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Crisis in Israel; Interview With Texas Senator Ted Cruz; Eighteen Dead in Strike on U.N. Shelter

Aired July 24, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, breaking news. Carnage at a U.N. shelter in Gaza. Now Israeli and Palestinian leaders are battling over who's to blame. I'll talk to officials on both sides.

U.S. airlines once again are taking off for Israel just hours after the FAA back in Washington abruptly lifted a ban on all flights. I will ask Texas Senator Ted Cruz about that. He accused President Obama of using it to try to twist the Israelis' arms.

And new ammunition against Vladimir Putin. The U.S. says it now has evidence that Russian artillery is being fired across the border into Ukraine. Will there be any new action against Moscow? I will ask a top State Department spokesperson. She's standing by live this hour.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news tonight, a civilian bloodbath that is driving home the urgent need for a cease- fire right here in the Middle East.

Palestinian officials say 16 people are dead, more than 200 are injured after a strike on a United Nations shelter in Northern Gaza, and it's a new flash point in the battle between Gaza and the Hamas militants. We're following all the breaking developments in that story as well as in the showdown over the shoot-down over Malaysian Flight 17.

We have brand-new pictures from the crash site, as the U.S. levels powerful new accusations against Russia. We have our correspondent and newsmakers. They're all standing by to keep you up to minute on these huge stories.

First, more on the deadly strike in Gaza strike and who may be to blame.


BLITZER (voice-over): Pools of blood stain the concrete floor and a bench where students sat at their desk. This United Nations school was being used as a shelter for families in Gaza when it was hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were multiple deaths and multiple injuries. It is clear that women and children are amongst those who suffered in this terrible incident.

BLITZER: It is not immediately clear who launched the strike. The Israeli military says it is investigating, raising the possibility that a Hamas rocket hit the shelter.

PETER LERNER, SPOKESMAN, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: We have our sensors which have indications that at least on two or three different occasions in the course of the afternoon, rockets launched from within Gaza landed within Beit Hanoun.

BLITZER: Israel has shelled the Beit Hanoun area in Northern Gaza before, accusing Hamas of hiding rockets inside the civilian buildings. Just a day ago, the United Nations secretary-general demanded that militants stop endangering civilians by placing weapons in U.N. schools. Palestinians say they're ready for a cease-fire.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, PALESTINIAN PARLIAMENT MEMBER: We need the cease-fire more than anybody else. We need the cease-fire to stop the bloodshed.

BLITZER: Inside Israel today, new rocket attacks from Gaza, including this one intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system and seen by a CNN crew outside the Ben Gurion International Airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow. That one is right over the airport.

BLITZER: The incoming fire just hours after the Federal Aviation Administration suddenly reversed its ban on U.S. flights to and from Tel Aviv.

ANTHONY FOXX, U.S. SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: We have information now that has given us the satisfaction we need to lift it.

BLITZER: Israel's top aviation official tells me his team convinced the FAA that the airport is secure, despite that rocket that fell about a mile away earlier in the week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The FAA decision to stop the restrictions is a vote of confidence in our quality and the level of professionalism.

BLITZER: Israeli officials lobbied hard for the FAA to allow flights to resume, and they got help from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who flew to Tel Aviv from New York and was passionate in making the case that the flight ban was a mistake.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: That is how terrorists win, Wolf. Can't do that.


BLITZER: Tonight, the Palestinian government is calling the attack on the U.N. shelter an act of brutal Israeli aggression. Shortly, I will be speaking with the Palestinian negotiator Saeb

Erekat. but right now I'm joined by the spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.

Colonel, thanks very much once again for joining us.

You have been investigating what happened at the U.N. shelter. What is the latest information you have?

LERNER: Well, clearly it is a tragic, awful event with awful outcome.

We're still investigating. We're still looking into it. There are still two options that are still viable, first of all, an errant mortar rocket was fired in the midst of combat between terrorists, Hamas terrorists and our forces. And second of all, there is a clear option that Hamas rockets that were being shot from Gaza Strip actually struck.

We have specific indications that they actually struck the area of Beit Hanoun. We're trying to figure that out. We're trying to really find out what really happened. But it is an unfortunate, awful, tragic outcome. We do not strike U.N. facilities. We do not target civilians.

