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Israeli Ground Troops Enter Gaza

Aired January 3, 2009 - 14:00   ET


MAJ. AVITAL LEIBOVICH, IDF SPOKESPERSON: As I mentioned before, everything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target. Therefore, you can give this your own interpretation. For us people that don't recognize the right for Israel to exist, terrorists which train day after day and try to target as many Israeli civilians as possible are for us a legitimate target for self-defense.
RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Major Avital Leibovich with the Israeli Defense Forces. Thank you for speaking with us.

LEIBOVICH: Thank you.

VASSILEVA: As we just heard, this is the beginning of a ground offensive of Israel into Gaza. We just heard from Major Avital Leibovich that this is going to take time. She did not want to specify how long but it is an operation, as she says, it's a second stage against the infrastructure of Hamas using infantry, engineering and all of the possible -- and troops also, all possible ways and means to go after the infrastructure of Hamas.

The goal, she said, is to take over rocket launching areas. I would like to go back to our correspondent now, Paula Hancocks, who is at the border. As I mentioned before, she's at the border between Israel and Gaza because foreign journalists have not been allowed into Gaza. So everything we know, we are able to find out from people who are inside. And Paula, I don't know if you were able to listen to the interview with Major Avital Leibovich, but basically she is saying this is going to be a long and comprehensive operation.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we certainly have been hearing this from Israeli officials since day one saying we need patience to finish this mission and the defense minister said I don't want to deceive anyone. This is not going to be short.

So we knew that Israel certainly was prepared to take its time and to make this operation last a long time. Now, one thing that we are hearing from the military as well is that they confirmed that they started this evening a large-scale drafting of reservists. So that also would suggest this could be a longer-scale operation, the fact that the operation on the ground has just started and only now are they calling up further reservists who could come in within the next couple of days, I should imagine. Most of them are from the home front command and from different military units.

Obviously the home front command is those that deal with Israeli itself. So they would be helping to try to prevent casualties from the rockets from coming the other way. That certainly is going to be a consideration as they are going into Gaza on foot, will there be a retaliation of rockets back into Israel? So that's obviously why they are going for the area of where these militants have been firing the rockets.

Now, there are open areas all around the border of Gaza. On the Gazan side, which certainly the militants would have been using to fire the rockets. Except here to go back to where the Israeli military is trying to take control first of all. Ralitsa?

VASSILEVA: Paula, stand by. I would like to bring in Palestinian voice and reaction from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. I'm joined now by Saed Erakat from the West Bank, he is chief Palestinian negotiator, adviser to the administration. Mr. Erekat, thank you for joining us. Your reaction as we are hearing that Israeli troops have crossed the border into Gaza, a ground operation which will continue for some time has begun.

SAEB ERAKATSA, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Well, we believe this will add to the complexities and violence will breed more violence and more of the same. The military we have does not have these solutions. We have called upon the international community to stop this attack immediately and we are open to discuss later the cease-fire through the Egyptians, the national dialogue, the needs of Gaza, but if Israel believes that it can't solve this problem through military means, this was proven wrong so many times. What this will do is undermine the peace process. This will undermine all efforts being exerted to revive hope in the region and at the end of the day, who are you fighting? What are you trying to achieve?

We don't have an army. We don't have a navy, we don't have an air force. We have called upon Israel and upon everybody to help the Egyptians in order to sustain the cease-fire in Gaza. Because this problem requires political solutions, not military solutions.

So I'm afraid ...

VASSILEVA: Mr. Erakat, let me ask you, let's talk about political solutions. How are these solutions going to be achieved when even the Palestinian leadership is divided? You are in the West Bank. Hamas controls Gaza. You have no control over Gaza. How is that going to stop? Israel is saying Hamas is a terrorist organization. The U.S., the European Union ...

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we were listening to CNN International's Ralitsa Vassileva talking to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat there. We are talking about ground troop movement taking place in Gaza, Israeli forces, by many estimates, one of our military analysts estimating that thousands of Israeli troops are likely moving into Gaza. The idea is to hold that area.

We heard from an Israeli Defense Forces major earlier who said they're going after a legitimate target such as tunnels where Hamas weapons are being transferred, rocket launching areas and homes of Hamas leaders. But this is likely going to be urban warfare, and often times it's home field advantage.

Our military analyst says that Hamas likely has the advantage here. There are likely to be booby traps in many of the areas and it will be difficult for Israeli forces to discern Hamas militants from civilians.

Our Ben Wedeman is in Jerusalem. He's watching and experiencing all that is taking place. Ben, what are you hearing from the Israeli Defense Forces about their strategy?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Basically what we know from what they told us the plan is they plan to occupy certain areas or control certain areas from which those rockets are being fired.

