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Israeli-Hamas Strikes; Egypt to Work to Curb Violence

Aired November 15, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hello, everyone, welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.


GORANI (voice-over): Tonight, sirens spark terror across Israel as hundreds of rockets fly ever closer to the center of Israeli power in Tel Aviv. This, as Israeli planes pound Gaza, just within the last few minutes. Our people on the ground have been hearing explosions.

Fears are growing that this conflict could be turning into an all-out war.

The first victim was buried today, the first victim of this round of violence. Hundreds of mourners followed the body of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari through the streets of Gaza City. Some chanting "God is great; revenge is coming."

Since Jabari was assassinated with a precision missile 24 hours ago, 14 others have been killed in Gaza, three in Israel. There is growing rage against Israel across the region, with angry demonstrations in Egypt and Lebanon. And signs that perhaps the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is in real jeopardy. The prime minister of Egypt is heading to Gaza to show solidarity with Hamas on Friday.


GORANI: The American president, Barack Obama, is trying to keep the alliance from falling apart completely. He called both sides with a plea for peace.

In a moment, a live report from Gaza. And our first chance to hear from Egypt. I'll talk with a key adviser to the president there, the new president, Mohammed Morsi. But first a look at the other angles of this story we're covering tonight.



GORANI (voice-over): The violence threatens to come between Egypt and Israel. We'll ask the man who speaks for Israel: is it willing to risk decades of peace?

And while Israelis and Palestinians say their prayers, the rest of the world tweets "amen" and "amen."


GORANI: We'll get to that in a bit, but first, CNN's Sara Sidner is in Gaza City, where she's been hearing rocket fire.

First off, Sara, what's the latest from your vantage point? What are you hearing? What are you seeing?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: (Inaudible). And those blasts sounding like airstrikes. We are seeing the big, black smoke, even in the darkness you can see the smoke rising from several spots here in Gaza.

Now we've also been seeing rocket fire from Gaza, fired towards Israel, quite a few rockets, actually, in the past hour and a half, and then a response again from Israel and more airstrikes. It is a situation where people are saying is this going to be an all-out war?


SIDNER (voice-over): But if you're a civilian, leave it living here in Gaza, it feels like war to you.

And if you look on the streets, in this highly, highly populated and densely populated city, you are seeing a very strange sight. You are seeing all of the businesses close. You aren't seeing anyone on the streets, milling about and walking around as per (sic) normal.

And you're certainly not seeing much traffic. In fact, any time we see a car on the main drag here that's usually packed, it is speeding through the streets, trying to get where it's going. So there's certainly fear here.


SIDNER: There's certainly a sense that this is war, that there is a war going on here. Then on the other side, of course, a similar feeling. We're seeing people, this morning, as we came in, we saw people hunkering down, as you heard the sirens go off, and suddenly you would see blasts coming from Gaza, over southern Israel, people hunkering down, trying to protect themselves.


SIDNER (voice-over): And the same thing has been done there, where shops are closed and children are being told not to go to school, parents being told to stay inside and keep safe, Hala.

GORANI (voice-over): So people in Gaza where you are, that you've been speaking to, are telling you, essentially, Sara, they're preparing themselves for a ground invasion by Israel? Is that their expectation?


SIDNER: They're not sure. And that's because Israel has also said, look, we are preparing for the possibility, perhaps the eventuality, but the possibility of a ground war, but they have not going forward with that. But they are preparing, bringing in reservists. What's happening here is, I think people are just frightened.

You know, when you're standing here and you listen to the sound of these airstrikes, believe me, you want to get inside. I mean, we've been wearing all of our gear, our flak jackets. Just moments ago, I had my helmet on because the blasts were so loud, you just weren't quite sure exactly where those strikes were going to land.

So certainly fear in the hearts of the civilians here, but of course, both sides are promising retaliation for every time there's an airstrike and every time there's a rocket that goes either way, retaliation from the leaders of both sides. Very scary for the civilians (inaudible).


GORANI: Right. And for those who haven't experienced this type of attack, who haven't been in a situation similar to the one you're in now and you're able to report from, talk us through what it's like when you hear an explosion, what it does to a building and how frightening it is.

SIDNER: Well, usually what you hear first, actually, are the planes. You hear them flying above. Now everyone knows the sound of the planes. People here, even some children, know the sound of drones compared to airstrikes -- that are compared to -- excuse me -- planes.

But what you hear is, first the planes, then this rumbling sound that almost sounds like thunder, but much more severe and then, of course, you hear the blast and see the black smoke rising. It is a situation when they're close enough, where you actually feel it in your belly.

