and they are scared.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) to the hospital because a Grad fell down near my house, all the windows broken (INAUDIBLE) instead going to the beach, to the field, to the canyon, to the mall. They are frightened to go out.

MAGNAY: She says she would take her family out of Ashkelon if she could, away from the line of fire, but Hamas' missiles are reaching further and further. And for now, she doesn't have the money to move.

But most of the kids seem oblivious to the world outside, as happy in a bomb shelter as they are above ground; 13-year-old Suvan (ph) is philosophical about the fighting.

"Rockets come from Gaza and Lebanon," she says, "but we're also bombing them, so it works out even."

But war is never even. And these children, thankfully, have no idea of the suffering on the other side.

Diana Magnay, CNN, Ashkelon, Israel.


BLITZER: Joining us, now the top Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat. He's joining us on the phone from Cairo right now.

Saeb, thanks very much for joining us. You're there in Cairo with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Any significant progress you're seeing now in establishing a cease- fire? Let's start with this temporary U.N. proposal, six-hour temporary humanitarian pause. The Israelis say they accept it. Hamas says they're not yet ready to accept it. They need more questions answered. What are you hearing? SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Well, the president --

President Abbas had a meeting today with Mr. Moussa Marzoq, the head of Hamas political bureau. And then he met with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and then with Elaraby, the secretary-general of the Arab League.

And tomorrow noon, he will be meeting with President Abdel Fattah Al- Sisi before he departs to Turkey. All efforts are being exerted in one point. Let's have the Egyptian initiative in place. Let's see it implemented.

Now, I don't think anybody is against the Egyptian initiative in terms of reaching a cease-fire agreement, but now we're talking about steps toward the cease-fire and after the cease-fire.

The Egyptian initiative spoke about dealing with ironing the issues after the cease-fire, while the Palestinian factions now they spoke to us about the need for some steps like the Israelis have re-arrested those who were released in Shalit -- present Shalit deal. And they were resentenced.

And the Egyptians had already guaranteed their release and that they will not be re-arrested. That's one point. And the second thing is they want to make sure that the non-recurrence of another attack like 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014.

I hope that we can find the balance. We're trying. President Abbas is trying very, very hard. And I'm not saying that things are fully ironed. There are difficulties. There are gaps. But we are determined to achieve what we came here to achieve, because, as I told you yesterday, failure is not an option, Wolf.

BLITZER: I hope failure is not an option.

But in the short-term, the next few hours, this U.N.-brokered, this U.N.-sponsored temporary pause is supposed to go into effect at 10:00 a.m. local time here in the Middle East. Did you get -- did the president of the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas, did he get an assurance from the Hamas leader with whom he met today that they would at least accept this six-hour pause?

EREKAT: Actually, it was not on the agenda for discussion, but we spoke about it later.

And I'm sure that it will succeed, because this is a humanitarian six hours. And I'm sure that they -- everyone will go for it, including the factions from Gaza. But I'm -- I don't have any guarantees, but that's what my assessment from talking to them is that this may succeed, six hours.


BLITZER: All right. So that's that. Saeb Erekat, as usual, thanks. We will check back with you tomorrow. Let's hope that cease-fire does, in fact, hold, does, in fact, succeed. One quick question, Saeb, before I let you go. If that six-hour

cease-fire holds tomorrow, can it still continue and maybe expand and go on and on?

EREKAT: That's the whole idea. The whole idea is to see what kind of balance we can create in order to have a sustainable cease-fire.

BLITZER: And before I let you go, Saeb, I want to play for you what a man who you know, the former President of the United States Bill Clinton.

You dealt with him, you negotiated with him. You got close to an agreement in 2000. Not close enough, though. Here's what he said today about what's going on between Israel and Hamas. Listen to this.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hamas was perfectly well aware what would happen if they started raining rockets into Israel. They fired 1,000 of them. And they have a strategy designed to force Israel to kill their own civilians, so that the rest of the will would condemn them.


BLITZER: All right, so what do say? What you think of that analysis by Bill Clinton?

EREKAT: Well, I disagree, because I think the whole key -- I wish that President Clinton had succeeded in bringing us and the Israelis towards a solution.

This cycle is a result of a lack of a solution. This cycle is a proof for both Palestinians and Israelis that the way to security and stability and stop these killing fields is going to be through a two- step solution. I think President Clinton was the first to offer that.

I really believe that the absence of the two-state solution, the absence of peace will always push us towards this vicious cycle of chaos, violence, counterviolence. And that's the truth.

BLITZER: And do you think the president, the current president of the United States currently, President Obama, we just heard from him in the White House, is on the right course right now?

Do you think he's going to be successful in at least getting the start of these peace process negotiations off the ground once again?

EREKAT: I can assure you, Wolf, that President Obama's commitment and Secretary Kerry's commitment towards to a two-state solution, state of Palestine living side by side the state of Israel in peace and security on the 1967 lines is really, really I can vouch that it's the most I have seen from any in the United States that I dealt with.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry are determined, and they both know that the key to stability, democracy and hope in this region begins with a two-state solution. Their commitment is really unwavering and their commitment to the two-state solution, we respect and admire very much.