And I know some of those areas, there's two villages in the northern end of the Gaza Strip, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, the outskirts of which are agriculture areas. Many rockets have been fired from those areas and really around the periphery of the urban, sort of dense urban population of Gaza. Those will be easier to control because there aren't that many people, there aren't that many houses or buildings in those areas.

The danger for the Israeli forces and the opportunity for Hamas will be when the Israeli troops, infantry supported by tanks, go into those narrow allies and streets that make up most of Gaza. So our understanding from Israeli officials is that it's going to be at least initially, the first stage, is going to be limited in scope.

They won't be going for instance into the Jabaliya Refugee Camp, which is at the northern end of the Gaza Strip which is very crowded, very dense or Gaza City itself, which has fairly high buildings. The highest one is an 18-story building which obviously Hamas militiamen and other militants have control over they would be able to use to their advantage in firing upon the oncoming Israeli troops.

So at the moment, it does appear that it will be limited in scope but, of course, this is just the beginning. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: And Ben, when we spoke with our military analyst David Grange earlier, he said, you know what, this is exactly what Hamas likely wanted to happen, wanted to lure Israeli Defense Forces into Gaza by ground. What's your understanding as to whether and why the idea felt like this is the best approach to take?

WEDEMAN: Well, like I said, as long as they stay out of those really crowded areas with high population density, where there's so many opportunities for fighters to hide to take advantage of the terrain, they may be able to avoid the kind of bloodshed that would be inevitable if they went in. Obviously, Hamas wants the Israeli soldiers to come in, to get really bogged down in urban warfare, very messy, very ugly, very bloody.

And this is the sort of warfare that will get the Israelis bogged down and will probably lead to some sort of eruption of opinion within the Arab World. We have seen already a really harsh accusation against Arab leaders like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, these so-called pro- Western moderates who are really coming in for a bashing in the Arab media and Arab press from the Arab street for what's seen as their collaboration, their cooperation with the United States, with Israel.

So, this is what Hamas wants to do is really inflame the emotions on the Arab street and put the kind of pressure on governments like Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to really step back and completely, uncategorically distance themselves from what's going on Gaza right now -- Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: Ben Wedeman in Jerusalem. Thanks very much. Paula Hancocks is there on the border between Gaza and Israel. Paula, what are you finding out now?

HANCOCKS: Well, Fredricka, we are still hearing the constant Israeli shelling and we're also seeing some missiles from the air, whether that's helicopters or fighter jets and certainly this onslaught from the air is continuing as those ground troops are heading in. Now certainly, as soon as it started turning dusk a few hours ago, there was intense shelling of the area around the border, on the Gazan side of the border.

And certainly, that could have been to clear the way. Some Hamas spoke to people and leaders saying they booby-trapped the way in and it would be a bloodbath if Israeli troops tried to go in. So certainly that could be the Israeli military trying to clear the way, trying to clear any mines that may have been -- that may have been planted. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: Any way of knowing how many forces we're talking about?

HANCOCKS: No way of knowing that, I'm afraid. We know there were an awful lot waiting on the border. We know that at least 9,000 reservists were able to be called up and as we understand it as well, they're also calling up even more reservists this evening.

So certainly that would suggest this isn't going to be a short operation, as we have heard from the Israeli military. The ground operation has gone in and now they are still calling up even more reservists should they need them. And we are hearing constant shelling and it sounds like it's from the area around that border. This is what the military says they want to do. They want to clear the open areas just inside Gaza, the areas that many of the militants favored to launch their rockets from and they want to secure those particular areas to make sure the rockets are not going to keep coming into Israel.

Although one thing I should mention is that today the number of rockets that did come into Israel really had decreased significantly and that sounds like a pretty big missile going into Gaza now from a helicopter, I think that was. So the onslaught from the area is continuing as these troops are moving in.

WHITFIELD: Paula Hancocks there on the border between Gaza and Israel. Thanks very much. We're going to check back with you. U.S. Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is on the line with us now. Barbara, give us an idea of tactical move here. We heard from the IDF major, one of them, saying this is a second stage of their assault, of their military strategy against Hamas. Explain to us, if you can, why this ground movement is essential in their tactical planning.

VOICE OF BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, U.S. military officials this weekend are watching all of this very closely. I just want to bring everyone up to date. We now can tell you that the Israeli chief of defense staff General Ashkenazi in fact telephoned a few days ago Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to inform him of the Israeli operation and it was going to begin.

We are trying to determine at this point whether the Israelis notified Washington about the ground incursion. So none of this really comes to such a surprise to top U.S. military commanders.

