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CNN NEWSROOM

New Strikes on Gaza; Firefight on Israel-Gaza Border; New Strikes on Gaza

Aired November 19, 2012 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We will continue talking about sadly, likely, for the rest of the week. My thanks to you. My thanks to you for watching.

"CNN NEWSROOM" with Carol Costello begins right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: As you can see, the violence continues in Gaza. What you're looking at is an Israeli attack on the 24-hour news channel in Gaza. This is where, of course, the news is broadcast to the people of Gaza.

Also western journalists operate outside -- inside this building. We do know one person was killed in this latest strike. This is actually the second time this building has been struck in the past two days.

Obviously the Israeli military wants to take out any information getting out to the Gazans at this point.

Wolf Blitzer is in Ashkelon. That's eight miles from Gaza's border.

Wolf, can you tell us anything about this building?

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: The only thing I know about the building is that there are several media organizations that have their base in Gaza in that building. The Israelis -- I spoke yesterday with an Israeli army spokesman who said there are also Hamas organizations or Hamas related infrastructure in that building. That's why they say they're targeting that building.

But there are several Arabic language news organizations based there. And as you point out, Carol, this is the second time the Israelis have gone after there -- after that building. So other than what the Israelis are saying, that they say there are legitimate targets there, what we're seeing on the ground from our own reporters, it's obviously an escalation into a pretty serious development even as some of the diplomats are trying to achieve some sort of ceasefire.

When you see what's going on, though, that ceasefire looks increasingly remote. Let's see what happens behind the scenes there.

COSTELLO: I have heard, Wolf, that Israel says that if there's not some sort of ceasefire agreed to on behalf of Gaza that a ground war will begin soon. What are you hearing?

BLITZER: Well, that's what the Israelis are saying. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu at his Cabinet meeting yesterday made that point. That they're not going to wait forever. We do know that there have been a lot of international efforts to get a ceasefire, including an Israeli envoy, a special envoy who went to Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials.

The Egyptian government, President Mohamed Morsi, has been very much involved in trying to achieve a ceasefire together with representatives from Turkey, from Qatar. President and the secretary of state, the U.S. president, they've been talking to all sorts of leaders.

Let's see what happens. I'm in Ashkelon right no which is only a few miles north of the Gaza border. And it's eerie here because -- the cafes are pretty much deserted. I was walking along the Mediterranean Beach. Normally there'd be a lot of people, it's a beautiful day here. Pretty much deserted.

I just got to an Israeli area where there's a little shelter for school kids. But -- you hear the sirens going off. As soon as I got to Ashkelon a few hours ago the sirens went off and the soldiers, then they rushed everyone into these bomb shelters, into these areas. And you know, you could see why people are terrified about what's going on. Apparently in this particular incident, when I heard the thuds, when I heard the sirens going off, the Iron Dome, this anti-missile system, seemed to have worked because we then just looked up in the skies when we got out of the shelters, we saw that -- we saw huge plumes from what this Iron Dome system had done.

But look, it's bad on both sides. And you ask how much longer is it going to wait before the Israelis move in? I know the Israelis don't want to move their tanks and armored personnel and the personnel carriers and ground forces into Gaza. But I suspect that the prime minister and his government, they don't have a whole lot of patience right now.

COSTELLO: All right, Wolf, please stand by. We have Ben Wedeman. He is actually in Gaza City.

Ben, we're continuing to look at this media building in Gaza.

We're trying to get Ben. Wolf, bear with me. But as we take a look at these live pictures of this smoking building that's been hit twice in the last two days, this houses the Gazan Press. It's a 24-hour news channel, I guess kind of like CNN.

Ben Wedeman is here. Ben, tell us about this particular broadcast center and why Israel so badly wants to take it out.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is an office building. And it contains in addition to lawyers' offices and others, a television station called the Al-Aqsa, which is associated with the Hamas movement. What's unclear, however, is what exactly their intention was (INAUDIBLE) outside where it got hit with (INAUDIBLE). The third floor, and there's a lawyers office. There's no sign for Al-Aqsa television.