We are aware of this facility. We are operating, working closely with the United Nations in order to enable them to carry out their humanitarian mission within the scope of this conflict. That is what we're doing.

BLITZER: So you're saying it was either a mistake by an Israel, an errant Israeli rocket or missile or whatever, shell, or it was a Hamas rocket that was aimed at Israel but landed by accident at this U.N. facility, is that what you're saying?

LERNER: That is the possibilities that are currently on the table. An errant mortar fire that hit and caused this damage, caused this terrible loss, or indeed a Palestinian rocket. We have had in the past 2.5 weeks over 40 counts of rockets that have fallen short. But we have to clarify that.

BLITZER: Let me play a clip, and this is a spokesperson for the United Nations Relief Works Agency. This is the agency that was in charge of the U.N. shelter where these Palestinians had fled because it was too dangerous where they were living in their homes. Listen to this.


CHRIS GUINNESS, UNRWA SPOKESMAN: I'm not saying that either side it responsible. I do know that the Israeli side had all of GPS coordinate of all our of installations, including the school in Beit Hanoun.

And we had spent much of the day trying to organize a pause so that civilians could be evacuated, civilians including UNRWA staff, and that never came.


BLITZER: But he says that they never got the coordinates, they never got the confirmation from Israel that it was OK to go ahead and evacuate the Palestinians.

LERNER: No, that is not true.

We coordinated with them and we urged them for the last three days to evacuate the people even before the battles happened there. We have spoken with them today, earlier today and informed them of a humanitarian window of opportunity that can be utilized. We conveyed that message directly on the ground level on the liaison bodies so that the people should be -- the situation on the ground, the complex combat, the way these terrorists are using U.N. facilities, they have placed rockets in the U.N. buildings.

That's what they do. They have used ambulances going from place to place. They have launched rockets from schools and launched rockets from mosques. They will go at no end in order to carry out their indiscriminate attacks. And we have a situation here where we're fighting a terrorist organization that is abusing and exploiting the civilian component.

There are tragic -- this is a tragedy. This is a clear tragedy. We do not strike civilians. We are trying to combat this organization. There is a possibility that it was errant. We have to get to the bottom of it.

BLITZER: This is the third time a U.N. structure, whether a shelter or a school, has been hit. You know that?

LERNER: I have heard the reports today.

Indeed, again, the situation -- you have been to Gaza. You know how it is. You know what the situation is like down there. The type of combat, the type of challenge we're facing with this terrorist organization that is abusing the facilities, they're abusing the emblem, the symbols.

We are trying to work within the realm of that capability in order to try and address it. Indeed, we are going to a great effort to strike the terrorist organization and prevent their attacks against us, against Israel, against our home front and sever the rockets, the tunnels that are going into Israel.

They have the ability to cease fire and they have the ability to stop. Indeed, if they would have abided by the cease-fires that have been on the table for the last week or so, there would have been no deaths.

BLITZER: How strong is Hamas right now, militarily speaking? Some military analysts here have told me that the resistance they're putting up, the discipline they're showing, the training that they have is much more sophisticated than the IDF anticipated. LERNER: No, we were well prepared. We knew that they had

undergone training with Iranian knowledge.

We know that their trainers have gone to Iran and brought back the Iranian school of thought of military activities. And they are carrying it out to the letter. They're crossing every T.s and that is how they're operating. Indeed, they have advanced weaponry that they did not have in the past.

They have I would say discipline. They have -- they're more organized. We have seen it in the footage we have shared with you. When they come out of the shafts in the ground in the tunnels you see them operating as a force. I will say, though, every time we have met them face to face on the battlefield, we have come out with the upper hand. They have paid the price.

They have over 200 deaths killed in action with us. Every time that that has happened, that is what we intend to do.

BLITZER: You are saying 200 Hamas militants have been killed by Israel?

LERNER: More than 200.

BLITZER: More than 200.

But they still have rockets and missiles that are coming into Israel, and you have not been able to nullify that.

LERNER: Well, indeed, we know this is a mission and an operation that will not happen overnight. This is not instant coffee.

It's indeed something that needs to be taken into consideration; 10,000 rockets when they began this campaign against us. They had a huge armament. This is a huge situation where they don't finish them in one day. And we need to target them.