And as my colleague Ben Wedeman was saying, what they are looking at here is much of the same difficulty that U.S. troops have faced for years now in Iraq, especially also Afghanistan, that the Pakistani military faces in their country. When you have military forces trying to root out insurgents, whatever you call them, in a heavily populated civilian area, it is very tough going. You can get bogged down very quickly. You can get into a morass of civilian casualties.

There are obligations for providing rebuilding, medical assistance, humanitarian assistance. How far will the Israelis go into Gaza? Will they go into the populated areas? And the key question is if they seize some territory in Gaza, will the Israeli military be able to hold it? And that may be a tactic. If it is a full military strategy for really getting rid of Hamas once and for all, a lot of people will tell you Hamas will survive this -- Fred?

WHITFIELD: Knowing this in that telephone conversation, for example, would the U.S. go as far as discouraging this kind of tactic or at least spelling out, hey, consider all of these options before you do XYZ?

STARR: Well, I think that it's very clear the Bush administration policy is unquestionable support for the right of self- defense for Israel. That is not on the table. So I don't think they would have had that discussion. If the minister wanted any assistance from the U.S., we do not know. But that would have been an opportunity for him to ask for it.

But one of the things that top U.S. military commanders have privately been saying for the last couple of days as this has been unfolding, what they are watching, again, is what Ben Wedeman was talking about, the Arab street. From the U.S. military's point of view, they are looking very carefully at some of the demonstrations they are seeing in the Arab countries, the reaction on the Arab street.

The pressure that may be putting on certain Arab governments because what no one in the Bush administration and incoming Obama administration wants to see is any increase in instability, as tough as things are in the region, any additional increase in instability, especially in any of the moderate Arab governments because of this situation.

So the U.S. military, the U.S. intelligence community sort of monitoring that feel on the street, if you will. Are these just street demonstrations that the world is seeing? Does it signal some level of organization in that part of the world that goes deeper?

And, of course, what we have seen now for many years on the Arab street, very capable use of television, video, YouTube, all of those communication tools. All of those advanced communication tools that young people around the world tune into where they can see these pictures of demonstrations and messages go out, communications are happening. No one should think that this war, if you will, is just on the streets of Gaza. This is a war and an ideology that is certainly taking place around cyberspace around the cause -- Fred?

WHITFIELD: And what is taking place between the Department of Defense and President-Elect Barack Obama right now?

STARR: Well, what we know, of course, is the Department of State, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the national security team at the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, anything that they -- or the intelligence community, of course, continuing to brief the president-elect and his team. The incoming national security adviser, retired General Jim - James Jones, was in fact a middle east adviser a couple of years ago. Very capable, very well aware of the Middle East climate, knows the people in the region.

On some accounts already getting involved, getting briefings in this minute-by-minute process that we see unfolding. And we know the Obama team is saying, one president at a time. But make no mistake, behind the scenes, these are all very capable people. They know the region, they know the area. They know leaders in the region. So I think it's pretty safe to assume there's an awful lot of communication going on -- Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, thank you so much for joining us on the phone.

I want to go back to the border of Gaza and Israel and rejoin our Paula Hancocks. Paula?

HANCOCKS: Fredricka, we are seeing a combination of an air and ground assault. The air strikes have not ended now that the troops have gone in on food. Certainly we are hearing a tremendous amount of shelling going into Gaza from our vantage point here from the Israeli/Gaza border. We are seeing missiles head into Gaza from helicopter gunships we hear over the head. So certainly it is a combined operation at this point. The Israeli military wanting to get control of the open areas just inside Gaza, all around Gaza.

Now, of course, this is the area that the militants favor for trying to fire their rockets into Israel. Certainly, that's what they are targeting at this point, the shelling is continuous. And I can hear behind me and you can hear helicopters head in drones so certainly a combined effort in the ground and by air.

WHITFIELD: So Paula, can I ask you to kind of describe a little more in detail the geography there? When we talk about holding onto the open areas where most likely the Hamas presence or their forces presence are, how great a distance is that before getting to, I guess, the more densely populated, the taller buildings, the infrastructure of Gaza?

HANCOCKS: Well, Israel has certainly cleared that area, (INAUDIBLE) as you drive into the areas, of course many of the areas have been flattened. Many houses, a couple of little villages up there, Beit Hanin (ph) and Beit Lahiya and that is where in the past we have seen many rockets coming from these militants.

So certainly the militants will not be in these areas at this point. They would have more than likely retreated into the more densely populated areas. But as you go in, there's probably just at a guess, I would say, maybe half a kilometer of open area, that is a guess.

But it's a significant amount of area that the Israelis over the year have cleared so they have a clear line of sight to these villages and to Gaza City itself and also a clear line of sight so they can operate in these particular areas, which is where they are right now.

WHITFIELD: And this site where these rocket launching areas would be, any idea of how many targeted areas there might be that the Israeli Defense Forces are going after?

