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Israel-Gaza Death Toll Rising; Israel Shooting Down Hamas Rockets; Israeli Airstrikes Hit Home Egypt Attempting to Broker Ceasefire

Aired November 19, 2012 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to NEWSROOM INTERNATIONAL. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. We are taking you around the world in 60 minutes. Here is what's going on right now.

Strikes and counterstrikes are growing deadlier by the day as Israel and militants in Gaza turn their region into a raging battlefield. The strike you saw on this building in Gaza City happened just hours ago. We are told a senior official from Islamic jihad was killed in that strike. Civilians are paying a price in all of this as well. Officials in Gaza say more than 100 people, many of them women and children, have been killed there so far. Three Israelis have also been killed. Our Christiane Amanpour, she's joining us from Jerusalem.

And, Christiane, first of all, Israel is insisting that these are surgical strikes intended to hit militant targets and avoiding civilian casualties. We now have reports that more -- 100 people have been killed in Gaza, 800 wounded in the past six days. There's a lot of concern about where the civilians lie in all of this. What do you make of what is taking place on the ground? Is that possible to really avoid the civilians and just strike those militants?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, I think any military expert will tell you that it's not possible in a place that is so densely populated, as is Gaza. However, Israeli officials do tell us that they do have a new set of weaponry, more precision weapons, than they did this time last -- this time last time around when they went in to Gaza on the ground and by air. If you remember then, you know, more than 1,000 people were killed and the majority of those were civilians.

Now, they are trying to do it in a different way. And they also -- as the diplomatic track is going, you've got the public sort of military track going and the diplomatic track going as well. And a senior Israeli official told me today that they hope -- Israel is hoping that they can, in fact, see success from the diplomatic track.

As you know, the United States is not interested in seeing an Israeli ground offensive into Gaza, although reiterating its support for Israel's right to self-defense. We hear from Palestinians that they are, quote, "serious" about working on a cease-fire. But, of course, each side has demands. We hear from Egyptian officials at this point that the possibility of a truce may be close, but they, quote, "need more," quote, "flexibility" from Israel. So this is being played out right now. Perhaps tomorrow will be crucial. MALVEAUX: And, Christiane, you know this region better than anybody. What do you think is the timetable here? I mean, we are really in a critical point, and we are seeing these attacks back and forth. Is this something that you think will last throughout days, throughout weeks? When are they actually going to get to the table and try to figure this out?

AMANPOUR: Well, they are at the table trying to figure it out right now in Egypt. Egypt is the main broker. Egypt is also in contact with the United States. Also, there is Turkey's involvement, Qatar's involvement, Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas political wing, is also involved. But in terms of negotiating with Israel, Egypt is the main broker.

Now, we understand, although it has not been confirmed for us, that an Israeli envoy is at the table, or at least has been and is involved in these talks. But the impression we're getting from the Israeli side is that they're obviously involved in the negotiations and each side is looking very closely at what the other is proposing.

And I suppose everybody wants to know is, has each side inflicted enough pain, sent enough of a message that they can say, OK, this is it. We've sent our message. We want this and that and now is the time to get off the military ramp (ph)? We'll see.

MALVEAUX: Christiane, you've covered this. When you take a look at this situation on the ground and you realize the Israeli government calling up 75,000 reservists, massing tens of thousands of troops and tanks near the border of the Palestinian territory, what does this say to you in terms of a ground invasion? Does it seem inevitable? I mean, what do you make of what is happening there in your experience?

AMANPOUR: Well, the experience I have is having covering Operation Cast Lead four years ago and before that the operation that went into Lebanon in 2006. You know, as soon as Israel goes in on the air and then at the same time calls up its reserves, moves armor and tanks towards the border, of course everybody gets very tense and wonders whether that's going to lead to a ground invasion.

What we know is that they are using a dual track. There's a military track and a diplomatic track. And even though yesterday, you know, Israeli officials were sort of emphasizing the dual track, today they're trying to emphasize the political track and hope that there's success there, but always saying that, look, our objective is to stop the missiles from terrorizing and falling on people, especially in that southern area of Israel, and that they believe, at least they're telling us, that they have inflicted enough damage, or at least considerable damage, and they have managed to sort of decrease the number of rockets coming over. But, of course, you know, Hamas also has new weaponry. They have longer range missiles. They have been able to fire them towards Tel Aviv, towards Jerusalem that one time. So, you know, the equation is slightly changed on both sides.

