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Israeli Ground Troops in Gaza; U.N. Security Council Calls Emergency Meeting

Aired January 3, 2009 - 23:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Nowhere to hide. Trap in a war zone, enemies all around. The people of Gaza struggle to stay alive with missiles and bombs raining down. The next hour of crisis in the Middle East starts right now.
ANNOUNCER: Live in the CNN NEWSROOM, Don Lemon.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Well, from the very beginning, the fear was that all those Israeli air strikes on Gaza would lead to this -- a protracted and bloody ground assault. So now after eight days of aerial bombings, under the cover of darkness, Israel has moved into Gaza with ground troops. Thousands of Israeli troops are on a mission to end repeated Hamas rocket attacks.

Hamas leaders say the Israeli forces are being met with fierce and violent resistance. Explosions have filled the night skies over Gaza, including several huge blasts caused by Israeli missile strikes.

And right now, the U.N. Security Council is holding an emergency meeting where Arab countries are demanding that the U.N. call for an immediate ceasefire. Palestinian medical sources tell CNN that at least 460 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,700 wounded since Israeli air strikes began eight days ago.

We have had very little access to the front lines in this ground assault, but the Israeli military has given us a glance at their preparations. Here's a look at that.

And that video was provided to us by the Israeli Defense Forces. There's no word on exactly when or where that video was shut. You're looking at live pictures now over Gaza as the sun is coming up. It is 7:00 a.m. there. Israeli troops had been pouring across the border into Gaza for hours, and we're now going to get daylight pictures, a daylight look at what has been happening there since these ground troops have made their way into Gaza.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is among the few reporters along the Israeli-Gazan border, and he joins us now by phone with an update. He joins us now, I should say, with an update.

Nic, I should ask you this. The sun is now starting to come up. As I said, we're going to get the first daylight pictures of what's happening in Gaza since those ground troops started coming in.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Don, you're right. The sun is just beginning to come up. Not quite above the horizon, but is beginning to turn this sort of night darkness into some sort of shades of dark gray. Looking across the fields there towards the north end of the Gaza Strip, the Jabalya refugee camp at the north end looking this way here, further south in the Gaza Strip towards Gaza City, that very densely populated city in the center, or to the north center of the Gaza Strip.

What we are noticing now, and this has really just sort of taken place perhaps over the last 15 or 20 minutes, is the number of missile strikes, the number of explosions diminishing, one just going off there. We're hearing them perhaps one every two minutes or one or two a minute. That is a great reduction over what we were hearing several hours ago, or even half an hour ago when there were a lot of missiles.

What we haven't heard for quite awhile, perhaps for an hour or so, maybe in a little more, exchanges of heavy machine gunfire that we were hearing back then. That was sporadic through the night as well. So it does seem to be the battlefront seems to be sort of slowing down a little bit. We've heard some of the surveillance aircraft, the drones flying overhead.

But now, and I suspect, I can just begin to see the sun coming up over the horizon in front of me now begin to shade the battlefield and color it a little more in the next 15 or 20 minutes. We'll get a much better look at the battlefield, Don.

LEMON: All right. Nic Robertson, stick around. We'd love to hear from you as well as our other reporters in the area. Thank you so much for your reporting throughout our coverage here on CNN.

Meantime, the Israeli government is defending the strategy behind the latest military action. Mark Regev, he's an Israeli government spokesman and he says his country is acting in self-defense.


MARK REGEV, ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: We've had to beef up the pressure on the Hamas military machine. Ultimately, that Hamas movement continues to shoot rockets deep into Israel, targeting our civilian population. You know, about 1 million Israelis, half of them children, are in the south of my country and are receiving on a daily basis these barrages of rockets launched by Hamas.

We're acting to protect our people. We're acting to defend our people. We're acting to create a new security environment in the south of my country in which Israelis living in the south of the country no longer have to live in fear.


LEMON: And earlier tonight, I spoke with the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations. He called on the U.N. to act quickly to bring an end to the Israeli incursion.


DR. RIYAD MANSOUR, PALESTINIAN ENVOY TO THE U.N.: This carnage has to be stopped immediately. We should not allow this grandeur to continue, so that we can talk about maybe 5,000 or 6,000 Palestinians killed and injured. This is immoral. This is illegal. This should not be tolerated. It should not be allowed to continue. It should be stopped immediately.

And that's why we are in the Security Council where we will start in a few minutes in formal consultation, the members of the Council. And we hope that the Security Council will announce a demand for an immediate ceasefire from all parties so that we can get down to the business of having a political resolution to deal with all other aspects of this situation.