HANCOCKS: Certainly, all of the targets that they have had, they have taken out already. They have taken those out from the air. There are some that they can't take out from the air. Maybe they're in residential areas, in a very densely populated area, so they have to do that from the ground.

But it's unclear from the military, and obviously they are not going to make this public, how deep they are going to go into the Gaza Strip. They made it clear they want to occupy those open areas where some of the shorter range missiles and the Qassam rockets and mortars have been fired. But some of these longer distance rockets we have been seeing over the past week from these militants could have been launched from further inside the densely populated areas. They don't need to be right on the border of Gaza to hit their mark. Some of these longer-range missiles can hit up to 40 kilometers away.

So certainly many of the militants will be hunkered down in the densely populated areas. Many of the rocket launches and rocket caches or the storehouses that the Israeli military want to destroy will not be on the outskirts of Gaza.

WHITFIELD: Is the realistic objective, Paula, for Israel to think it could cripple Hamas but not necessarily topple it completely by this kind of air and ground assault? HANCOCKS: Certainly they want to cripple Hamas' ability to fire rockets at Israel. This has been what they have said all along. The whole reason for this assault, which is on day eight in the evening.

But they would like to be able to cripple Hamas. They have said openly, we want to destroy Hamas' infrastructure, its military infrastructure. They want to disable the military ability of this Palestinian militant group.

Of course, to do that, the military would have to go into the center of Gaza City. It would have to go into the center of the villages around -- around Gaza City and that is something that the Israeli military will not want to do.

That would end up with a tremendous amount of Israeli casualties to go house to house, to have this urban warfare that the Hamas militants would certainly favor. But I would be very surprised if the military wanted to get themselves into that kind of situation. But, of course, one question is, it's very well going in but how do they get back out again once they've gone in and they've occupied certain areas of Gaza and they've made them secure for the Israelis, how do they get back out again without Hamas filling the vacuum?

WHITFIELD: All good questions. Still unable to answer those, however. Paula Hancocks there on the Gaza/Israeli border. Again, this is day eight of the conflict and now evidence in this night vision-type scope, imagery you're able to see there, Israeli forces moving in to Gaza.

It's believed thousands, perhaps even upwards of 9,000 Israeli troops on the ground that are making their way into these areas to hold down these areas, going after what one Israeli Defense Force major said, "legitimate targets." Perhaps going to these areas that Paula was describing as open areas where many of the Hamas militants favor.

It is believed by military analysts and others that if these forces make their way all the way into the more densely populated areas, it could be a very ugly urban warfare type of scenario that certainly no one wants to see. But right now, day eight of this conflict between Israel and Gaza, now evidence that Israeli troops are indeed making their way by ground into and confirmation from the Israeli Defense Forces as well, that they are making their way into Gaza by ground to try to secure these areas and at the very least, try to cripple Hamas.

We will have much more on our coverage here from Atlanta and, of course, around the world right here from the NEWSROOM right after this.


WHITFIELD: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. You're looking at some of the latest images coming in right now, evidence of Israeli ground forces moving into Gaza. This coming now on the eighth day of the conflict between Gaza and Israel. It's believed that thousands of Israeli troops are making their way in. Military officials there in Israel have said this is the second stage of their strategy. They continue to carry out their air assaults as well, now accompanied by the ground movement as well. In all over the last eight days, 400 people have been killed, 2,200 injured, have been some of the estimates that are coming in. You're seeing some of the other images of what preceded the ground troop movement.

Earlier today we saw what was described as flare bombs that were lighting up the sky there, presumably now we are understanding from military analysts that this was used to help illuminate the area for these ground troops to start making their way in and now evidence that those Israeli ground troops are indeed making their way in by the thousands.

Military leaders there in Israel saying that their plan is to try to secure certain areas where they believe that Hamas militants seem to favor and try to cripple them as best they can by taking out some of the targets which would include weapons, rocket launching sites as well as areas that transfer weapons and, as you have seen over the last few days, also being targeted homes of Hamas leaders.

On the phone with us now, Mustafa Barghouti who is a Palestinian politician and also an eyewitness to all that is transpiring here. Mr. Barghouti. Give us an idea of what your thoughts are right now. Was it your belief this was imminent, these ground troop movements would indeed be taking place like this?

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, PALESTINIAN PARLIAMENT MEMBER: No, first of all, let me tell you one of the most unfortunate things that you and all of the world media have correspondents on the Israeli side but you don't have correspondents on the Palestinian side, and that's why unfortunately, you get only half the picture.

WHITFIELD: Perhaps you can fill in the blanks for us.

BARGHOUTI: I will try.

