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Israel Targets Gaza Media Building; Attacks Intensify Despite Peace Talks; Firefight On Israel-Gaza Border; Trying To Broker Peace In Middle East; No End To Israel-Gaza Conflict; Obama Makes Historic Trip To Myanmar; What Gaza And Israel Want

Aired November 19, 2012 - 10:00   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning. Thank you so much for joining us. I'm Carol Costello.

This morning a reminder of how dangerous it is to report from a combat zone. Watch this.

Unbelievable. That's Gaza City about 90 minutes ago.

CNN's Arwa Damon says an Israeli air strike has hit a building that houses a news agency connected to militants. International concerns grow; troubling numbers continue to pile up. Israel says it has struck more than 1,300 Palestinian targets and Israel's military says Gaza has fired more than 1,000 rockets in response.

Also growing this morning, the death toll, at least 92 people reported dead in Gaza, including women and children, three reported dead in Israel. Peace talks under way in Egypt, but optimism is definitely hard to find in the war zone.

Our reporters are covering each side of this conflict. We're trying to get Fred --


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN BERLIN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's another attack, another rocket alert going on right now. We have to get out of here.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "AC 360": We know 10 members of one family, also two media centers -- whoa! That was a rather large explosion.


COSTELLO: All right, just some examples of how the violence continues to happen in Gaza City and, of course, also across the border in Israel.

Anderson cooper is in Gaza City. He joins us by phone now. Just a short time ago, the media center in Gaza City came under attack for the second time in two days. Tell us about that, Anderson.

COOPER (via telephone): Yes, we were witnessing the media center which got attacked. Three rockets slammed into the media center earlier today, probably about an hour or so, an hour and 20 minutes or so ago, and I ran to the scene.

First responders had just gotten to the scene. A fire truck as well as ambulance crews as well. They pulled out the body of one person who was severely burned. His clothes had been burned off. His skin had largely been burned off as well. I'm not sure if he survived.

We do know at least one person was killed, and according to sources here, it was a member of Islamic Jihad. So that was likely the target of this strike. It's believed he had an office in the building on the lower floors. As I said, this is one of the media centers that was struck yesterday.

When Israel Defense Forces said they were trying to strike a Hamas antenna, but clearly this target was very different and was on the lower floors. That building, the fire has largely been put out, but there have been a number of explosions about three or four since then.

We've also seen some outgoing rockets being fired by groups here in Gaza City toward Israel. Unclear what the impact of those has been in Israel -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Thank you, Anderson. Let's see if we can get more information about that from Fred Pleitgen. He's on the Ofakim, Israeli. I would assume that's along the Israeli/Gaza border. Am I right?

PLEITGEN: Yes, absolutely. It's very close to the Israeli/Gaza border, Carol, and this is a town that's' actually been hit by a lot of rockets in the past couple days. They have also had rocket sirens go off earlier today.

Really this entire region has had a lot of rockets coming in especially in the past couple hours. We've been traveling this region. We have heard these rocket alarms go off. We've seen impacts. We've actually felt impacts very close to us from rockets as well as mortars.

This town here is actually a very interesting one because it is directly in the line of fire especially from those very short-range rockets, and only yesterday what happened was that there was a direct -- Carol, we have an alarm going off right now.

I am going to have to seek cover. We're going to go over here. We're going to have to get into safety.

COSTELLO: You go. You go, go, go.

PLEITGEN: We're going to have to get down.

COSTELLO: This always makes me so nervous.

PLEITGEN: There's no place to go really. What you have to do is get down on the ground and wait for it to pass. Just hope it doesn't hit anywhere here. They're telling us to go inside the shop. We'll stay here.

All right, it seems like something impacted in the distance. Not sure how far away. OK, the alarm stopped. It was over there? OK, all right, I think we can get up again. Are you still there, Carol?

COSTELLO: We are still there and we're nervous, Fred. You're not even wearing any protection. Are you OK?

PLEITGEN: Well, yes, we're fine. We're fine. Yes, so it seems as though the impact was quite a ways in the distance, I would say a couple miles probably in the distance. There over in the sky, you probably won't be able to see it there, there's an interceptor missile taking off.