LEMON: Even if the Security Council comes up with a resolution, or at least some sort of -- drafts up something that says that there should be an immediate ceasefire, we've been hearing from representatives in the area and also from our own reporters that Israel will likely, it's not for sure, or could likely, I should say, defy those orders, because they feel that they are under attack, and they will do whatever they can to stop the rockets from coming into their region.

MANSOUR: Well, this is the truth standing on its head. The truth of the matter, we have 3,000 Palestinians being killed and injured during the span of one week. There's a sense of proportionality. International law would demand proportionality when you have armed conflict situation, meaning that if somebody from Gaza to fire a rocket, you don't go and unleash against them weapon of mass destruction. International law would call for the sense of proportionality.

And Israel should not behave as a country above international law. It should -- we should, all of us in the Security Council, and in the international community, bring them to the rule of law and to abide by it, and they need to stop immediately this carnage and this aggression against the Palestinian people and the ceasefire, immediate ceasefire, should be placed -- put in place immediately.

LEMON: You mentioned proportionality, because this has been said to be a David and Goliath situation, with Israel being Goliath, but brought on by Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately, crude rockets into Israeli -- into Israel sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, and people not knowing if they're going to be hit or where the rockets will fall. So, you're saying proportionality. You think this is disproportionate to what Hamas has done already?

MANSOUR: I am not saying proportionality. That's what international law is saying. Should Israel be applying the law of the jungle or should we bring Israel into compliance with international law, and with the conduct of what is acceptable by civilized nations. International law is the one that calls for the element of proportionality.

When you have conflict between nations or between countries, there is a sense of proportionality. You cannot go and kill and injure 3,000 Palestinians when you have four Israelis killed on the other side. That is immoral, that is illegal and that is not right. And it should be stopped. LEMON: OK. And you are at the U.N. Are you going to be at this meeting?


LEMON: And you're going to weigh in. How might you weigh in?

MANSOUR: I will not be inside the informal meeting because this is a meeting for the 15 members of the Security Council. But I will be talking to each and every member, including the president of the Security Council, so that the Security Council to exert its will and its political prestige to stop this carnage immediately. And I believe there is consensus in the Security Council to -- in calling all parties to stop this fighting immediately, and they hope that the Security Council to prevail this time, and to bring Israel into compliance.

LEMON: Let's talk about end game here. Do you agree that, on both sides, there is wrongdoing on both sides? Is there a compromise that you are willing to accept if the U.N. does come up with that, if the Security Council does come up with a compromise? First of all, do you agree that there's blame to be placed on both sides?

MANSOUR: Well, we are working for a compromise text that calls for an immediate ceasefire, number one, for putting an end to the blockade, and opening the Israeli crossings to allow for providing the people in Gaza humanitarian and economic needs. And then we need to have measures, practical measures, including having U.N. forces to provide protection for our people and to supervise the ceasefire to allow it to be sustainable and durable.

All these elements should be reflected in a political resolution to be adopted by the Security Council, and for all parties to abide by that resolution.

LEMON: OK. So, the initial question I asked you. You said that there is some sort of compromise. But wrongdoing on both sides here. It's not just one side that's to blame? Do you at least allow that?

MANSOUR: Well, we're saying that there is aggression against our people. There is occupation. We are willing, you know, we initiated two times in the past of unilateral ceasefire where the Palestinians stop firing anything from Gaza against Israel. The Israelis broke those ceasefires in the past.

This ceasefire that was brokered through Egypt and Hamas and other groups abided by that one. In fact, during the last six months before this ceasefire was broken, only one Israeli was killed. It means that it was sustained for a very long period of time.

But you cannot continue to have ceasefire and yet to have a blockade against Gaza and to continue to block all the crossings from the Israeli side, to not allow the Palestinian people to have what they need in terms of humanitarian needs and economic needs. So the blockade needs to be lifted, and the crossings from the Israeli side need to be regulated to guarantee that they will be open continuously. LEMON: So, I ask you in this way, what about Israel's claim that Hamas is firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, and that's why this offensive was started?

MANSOUR: I think that Hamas and all Palestinian groups in Gaza will abide by the ceasefire and the (INAUDIBLE) if Israel to stop continuing its incursions and attacks against our people in Gaza. I think that they will abide by a ceasefire.


LEMON: We had Mansour, envoy to the United Nations. And we're looking at live pictures now in Gaza. And we have been watching explosions. Several explosions happened over the past couple of minutes as the sun is starting to come up there. It has been an assault by air.

And now it is an assault -- it will be an assault by ground. Ground troops on the ground in Gaza, have been there for several hours, starting this afternoon here in the United States. It is 7:11, just after 7:00 in Gaza. And we can still see the explosions. And again, we're starting to get daylight. Sunlight is coming up. We're starting to get daylight pictures since the ground incursion happened just several hours ago.