WHITFIELD: And perhaps this is why it is so important for you to convey what it is you're seeing and experiencing and feeling.

BARGHOUTI: As you have just said, 460 Palestinians have been killed so far, 2,300 have been injured, including 1,000 women and children. This is an attack of innocent human beings. This is a very small area, the Gaza Strip. It's less than 220 square miles, with about 7,000 people living in every square mile. This is like the most densely populated area in the world and now the Israeli army is attacking it with airplanes, attacking it with artillery, and now with tanks.

This invasion was not necessary at all. The Palestinian side was ready, including Hamas, for a cease-fire. There were efforts done by us and by the international community to achieve cease-fire. This attack is a preemptive strike to prevent a cease-fire and to bring about... WHITFIELD: What do you mean? Explain that. What do you mean Hamas was ready for a cease-fire? If it was ready for a cease-fire, what's taking so long to go ahead and execute that?

BARGHOUTI: (INAUDIBLE) implementing the cease-fire. One of the most misleading information that we have had from the Israeli side is that Hamas broke the cease-fire. Actually, it was Israel that broke the cease-fire in November. Before that, we didn't have any single Israeli killed.

Because of this invasion now, four Israelis are killed and 460 Palestinians are killed. This could have been stopped. This could have been avoided. I think these military generals in Israel and politicians are using this bloodbath just to gain in their political campaigning.

But this attack today could take away the lives of many, many, many Palestinians and, of course, some Israelis. I have just spoken to the people in the north of Gaza. They told me we are sitting here, children around us. It's dark, it's cold. We don't have electricity. We don't have fuel. We don't have bread. We don't have medication. We don't know what to do. We don't know whom to communicate with. And the situation is awful.

Just two hours ago the Israeli planes -- artillery attacked a mosque while people were praying, and they killed 14 people, including four children. This is unacceptable. The world community must intercede immediately to stop this massacre.

I want also to remind you of one thing. Gaza has been under occupation from the sea, the air, and the ground around it, and now the Israeli occupying army is attacking the people who are occupied without any consideration for the Geneva Convention.

You know, this reminds me only with one scene that I have seen on TV, which is the Warsaw Ghetto, when occupiers attacked even the occupied people. This is not good for the image of Israel. This is not good for the Palestinian-Israeli relations in the future. This is not good for the cause of peace. This is going to destabilize the area.

Imagine how the Palestinians will feel, how the Arabs will feel, how the whole world who has a sense of humanity will feel about slaughtering these innocent people just because they insist on having this terrible war?

WHITFIELD: And, Mr. Barghouti, explain to me, if you can, or give me a sense, what would it take right now to stop this conflict, to stop the Israeli ground forces where they are in their tracks, to stop the Hamas militants from what they are doing right now, what would it take?

BARGHOUTI: Very simple. The last thing that Condoleezza Rice could do before leaving her office is to intercede immediately and say to the Israelis, enough is enough. We are imposing now a cease-fire that should be respected by both sides. WHITFIELD: So you're saying it's in the hands of the U.S. secretary of state to impose upon Israel, to listen to the order of just cease and desist right now?

BARGHOUTI: Yes, which means that these (INAUDIBLE) Palestinians will not attack Israel and the Israelis will not attack the Palestinians. Then we can have a truce that can last for a very long time and lift the embargo on Gaza, because this siege on Gaza, which has been there for two years, has caused a real humanitarian crisis.

Let me tell you, I was in Gaza two months ago. I have seen horrible things. I have seen half of the kidney dialysis machines not functioning. I've seen patients contracting hepatitis because there wasn't sanitary conditions for their kidney dialysis.

I have seen stories of 260 people who have died because they could not get proper medical care. I have seen cancer patients who could not get any treatment. It was awful. And now there are people there who are lacking food, lacking electricity, lacking bread.

It's inhuman and it could not and should not be tolerated by the world community. One should ask the question, what all of these children who are witnessing all of these situations will think in the future? How will they remember this awful situation where the fifth- largest military army in the world is invading and attacking an occupied area in this inhuman manner?

WHITFIELD: So, Mr. Barghouti, it seems as though the whole world has witnessed going down this road before, conflict, truce, efforts for a peace plan, they fall apart and then we're back to square one of conflict. What could be different this time? What conceivably could be different this time to stop the fighting and to truly have about a -- come about a truce that both sides could respect in an enduring way, not just for five months or six months or a couple of years?

BARGHOUTI: Well, first of all, let me say that we had the Annapolis process for a whole year, and during that year, instead of getting better, things got worse. The Israeli expansion of settlements was 38 (ph) times more than before Annapolis.

We had 521 checkpoints before Annapolis, now we have 699. We have -- in my opinion, the Israeli side refused to discuss any vital issues, and thus destroyed an opportunity.