That's the Iron Dome interceptor. If you just saw the flash in the sky, that was a rocket coming out of Gaza, that was just intercepted right now. It appears as though at this point in time there is another barrage being fired from Gaza into this part of Israel close to the Israeli border.

As I was just telling you, this town here on the border is one that does take a lot of fire very frequently. So this is really something that is very commonplace for the people here. They have sort of an eerie daily routine with this.

If we pan over here, this is quite interesting. You can see the shops here are closed. There was another impact in the distance. It seems one of the rockets was not intercepted, but the shops here, most of them are closed, very few people in the streets right now.

So this is really what life is like here and this is obviously something that's increased a lot, of course, with the ongoing conflict. There's another impact in the distance. It really seems as though right now there's a barrage being fired off.

A lot of rockets seem to be being picked off by the Iron Dome missile interceptor system. There's still a plume of white smoke in the sky you won't be able to see because it's getting quite dark, from our camera.

But it seems as though at least for our area here, they're saying the alarm is over. Certainly there seem to be rockets being fired out of Gaza at this point in time -- Carol.

COSTELLO: I'm just amaze that the Iron Dome -- that missile defense system that Israel has been so very effective.

PLEITGEN: Yes, it certainly has. You know, people here are amazed by that as well. It really was. Interestingly enough, when it was put into -- when the program was started in 2007, it was really something that was very controversial in the Israeli military.

Not many people wanted to actually do it, but now that it's up and running, it has intercepted a lot of missiles. We keep hearing 1,000 rockets launched out of Gaza and only about 300 picked off, but the Iron Dome is actually amazing in that it only picks off missiles that hit populated areas.

If it tracks a missile that's going to hit a field, it's not going to pick it off. That's most of the missiles that are happening so most of the rockets that are going to hit population centers are actually picked off by the Iron Dome.

Now, of course, there is not 100 percent success rate and there have been hits. There have been hits in this town, in a nearby town. There have, of course, been people killed and wounded as well.

But certainly the Iron Dome is something that no doubt has saved lives here on the ground, has caused people to not suffer injury when that might have happened in the past.

But, of course, the Israeli Defense Forces are also warning people don't lose your guard. If you hear a siren, get inside even with the Iron Dome out there, but it is really a remarkable system.

COSTELLO: It really is. We just had the video our viewers saw was of the Iron Dome. I guess a rocket on the way to intercept an incoming missile. It's just amazing, but you stay safe Fred Pleitgen. You're a brave guy. We appreciate it.

We want to get a look at the big picture because unbelievably there are ceasefire negotiations under way. Nicholas Burns is a former U.S. Undersecretary of State under President George W. Bush. He's a former ambassador to NATO. Welcome.


COSTELLO: I mean, you have witnessed these kinds of situations before. As you witness all of what's happening this morning, what goes through your mind?

BURNS: Well, Carol, this is an extraordinarily dangerous situation, and it's clear that Israel's facing a new strategic threat. Because of these changes in the Arab world, Hamas has longer range rockets that can now reach Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem and that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Israel still has to worry about its northern border because Syria has been firing shells into Israel's northern border last week. It's got to worry always about Hezbollah in Northern Israel and it has in Egypt now a government with which it has a formal peace agreement, the Camp David Accords, but a government that's clearly siding with Hamas.

So the Israelis have to be very concerned to denigrate Hamas' ability to launch the rockets, but they have to find a way to end the fighting as quickly as they can because the Israeli population of Southern Israel is still exposed. There was an attack this morning by Hamas rockets on the city of Ashkalon.

COSTELLO: And I want to ask you about those ceasefire negotiations. There are U.N. officials, United Nations officials in Egypt right now. Egypt is trying to broker a ceasefire agreement with Hamas. Hamas seems not to be budging. So explain to us like if you're the Egyptian president, what are you saying to the leader of Hamas?