Also, we're going to have continuing coverage throughout tonight. How long will this go on? And how and when will all of it end? We'll get the military perspective from an expert straight ahead. And we're going to continue to monitor these live pictures for you coming out of Gaza. You won't miss anything. Just seconds away.


LEMON: We have a quick update for you on the Israeli military ground assault in Gaza. Thousands of troops have rolled into the territory, targeting Hamas militants. The overnight hours have been filled with explosions and machine gunfire. Some of those explosions we have been witnessing live as the sun is starting to come up.

Here's what Hamas is vowing. They're vowing that its fighters will battle to the last breath. Israeli officials say the operation could be long-lasting.

Also tonight, we've learned that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is heading to Israel as a show of support for the Jewish state.

You know, some observers of the Israeli military incursion say the U.S. needs to take a more active role in stopping the violence. And the upcoming transition, from President Bush to President-elect Barack Obama is one big reason for that.


HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, AL-ARABIYA: If the United States doesn't show the will to stop the fighting right now, and then try to revive some sort of a peace process, nothing will happen. And President Obama is going to inherit a huge mess in the Middle East.


LEMON: Barack Obama could very well inherit this international crisis when he takes office on January 20th. We should say probably very likely that he will inherit this. So, is he staying in the loop? But offering -- no, he is staying in the loop, offering no advice to the White House right now.

And CNN's Brianna Keilar is covering the Obama transition team. She is in Chicago.

Brianna, the reaction from the President-elect thus far by a statement and it's from a representative, correct?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN GENERAL ASSIGNMENT CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The president-elect is not commenting himself on the situation in Gaza, really leaving that to his advisers. In fact, since the ground incursion by Israeli troops into Gaza happened today, we've gotten a statement. It's from his chief national security spokeswoman, saying the president-elect is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza. But she goes on to say, there's one president at a time and we intend to respect that.

This, of course, is a similar refrain to what we've heard from Obama's top adviser David Axelrod, who, as you said, Don, has been saying that Obama is in the loop, but that he is deferring to President Bush when it comes to coming out and making a statement about what's going on. This is, even though, of course, the President-elect is facing a lot of criticism from those who are speaking out and protesting on behalf of the innocent Palestinians who are really stuck in the crossfire here.

Obama heading to Washington tomorrow. But he has spent the last few days here in Chicago with protesters demonstrating really just down the street from his house, because of the fact that he has been silent on this topic. It's really, though, to be expected.

I spoke with a person who is a former adviser, former staffer to four former presidential administrations, and he sort of referenced the fact that there was this comment that came out yesterday from a top Hamas leader saying that Obama had a double standard. He made a comment about the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, condemning them, but he hasn't come out with a comment on Gaza.

Well, this person I spoke to, this former staffer, former aide to four former presidential administrations, said, you know, that's the way really that it has to go, that Obama had to condemn those terrorist attacks in Mumbai because Americans were killed, because it was more cut and dry. But this is really an example where he has to defer to President Bush. And he can't be seen as usurping President Bush's power when it comes to this foreign policy topic, Don.

LEMON: All right. Brianna Keilar in Chicago. Brianna, thank you very much for that. Meantime, we have to move on because we have some new developments to tell you about. It's happening at the U.N. We told you about the U.N. Security Council having an emergency meeting on this Mid-East crisis. We want to get straight to CNN senior correspondent, U.N. correspondent Richard Roth.

Richard, what has happened there?

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Don, the Palestinian envoy to the U.N. has just called what's happened or not happened "a sad and tragic day at the Security Council," the United States effectively blocking the Security Council from announcing a formal statement of reaction of the Israeli ground offensive. They spent more than 3 1/2 hours behind closed doors, the countries did. And in the end, there were just a few words from the president of the council, pro forma words calling for peace. The United States deputy ambassador explained what happened.


ALEJANDRO WOLF, DEPUTY U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: The efforts we are making nationally are designed to establish a sustainable, durable ceasefire that's respected by all. And that means no more rocket attack attacks. It means no more smuggling of arms. It means the beginning of reopening checkpoints under the 2005 agreement and provisions under that agreement.

It is important that we not return to the status quo, and simply by freezing the situation, allowing Hamas rockets to put and threat 300,000 Israeli citizens, and continue to allow Hamas to bring the deprivation of the Palestinian population in Gaza suffering as a result of that action.


ROTH: A U.S. official saying there's no need for a statement tonight, Don. That would not be lived up to by Hamas. Washington says Hamas is a terrorist organization. Israel has a right to defend itself. The Palestinian and Arab supporters here are quite upset, but there's little they can do as long as the U.S. sits there with veto power -- Don.