Now we have Obama coming in. Obama comes in with a lot of feelings of hope for change, not only in America but also here and everywhere in the world. I think this American administration, President Bush is personally responsible and his administration now of creating big wars in front of Barack Obama.

Barack Obama spoke about talk, dialogue, peace-making, and now he is finding himself -- he will find himself stuck in this terrible bloodbath and this war. He will find himself stuck in an escalation that could bring all of the areas of the country and the region into conflict while he was trying to find a way of (INAUDIBLE) everybody in a dialogue process. This is very dangerous. The only change that can be made...


WHITFIELD: So just so I'm clear -- are you -- just so I'm understanding you correctly, are you seeing any difference in the impending administration and the existing one in terms of helping to broker or help assist in some sort of peace in this region? Or are you saying it's one in the same?

BARGHOUTI: No, I'm not saying it's one of the same. I'm saying there is a potential and this potential could be translated into a serious effort, for the United States to be impartial, at least relatively, would not be just buying everything that Israel says and be totally biased to Israel.

And the way to change the situation is not only to have a cease- fire, which we all need now immediately to save lives of people, what we need is an end of occupation. What one has to remember is that the cause of all of these conflicts, the cause of all of these wars has been the Israeli military occupation for 41 years, the longest occupation in modern history of West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.


WHITFIELD: And not to -- Mr. Barghouti, not to oversimplify it, but you know, it does take two to tango. And so if it means Israeli forces ceasing and desisting in what they are doing, is there any way of knowing what it takes for Hamas to stop what it is doing?

BARGHOUTI: I can tell you for sure that Hamas is ready to stop all forms of attacks, all forms of missiles which are anyhow harming (INAUDIBLE) -- but anyhow they are bad and they should be stopped. They are ready for that if there is a cease-fire and lifting of the siege.

WHITFIELD: But how? Who has their ear?

BARGHOUTI: You have Mr. (INAUDIBLE) who is moving around now. We have been speaking -- I have been speaking today with four different foreign ministers from Europe. We were trying to formulate a formula that would be accepted as an entry point to the cease-fire.

And now there is this preemptive strike which brings us back. I think Israel insisted to have this strike today, on Saturday, which is a holy day in the Jewish religion, second time they do it, as if the Jewish religion says you cannot fix your car on a Saturday, but you can kill people (INAUDIBLE). I am very sorry for that.

And I think the fact that they took this invasion today, on a Saturday, on the sabbath, is trying to preempt the fact that on Monday we were expecting to have a meeting with the Security Council.

What we need now is immediate efforts, especially by the United States. The United States cannot ignore its responsibilities here because it's the main country -- actually the only country that Israel would listen to. And then we can have a cease-fire and then maybe we can explore the possibility of a true peace process where Israel would end its terrible occupation.

I tell you, I was 12 years old when we were occupied. Living under occupation for 41 years is a horrible thing, when you are deprived from all of your rights, from all -- from freedom of expressions, from anything, and we need to end this.

I don't want our children (INAUDIBLE) military conflict, I don't want our children to live in this occupation. The (INAUDIBLE) is to end occupation and not to expand occupation as the Israeli army is doing today, creating a basis for further conflict and further massacres in the future.

WHITFIELD: All right. Mr. Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian politician, we appreciate your time.

A moment ago, I had asked you, you know, who has the ear of Hamas? Well, we understand that Hamas is actually making a statement right now as we speak. We are working to get that translated and we will be able to bring that to you and our viewers as soon as possible to find out exactly what the response is verbally from Hamas as the Israeli ground troop movement now is under way there in Gaza.

Again, these are images that we were able to get earlier by way of night vision photography there. You can see the troop movement there making its way into Gaza. We understand from a military major with the IDF that this is the second stage of their military strategy. The air assaults will continue in concert there with this movement.

The Hamas statement is taking place right now as we speak. And of course, when we are able to get that translated, we will be able to bring that to you right away. There are images there of that statement taking place. We are going to try and get that translation for you as soon as possible and bring that to you.

Ben Wedeman is in Jerusalem. And, Ben, what are you hearing now about the Israeli strategy, or perhaps are you hearing anything more about what Hamas might be saying?

WEDEMAN: No, actually, it's basically the operation has begun, it's ongoing. We don't really have the details. The Israelis have made it clear that they are not going to share everything they know and everything they're doing with the media, and certainly because we can't be in Gaza, we can't see it from the other side anyway.

Al Aqsa TV, which is the Hamas-run television station in Gaza, has reported that some of their men were able to kill at least one Israeli soldier. That obviously we do not have any confirmation on. Often times that information is under Israeli military censorship anyway. But that is certainly what we are hearing from Al Aqsa television.