It is a very, very scary situation for anyone who's ever been in this kind of environment, an environment that is highly, densely populated, nowhere really to go. And people that can't easily leave. So certainly the civilians very concerned about this, ratcheting up yet again, Hala.

GORANI: All right. Civilians on both sides there, frightened. Thanks very much.

Sara Sidner is live in Gaza City for us this evening with our crew, reporting on this developing story.

Relations between Egypt and Israel are critical to security for the entire region. It's really the most important ally, Arab alliance that Israel had.

And tonight, are these treaties, these agreements that were signed, are they truly in danger? The Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, condemned the attacks on Gaza today, saying simply, quote, "The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable," unquote.

Morsi recalled his country's ambassador to Israel yesterday and announced that his prime minister is traveling to the Gaza Strip to show solidarity tomorrow. The world is watching now to see how this new Muslim Brotherhood-backed president will handle the first crisis that he faces.

Dr. Refa'a Tahtawi joins me now on the phone. He's head of Mohammed Morsi's presidential advising committee. He was also Egypt's ambassador to Iran and Libya. He is traveling to Gaza tomorrow with Prime Minister Kandil of Egypt.

So this is a question that people have, first of all, thanks for joining us, Dr. Tahtawi. Are these treaties that Egypt signed with Israel, these -- all these decades ago, are they in jeopardy today?

MOHAMED REFA'A AL-TAHTAWI, CHIEF OF THE EGYPTIAN PRESIDENTIAL CABINET: No, not at all. Not at all, because we have declared several times and repeatedly that we abide by our international commitments (ph). But respecting the peace treaty does not mean they're idle or indifferent to what is going on along our borders and what is touching our brothers.

And we cannot be indifferent to human sufferings. So we are abiding by our legal obligations, but we are active to help establishing real peace in the area.

GORANI: Now, did you have any understanding with Israel, because I know that Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel before the assassination of Jabari. Did this all take you by surprise, what happened, this killing?

TAHTAWI: In fact, yes. My surprise and disappointing, but anyway, we are not speaking about the past. Egypt now is concentrating its efforts to try to contain the situation, to prevent escalation and hopefully reaching a kind of an agreed understanding that would prevent the recurrence of violence.

GORANI: So are Egyptians, is the government of your president, Mohammed Morsi, currently in any kind of communication with the Israelis regarding the crisis? And if so, at what level?

TAHTAWI: We have channels, practical and effective channels, which are necessary if we want to contain the situation. This means we have to contact the two sides of the conflict. And I am sure we are contacting the two sides. They are separate (ph) and reliable channels (ph).

GORANI: So you're saying there are ongoing conversations right now?

TAHTAWI: I'm not saying right now, but (inaudible) if we are trying to contain the situation, how can we contain the situation without talking to the interested parties?

GORANI: So right now there are no conversations, but you're hoping that to contain the situation --


TAHTAWI: There are -- I don't say now or an hour ago or the future, but the idea is if you have a conflict on your borders, then you cannot be indifferent and we are working to contain this by having the right contacts with the right parties (ph).

GORANI: So are you saying that there's hope on your part that, in a matter of days, in a matter of hours, perhaps, that Egypt, as a peace broker, will be able to contain the situation in Gaza? Do you have a level of hope here?

TAHTAWI: I have it. I definitely have developed a level of hope.


TAHTAWI: Because I think after all, what Israel really did was a miscalculation and I'm sure that our brothers in Gaza are also keen to restore peace and to continue their life normally.

GORANI: Now I understand President Morsi, your president, and President Barack Obama had a conversation. We know the United States, through the State Department spokesperson Mark Toner, is calling on your country, Egypt, to use your influence to deescalate the violence.

What conversation did President Morsi and President Obama have today?

TAHTAWI: The only thing I know about this conversation that those parties agreed to work jointly, to try to defuse this situation and to contain it, and to try to, I would say, reestablish peace and tranquility.

GORANI: And how would that be done?

TAHTAWI: It's usually through Egyptian (inaudible) and through also American influence, which is considerable.

GORANI: What would you like President Obama or the United States to do in this situation? What would you expect from President Obama?

TAHTAWI: Of course, we cannot tell President Obama and the administration is free to do whatever they deem appropriate. But we hope that the United States would exert some influence on Israel to restrain from escalation, because you start a war; you never know how to end it.