LEMON: All right. We shall see. This is continuing to unfold. Richard Roth, our senior U.N. correspondent. We appreciate that with the breaking news coming from the United Nations.

Also, we have some new information. It's coming from the Israeli military on the number of wounded Israeli soldiers. We get the very latest from the ground. And our Nic Robertson is on the Gaza border coming up with the new information.


LEMON: You're watching continuing coverage of what's happening in the Middle East. The crisis in the Middle East. And I misspoke earlier saying it's 7:00 there in Gaza. It is actually 6:00 -- 6:22 -- 6:22 in the morning there. And the sun is starting to come up. And you can see the plumes of smoke in the sky. That is because of the ground operations, and also the air operations going on. You're looking at live pictures. So you can imagine what's going on now, just from those pictures. Again, you can see the smoke and the plumes.

Our Nic Robertson is following this story. He is on the border there on the Israeli-Gaza border. But meantime, until we can get to Nic, I want to report some new information that we have just gotten. CNN has just confirmed that this ground operation that we have been reporting, according to the Israeli military, started at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, 6:00 p.m. Local Time. 11:00 a.m. Eastern ground operation started. And since then, because of this, and the fighting there, here is what the Israeli military is reporting.

They're saying that 30 soldiers have been injured during the Jewish state's incursion into Gaza. Two of the injuries they say are serious. At least 460 Palestinians have been killed. That's according to the Palestinian authorities. 2,700 -- more than 2,700 injured in eight days of the Israeli airstrikes there. And the ground troops also launching incursion. Again, at 11:00 a.m. I should say, 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time today is when that started. And since then the Israeli military reporting 30 soldiers -- 30 soldiers have been injured.

I want to get some perspective on this. All of this information we've gotten. We see there that the fighting is ramping up. We've also heard from the United Nations about making a call, but not sure if any actions are going to be taken from that. And now we're hearing from the Israeli military about the number of soldiers killed.

CNN military analyst and former brigadier General David Grange joins me now by telephone. He is a president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation, one of the country's largest public charities. He also lectures on leadership at army bases around the country, and is a non- paid board member of a security company that has some Pentagon contracts.

With that said, if you can see these pictures, you see the plumes of smoke that are coming, you can hear it, General. You can hear all of this. What is going on now? Is this an increase in the offensive, an uptick in the offensive going on there? Was it scheduled to start at daylight? Is this normal procedure?

VOICE OF DAVID GRANGE, U.S. ARMY (RET.) CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the infiltration into the area of operations for the Israeli Army is to gain footholds before daylight. The foodholds gained, I think they'll expand those now as they assess the situation. Keep in mind they're not going through the entire Gaza area. They're going through selected areas that are key to their operational success. Fight to Hamas leadership or rocket live sites or storage sites. And they'll continue to expand their foothold, you know, as the operation continues.

LEMON: I'm wondering, because it was under the cover of darkness that this happened. Because it was 6:00 p.m. Local Time in Gaza that this offensive started. Pretty close to nightfall. 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time here on Saturday. Now I'm wondering if this fighting, not sure if you would know, or maybe you can add some perspective on this, if this -- if these situations were going on under the cover of darkness and we just couldn't see because the sun was down, or is this something that may be ramping up, as I said, as part of their operation?

GRANGE: No, I think that the movement in the cover of darkness is an advantage to advanced military that has the capability of night vision. The vices, weaponry that can operate effectively at night. They want to cut electricity off where the adversaries may not have that advantage. So it's really a tactical reason that gives them the advantage as they infiltrated to the built-up area.

LEMON: OK, we heard earlier from the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who is saying this is going to be -- this is going to take awhile, and it is not going to be easy. Do you agree with that assessment? And can you give us a timeline as to how long you think this could take?

GRANGE: Well, speculation on timeline, but an operation I would think like this, to set conditions for a -- some type of a cease-fire, or for a sustained cease-fire that's enduring would take awhile to get a positional advantage of the Israeli forces. Remember, they don't want the rockets to be fired anymore or smuggled in as thousands have been smuggled in. It's not really a blockade, I don't believe, to keep, really, food and medical supplies, those type of things out. But more fighting equipment out of the area.

Remember here, there's a nation that's in combat, with regular forces against a proto-state, using a regular warfare-type capabilities. Like an insurgency type situation, terrorist organization in many cases, of course, Hamas. And they're going in to set those conditions that stabilize the area, that area that they're being influenced for their nation. They have to set conditions that are favorable to them.

LEMON: Retired Army General David Grange, thank you very much, sir. We are going to get back to you so standby just a little bit. In the meantime, we want to update our viewers on the situation that's happening in Gaza. As we look at these pictures -- can we take them full to show our viewers exactly what's happening. We've been watching plumes of smoke, and hearing explosions coming from Gaza, as we look at these live pictures from Ramattan. Ramattan television helps us out in that area, and be considered one of our affiliates.