BLITZER: How many do they have left after those that they have used already and those that have been destroyed?

LERNER: Our assessment is approximately 40 percent now is what remains after what they have launched at us and what we struck.

BLITZER: So maybe 4,000?

LERNER: Approximately, and they also have the tunnels which we have exposed over 30, 32 tunnels that were all going towards Israel, some of them even already inside Israel. We're cutting those up, we're demolishing them, we're taking away that capability in order to protect our civilians.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the IDF, thank you very much for joining us.

LERNER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

We will get Palestinian reaction coming up. The Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, he is standing by live.

Also tonight, Secretary of State John Kerry is urging all sides in the Middle East conflict to do more to protect the civilians. Secretary Kerry is now back in Cairo, continuing to do a little shuttle diplomacy to try to broker a cease-fire.

One of the key players in that effort is the nation of Qatar, which certainly has some considerable influence with Hamas.

Brian Todd has been taking a closer look at the Qatar connection, if you will.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that connection with Hamas makes Qatar a key player here, but it is also a big problem for the U.S. Qatar is a country which has a close and lucrative relationship with America. At the same time, it supports what the U.S. considers a terrorist group.


TODD (voice-over): A sophisticated lethal web of tunnels, used by Hamas to attack Israel. Israeli forces now in a bloody fight to destroy those tunnels. Where did Hamas get the money to build the underground network?

JONATHAN SCHANZER, FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: The bulk of the financing that goes to Hamas comes from Qatar.

TODD: Qatar, a top American ally in the Middle East, housing a massive U.S. air base, a country which reportedly just spent $11 billion to buy American Patriot missile batteries and Apache attack helicopters.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terror finance tracker with the Treasury Department, says Qatar, with a tiny population but loads of wealth from oil and natural gas, has become the principal financier of Hamas, which America and its allies consider a terrorist group. That is not all. Qatar is home to Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' chief political leader. How generous is Qatar with Hamas?

SCHANZER: In 2012, the emir of Qatar traveled to Gaza. It was the first foreign leader to do so since Hamas had taken over the territory and pledged $400 million.

TODD: It is worth noting that Hamas doesn't just consist of a military wing. It runs schools, hospitals and other civil programs. Qatar also underwrites Al-Jazeera, the TV network also critical of the U.S.

SCHANZER: They basically use their money to extract influence around the region.

TODD: But Schanzer believes it is time for the U.S. to get tough with the emirs of Qatar.

SCHANZER: What we're seeing right now is a Washington that is not punishing Qatar for its behavior. In many ways, it looks as if we're rewarding them by allowing them to purchase this advanced weaponry.

TODD: Why does the America still do business with Qatar?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: We have had issues over the last decade with Qatar and frequently reevaluate that relationship. But on balance, believed engagement with them, because of their relationship with people we are often adversarial with, Hamas, the Taliban and Iran, that it is a useful dialogue for the United States to maintain.


TODD: Contacted by CNN, a senior administration official said U.S. officials have made it clear with Qatar that they consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The official says that Qatar assured the administration that that $400 million it gave to Gaza would not go to Hamas.

We tried several times to get response from Qatari officials to the criticism of their support of Hamas. They did not respond -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.

What are the U.S. officials telling -- what are they telling you about the potential role that Qatar could play in this?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think it is a little bit easy to overestimate what Qatar can do.

Certainly, they have close ties with Hamas and they do give them money. But if you look at what Hamas needs right now, they want to reopen the border crossing with Israel and with Egypt. And Qatar really can't do anything there. That is really something only the Egyptians can do.

That is why Qatar is more likely to play a role after the cease- fire is in effect, when you talk about rebuilding Gaza and to build up some the Palestinian institutions, and Qatar has a lot of money. That is where they could be really most helpful.

BLITZER: What are you hearing about the secretary of state? What is he up to now? Because he has been in Cairo and he has been relatively quiet today.

LABOTT: Well, really everything, all efforts are really trying to get Hamas to back down and stop the fighting. They're really digging in their heels, Wolf, they have seen a lot of victories over the last several days, not only the death of many Israeli soldiers, but that closing of Ben Gurion Airport for a period of time and the closing of the airspace.