My understanding is that Al-Aqsa Television is a few floors above where this building was hit. This building was hit in the upper floors, its top floor yesterday. Very early yesterday. So it's not altogether clear what the target is.

Now we've seen -- I saw the ambulance services brought out one person who was severely burned. And we have subsequently learned that he is dead. They are still looking inside the building to see if there are others who may still be alive or injured or dead inside. And the fire trucks have been spraying water. So it does appear that the fire is being put out. But as far as exactly what Israel's intended target was for this strike, I think we'll have to ask them.

COSTELLO: Right. And, you know, I was just wondering because, you know, maybe the goal here is to cut off, you know, what the Israelis would call propaganda to the Gazan people.

WEDEMAN: Well, certainly that is one of their concerns. They've talked about trying to destroy Hamas's communications network. But the television itself, yes, it does put out obviously news with a very, shall we say, slanted point of view or rather a subjective point of view.

But other stations here continue to function, stations that are equally sympathetic to the viewpoints of Hamas.

COSTELLO: And, Wolf, let me ask you this question. The death toll continues to rise, especially in Gaza, 92 dead so far. That includes women and children. Three dead within Israel. As the casualties --

WEDEMAN: I'm sorry. I cannot hear what you're saying.

COSTELLO: That's OK, Ben. We're going to have Ben stand by.

Wolf, can you hear me? Wolf Blitzer?

BLITZER: Yes, I can hear you, Carol. God.

COSTELLO: OK. Good. So just on my question, 92 have died in Gaza City. Three have died in Israel. As there are more casualties in Gaza, will it get tougher for, let's say, the Egyptian prime minister to broker any sort of ceasefire?

BLITZER: There's no doubt, Carol, it's going to be very tough but given the feelings on both sides. And if the diplomats, I know that Ban Ki-Moon, the U.S. secretary general, is on his way to Egypt and Israel. He's trying to get something going. I know that representatives from all these other countries that have relations with Hamas like Egypt and Qatar and turkey, they're trying to get something going. There's intense efforts behind the scenes. I don't know what -- if they're going to result in anything. I was asked yesterday what I thought the chances of a serious-fire were. I thought yesterday about 50/50. I haven't been able to talk with anybody in a position of authority here in Israel. I've been here Ashkelon in the southern part along the border not far from the -- from Gaza. But it doesn't look very promising. Let's see if the diplomats can get something going.

But you point out that the feelings on both sides, they seem to be intensifying in a bad way. And I think that's right.

COSTELLO: Senator John McCain came out and said, you know, we should send Bill Clinton in. He should be the mediator in this latest conflict. Would Israel or Gaza welcome Bill Clinton?

BLITZER: Well, I've been saying that, actually, myself for -- I wrote a blog post on our "SITUATION ROOM" blog post months ago saying after George Mitchell, the Obama administration's special envoy for Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations, after he ended his tour without any success at all. And that's been more than a year ago. Maybe a year and a half or so ago.

I said they need -- really, they need someone who's got clout with the Israelis. Who's got clout with the Palestinians in the Arab world. And I thought Bill Clinton, especially with his wife leaving as secretary of state, maybe that would be a good assignment for him. He's taken on other assignments like Haiti relief, for example, the tsunami.

And I know he got -- the final months of his presidency to a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So I think McCain and maybe -- I don't know if Bill Clinton would want to do it. I asked him that question in an interview I did with him a few months back. And he didn't say no. He didn't say yes. But I think they need someone of that caliber to -- assuming that they achieve a cease-fire and that there's no great guarantee that they will, but let's say they do, they need to follow up quickly with trying to get negotiations under way.

A peace process that would lead to what they call a two-state solution. Israel and Palestine. They need someone of that caliber to lead the negotiations. If he's willing to do it, if the president's willing to ask him, then I think that would probably be a positive step that would be welcomed by the Israelis and the Palestinians.

COSTELLO: OK. Stand by again, Wolf. We're going to bring in Fred Pleitgen. He's in Gaza City. He's going to talk more about this media center and office building that has come under attack in the last two days by Israel.