So the situation on the ground, it appears in the daylight hours, has increased. We did not hear this much fighting and this much noise and this much fire power when it was dark. It is 6:28 in the morning there. And it's coming up on 7:00 a.m. Daylight is just starting to -- sunlight is just starting to come up. And as we watch as we pan around the city here, I just want to see before we go to break, if this shows anything that we need to see before we do that, as you're looking at Gaza.

And Ramattan television pans around to get a bird's-eye view of what's going on. You can see some of the -- you see the black soot on sides of the buildings. You see some of the buildings have been burned out in some areas there. You can hear the explosion in the background. And earlier we could see the smoke and the explosions lighting up the sky even during daylight. And you heard David Grange saying this is part of the offensive, part of the tactical movement by the Israeli forces. At first it was by air, by air strikes. Now it is by ground. So we can only imagine that this is going to tick. There's going to be an uptick in this and it's going to escalate until they feel that they have gotten some sort of handle on Hamas, and they move Hamas back from the northern border of Gaza, the southern border of Israel.

Speaking of that border, that's where our Nic Robertson is standing by for us. He has been reporting all evening. He will provide us some new information as soon as we can get to him on the other side of this break about what he is seeing as sunlight comes up in Gaza.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Crisis in the Middle East, our continuing live coverage here on CNN as we look at daylight over Gaza. These pictures are coming to us live from Ramattan. Ramattan -- we're using those pictures, not an affiliate, but we're using the pictures from Ramattan because of the situation that's going on, the unrest that's happening in the region.

A lot of this is being monitored from the Israeli-Gaza border. And that is where we find our Nic Robertson at this hour. He is monitoring the situation.

Nic, we saw you earlier. It was nighttime. Kind of tough to get a look at what was happening in the city. Now, as you stand above the city and you look at it, what are you seeing?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're getting a much clearer picture of what's happening, Don. If you look over my shoulder here, you can see a sort of a white line of houses and buildings. And as you look along that line, that's where we can hear the fighting coming from, from those buildings all the way along there. We've heard sporadic gunfire, sporadic shooting all the way down to where you can see that black smoke coming up that's drifting all the way along that northern end of Gaza.

And what we understand from the Israeli Defense Forces is that the fighting is focused on just the northern end of Gaza, the Jabalya refugee camp, Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia, two of the towns there in the northern end of the Gaza Strip. They're not -- the incursion isn't going in and around the Gaza City, that densely populated area. Jabalya refugee camp is densely populated.

The Israeli Defense Forces say they've been pushing in slowly through the night. They say they've taken 30 casualties, two of those casualties serious. The casualties have been caused in several cases, they say, by mortar fire, mortars fired by Hamas fighters on the ground.

We don't have further details on exactly what the Israeli Defense Forces believe they've achieved overnight. But very clearly, this battle continuing. Those bursts of heavy explosions and gunfire just continue. They continue. And the battlefield continues to change. But it stretches over quite a long and large area. And we can see with daylight as well a huge sort of long plume of smoke just covering that whole area and blowing northward, the wind from here, Don.

LEMON: And Nic, you're in a position, are you able to hear some of the explosions coming to you? Are you close enough to be able to hear those explosions?

ROBERTSON: Oh, Don, very, very clearly. I mean, some of them very, very loud. Some of them more muffled. We're just having muffled ones a few seconds ago there. We're close enough to hear the gunfire that's going on. There was another explosion. I mean, it really does change, this battlefield, it's very, very dynamic.

That was a larger explosion sort of further south from where we are. Very dynamic. And the battle is clearly, clearly intense in places and under way. They fluctuate, as you would expect in a battlefield. Heavy gunfire at one moment, then explosions. I'm hearing several loud detonations further to the south of our position here. So it's a very, very active battlefield right now, Don. And we're seeing smoke rising from multiple locations further south of me as well as over my left shoulder here. Many explosions going off. It still is a very, very active battlefield. We haven't been able to see what's been going on during the night. Of course, the flashes from the explosions, much, much bigger during the night. But now we're beginning to see the smoke rising from those explosions and get a much more precise idea of the battle.

And as you can see, when you look behind me, that this is a populated area. And that's been the concern, the troops going in there, the potential for civilian casualties. Of course, (INAUDIBLE) were dropped by the Israeli Defense Forces 24 hours ago warning people to stay away from militants. Of course, that's very, very tough for some of the people living in Gaza.

But what we are seeing, what's emerging with daylight is a battlefront over a large area, stretching three separate locations in the north and to this Gaza Strip, Don.