They don't feel like they need to back down until those demands, particularly the reopening of the border crossings, are met. So, what Secretary Kerry is trying to do is get an immediate cessation of hostilities. Israel has already agreed. If you can get Hamas to agree, then Secretary Kerry and the Egyptians are talking about a second phase of negotiations where you deal with some of the underlying crisis, issues of the crisis, particularly the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and also on the Israeli side the demilitarization of Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority maybe taking over some of the security apparatus there so that Egypt would feel more comfortable with the border crossings opening.

And this way, Wolf, you're not doomed to repeat the same thing we have seen going on in another two or three years -- Wolf.

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

Still ahead, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, he is standing by. I will ask him about the U.S. decision to resume flights to Israel, his criticism of President Obama and more -- my interview with Senator Cruz coming up.

And we will talk to our correspondent who was near the scene when the U.S. shelter in Gaza was hit, his firsthand account of the bloodshed. That is coming up as well.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're live here in Jerusalem.

As the first American plane is now en route to Israel after the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, lifted its ban on U.S. flights to and from Tel Aviv. But some critics are now charging that the Obama administration was trying to use the ban as a boycott meant to bully Israel.

Among those critics, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas.

He joins us now from Capitol Hill.

Hey, Senator Cruz, thanks very much for joining us.

You issued a strong statement basically accusing the president of the United States of improperly using the FAA as a -- as a tool to squeeze Israel.

On the basis of what did you make that allegation?

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Well, Wolf, it's good to be with you. Thank you for having me.

Yesterday, I raised some serious questions because the FAA's actions naturally lent themselves to serious questions.

Number one, what the FAA did for Israel was unprecedented. It has never before shut down flights into Israel.

Number two, its behavior was not even-handed. The FAA has not shut down flights into Afghanistan, into Pakistan, into Yemen. The FAA has not shut down flights into Ukraine, even though Ukraine just had a passenger airline shot down with a Russian Buk missile.

And so the FAA didn't explain why Israel was being singled out for disparate treatment simply because one rocket landed several miles away from Ben Gurion Airport in an abandoned field.

And so that disparate treatment raised questions.

The second thing that raised questions...

BLITZER: All right...

CRUZ: -- was...

BLITZER: -- well, hold on -- hold on, Senator.

CRUZ: Yes?

BLITZER: I just want to go through some of those points...

CRUZ: Yes.

BLITZER: -- and then we can discuss.

First of all, that rocket landed about -- the FAA says, and we checked -- about one mile from Ben Gurion Airport. And it did -- it wasn't in an abandoned field. We have the pictures. It's -- it destroyed a house in that area.

Secondly, since I was covering the first Gulf War back in January of 1991, the FAA did close traffic to Tel Aviv when Iraqi SCUD missiles launched by Saddam Hussein were coming into the Tel Aviv area. So there -- there was a precedent.

But go ahead.

CRUZ: Well, I'll point out, the FAA has stated they've never shut down flights into Israel. So that's their own position on this.

And -- and my point is simply the disparate treatment, by any measure, one rocket -- Ben Gurion Airport has the -- has among the best safety records in the world. And if you compare other trouble spots such as Ukraine, the disparate treatment of Israel is troubling.

But the second question is the timing wasn't accidental, I don't believe. The timing was such that this ban on flights from America was announced at the same time that John Kerry arrived in the Middle East, at the same time that John Kerry was announcing $47 million for Gaza, much or all of which will end up in Hamas' hands, and the combination had the effect of imposing an economic boycott on Israel.

So the questions I asked is where did this decision come from?

Was this a political decision driven by the White House or was it a -- a decision from the professional staff of the FAA?

If it was the latter, you know, Wolf, that's an easy question to answer. They can produce the career experts at the FAA who presumably engaged in some sort of expert analysis comparing the danger to airline safety in Tel Aviv versus Pakistan or Yemen or Ukraine and they can lay out the analysis.

If, on the other hand, it was designed to exert economic force to pressure Israel into giving into the demands from America, that's a very different decision. And...

BLITZER: Well...

CRUZ: -- those are questions Congress needs to ask and have answers to.