What more can you tell us?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it appears as though the media center that was targeted in Gaza, this is the second time in just as many days that this has happened. We're still trying to get details of what is going on on the ground there. But as you said, it was only yesterday that the media center apparently was targeted.

Now what the Israeli side is saying is that this was a targeted strike that did not target journalists. But that in fact they were trying to hit communications equipment that was being used by militants there in Gaza. Not only Hamas but also Islamic jihad as well.

Of course, journalists that we've been speaking to who were in the building at the time say that there was no presence of any militants in that building. And that this strike did not appear to be targeting any sort of militants, but rather that there were only civilians in that building.

COSTELLO: Speaking of civilian casualties, there have been many within Gaza. Israel has said it's trying to be careful. Of course, Gaza thinks something entirely different. From your vantage point, what's going on?

PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, certainly the Israeli side will say that they're trying to minimize civilian casualties. They are speaking of the airstrikes that are going on in Gaza as, quote, "surgical strikes." They're saying what they're trying to do is take out what they say is terrorist infrastructure, which his of course essentially Hamas and Islamic jihad infrastructure there.

There are things like rocket launching sites, command control centers, but also of course prominent figures among Hamas. Like for instance, the leaders of the Hamas rocket launching squads as well.

What's happened, however, in the past days is that there have been increased civilian casualties. As well there was a statement by the Israeli defense forces that they hit a building in which they thought they were targeting a leader of the Hamas militant wing. But that in fact there was also another family in that building as well and that this caused civilian casualties on the ground.

However, they also say that that incident is still under investigation. That they are doing their utmost to prevent civilians from getting hurt in this conflict.

COSTELLO: Going back to Wolf Blitzer, you know, I just want to ask you a question about President Obama. He has dipped his toe into this conflict but he is in Cambodia right now. He's not in Washington. Some say he ought to be back in Washington dealing with this situation instead of taking a tour of Asia. What are you hearing?

BLITZER: Well, the trip to Asia is long planned. And obviously he has important interests in that part of the world as well. Having covered the president, I was a White House correspondent when Bill Clinton was president, look, wherever he is in the world, he's got people with him. His national security advisers, he can communicate, he's on the phone whether from Air Force One or a hotel or wherever he is. He's got secure communications. And I'm sure he's on top of this development.

The U.S. has critically important interests in the Middle East with the Israelis and the Arabs. And I'm sure the president is all over this even as he's engaging in his Asian tour. Would he have more time if he were just in Washington at the White House? Obviously. But I think he's all over it. He's got his people, his top national security advisers, who are focused very, very intensely on what's going on here. Because if this thing were to escalate, if the Israelis were to move their ground forces in to Gaza, the casualties we've seen so far would be very, very minor compared to what would -- what would happen in a very, very densely populated area like that.

It would be awful. And the Israelis know that. The Palestinians know that. And everyone's trying to avoid that. But in the end that may happen. Let's see what happens. But in the end, that's certainly a possibility.

COSTELLO: Wolf Blitzer, thanks so much. Fred Pleitgen, Ben Wedeman. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back with much more in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

COSTELLO: It is 16 minutes past the hour.

Let me bring you up-to-date. Lots of breaking news to tell you about coming out of Gaza City.

The media center there is under attack once again for the second time in two days. Israeli jets have dropped explosive devices on top of that building.

Israel says it's not targeting the journalists inside the building. But it is targeting a Hamas communications system. It wants to take it out.

We understand one person has been killed today. Ambulances are now on their way to the scene.

Anderson Cooper is not far from that building. He joins us now live.

Anderson, what are you seeing?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me just give you the latest. You can see the building behind me. There's still a little bit of smoke coming from it. Three rockets hit the building, low floors of the building.

This is different than the strike that occurred yesterday that the Israeli Defense Forces was saying was targeting a Hamas antenna. We believe the target of this strike was an Islamic jihad official who had an office inside the building.