LEMON: And Nic, as you're talking there, we can see the pictures, live pictures from Ramattan. And we give you a second to look around to see if you may be witnessing some of these. We have seen at least three or four explosions in three or four different plumes of smoke coming up as you have been speaking there. And I'm not sure exactly where you are in relation to this. But it appears, just from these explosions and from hearing this, that this is escalating just as of a couple of hours, even a couple of minutes ago, Nic.

ROBERTSON: It does, Don. It just fluctuates. And I took the opportunity to turn around and I'll do it again, and I can see there's one, two, there's a huge sky splash as well, sparks dropping down from that. Three, four plumes of white smoke rising up and drifting away in the wind were definite explosions.

It does. It just --the battlefield just fluctuates. It is quite an astonishing sight to see it this close. And it is quite an insight into how battles are fought, to be able -- to be able to witness it from this sort of vantage point and to see how it fluctuates and ebbs and flows, and it goes quiet for several minutes and then -- and then just builds right back up again. I mean, huge detonations there to the south of me again, Don.

LEMON: That's CNN's senior international correspondent reporting live. And as he is reporting -- and Nic, thank you very much, as Nic is reporting there, the explosions are continuing and it appears to be ratcheting up. The ground fighting and the explosions and the bombing in Gaza ratcheting up before his very eyes. He's one of the few reporters that are on that border and he will continue reporting for CNN until this crisis in the Middle East comes to some sort of resolution or end.

And as you can imagine, the Israeli military offensive is getting heavy coverage in the Arab news media. As we look at these live pictures, we're going to leave you in just a second. But we're going to hear from the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya Television Network next right here on CNN.


LEMON: Some of those pictures from the ground assault in Gaza, hard to look at. Those are from the Associated Press. As we continue our coverage here of crisis in the Middle East, I want to tell you that the explosions have been continuing there and are escalating. As we look at these pictures coming out of Gaza, we have been talking to our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, who is one of the few reporters who's on the Israeli-Gaza border and he is witnessing this firsthand.

The Israeli military offensive is getting heavy, heavy coverage in the Arab news media. And joining us now on the phone with his perspective on this crisis is Hisham Melhem. He's the Washington Bureau Chief of Al Arabiya Television Network.

It's getting huge coverage on the Arab networks. And what has been the response from Arab people, from the Arab world on these attacks, Mr. Melhem?

VOICE OF HISHAM MELMAN, D.C. BUREAU CHIEF, AL-ARABIYA TV: Well, there is widespread outrage because of the disproportionate Israeli attack. And the Arabs usually see it in its historic perspective. They saw it in 1982 when the Israelis invaded Lebanon, and they saw it in 2006 with the war against Hezbollah, and they see it right now.

And I hear a lot of criticism in the West about the way the Arab media is covering the Israeli onslaught. There is no reason to exaggerate, obviously. In eight days, we have almost 500 casualties. Many of them are civilians. And it should surprise no one that these people are Arabs, and they're covered by Arab reporters to Arab audiences, and obviously there is sympathy. But there is really no exaggeration.

And people criticize the Arab satellite stations for showing civilian casualties. Now, we all know that we have certain standards here in this country and in the world, they should be respected obviously. But I remind people that we showed the grisly images of the victims of Halabja in Iraq. We showed the grisly images of the victims in Darfur. And sometimes, we have to cover war the way wars ought to be covered, showing the brutality of war. And there's no such thing as antiseptic coverage of wars. And that could be very deceptive.

LEMON: So, the criticism is coming from the West, you said, not from -- not from the Arab world?

MELHEM: Well, there are some who are criticizing the Arab satellite in the Arab world. In fact, my network has been criticized by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah because we are not using the terminology that he would like us to use. We're not really focusing on the suffering of civilians maybe more than we ought to do.

So, we sometimes, we get criticisms from both sides. But essentially, I think the Arab media is covering what's taking place in Gaza on the whole professionally. We, my network, as people in Gaza, we're covering it from Gaza, from Israel, from the West Bank, from New York and from Washington, from all over the world. And -- I mean, there's faithful world coverage. And there is really no need to exaggerate anything because the reality speaks for itself.

LEMON: Yes. You're talking about Hassan Nasrallah, a name that we have -- Nasrallah, a name we haven't heard since the 2006 war, who is the head of the Hezbollah, an organization called Hezbollah.


LEMON: And he is criticizing you as well. We appreciate you joining us this evening here on CNN as this all is starting to unfold into a full-scale ground invasion here into Gaza. We appreciate you, sir. Thank you very much.

MELHEM: Thank you.