BLITZER: I spoke with Giora Romm, who's the head of the Israel Aviation Authority, today. I spoke to him earlier, right after the FAA announced the initial ban on flights, United, U.S. Airways, Delta flights coming into Israel. And for 36 hours, he said, professional -- on a professional level, the best aviation experts in Israel, the best aviation experts at the FAA, they did have a very detailed, very technical discussion about the threat that U.S. passengers potentially could face. After those 36 hours, the professionals at the FAA decided to lift the ban.

So -- and the White House completely denies they had anything to do with it. They say this was strictly an FAA discuss.

You clearly don't buy that.

CRUZ: Well, Wolf, and I would know you've been a reporter long -- long enough to have some skepticism in terms of what -- of representations the administration gives.

Of course it's right that the Israeli authorities were doing everything they could to persuade the FAA to end their ban on flights into Israel. Of course that much is right.

But the question is, what was the decision-making that went into the Obama administration imposing the ban on the front end. And when I asked those questions, the result has been anger, has been dismissiveness, but a refusal to answer the question. You know, I thought it was striking yesterday, a State Department spokesperson, when asked that question, dismissed it, but then proceeded to speak for the FAA, to speak on behalf of the FAA. And this is a very different decision if it emanated from the

State Department or the White House as an economic tool to pressure Israel than if it was simply an expert judgment on -- on airline safety. And that's easy to assess, because if it was the latter, there will be career employees, there will be written reports laying it out.

If it was the former, then there's going to be a trail of communications from the political leadership.

BLITZER: All right, you know, there are other airlines that a -- I guess it's fair to say, followed the U.S. lead. In fact, even right now, Lufthansa, the German carrier, they're still not flying in and out of Israel.

How do you explain that?

They -- they've got their experts. They want to make money. Those flights are pretty crowded.

CRUZ: Look, Europe has never been shy about putting undue influence and pressure on the nation of Israel. And America and Israel enjoy an unshakeable alliance.

One of my greatest concerns with the Obama administration is we've never had an American administration demonstrate as much hostility and antagonism to the nation of Israel.

I -- I would note that the questions I raised about this airline ban come in the context of a global BDS movement, a global movement to pressure, to boycott, divest and impose sanctions against Israel that, sadly, John Kerry has made comments that -- that many took as encouraging that effort.

And in that context, the effect of the FAA order was an economic boycott. Now, I am glad that the Obama administration, in the face of bipartisan criticism, reconsidered. But we should still inquire, was this a political decision done from political motives or was it an independent agency?

If it was only the FAA, they should easily be able to produce the experts and the written expert opinion before they issued the ban.

BLITZER: Here's what the State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf -- and she's going to be joining us later this hour -- said about you and your statement.

I'll play the clip.


MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESWOMAN: FAA has publicly said the only consideration they take into account is security and safety of American citizens. I think a goal Senator Cruz should, in theory, share and should not play politics with them anymore. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, go ahead. Respond to Marie Harf.

CRUZ: Well, look, yesterday, when she was asked about it, she chose to ignore the question and to belittle the -- the very serious questions. Uh, but then, strikingly, she stood up and said she would speak on behalf of the FAA.

I think it's a little ironic that the State Department is protesting they had nothing to do with the decision, but then the State Department is acting as the official spokesperson for the FAA at the same time.

Right now, the facts we know suggest this was a decision driven by the State Department and perhaps by the political operatives at the White House, because there is no justification for why you would ban flights into Israel and not ban them into other, far more dangerous areas, including, most notably, Ukraine, where a commercial airliner was just shot down with a missile. Over 200 people were murdered with a -- with a Russian Buk missile and yet the FAA hadn't -- hasn't banned flights to Ukraine.

That raises a serious question. And even in the comments you just played...

BLITZER: All right...

CRUZ: -- the State Department spokesperson will not answer the questions or produce the internal FAA analyses that she's claiming were the basis of this discussion.

BLITZER: Well, she's standing by live. We'll talk to her in a moment.

CRUZ: Very good.

BLITZER: But, very quickly, you know the Obama administration, with the support of Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate, continues to provide Israel with, what, about $3 billion a year, and now supporting, what, another $250 million or so to -- to help Israel deal with that Iron Dome anti-missile system that's worked so well over the past few weeks.

You can't say the administration is totally anti-Israel, when they're helping Israel in a concrete way militarily, with this kind of financial assistance.