We don't know if he, in fact, was struck. But we believe there was an office of a member of Islamic jihad. That may have been the target. That based according to Palestinian sources we've been talking to.

As you said, there are ambulances on the scene. I was there about 15 to 20 minutes ago as they pulled out one of the bodies. The man looked to be alive, though barely -- completely burned over his entire body. His clothes had been burned off as well. His wounds seemed quite extensive.

We know one person has died. I don't know if that is the person. He was taken away in an ambulance. He appeared alive at the time, but certainly was in very bad shape.

But ambulances responded very quickly as did fire crews. They've been battling the fire now for the last 20 to 30 minutes or so. We've had a number of explosions here throughout the day and a number of rockets as well being fired from Gaza City toward Israel.

But this is a very close strike to the area we're at, and as you said, hitting the same building that was hit just yesterday as well.

COSTELLO: Well, did civilians living around that building, because I can see it's right in the middle of the city, did they have time to evacuate? Were there lots of people there?

COOPER: Well, I don't know -- we don't know how many people may have been in the building at the time. The strike was definitely on the lower floors, perhaps just the first or second floor. And, you know, it didn't look like there were large numbers of injuries.

As the building was hit yesterday, the building was believed to be largely evacuated because it had been a target yesterday. People thought it might be a target again. But we're -- at least this one person that's known dead who was inside the building at the time.

COSTELLO: Well, I guess I meant there are buildings around the building that came under attack. And Israel has always said we drop pamphlets, make announcements so civilians can get out of the area before we attack.

COOPER: Not before every strike are pamphlets dropped. There's a general understanding if you are in what the Israeli military has said, and they have dropped pamphlets and sent out text messages in the past, but there is a general rule that if they say stay away from any buildings that have Hamas members or other groups that they consider terrorist groups inside those buildings.

So -- pamphlets were not dropped before this. This looked to me like a drone strike, because we actually saw at least two of the rockets entering the building. They entered -- the ones we saw entered from either side of the building. They came from a pretty low angle.

So, it wasn't as if it was a shell being fired from a great distance. It looked like they were being fired pretty low off the ground.

COSTELLO: I can't imagine the fear there in Gaza City.

COOPER: And --

COSTELLO: Can you -- go ahead, Anderson.

COOPER: Sorry. We just had another explosion off in the distance.

COSTELLO: Probably unclear what that is right at the moment. I was just going to ask you about the mood in Gaza. Are people -- do people want Hamas to continue firing rockets into Israel or do they want al of this to just stop?

COOPER: You know, I think there's a lot of anger here. At this point there's a lot of resentment. You know, there's a lot of anger at the entire situation.

People don't really talk much about -- you know, most people just want this to stop. People are hiding in their homes. They can't go outside. They're not able to get basic supplies. They're going out only when absolutely necessary.

There's a lot of fear and a lot of concern. Not just that this immediate situation will stop, but obviously that the larger situation which precipitated it will somehow get resolved. Again, the parameters of that or how that would happen at this point is pretty unclear.

COSTELLO: If Israel decides to unleash a ground war, what would that mean to the people of Gaza?

COOPER: Well, we've seen that before back in 2008-2009. It's -- you know, it is extraordinarily difficult here if Israeli forces were to move in on the ground. You know, this is a very densely populated city. There's obviously the danger for civilians, the danger for women and children increases dramatically if there is a ground offensive.

I think folks on both sides of this border, on both sides of this conflict certainly would like to avoid that if at all possible.

COSTELLO: Yes, I don't think many in our audience realize just how small Gaza is.

COOPER: Well, yes. It is. I mean, it's basically twice the size of Washington, D.C. Gaza city, with some 1.7 million people, it's very densely packed. Very narrow alleys, small houses, people living very close to one another.

So if rockets are being fired from a residential area, you know, it is very dangerous for all the people obviously around there. And if there is a strike on -- you know, Israel says they are targeting their strikes. Even a targeted strike if they get the target wrong or people are in a house that they don't realize or a rocket goes astray, civilians die.