LEMON: We have much, much more in this breaking news in the Middle East. The coverage comes in two hours tonight. We have been reporting live here on CNN, actually three hours, Wolf Blitzer was on at 9:00 p.m. We started here at 10:00. And we're going to go until midnight, just a few minutes. And then after that, our international unit will pick up our coverage and we will go rolling coverage until this unrest in the Middle East, there's some sort of resolution.

Vice President and President-elect Barack Obama. One has to deal with the crisis right now. And you know, the other one will probably inherit it. We'll give you some insight from a former negotiator and an adviser to six secretary of states, next.


LEMON: Live coverage here on CNN on the crisis in the Middle East. I want to give you a quick update now on the Israeli military ground assault in Gaza. Thousands of troops have rolled into the territory, and they're targeting Hamas militants. The overnight hours have been filled with explosions and machine gunfire. And we have been seeing the same thing happening now that the sun is coming up. Hamas vows that its fighters will battle this to their very last breath. Israeli officials say the operation could be long and lasting and it will not be easy. Also tonight, we've learned that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is headed to Israel as a show of support for the Jewish state.

In the meantime, we have some developing news to tell you about, the casualties, at least the injuries as it comes to Israeli soldiers. We have been reporting that the injuries were up to 30 people. This is according to the Israeli military. They wanted to correct that. They said 28 soldiers, they say, have been wounded. 28 soldiers have been wounded there. Initial information was not exactly correct. Only, they're talking about a difference of two. They said that two severe injuries were caused by mortar fire. Two severe injuries caused by mortar fire.

Also some new information here. They said that 10,000 reservists have been called up. And again, this ground incursion began 11:00 p.m. local time in Gaza, started just before nightfall.

Again, 28 Israeli soldiers injured, two of them seriously. Two of them injured by mortar fire. As we look at these live pictures, you see the plumes of smoke there. You see the sun coming up in Gaza.

And some people believe about the situation happening there that President-elect Barack Obama should be more engaged in dealing with this crisis. And just a short time ago, I spoke about that with Aaron David Miller. He's a former negotiator and an adviser to six secretaries of state on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I want you to take a listen to our conversation.


LEMON: So, Mr. Miller, a statement from the president, President Bush, a statement from the president-elect. Should we be seeing more from the president-elect since he's going to take over in a couple of weeks?

AARON DAVID MILLER, FMR. ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: I know people have strong opinions on this. Some people expect him to be out there publicly articulating his commitment and expressing sympathy for one side or the other or both sides, perhaps in this case in terms of losses of life.

But a president-elect doesn't have the incentive or the power to do much about anything he's going to say. He best (INAUDIBLE) because he's going to need it within less than three weeks.

This is really an example of no good deed going unpunished. No matter what he says in the middle of a fast-breaking crisis, confrontation between Israel and Hamas, some -- it's going to make somebody unhappy. He best, it seems to me, focus on the preparations when he becomes president.

LEMON: But does that still stand? Can you still use that argument? Because this appears to be, at least within recent history that I can remember, this appears to be unprecedented that we are at war or there is a war going on overseas when we are changing presidents here in the United States. And what the next president will do, his foreign policy, can have an effect on that situation overseas.

MILLER: That may be true, but I don't think Obama has to convince anyone that he's going to make Arab-Israeli peace-making a higher priority than this current administration made it. He made it very clear in the campaign and during his trip overseas that he intended to do that. My point is anything that he says is going to be used against him, and right now he can't do anything about it anyway.

LEMON: So, OK. He is going to inherit, obviously, this situation, again, if it continues -- if it continues to escalate here. Talk to us about the specifics about the president-elect and what he's going to inherit, and what he's going to have to do frankly on day one.

MILLER: Well, he is going to inherit an investment trap called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He won't be able to fix it, certainly not immediately, and he's not going to be able to walk away from it. And you know, Barack Obama was not elected to be the war president or the peace president. He was basically elected to be the president of trying to fix America's broken house. He's not going to be able to be the desk officer managing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or even managing this crisis. That's what secretaries of state do, particularly secretaries of state who are firmly aligned with the president.

And the two of them, Hillary Clinton and President-elect Obama are going to have to work extremely closely together. Our policy or -- excuse me, his policy in the months to come on this crisis, and on the Israeli -- Arab-Israeli issue ought to be tough, it ought to be smart, and it ought to be a lot fairer than it was during this administration.

LEMON: So Mr. Miller, at this point, this is clearly President Bush's problem to deal with, right?

MILLER: There's no question about it.

LEMON: And clearly Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's problem to deal with?

MILLER: That's right.

LEMON: Should we be hearing more from them besides just a statement?