CRUZ: Well, you can say that. Look, are they honoring the treaty commitments that have passed with overwhelming bipartisan support out of Congress? Yes. But at the same time the Obama administration goes out of its way repeatedly to criticize, to attack, to hector the nation of Israel.

It's just a couple of months ago that John Kerry said that Israel could become an Apartheid state, which I would know is a vicious slander. It's false. And those words have consequences. They will be repeated by enemies of Israel, by Hamas, by Iran, by Hezbollah. And they'll say, "This isn't us speaking. This is the secretary of state of the United States." That is unacceptable.

If you look at this conflict right now, it is a false moral equivalency to compare Hamas, who are terrorists trying to murder innocent men, women and children, and the nation of Israel, whose military is trying to protect their civilians and stop terrorists. Those are not equivalent. They're fundamentally different.

BLITZER: Senator Cruz, thank you very much for joining us. I know you have strong views on this subject, and you're willing to share them with our viewers. We appreciate that. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

CRUZ: Always a pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you. Thank you very much. We'll continue this conversation down the road.

Just ahead, the top State Department spokeswoman, or at least one of the top State Department spokeswomen, responds to Senator Cruz. Marie Harf is standing by live.


BLITZER: All right, you just heard Senator Ted Cruz go after the Obama administration. Let's get the reaction from Marie Harf. She's the State Department spokesperson.

Marie, thanks very much for joining us. Go ahead and tell us what you think about what we all heard about Senator Cruz. He says that this was all political, and the FAA was a tool of the president to squeeze Israel into making concessions for a cease-fire.

MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: Well, Wolf, as I said yesterday, I'll repeat it again. That's just a ridiculous, and quite frankly, an offensive assertion. He spins a good tale, but unfortunately, it's just not based in reality.

The FAA makes decisions based solely on the security and safety of Americans and American pilots and American citizens on these flights. And when they had new information last night that indicated they could lift this notice, they did so.

And I would also point out that we do have a notice to airmen right now over parts of Ukraine and many places around the world. There's a whole list of them online at the FAA website. I'd encourage him to take a look before he talks about how, quote, "unprecedented" this was.

BLITZER: He also says that if it were strictly a professional decision by the experts at the FAA, you could prove that. You could make these people available, instead of, he says, you talking for them, instead of letting them speak for themselves. To which you say? HARF: To which I say, "Look, the FAA has very good press people

who can speak for themselves. I responded to a question that I was asked at a press briefing, and I wanted to make very clear that it was not a State Department decision. It was not a political decision in any way, shape or form here.

The FAA has very serious responsibilities that I know they take very seriously. And that's why they make these decisions. And I'd make one more point, Wolf, in terms of what Senator Cruz said about our relationship. It is an unshakable relationship. And those Iron Dome systems you see today in Israel, shooting down Hamas rockets, it was the Obama administration that helped develop and fund that system. This administration that is today, saving Israeli lives.

So again, interesting tale he's spinning but not based in reality.

BLITZER: So let's talk a little bit about the whole nature of what's going on right now. Secretary of State John Kerry, as you know right, the prime minister of Israel, when they met, he, Netanyahu asked Kerry, please, intervene with the FAA and convince them to lift that ban. We now know in 36 hours the ban was lifted. Here's the question: Did Secretary Kerry, your boss, try to influence the FAA?

HARF: That's not how the process works, Wolf. You know, that -- the secretary did discuss it with Prime Minster Netanyahu when he brought it up. But this was a decision the FAA made, solely based on the fact that they had new intelligence that they had gotten from the intelligence community. And there were additional mitigation steps the Israeli government itself had taken. So we felt comfortable -- the FAA felt comfortable lifting the ban. So that's the only decision that went into this decision-making process.

The secretary agreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu that we want normal life to return to Israel. That's why he's in Cairo, shuttling back and forth, trying to get a cease-fire here, because we don't want Israeli citizens to live under the threats that we've seen with rockets that have not only landed at the airport, prompting this notice, but that have threatened Israeli citizens all across the country.

So the secretary is very committed to this. That's why he's there on the ground right now.

BLITZER: How close is he? And the partners he's working with to achieving a cease-fire between the Israelis and the Hamas?