BLITZER: Saeb Erekat, and let's hope you succeed, that President Mahmoud Abbas succeeds, that temporary cease-fire that the U.N. is proposing tomorrow morning, 10:00 a.m. local time here in the Middle East, that succeeds as well. We will check back with you, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator joining us from Cairo tonight.

Just ahead, we're live from Jerusalem. A split-second life-and-death decision -- we get a rare look at the drone program Israel is using to try to prevent civilian casualties.

And one of the day's other big stories, a powerful House Republican says he has what he believes is a smoking gun showing illegal activity by a top Obama administration official.

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news live from Jerusalem: a possible cease-fire only hours away. Israel has accepted a call for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow relief supplies to get into Gaza. Hamas says it needs more information before giving an official response.

Meanwhile, the air war continues, and today, we got an up-close look at the drone program Israel uses to get details of potential targets.


BLITZER (voice-over): This is what an Israeli drone sees over Gaza. CNN got special access to this highly secure Israeli air force base, home to the Israeli drone program. I spoke with Lieutenant Orr (ph), whose face and last name we're not allowed to show.

His job: to make sure targets are clear of civilians.

(on camera): How do you do that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We see the picture live. Before we attack the targets, we are flying to the target, we are searching for civilians and we are searching for any casualty that can be around the target.

BLITZER: So, before Israeli jet fighters, whether an F-16 or any other Israeli plane, actually goes out there and launches missiles, you have to clear it. Is that right?


BLITZER (voice-over): The Israeli defense forces gave this video to CNN which they say shows they take every effort to spare civilian lives. As this target is about to be struck, it's called off at the last minute. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We reached a target. And as we were getting

closer, we saw people walking around the main street. We immediately stopped the attack.

BLITZER: His message was relayed to Lieutenant Omer (ph) of the Israeli air force whose F-15 was ready to strike.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five seconds before we release the bombs, before we release the bombs, and we send someone in the communications said, cancel the bomb, cancel the bombing.

BLITZER: Still, Palestinians are dying and the death toll is now over 200. The Israeli military says it has targeted over 1,800 sites in Gaza, from which they believe Hamas is operating.

(on camera): It's not a perfect business, though, as you know, because there are a lot of civilians that have been killed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As I said, every death of any civilians from every side, it's tragedy.

BLITZER: When there are mistakes, do you feel guilty?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes, there are mistakes, and yes, I take it personally.


BLITZER: We're going to continue to follow this story. We'll see in the next few hours whether or not this temporary cease-fire that the United Nations has proposed, the cease-fire the Israelis say they have accepted. Hamas says they need more information about. We'll see if it gets off the ground. If it does, if there's quiet during those six hours, we'll see if it can be expanded and maybe that fighting will stop. Let's only hope it does.

There's other news we're following, especially back in Washington. Important political developments, including a top House Republican who says he has proof of former Obama cabinet member broke the law barring political activity on the job.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash has details -- Dana.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as chairman of the committee that overseas the administration, it is Republican Darrell Issa's job to hold the White House accountable, but he's also someone keenly aware of how to make headlines. And that's what he did today.

(voice-over): House GOP chair Darrell Issa what he believes is a smoking gun, and he unveiled it during a hearing in a dramatic fashion.

HILDA SOLIS, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY: This is Hilda Solis calling. Just calling you off the record here.

BASH: Audio of a 2012 voice mail message is the voice of then-Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, heard asking an employee to contribute money and to recruit others to attend a fundraiser for the Obama group, Organizing for America.

SOLIS: Wanting to ask you if you could help us get folks organized to come to a fundraiser that we're doing for Organizing for America for Obama campaign on Friday. There's a lot of folks that we know that are coming, but wanted to ask you if you might help contribute or get other folks to help out.

BASH: Issa argued he broke, violating the Hatch Act, which restricts federal employee's political activities, like soliciting campaign donations while on the job.

The committee's top Democrat was quick to jump on Issa for what he considered a stunt.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD), OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: It is time for the committee to serve as a center stage for political theater and for fellow responsibilities under the Constitution to conduct responsible oversight.

BASH: A Republican source tells CNN Solis' voice message was left in March of 2012 as the president was gearing up for reelection. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel which enforces the Hatch Act received a complaint about a month later and opened an investigation but reached no conclusion before Solis left the cabinet in 2013.

The White House won't comment on the audio saying it's an ongoing investigation.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS CONFERENCE: This is a law enforcement investigation that was first reported back in January of this year. We weren't in a position to comment on that law enforcement investigation at that point and I'm not at a position to comment on it today.

BASH (on camera): But it's unclear what that investigation is because under federal law, the stiffest penalty for violating the Hatch Act is dismissal and Hilda Solis left the Obama cabinet after the president's first term -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Dana Bash from Capitol Hill, thanks very much. That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM", live tonight from Jerusalem.

For our viewers in the United States, CROSSFIRE with Van Jones and S.E. Cupp starts right now.