BURNS: The Egyptians are in a very difficult situation because on the one hand Mohamed Morsy, the president of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, in part made its name by outright support for Hamas for a radical brand of Palestinian nationalism not the more moderate brand of Fatah on the West Bank.

Yet the Egyptians cannot afford a situation where the United States walks away from its military aid or there's an outright crisis between Europe and Egypt because Egypt is not stopping Hamas. So the Egyptians have placed themselves into the center of this extraordinary drama.

They're trying to work out a ceasefire. They've been working with the Turkish prime minister, Prime Minister Erdogan, the leadership of Qatar, and now the U.N. Chief Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, is going to be in Egypt today.

The sides are very far apart. It doesn't a ceasefire is imminent, but the Egyptians need to work with one because while they want to be supportive of the Palestinians, they don't want to see a further intensification of this war in a way that would lead to a real problem with Egypt's friends particularly the United States.

COSTELLO: So with all of that going on there's some hawkish talk taking place within Israel. I want to read you an op-ed from the Jerusalem post. It was written by the former prime minister's son.

He 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 who was defeated."

And then he goes on to write this, "We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza, flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn't stop with Hiroshima. The Japanese weren't surrendering fast enough so they hit Nagasaki, too."

Do you think that's the general consensus in Israel and it that's' so, is a ground war inevitable?

BURNS: I do not believe that's the consensus in Israel. I think the views you just read out are reprehensible views because the Israelis and the Palestinians at some point in the future are going to have to make a peace.

At this point we have to say, Hamas started this fight. Hamas was the one firing rockets into Southern Israel. For many weeks and many months and as President Obama has been saying, Israel has a clear right to defend itself.

But there comes a point where the Israelis are going to have an interest in a ceasefire and I hope that point will be in the next day or two because the civilian casualties are mounting in Gaza as your correspondents have shown just today and yesterday.

If the Israelis try a ground invasion, there's a real fear in the United States and in Western Europe and in Arab capitals that will lead to further bloodshed, further violence.

And I remember, carol, the Lebanon war of 2006 where in the first day it is went in Israel's favor, and then the whole world and the whole war turned on Israel when there were civilian casualties in Lebanon itself.

So the Israelis certainly have a right to defend themselves, but they also have to be careful here. A ceasefire I think is in the interest of both sides. The question is will Egypt be adept enough in putting together that kind of ceasefire?

COSTELLO: We'll see. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

BURNS: Thank you.

COSTELLO: OK, let's head back to Gaza City now and CNN's Arwa Damon. Arwa, despite talk of a ceasefire, it looks like Israel is not exactly ready to ease up.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And neither is Hamas at this point. Throughout the entire day we have been seeing rockets fired from Gaza toward Israel and, of course, the Israeli intense responses to all of that.

Now, just in the last hour and a half the tall building behind me, I don't know if you can see it at this point, was hit. There were two missiles that slammed in from one side. A third one in the front we were seeing dark black smoke billowing from it.

We know that at least two people have been killed, another six wounded. Among the wounded were two children and among those -- being told by multiple Palestinian sources, a senior member of Islamic Jihad. He was the information head of their military office.

That building also though is where Islamic Jihad's television station operates out of. They're not the only journalists who were there. That building was used by a number of international organizations until it was actually hit yesterday as well.

Shortly after the strike on that building, we then saw an explosion just a few blocks behind it. There have been a series of e explosions here since then. None of this bodes well for people on either side of the conflict.

We have been out in the streets speaking with residents of Gaza or those residences who you could find and they're utterly terrified about all of this talk about a possible Israeli ground invasion.

They know exactly what that means to them only too well having lived through it back in 2008-2009, and, of course, in the decades well before that.

COSTELLO: I was just going to ask you, you know, night has fallen now, and the attacks increase at night. So where do people go to stay safe in Gaza City? DAMON: Well, that's the problem. There is nowhere for people here to actually go where they can rest assured that they will, in fact, be safe. When these air strikes happen here, there are no sirens to give them warning.

On some occasions we hear from people that the Israelis do call, tell them to evacuate an area, but recently we've been hearing from many more that, that in fact, has not taken place. We were out in the market earlier today.