HARF: Well, Wolf, there are still some pretty large gaps here. And we knew this was complicated. There are a lot of issues at play here. He's been shuttling back and forth, spoken -- you know, on 15 different calls today with other partners in the region -- the Qataris, the Turks, the Emiratis, others -- but he's going to be making some decisions very soon about whether the parties are actually interested in coming to a cease-fire here.

His time on the ground is not infinite. He has other business, of course, to tend to, as well. So I think we'll see over the next 24 to 36 hours whether or not there is a clear path forward here. Because we really, at the end of the day, all you have to do is look at the scenes coming out from the ground today to know that we need a cease-fire as soon as we possibly can. That it is so important for the citizens of Israel and of course, for the Palestinians, as well.

BLITZER: So can I -- can I assume, you say 36 hours? The secretary is at least going to stay in the region and is in Cairo for another 36 hours? Is that right?

HARF: I have learned not to make any assumptions about how long John Kerry will stay anywhere overseas in any one location.

Look, he is there at least until tomorrow. I think he's going to be making some decisions soon about what the next steps are. He's been working very hard with the secretary general, who's been very involved. But there needs to be a path forward here. And some significant gaps do remain. But no matter where he is, whether he's in Washington and Cairo, Jerusalem, he's been very engaged with this for some time, making phone calls and trying to push the parties back to a cease-fire here which is where we need to get, again, as soon as we possibly can.

BLITZER: We heard the Israelis say they're ready for a cease- fire. But Hamas is not. Is that your analysis?

HARF: Well, it takes two to put a cease-fire together here. And obviously, we've worked very closely with the Israelis, and the Egyptians and the Qataris and others, are working with Hamas, who as you know, we don't talk to, because they're a terrorist organization.

But we need both sides to agree on what the terms of that would look like. And there are a lot of complicated issues here. We knew this wouldn't be solved overnight. It's a very difficult situation. But we do need both sides to come together here and make some tough decisions, because we know it's what's in the best interests of both of their people. But it's going to take some time, possibly, to get there. Hopefully, not as much time as we think.

BLITZER: Well, all of us want to see a cease-fire and see the killing and the dying stop in Gaza and here in Israel, as well.

Marie Harf, the State Department spokesperson. Marie, thanks very much for joining us.

HARF: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, a United Nations shelter hit with a deadly strike as both sides trade the blame. Our reporter was on the ground in Gaza. We're going live there to see what's going on.

Also we'll get Palestinian reaction. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, he will join us live. We'll get his take on what's going on, as far as a cease-fire is concerned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're back live from Jerusalem with more on the

breaking news. At least 18 people killed in a strike on the United Nations shelter in northern Gaza. The U.N. secretary general says he is appalled by the latest violence.

Our correspondent Ian Lee was near the scene when it all happened. Ian is joining us live from Gaza.

So what did you see, Ian? What happened?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it was just pandemonium at that hospital. People were running everywhere. We were seeing ambulances coming in ferrying the injured and the dead. A lot of family members there, too, looking for the loved ones. We were there and we have this look at what happened.


LEE (voice-over): A conveyer belt of the injured and the dead. A father carries his daughter in, another, his child out. Not much this father can do but comfort his little girl. She begs for him to stay close.

Evacuating their homes to a U.N.-run school should have meant they were safe. Instead, for this girl, she lies bleeding, shrapnel in the shoulder. This boy scans the faces overhead, trying to make sense of what happened. An X-ray reveals shrapnel lodged in his leg.

The youngest I saw, killed. A baby barely a year old, the mortician wraps her almost as if he is gently putting her to bed.

At the U.N. school in Beit Hannon, scarred concrete reveals the point of detonation, pock marked walls show the spread of shrapnel. Hamas blames Israel. Israel says it could have been a Hamas rocket. The U.N. says it twice asked the Israeli military for permission to evacuate the civilians.

CHRIS GUNNESS, UNRWA SPOKESPERSON: We had spent much of the day trying to organize a cause so that civilians could be evacuated. Civilians including the staff, and that never came.

LEE: And this is the result. Over a dozen people dead and hundreds injured.

(on camera): A lot of the chaos is surrounded with not knowing. People don't know the status of their relatives. If they're injured or killed, move by, we've got someone bringing in someone here.

This woman begs for any information about her son in law.