And we've seen that just yesterday. Ten members of a family including four children when Israeli aircraft struck a building they said was owned by a Hamas official, by a head of a rocket launching unit.

Initially, they had said they'd killed that Hamas member. They then walked that back and said they couldn't verify whether or not they killed him. They still stand by the attack. But they say it was unfortunate that these members of the family were living in the building at the time.

But, you know, as this progresses -- I mean, we're now in day six of this. The actual targets become smaller and smaller. We've now seen Israel just over the last 24 hours hitting buildings.

Last night, there was a very loud explosion while we were on the air hitting a police station, a police station that was still being built. So it didn't have a lot of people inside it. They're obviously attempting to hit houses belonging to Hamas members as well.

So it's not clear how many days of -- of targeted airstrikes can continue and continue to actually try to degradate Hamas ability to fire rockets.

COSTELLO: Just a last question for you, Anderson. Gaza has basically been under siege by Israel for the past several years. Israel controls the goods that come in to Gaza, come out of Gaza. So, I'm just curious, where does Hamas get most of its weapons?

COOPER: Well, one of the problems is -- I mean, traditionally weapons -- rockets have been made here. They've been very -- not very sophisticated, hadn't much of a range. But over the last several years, since 2008-2009, since the last conflict, Hamas has been able to upgrade the quality of their rockets.

They're getting rockets from Iran, it's believed. There's a pipeline through various countries. The weapons are smuggled in. They're actually broken apart into smaller pieces.

There are tunnels from Egypt into Gaza that people bring supplies and weapons through as well. And, you know, there is a naval blockade by Israeli forces. But these tunnels is one way that things can get in through Egypt. And then the weapons are reassembled here.

And we've seen much more sophisticated rockets in this conflict, rockets, as you know, that have been able to reach the outskirts of Jerusalem, reach Tel-Aviv as well.

COSTELLO: Anderson Cooper, thank so much -- reporting live from Gaza City. We're going to take a short break. We'll be back with much more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

COSTELLO: And good morning to you. Thank you for joining us. I'm Carol Costello. Twenty-seven minutes past the hour.

This latest round of attacks between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the most intense in three years, which leads us to the question: why now?

Hamas wants Israel to end its long blockade of Gaza, that's why. Gaza has been under siege since 2007. That means Israel controls all goods entering the Gaza Strip, including weapons. And Israel strictly enforces that blockade.

In recent years, Israeli's military has boarded ships and halted shipments bound for Gaza.

Reza Aslan is an author and scholar focusing on the Western world of Islam. He joins us now from New York.

Good morning.

REZA ASLAN, AUTHOR, "NO GOD BUT GOD": Good morning.

COSTELLO: So the reason Israel controls goods and movement in and out of Gaza is to disrupt the ruling party in Gaza, which is Hamas. Of course, the U.S. considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

But the question this morning is: why does Hamas think this is the right time to flex its muscle, for lack of a better term?

ASLAN: Well, Hamas is facing an enormous amount of pressure both domestically and internationally. Remember, its external base of operations in Syria was lost earlier in the year as a result of the civil war there. So, really, Gaza is the only sole source of Hamas's legitimacy.

But currently in Gaza, Hamas is facing an enormous amount of pressure from all of these other smaller, much more radical militant groups that are pressuring Hamas to be more -- more emphatic in its response as a resistance group against Israel instead of maintaining the ceasefire that it has.

At the same time, of course, Hamas is dealing with the fact that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is in the process of applying for non-state member status at the United Nations which would, again, severely decrease Hamas's legitimacy as a representative of the Palestinian people. So they see this as a way of maintaining their relevancy, if you will.

COSTELLO: Interesting. So Israel is, of course, tired of rockets from Gaza fired into the country, into Israel. And some of the talk in Israel is definitely hawkish.

In an op-ed for "The Jerusalem Post", Gilad Sharon, the former prime minister's son, writes, quote, "What does a decisive victory sound like? A Tarzan-like cry that lets the entire jungle know in no uncertain terms just who won and just who was defeated."