We met a woman who said in her particular neighborhood the Israelis had warned them not to go out, but because of that there were no markets open there. She actually had to hitch a ride with an ambulance just to buy groceries, food for her family of 13.

You walk around the streets here during the day, most people are inside. You see very few out on the street. Most of the shops are closed. When you walk through the streets, you do get the sense that you're in a war zone.

But you get the sense that you're in a war zone that residents would have fled trying to find safer ground, but the reality is that the 1.5 million-plus residents of this strip, they have nowhere else to go.

They are literally not able to leave their homes in this part of the country so they're effectively trapped. Any measures that they take to keep themselves safe are superficial at best.

COSTELLO: And just a final question before I let you go, in light of all of that, why aren't the people of Gaza City begging Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and make all of this stop?

DAMON: Well, it's a bit more complicated than that because they do not necessarily view this conflict as being the fault of Hamas and Hamas' firing rockets into Israel. Remember, this is a decades' old conflict. The tensions between these communities have existed for quite some time now.

And they blame much of the violence that is taking place right now on the Israelis and on Israelis longstanding attitude towards the Palestinian population. That being said, people are not necessarily blindly supporting Hamas.

But at the same time they are not going, they say, to allow the Israelis to continue to bombard them and to act pretty much at will when it comes to their attitude towards the Palestinians.

So it's an incredibly more complicated conflict than the simple fact of having the Palestinians themselves ask Hamas not to fire rockets from particular areas.

COSTELLO: I just want -- I know I said that was the last question, but I have one more. In the Jerusalem post the former prime minister's son wrote an op-ed. He said the people of Gaza City are really to blame for this. They're the ones that elected Hamas to the government. Hamas is a terrorist organization, so in essence, he's saying, it's their fault this is happening to them over and over and over again.

DAMON: And you would find that met here with a lot of anger, a lot of scorn, but not a lot of surprise because for many of the residents here, they believe that that view is shared by a vast majority of Israelis.

People here most certainly do not view or categorize Hamas as being a terrorist organization. They believe that they do have a right to defend themselves to protect the people of Palestine, and, again, this is a decades' long conflict.

These two communities have been at war for quite some time now, to say the least, and the perspective towards Hamas differs greatly when you speak to an Israeli and when you speak to a Palestinian.

COSTELLO: That's definitely true. Arwa Damon, thanks so much. We'll take a quick break and be back with much more in the NEWSROOM.


COSTELLO: It's 19 minutes past the hour. Thanks for joining us this morning. President Obama is on the last leg of his historic trip to Asia. He arrived in Cambodia just hours ago along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend the East Asian Summit.

Just before that, President Obama made history as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar formerly known as Burma. He praised the nation on one hand for making progress in trying to move past its repressive history, but he says there are still steps for it to take to reach full democratic reform.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I stand before you today as president of the most powerful nation on earth but recognizing that once the color of my skin would have denied me the right to vote.

And so that should give you some sense that if our country can transcend its differences, then yours can, too, every human being within these borders have a part of your nation's story and you should embrace that.


COSTELLO: President Obama began his three-nation tour in Thailand before going to Myanmar and now Cambodia.

OK, let's head back to Gaza City to bring you up to date on the latest there. The violence continues there. The media center in Gaza City came under attack by Israeli forces, two missiles hitting that building.

We understand an Islamist Jihadist leader was killed. He had offices in that building. That was the Israeli target, not western journalists who sometimes work out of that building. Most of them had already evacuated.

Also, we brought you the story of the border town between Gaza City and Israel. Our Fred Pleitgen was talking about these rockets you were seeing launched from the Israeli side of the border and also he saw rockets launched from the other side of the border. Here is what happened next.


PLEITGEN: Carol, we have an alarm going off right now. I'm going to have to seek cover. We're going to go over here. Let's take the camera off the tripod. We have to get into safety.

COSTELLO: You go. You go, go, go.

PLEITGEN: We are going to have to get down.

COSTELLO: This always makes me so nervous.