But as we heard before, the Israeli army says this is a limited goal operation. At the moment that what they are trying to do is take control of the areas on the outskirts of Gaza from which missiles have been fired. We don't have any information to what extent they've actually been able to take control of that territory -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. And we understand just reading updated wire copy that we are talking now about up to 10,000 Israeli soldiers that were amassed along the border, many of whom are making their way now across the border.

Any idea from your accounts and your familiarity with the region, Ben, we're talking about Gaza less than 200 square miles, about the size of two Washington, D.C.s, put together, what these troops are likely to confront once they make their way through those kind of cleared, more remote areas, if they indeed ever make their way into the more densely populated Gaza City?

WEDEMAN: Well, I do know that the militants -- and we are not just talking about Hamas, there are other groups as well, Islamic Jihad and others, they have been able to build up quite a supply of land mines that they have locally made or have struggled through the tunnels, IEDs, those roadside bombs that became quite famous in Iraq.

They have a tunnel system, bunkers. So they have had quite a while to prepare for this. And nobody in Gaza was under any illusions that the Israelis wouldn't eventually launch exactly this type of operation. So they will be confronting that.

We have seen in the past that there have been members of Hamas and their sympathizers who have acted as suicide bombers. In fact, I went down to Gaza to do a story about a year-and-a-half ago about a grandmother in her 60s who blew herself up trying to kill Israeli troops who had entered and occupied her -- an area near her house. She blew herself up trying to kill Israeli troops.

And you can expect more of that. Hamas has said that they have assembled suicide bombers, men and women, who are prepared to die to defend their homes in Gaza.

So Hamas doesn't have the kind of U.S.-supplied sophisticated military hardware that Israel does, but it has worked hard with the little resources it has had. It has been able to put together, smuggle through the tunnels, maybe being supplied from Iran, to make maximum use of that against the Israelis.

And let's not forget that they studied very closely the experience of Hezbollah in 2006 when Hezbollah was fighting Israel. And Hezbollah, by all accounts, even Western accounts, was quite successful in fighting the Israelis and almost bringing them to a halt in southern Lebanon.

And that's the kind of experience that Hamas obviously is going to try to repeat with the Israelis in Gaza -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: So, Ben, these IEDs, the tunnel system, the bunkers, all of which you have described, you know this. It is public information then. The IDF knows this. Why would they feel that ground forces moving in is the best or optimal way in which to get through this second stage of their military planning?

WEDEMAN: Well, let's just keep in mind, Fredricka, is that there's an utter imbalance in military power here. Israel has everything the United States can offer in terms of conventional weapons, whereas Hamas has very little. So the Israelis can bombard the areas they are going into with artillery from the air, from helicopters, and...

WHITFIELD: OK. I just want to interrupt you...

WEDEMAN: ... they will use maximum firepower.

WHITFIELD: ... I'm sorry, Ben. We have got the IDF chief, Ehud Barak, speaking now. We want to listen in.


EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER (through translator): ... gravity of the responsibility resting on us in this decision. But the responsibility of the IDF is to protect the home front.

We state now very directly that the ground operation will also involve a risk to the lives of our fighters. As a fighter, as a commander, as someone who has led his soldiers to victory in war, I know perfectly well what all of the risks are in such operations and how serious the prices that might be exacted of us.

Consequently, I have thought everything over very carefully and I have thought and thought things over before I have taken the decision. I repeat, this will not be short. This will not be easy. I don't want to delude anyone and the coming days will be difficult also for the residents of the south.

We are also looking at what's happening on the north -- on the northern border. We don't wish for a confrontation up there. We want our northern front to remain quiet, but we are perfectly prepared to deal with any possibility.

I have a great deal of appreciation and esteem for the steadfastness of the civilian population, for the operation of the civilian leaders there, for the operations of the fire brigade, the emergency services and all of the other government offices as this operation will continue and be tightened as required.

The processes we are involved in now, like those which have preceded it, will be done in accordance with the cabinet and in coordination with the prime minister. And I hereby give my full support to the commander-in-chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, all of the IDF commanders, and all of those personnel in the security services. I know that we can rely on everyone.

We wish for peace. We have bitten our lips for a long time. But now the time has come to do what we have to do. And we wish to give to our citizens what everyone in the world should have, peace and tranquility and we wish to remove this threat from our future. We are ready to deal with a complex battle. We know it is just and we will be steadfast. And we know that we are doing something that is reasonable and has to be done, and now I speak in English.


BARAK: A few hours ago, the Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza Strip as part of Operation Cast Lead against the Hamas terrorists and their affiliates and infrastructure in Gaza. So far the Israeli Defense Forces have dealt an unprecedented heavy blow to Hamas. In order to complete their mission, we now launch the ground operation.