MALVEAUX: All right, Christiane, thank you. We appreciate your perspective, as always.

A key to understanding the conflict is to understand this region.

Gaza lies on the Mediterranean coast, where Egypt and Israel meet. The territory covers 138 square miles. It's about twice the size of Washington D.C. About 1.7 million people live in Gaza. Most are Palestinian refugees in very densely populated areas.

Israel covers 7,850 square miles, which is about the size of New Jersey. More than 7.5 million people live there. They are surrounded by the north by Lebanon and Syria, Jordan to the east, and south the West Bank, which is Palestinian territory. It's also east of Israel. And on the southwestern side is Egypt, where the new Muslim Brotherhood government supports the Palestinians. Israel has to keep its eye on all sides in what is considered a hostile region.

CNN is right in the middle of the crisis. Just hours ago, our own Fred Pleitgen witnessed a shelling on the border between Israel and Gaza. Got a chance to see Israel's response live on our air. He was speaking with Carol Costello when all this happened just an hour ago. Take a look.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There over in the sky. You probably won't be able to see it here. There's an interceptor missile taking off right now. That is 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. And as I was just telling you, this town here on the border is one that does take a lot of fire very frequently.


MALVEAUX: Fred Pleitgen, he's joining us live near the Israeli-Gaza border.

Fred, nighttime has now come. Have we seen any more of these rocket attacks? Has it intensified over the last few hours?

PLEITGEN: Well, I'd say it stayed about the same. What we've had is we've had rocket attacks throughout the better part of the afternoon here, Suzanne, in this area surrounding Gaza. I'm in the town of Sterot (ph) right now, which traditionally takes rockets every once in a while from Gaza and, of course, is taking a lot more now that this situation here is going on.

Throughout the better part of the day, basically everywhere that I went to in that area, we had some sort of air raid alarm. Ashkelon in the morning was hit by four rockets. Two of them hit in a residential area, destroying two houses there. No one was injured in that.

Berheba (ph), we had two alarms go off there. We then went into the board very close, into the area very close to the border with Gaza. We had mortar attacks there where we had to hit the deck several times. And then finally we were in another town where we had that air raid alarm that you just saw there on Carol Costello's show, where before that we had to hit the deck as well.

So certainly it's been a very busy day. I would say it's not intensifying. It's about the same as it was a day before. But certainly what has become clear is that if Israel's objective is to stop rocket fire from Gaza, it certainly has not achieved that yet because there are still rockets going out. And, of course, on the other side, there are still a lot of air strikes happening by the Israeli military in Gaza. We saw some of those from a vantage point overlooking Gaza as well.


MALVEAUX: Fred, how are people holding up there? Are they nervous? Are they afraid? I mean we saw -- and you looked up into the sky and you were able to see that it was actually intercepted. I mean has that become routine for people there?

PLEITGEN: Well, certainly. I mean it's something that people are seeing quite a lot. I mean those iron dome missile defense batteries, they are in action a lot. I mean this was only one shoot-down that we saw. But we were in a -- at an iron dome anti-missile battery just yesterday where we saw it shoot down eight or nine missiles in just one go. I mean this thing could shoot down multiple targets. And it's something that Israelis who live here see very frequently. They'll have an alarm, they'll have sirens go off, and then they'll have, all of a sudden, those puffs go of in midair, which is obviously those rockets being shot down.

So certainly people are quite nervous about that and people are obviously also very unhappy about that because they're having to spend most of their days indoors. Many people, especially those who have children, will keep their children inside. That, of course, is very traumatizing for the kids as well because they get bored with being inside. And at the same time, they're very scared of these rocket alarms. So it is something that is really having a very deep impact on public life here, especially also on economic life. If you go to the malls in this area, to the shops in this area, I would say, from observing here, that about 80 percent are closed and the rest of them are pretty empty, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Fred Pleitgen, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Another major story that we are watching today.




MALVEAUX: President Obama gets a round of applause during his history- making event to Myanmar. He is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country, also known as Burma. For decades, Myanmar was cut off from the world because of its repressive military regime. But a reform movement now underway. In his speech at the University of Yangon, President Obama urged Myanmar to continue its reforms. He delivered the message after meeting with Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.


OBAMA: I want to make a pledge to the people of this country that I am confident we can keep, and that is if we see continued progress towards reform, our bilateral ties will grow stronger, and we will do everything we can to help insure success.