MILLER: Not given their track record. I mean, the president here is the Israeli-Lebanon war of July and August of 2006, ultimately. And it took several weeks. The secretary of state was instrumental in creating a U.N. -- helping to draft and get passed the Security Council resolution that actually gave Israel and Hezbollah a way out of the crisis. And I suspect that's what they're trying to do now. If there is a solution, it will be one produced by the Security Council that deals with the issue of tunnels, opening the crossing points, and ending the high trajectory rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. LEMON: You have been adviser to at least six secretaries of state, and just yes or no, do you think that Condoleezza Rice is speaking now to Hillary Clinton. Are they communicating?

MILLER: I don't think they're communicating directly. But there's no question that she's getting briefings and...


MILLER: ...Bush administration officials and transition team officials are talking plenty.

LEMON: The Bush administration is getting the same -- the Obama administration, the new administration is getting the same information and intelligence that the Bush administration is getting. Do you think they're talking?

MILLER: I don't think there's any question about that.

LEMON: OK. And I have to ask you this last thing. The timing here. Why now? Do you think that maybe Israel is doing this because of the transition here, and that maybe they know that in some ways there's a vacuum of power, or one person in the White House may have different consequences for them than another person in the White House?

MILLER: I'm not sure this affected their transition. The reality is, and this defies the conventional wisdom, the Israelis would rather not have undertaken this operation. The weather is bad. They have their own elections coming up on February 10th. I'm not sure they wanted to do this.

The fact that they felt compelled to engage in response to Hamas' rocket fire clearly gave them an incentive to try to clear the boards on this one before the next administration took office. But I suspect that this will be, despite Israeli -- Israel's intentions, the first foreign policy crisis for the next administration.

LEMON: So you don't think that they think maybe an Obama administration may be more or less open to their point of view than a Bush administration? That has nothing to do with it?

MILLER: I don't think so. On the issue of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, it could have been John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, it wouldn't have mattered. America is going to remain Israel's best friend. The real challenge for the Obama administration is to make sure that our special relationship with the Israelis which we need does not continue to be exclusive and undermine America's creditability and its fairness in trying to broker a solution to this crisis or even peace negotiations.

LEMON: Aaron David Miller, thank you.

MILLER: It's a pleasure.

LEMON: And make sure you stay with CNN for continuing live coverage all night, literally. We will be live on the air all night long. Straight ahead, we'll take you to the heavily guarded border area between Gaza and Egypt. Our Karl Penhaul is there.


LEMON: So right now we want to take you to southern Gaza. The heavily guarded Rafa border crossing with Egypt. CNN's Carl Penhaul has been monitoring the tense situation on the Egyptian side of the border.


KARL PENHAUL, CNN VIDEO CORRESPONDENT (on camera): A distance of about 300, 400 yards away I would estimate, Israeli missiles have been crashing into the ground and there have been loud explosions. It's very difficult in the dark. And because of the flat terrain to detect exactly what the target is, but I would suggest that it's probably only a little beyond the Palestinian side of the border, just a little beyond that border post.

In addition to hearing the missiles come in from what I assume are apache attack helicopters, I've also heard slow helicopters. Those could possibly be transporting troops by air to some other position on the ground. I've also heard the grind of Israeli tank tracks moving into positions, but those tanks are now silent. I haven't heard any more movements from them.

I've also heard sporadic exchanges from heavy machine guns, and more recently the crack of assault rifles. That might indicate that Hamas and Israeli forces are in somewhat close quarters. But of course now about an hour away from dawn, it will be interesting as there's light comes to see where the chips have fallen in military terms that have caused in the civilian terms the signs are over the last week that there's a growing humanitarian crisis inside of Gaza, and this ground incursion will not help matters. Karl Penhaul, CNN, Rafah border crossing, Egypt.


LEMON: All right. We are continuing our coverage here live here on CNN. I'm just getting new information in my ear from our producer, and this is something we want to bring to you here. Our Nic Robertson is one of the only reporters, very few reporters whose on the Israeli- Gaza border. He has some new information for us.

Nic, as we are watching these live pictures coming here into the CNN NEWSROOM, it appears that this is ratcheting up. Tell us what you have for us.

ROBERTSON: Well, Don, the very latest figures that we have from the Israeli Defense Forces, they say that they have taken on 45 different targets through the night. They say that they have come -- several units have come into close contact fighting with Hamas fighters. They say during those close contacts, dozens of Hamas fighters. This is according to Israeli Defense Forces. Dozens of Hamas fighters have been injured. Israeli Defense Forces also say that through the night Hamas has fired ten different rockets into the south of Israel. They say Israeli Defense Forces said they have no casualties. Don?

LEMON: All right. CNN's Nic Robertson. Nic, we appreciate that. Thank you very much. I'm Don Lemon here at the CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta.

CNN International picks up our coverage now until 6 am Sunday morning. Stay with us for concinuing Middle East coverage.