I have said all along that our military activities will widen and deepen as much as needed. Our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in the southern part of Israel.

We have carefully weighed all of our options. We shall not war- hungry, but we shall not, I repeat, we shall not allow a situation where our towns, villages, and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas.

It will not be easy or short, but we are determined. We are well aware of the humanitarian aspects and are doing and will continue to do everything possible to provide all humanitarian needs Gaza.

While we are fighting in Gaza, we keep an open eye on the sensitive situation in our northern border. We have no aggressive intentions there. We hope the situation will remain calm. Nevertheless, we are ready and alert to face any unwanted development in that area.

We are peace-seekers. We have restrained ourselves for a long time but now is the time to do what needs to be done. We are determined to afford our citizens what any citizens anywhere in the world is entitled to: peace, tranquility, and freedom from threat. Thank you very much.

WHITFIELD: All right. You're listening to the Israeli defense minister there, Ehud Barak, who is saying that this will not be short or easy. And as a result they have indeed launched ground operations because Israel is taking unprecedented heavy blows from Gaza.

But the focus, he says, is to bring about some significant change and they will -- he says they are committed to provide all -- provide for any humanitarian needs along the way. We've heard it described in so many different ways that this ground warfare, which could become urban warfare there in Gaza, is very dangerous and potentially could be very costly as well.

We will continue our coverage here on all of the developments taking place there between Israel and Gaza, as Israel now heads into its second phase of its military operation. In addition to air assaults, now ground operations under way. We'll have much more straight ahead. Also, we may be joined by chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who is also in the region.

Much more right after this.


WHITFIELD: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. Air assault and now ground offensives are under way in Gaza. Israeli forces are now sending their troops, upwards of 10,000 ground troops into Gaza now in what they are now calling their second stage of their military operation, their offensive there in Gaza.

We are talking about an area that's roughly 146 square miles. Just roughly the size of say two Washington, D.C.s, there in Gaza, and this assault is under way. Israel is standing by its ground to do so, saying that it has taken unprecedented heavily blows from Gaza, and so it is launching this operation.

The focus is to bring about significant change in the region, and most recently there was also a statement coming from Hamas moments ago. We are still waiting for the exact translation on that. And, of course, as soon as it happens, we will be able to bring that to you.

Our Josh Levs takes a closer look at the region for your understanding.


JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Here at the CNN INTERNATIONAL desk, which is following this story 24/7, following all angles, talking with our reporters and producers in the field, looking at news feeds that are coming in from throughout the entire region, making sure that any time news breaks, we jump onto it for you.

We want (INAUDIBLE) the lay the land for you a little bit. You have seen some maps. What I want to do now is take you in through this Google Earth video so you can see some of what this area looks like. We are going to start off zooming in on Gaza here. And you can see Gaza City.

Now you can see in these pictures how incredibly dense it is and how packed. We have told you in the past that Gaza itself is 1.5 million people. Hundreds of thousands of them in this area that we are showing you now, Gaza City. And you can tell from how dense it is there that even when Hamas facilities are the ones being targeted, there's quite a possibility of civilian casualties as well. Also, the entire area obviously disrupted by what has happened.

Let's go to the second video now, because I want you to see one Israeli city from Gaza, you can see Ashqelon there. It's only seven miles north of Gaza. That's one of the Israeli cities that has been hit by Hamas rockets, one of several in recent days.

And some others that we are going to show you now are farther away than Ashqelon. Why don't you follow me over here. We're going to go to the board. We're going to zoom in on it. I want to go back to this map, one of the simplest, clearest maps we can show you available online from the U.S. government.

Let's start out right here. This in light beige is Israel. This section right here is Gaza, just twice the size of Washington, D.C., very small area. This is what I was just talking to you about, Ashqelon. Now other areas that have been hit in Israel include Ashdod, which is up here. Also rockets have now reached Beer-sheva, over to the east.

And you can tell that that's a good chunk of Israel's population. Hundreds of thousands could be in harm's way or are in harm's way from Hamas rockets as well. We will continue to follow every step of the way, and we'll bring you the latest from right here at the CNN INTERNATIONAL desk.

Back to you.


WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks so much, Josh. And of course, we are going to continue to update you on the air assaults. And now we understand the ground movement of Israeli troops heading into Gaza. Those are the latest images right there. Much more straight ahead after this.


WHITFIELD: Hello, again. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. We continue to monitor air strikes as well as now Israeli ground forces making their way into Gaza on this eighth day of the conflict between Gaza and Israel. Upwards of 10,000 Israeli troops making their way across the border now. This is the second stage of what Israel says its military operation is.

In all over the last eight days, 400 killed, 2,200 injured.