And our area is very volatile and even explosive. And I warn (inaudible) that if you will continue along the path of escalation and violence, this would backfire and they will be the first losers. It is not a question of short term, where you have to (inaudible) to look at the conflict in the Middle East, and the long and strategic term.

And it is in the interest of everybody to establish trust, peace and restore this sense of justice (inaudible), because no matter how strong you are, you cannot impose your will by sheer force.

GORANI: So we're going to be speaking to an Israeli official. But you're going, I understand, to Gaza tomorrow with the Egyptian prime minister, is that correct? What do you hope to achieve --


TAHTAWI: (Inaudible).

GORANI: -- yes. What do you hope to achieve with this -- with this visit?

TAHTAWI: In fact, first, we hope that this visit may help at least stop the escalation of violence, at least for some time, hopefully. And this will be at -- in itself a good -- a good objective.

Secondly, conveying a message of solidarity with our brothers, humanitarian solidarity and political solidarity with our brothers in Gaza.

GORANI: We appreciate your time, Dr. Refa'a al-Tahtawi, head of the presidential advising committee --

TAHTAWI: That is not the advising committee; presidential cabinet.

GORANI: -- of the presidential cabinet, Dr. Refa'a al-Tahtawi.

TAHTAWI: Yes. Equal to chief of staff in (inaudible).

GORANI: All right. Chief of staff there, thank you very much, Dr. Refa'a Tahtawi, joining us live from Egypt there. He's going to be alongside his prime minister, headed as part of a delegation to the Gaza Strip to meet some of the Hamas officials, including Ismail Haniyeh.

Thank you for your time.

Just quickly recapping, are the treaties with Israel in jeopardy? Dr. Tahtawi replying, no, also saying that he remains hopeful that there are channels of communication that exist between Egypt and both sides of this conflict, and also saying that they hope the government of Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, that the United States will use its influence with Israel, just as the U.S. has expressed its desire to see Egypt use its influence with the leaders in the Gaza Strip.

All right. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, Israel said it fired into Gaza in hopes of bringing peace. But with Hamas rockets killing three Israelis in retaliation and more aimed at Tel Aviv, I'll ask Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, is peace even more far away?

But before we take a break, another glimpse of the Gaza conflict, this time from inside a big concrete pipe. These Israelis are seeking shelter in Kiryat Malachi, the same town where those three people were killed today by rockets fired from Gaza. One of the images of our big story today -- we'll be right back.




GORANI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Now more on the escalating conflict in Gaza. Since the assault on Gaza began with the targeted killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, three Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets. Tel Aviv has become a target.

Ambassador Ron Prosor is Israel's permanent representative to the United Nations. As director general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Prosor oversaw Israel's exit from Gaza in 2005, and he joins me now live in the studio.

Thanks for being with us.

RON PROSOR, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Thank you for having me.

GORANI: I'd like you to respond to, first off, to what Dr. Tahtawi, who's the head of the cabinet of President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt said, essentially, you know, since Israel mounted this offensive, this military offensive, since the assassination of Jabari, three Israelis were killed.

But this military escalation only hurts Israel in the end, that there has to be a non-military solution. And it's not serving anyone on any side of the conflict.

Your response?

PROSOR: My response is just as you said. I oversaw Israel's leaving Gaza 2005, not to look back at Gaza. So what we have, a decade afterwards, 1 million Israeli people, sitting in shelters today. That's one-fifth of Israel's population. That's the equivalent of the West Coast now in shelters.

So 1 million people don't go to work. Their children don't go to schools. They have 15 seconds to reach shelters. At the end of the day, the biggest winners are going to be those who are going to make sure that - - not the extremists, not the radicals (inaudible) --


GORANI: But that's not the question. I mean, everyone agrees that it's a very tense, difficult and, in some cases, tragic situation for Israelis who live in that part of the country within reach of rockets coming from Gaza.

The question is, is this military campaign counterproductive in the end? Are Israelis themselves not being served by their own leaders if the military option is the only one on the table?

PROSOR: At the end of the day now you are the prime minister of the state of Israel. (Inaudible) the United States or the United Kingdom. This is unbearable. A, every prime minister, every nation, every people, every government has a responsibility, first and foremost, to protect the citizens.

And Hamas, since it took over Gaza -- and I remind you, in 2005 -- has used Gaza, instead of changing Gaza into a prosperous place and an entity that people could live in freedom, basically use Gaza as a haven for terrorists, a launching pad for rockets flying into Israel day in and day out, and an ammunition dump to weapons coming in from Libya, from Iran, from Syria.