MALVEAUX: The president arrived in Myanmar from Thailand. He is now in Cambodia for the East Asia Summit.

So, how do two sides that have been fighting this long and so violently find peace? We're going to talk to former diplomat James Ruben about what worked when President Bill Clinton was in the White House.


MALVEAUX: With no cease-fire in sight, people of Gaza and Israel find themselves in line of fire. In this map you can see how close in proximity the border is. Arwa Damon was in Gaza during the aftermath of an air strike that wiped out an entire family.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The large slab of concrete and mangled metal finally gives way. Buried beneath it, another lifeless body. It's the second child we've seen. There was also a baby.

Others in the neighborhood say the blast killed all 10 people who lived here. Israel says it was targeting Yahya Beyah (ph), who heads a Hamas rocket launching unit. People we spoke with said they never heard of him. This was the el Dalouf (ph) family home.

DAMON (on camera): People here are telling us that so far those who have been killed in this strike have been women and children. And they have not been able to find any survivors. Just moments ago, from that back corner, they did pull out the body of a tiny child. And over here, there's another frantic effort underway.

DAMON (voice-over): Temperatures easily flare as frustration and anger mount.

"She's my uncle's wife," this young man shouts. Rage coupled with sorrow etched across his face. This is where she lived. Her elderly body finally dug up and carried away.

There are no air raid sirens or bunkers in Gaza. This strike came with no warning.

The rescue efforts are not always so hopeless. Not far from here just the day before, 11-month-old, Ahmed (ph), and his 4-year-old sister, Shahata (ph), both survived a multiple missile strike on their home.

When the roof collapsed, it somehow formed a protective arch over us, the children's mother, Safah (ph), says. For about 45 minutes, I thought I was going to suffocate. My leg was stuck. People could hear me screaming, but they couldn't do anything, she tells us. In between her cries, fears that her children were dead.

This is what the building looks like now. The rubble that was cleared to save the family of 10 piled back into the lot that was their home.

I will never forget what happened, she says. I will die imaging it. I can't believe it. I can't believe these are my children. I tell myself they are not my children. I can't imagine how they survived.

I feel like I'm not myself. I can't believe that I am alive talking to you, breathing.

She tells us she wants revenge, but more than that, she wants peace. She says there is no good that comes with war.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Gaza City.


MALVEAUX: While many world leaders are calling for a ceasefire in the Middle East, the chances of brokering it seem pretty slim.

Republican Senator John McCain is suggesting former President Bill Clinton jump in.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: Try to find someone even as high- ranking, frankly, as former President Bill Clinton to go and be the negotiator.

I know he would hate me for saying that, but we need a person of enormous prestige and influence to have these parties sit down together as an honest broker.


MALVEAUX: In 1993, President Clinton brought then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin together for an iconic handshake at the White House.

The Oslo Accord was the first face-to-face agreement between Israeli and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but ultimately, it did not fulfill either side's expectations.

President Clinton tried again at the Camp David 2000 summit, but it ended without an agreement on the peace -- on peace in the region.

James Rubin served as President Clinton's assistant Secretary of State for public affairs. He is joining us from New York. Jamie, good to see you, as always. If you were advising the president here, do you think he should accept the task?

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Well, I think Bill Clinton will do what's asked much him, but I think it's fair to say the circumstances are very, very different today than they were back, I guess, almost 20 years ago in 1993.

The big difference is that the Palestinians are not unified. There are two Palestinian movements, the one in Gaza led by Hamas, which is an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

They don't agree with each other. They have very different goals and very different means, and, unfortunately, the terrible tragedy that we just saw on the screen of these families, they're the terrible pawns in this struggle between Hamas to gain international stature and support and the Israelis to stop the missile attacks on their country.

MALVEAUX: Tell us about that, Hamas and the ability and strength of Hamas. Things have changed after the Arab Spring. We see that Hamas has new allies, a closer relationship with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also more closely aligned with Turkey and better armed from Iran and some of those weapons. How strong do you think Hamas is?

RUBIN: Well, I think we're going to find out in the coming days whether the Arab Spring has made things worse for Israel in terms of its geopolitical reality. You just pointed out, quite correctly, Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is now in charge as a political party of Egypt.

That's very, very different than under Mubarak. Mubarak was an opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak considered himself an ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic extremism. So, when Egypt was the broker of peace between -- a ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas, Egypt really was something of an honest broker because they weren't supporting one side or the other.