PLEITGEN: No place to go here really. What you have to do is you have to get down on the ground and wait for it to pass. Just hope it doesn't hit anywhere here. They're telling us to go inside the shop. No, we'll stay here.

All right, seems like something impacted in the distance, not sure how far away. OK, the alarm stopped. It was over there? OK, all right, I think we can get up again. All right, are you guys still there, Carol?

COSTELLO: We are still there and we're nervous, Fred. Are you sure -- you're not even wearing any protection. Are you OK?

PLEITGEN: Well, yes, we're fine. We're fine. Yes, so it seems as though the impact was quite a ways in the distance, I would say a couple miles in the distance. In the sky there's an interceptor missile taking off.

That's the Iron Dome interceptor. Right there, if you just saw the flash in the sky, that was a rocket coming out of Gaza that was just intercepted right now. So it appears as though at this point in time there is another barrage being fired from Gaza into this part of Israel close to the Israeli border.

As I was just telling you, this town here on the border is one that does take a lot of fire very frequently, so this is really something that is very commonplace for the people here. They have sort of an eerie daily routine with this, but, of course, it's something that completely disrupts daily lives.


COSTELLO: All right, Fred Pleitgen reporting and he's A-OK. And we're glad we're able to say that. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be back with much more in the NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COSTELLO: It's 26 minutes past the hour. This latest round of attacks between the Israelis and Palestinians is the most intense in three years, which leads us to so many questions.

Hamas wants Israel to end its long blockade of Gaza. That's apparently why it struck this time. Gaza has been under siege since 2007 and that means Israel controls all goods entering the Gaza strip including weapons.

And Israel strictly enforces that blockade. Israeli military has boarded ships and halted shipments bound for Gaza. Reza Aslan is a member of the council on Foreign Relations focusing on the western world of Islam. He joins us from New York.

Good morning and thanks for sticking around. We appreciate it.


COSTELLO: So the violence continues unabated. It's nightfall there now and the rockets have increased in number. What do you make of this? Where are we headed? Because I just talked to Ambassador Burns, he says he can't understand why Israel would consider a ground war. What do you think?

ASLAN: Well, I also think that a ground war is a far off possibility. Again, I think if you look at what happened in 2008 where operation cast lead, you had 1,400 Palestinians killed.

Israel's international legitimacy was greatly damaged as Nick Burns mentioned, and currently right now with elections coming in Israel in mid-January, I don't see that Bebe Netanyahu has any desire to escalate this conflict.

At the same time, however, he has to make sure that, especially with the elections in the United States, Obama's re-election and the fact that a possible military strike against Iran seems like a distant -- ever more distant project.

Netanyahu has to burnish his military credentials and I think this at least air attack against Gaza is a way to do that.

COSTELLO: So how does this end then? If it doesn't end with a ground war, how does it end?

ASLAN: Well, look, I think that the most likely scenario is that there is a ceasefire, hopefully brokered by the United States and Egypt, and then we all go back to exactly where we were before.

In a couple years we start this process all over again. At a certain point Israel is going to have to recognize that Hamas, whether it likes it or not, is the actual government in Gaza, and it's going to have to figure out a long-term solution to maintaining a viable ceasefire and that might include actually easing the blockade against Gaza.

More importantly the Palestinians themselves are being torn between two alternatives. There's the resistance and militant alternative that Hamas represents, and then there's the accommodating moderate alternative that the Palestinian Authority represents.

But the problem is that the Palestinian Authority despite having a peace process with the Israelis, despite essentially giving in to most of Israel's demands, has received nothing in return. It is no closer to achieving a two-state solution and an independent Palestinian state than it was four, five, six years ago.

The Palestinians have to be told that if you stop fighting, you will get a state, but that just does not seem possible with this particular Israeli government.

COSTELLO: Talking about the conflict at hand right now, I mean, Senator John McCain has suggested that Bill Clinton go in and mediate and maybe he could calm things down in the region. What do you think about that?

ASLAN: Well, whether it's Bill Clinton or whether it's the quartet -- there has to be a robust American presence in this conflict. The notion that you hear so often particularly among certain --