And this has to end, because really, peace on both sides, we won't be able to achieve that --

GORANI: So there are no alternatives to a military solution that, in the end, haven't lessened the threat to southern Israel? Haven't bettered the lives of ordinary Palestinians who have, in many cases, no way of leaving that Gaza Strip that is impoverished and overly populated? So I mean, in the end, in the end, is there no other solution coming from your government?

PROSOR: Of course there is. The solution that the Israeli government made was, A, when we had a peace with Egypt, it was negotiated we have peace with Egypt. We have peace with Jordan. And when we went out of Gaza, we wanted to have peace in Gaza. That's why we went out.

But we -- and people have to remind themselves about exactly that, that at the end of the day, you won't be able to achieve peace if you have terrorists like Hamas ruling the game. And Israel's main objective and the only objective, we have no interest in escalating this. Israeli targeting Hamas infrastructure --


GORANI: Well, let me tell you, because you say you have no --

PROSOR: (Inaudible) both sides will be able to live with (inaudible) --

GORANI: Some of your own citizens, Gershon Baskin -- I know you're familiar with him --"The assassination of Jabari was a preemptive strike against the possibility of a long-term cease-fire and Netanyahu has acted with extremism irresponsibility," these aren't Palestinians saying this about your government. These are Israeli observers.

PROSOR: Well, Gershon Baskin, you know, Israel is a diverse political system, not less than the United States (inaudible) to any ideas. But first and foremost, every prime minister has a responsibility to protect its citizens. And you don't have to be a rocket scientist --

GORANI: I don't think anyone's arguing that the prime minister of Israel's responsibility is not to protect its citizens.

PROSOR: True. But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that if rockets fall on your head, you're allowed to defend yourself. So this is what Israel is doing --

GORANI: -- of what result comes out of that. But let me tell you what (inaudible) --

PROSOR: And hopefully --


PROSOR: And hopefully the result out of that would be that Hamas terrorist infrastructure is out. Ahmed al-Jabari, who you're talking about, is a mass murderer with blood on his hands --

GORANI: But there were reports --

PROSOR: -- a better and a safer place without him running around and we will be able to achieve better understanding between people when these people are out of the way and simple and good people on both sides can move forward to a real comprehensive --

GORANI: You talk about Ahmed Jabari, there were reports -- there were actually conversations going on between the Israelis and Ahmed Jabari that he had a draft cease-fire agreement on him hours before he was killed. Is that true or not?

PROSOR: Look, I -- you know, all those stories, Ahmed Jabari is a mass murderer. What he -- the amount of children and women and innocent civilians --

GORANI: So it's not true?

PROSOR: -- they suffered from Ahmed Jabari. The world is a much better place and a safer place without this person running around.

GORANI: Is it true or not that there were talks between him and others in Gaza and Israeli -- on the Israeli --

PROSOR: I do not know if there were talks, if there were not talks. But as you said, I oversaw Israel going out of Gaza. We went out and I want to remind everyone, we didn't go out in order to look back into Gaza.

And look what they've done into Gaza. They've changed it into a terrorist hub. Now Israel -- and not just Israel. No sensible government, no nation, no people can live under these circumstances. And the point that I want to make is --

GORANI: So this will continue, then?

PROSOR: -- no interest to escalate this. But it's important to know that the first and foremost priority for us and to every prime minister is to protect its citizens. And that's what we're going to do. And hopefully when we do that, people will understand that the only way forward is through dialogue and not through rockets flying onto Israeli cities and major cities day in and day out.

GORANI: Got to leave it there. Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor, thanks for joining us live in the studio.

PROSOR: Thank you.

GORANI: On CNN. We'll be right back.


GORANI: A final thought tonight, the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas isn't just happening on the ground and in the air. Imagine a world where a war is breaking out on Twitter. To win the battle of hearts and minds, the Israeli military has set up a war room, complete with computers and what it called new media fighters, in other words, soldiers whose job is to send out pro-Israel images and messages on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

Hamas has countered with ongoing tweets of its own to denounce the Israelis and warn of reprisals. This Twitter war is taking on the tone of an online holy war as Israel's backers voice their support using the hashtag -- if you're not familiar with Twitter, that's a conversation topic -- #prayforisrael, while supporters of Hamas are using the term #prayforgaza.

And so far they're winning the Twitter war with more than double the tweets. There is no shortage of prayers on both sides, but any hope for peace lies in the hands of leaders, who so far, at least, have not found a way to end the violence for their citizens.

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching. Goodbye from New York.