For others, they know exactly where their loved ones are -- the morgue.


LEE: Well, Wolf, this really is a big mystery here in Gaza. What happened? There's so many different questions that need to be answered.

The IDF released a statement that said between 10:00 a.m. local and 2:00 p.m., that there was a window for people to leave. And this contradicts what the United Nations was saying that they weren't given any window.

And then if you look at the strike, there's a lot of questions about what actually did hit that compound. You had Hamas saying it was Israel. Israel says they're investigating what actually happened, but there is some speculation that that could have been a Hamas rocket.

So, really a lot of questions in the hours and days to come, wolf.

BLITZER: Ian Lee on the ground for us in Gaza, thanks very much.

Let's bring in the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat. He's joining us on the phone once again from Jericho, on the West Bank.

Saeb, any progress towards a cease-fire? Everyone knows it is essential to stop the killing on both sides.

SAEB ERAKAT, PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR (via telephone): Absolutely. I can tell you that there are now efforts now being directed by Secretary Kerry who is still in Cairo, and President Abbas met with his majesty, King Abdullah II of Jordan, today. Mr. Ban Ki-moon is still in the region also.

I know that the Qataris and others are playing a role. And I don't have anything concrete to tell you, wolf, but all I can tell you is the continuation of this -- the only facts on the ground is that more than 800 Palestinians mostly women and children have been killed. (INAUDIBLE) some investigation the number of 5,000 people injured. Devastated infrastructure.

And I'm afraid now tonight in the West Bank, things are getting out of hand so far in clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli army. We have more than 400 people injured, 200 of them. In the Qalandiya passage, two people killed. If things continue I'm afraid that we're going to have also a major explosion in the West Bank.

I would urge everyone to do whatever they can to create the balance between the humanitarian cease-fire and lifting the siege from Gaza because it's slipping through our fingers like sand tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I got the same sense. I spoke to Dr. Yousef Barghouti earlier in the day, you know him. He's a Palestinian parliamentarian. He suggested that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were now on the same page when it comes to a cease-fire. Is that right?

ERAKAT: No, we -- yes, he's right. He's right in terms that we want cease-fire that would ensure that the status quo because Gaza now needs not to be under siege. Gaza needs every bit of help in order to reconstruct, to heal, to rebuild, to take the wounded out. So it's a tension that we in the Palestinian Authority now have made a statement that it should be unparalled (ph) that a ceasefire and the lifting of the seige should be unparalled.

And I don't think why this should be a problem for Israel. Why should it be a problem for Israel if the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Norway, Japan, anyone in there wants to send humanitarian aid to Gaza, why shouldn't all passages be open? Why can't Israel just say we're going to open the passages, we're going to lift the siege. And that's what it takes.

And I believe a cease-fire matched with lifting the siege is a workable solution, is a workable ingredient. I don't think -- how is Israel harmed? Because now the suffering is 1.6 million people who have no more life, no more homes, no more structure. And when the Israelis ask them to evacuate, where they will go?

Wolf, you know Gaza. You know Gaza very well. There are no schools now. They left their homes upon Israelis telling them to leave their homes. They went to schools. Now, they're asking them to leave the school. Where will they go?

So, it's essentially now to have this cease-fire --


BLITZER: Would Palestinians accept the cease-fire if it included, let's say, international monitors to come in and to see if they could demilitarize the Gaza Strip?

ERAKAT: Well, I think this is -- as we spoke to Mr. Kerry yesterday, I think at this stage what you need to do is you have a fire in the building, you get the children out, you put the fire out, then you discuss things because the Gaza situation must be handled in the day after, (INAUDIBLE) stops negotiation, the end of occupation, and that's where these things will be discussed.

This particular moment, the fire is eating up everything. We must extinguish this fire. And that should be the focus. I don't think it's a problem for Israel to announce that it will open its passages and it will lift the siege, matched with the humanitarian cease-fire, and yes, we need the --


BLITZER: Saeb Erakat, we're with you. Let's hope that there is a cease-fire. Let's hopes that it comes very soon. I know you and President Abbas are working as hard as you can to achieve that.

I want to continue this conversation tomorrow night. We'll have more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: This note, we invited Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan to

join us once again tonight. He couldn't make it. We'll try to get him tomorrow night.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.