Now, the Egyptians are playing a new role and these are new diplomats who have never done this before and everything they've learned and everything they've trained and everything they've studied their whole life is to be on the side of Hamas.

MALVEAUX: So, what does President Obama do at this point? I mean, his alliances, what kind of leverage does he have with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, considering that it is somewhat of a tense relationship?

RUBIN: Well, I think the leverage of the United States is, you know, I guess the term of art these days is the light footprint of the United States in the Middle East.

We are not the main broker of this. We are not the key player between the Egyptians and the Israelis or between Hamas and the Israelis.

We will, I suspect, support Bibi Netanyahu's policies, whether that includes a ground invasion or just continued air strikes. I think privately we'll probably be telling him the risk of a ground invasion, explaining to him that the United States and Israel's friends don't have the influence in the Middle East we used to have.

And, with Egypt under a Muslim Brotherhood president and other key players like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, again, not as favorable towards Israel as Egypt was, that the geopolitical reality has changed, and Israel will come off much worse.

So, that's what the big test is. Will Hamas overplay its hand in this new reality, and will Israel recognize this new reality and not try to get what it used to get?

MALVEAUX: And, Jamie, finally here, I mean, this is a new region when you think about it. I mean, you've got Syria. You've got Lebanon, Syria on the verge of this civil war, Iran close to weapons, these kind of dangerous weapons.

Do you think this is a much more dangerous escalation and conflict now than we saw four years ago?

RUBIN: Well, four years ago involved this ground invasion that we haven't seen yet, but certainly, the circumstances in which this is taking place are much more dangerous for Israel and for the United States because our influence and, therefore, Israel's friends' influence are much, much weaker.

And, if there is such a ground invasion, I think we can expect a very, very strong negative result around the region and enormous pressure on Israel and a worse situation for them, diplomatically.

Whether it's worse militarily depends on how it's fought and what the results are. But this is not a time where Israel has the geopolitical circumstances to do what it wants.

MALVEAUX: All right, Jamie, good to see you, as always. Thank you, Jamie Rubin.

They used to be strong allies. Well, now the relationship between Egypt and Israel is changing. Could it have a huge effect on this dangerous conflict?


MALVEAUX: The crisis in the Middle East seems to be intensifying by the hour. At least, 92 Palestinians have killed in Gaza by Wednesday.

Israel says it's trying to pinpoint military targets, but Hamas places those targets in crowded residential neighborhoods.

Sara Sidner reports on two children killed in an air strike.


SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is the result of a blast so powerful a bolder-sized chunk of the road below hurled through the roof of this two-story home. Inside, signs children slept here.

Where was the baby?

The babies were under the rubble, here and here. They were sleeping with their father over here. Suddenly, the house collapsed. The brother ran to them. He found them under this rock, she says.

Relatives say a 2-year-old and 4-year-old were crushed to death, their father is still alive.

The children's aunt shows us around. There's blood on this bolder and dirt weighs down on everything in the room.

Mourning in an apartment below, we find the children's 22-year-old mother.

I am in shock. I don't believe it. My two children, they are priceless to me. My life is now very difficult, she says.

She says an air strike hit just outside her home about 1:30 in the morning.

When we arrived, huge piles of dirt are being moved by a bulldozer. The neighbors say it is filling the crater left by the strike.

A few streets away in the same neighborhood, it looks like the aftermath of a strong earthquake, but residents say this also was the result of an air strike.

You look to your left, destruction, people picking out things that -- anything they can find and, if you look to your right, destruction, the building next to it blown out, and we are standing on what was the roof of a three-story building.

In the street below, the man in green holds his head in astonishment. He says he had a warning the strike was coming, but felt powerless.

The IDF called us. They warned us at first. We didn't believe them. Then they hit us with a small rocket on the roof. Ten minutes after that, they hit the house, he says.

By then everybody in his house had evacuated with no time to rescue their belongings. Fifteen of his neighbors were wounded, but no one died here.

The Israeli military says there were 100-plus air strikes in a 24-hour period, but could not confirm that it was responsible for either hit in a neighborhood it says is known for launching rockets towards Israel.

We ourselves saw rockets blasting from the area, leaving a trail of smoke over the neighborhood mosque.

Long after the rockets and bombardment stops, citizens on both sides will be left with the scars of war. Sara Sidner, CNN, Gaza City.


MALVEAUX: Powerful piece.

It's a historic trip, but some are worried that the president's visit to Asia is being overshadowed by the violence in the Middle East.