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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Israel

Aired November 20, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: There's no break in the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, despite earlier talk that there could be a cease- fire soon. I will speak this hour with a Hamas spokesman. Stand by for that.

I walked through the wreckage of an Israeli home struck by Hamas rocket fire earlier today, spoke with family members soon after the attack.

And a new smartphone app is helping to save lives during this conflict. And guess what? It's the idea of a 13-year-old boy.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Urgent talks are under way right now in the Middle East. But it's not clear if Israel and Hamas are any closer in Gaza to a truce, after a week of intense cross-border fighting. Hamas backed off of plans to announce what they called a calming down period, a possible step toward a cease-fire. The Israelis say they haven't agreed to anything yet. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been meeting with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in Jerusalem.

They spoke to reporters just at the top of their meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: One of the things that we're doing is trying to resist and counter a terrorist barrage which is aimed directly at our civilians, and doing so by minimizing civilian casualties, whereas the terrorist enemies of Israel are doing everything in their power to maximize the number of civilian casualties.

Obviously, no country can tolerate a wanton attack on its civilians. Now, if there's a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem through diplomatic means, we'd prefer that. But if not, I'm sure you understand that Israel will have to take whatever action is necessary to defend its people.

This is something that I don't have to explain to Americans. I know that President Obama, you and the American people understand that perfectly well. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: President Obama asked me to come to Israel with a very clear message. America's commitment to Israel's security is rock-solid and unwavering.

That is why we believe it is essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza. The rocket attacks from terrorist organizations inside Gaza on Israeli cities and towns must end and a broader calm restored.

The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike. President Obama has emphasized the same points in his multiple conversations with President Morsi of Egypt. And we appreciate President Morsi's personal leadership and Egypt's efforts thus far.

As a regional leader and neighbor, Egypt has the opportunity and responsibility to continue playing a crucial and constructive role in this process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Earlier here in THE SITUATION ROOM, we heard from an Israeli government spokesman for the prime minister of Israel.

Let's get the latest on these cease-fire negotiations right now from a Hamas spokesman.

We're joined on the phone by Osama Hamdan. He's in Beirut. He's a Hamas spokesman.

Mr. Hamdan, thanks very much for joining us.

What is your understanding? How close are you and Israel to a cease-fire agreement?

OSAMA HAMDAN, HAMAS SPOKESMAN: Well, thank you for this question.

We have been discussing that or negotiating that for the last 48 hours. I can't say that we are close and we are on the edge. It may happen and it may not, because still now we did not receive the last Israeli answers about some important questions. I have to say that in one word, we are close and we have -- this can happen, although the Israelis bombing hard Gaza at this time exactly.

And let me say, we are open for all the diplomatic efforts in order to make an end for this crisis, but we are also prepared to do what we are supposed to do in order to protect our people and the future for our children.

BLITZER: What is your understanding, Mr. Hamdan? What would Hamas do such as an agreement, a calming period, if you would, leading up to a formal cease-fire? What would Hamas responsibilities be and what would Israeli responsibilities be, as part of such an agreement? HAMDAN: Well, we believe that we had agreed for several times for a cease-fire or for a truce. And every time, that was violated by the Israelis, and then we went in a circular (INAUDIBLE) of action and reaction.

I think this time we are insisting, and all involved in Gaza to have a clear deal and a complete one, considering all the needs of the Palestinians to have security, because the security is not only for one side. The security is supposed also to be for the Palestinians.

So what we are working now is to have a complete deal which can secure the situation also for the Palestinians. This is our responsibility. If that was guaranteed, I think, I believe, also, that Hamas will implement this kind of truce, and we will fulfill our commitments according to that.

BLITZER: And so you're prepared, in principle, as part of an agreement, to stop sending rockets and missiles into Israel; is that right?

HAMDAN: Well, we are prepared, if the Israelis accepted that. We are also prepared because we have done that before several times.

And every time, as I told you, the one who was violating that is the Israeli side. So, we are prepared for both situations. We are prepared. If the Israelis accepted the cease-fire, we are prepared to do that. If they did not, also we are prepared to defend ourselves.

And I hope that Israelis can take the positive message, because sometimes, the Israelis consider that as a sign of weakness. It's not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of -- it's a positive sign from Hamas. We are ready to do that. I hope that they can read the message positively and accept that.

BLITZER: We heard from the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. She said that an agreement she hopes would lead to some broader arrangements, in her words, security for Israel, improved conditions for the Palestinians in Gaza, and eventual negotiations for a comprehensive peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Here's the question. The U.S. doesn't deal directly with Hamas, because you have not accepted earlier peace agreements between Israeli and the Palestinians, and you don't accept Israel, for that matter. Are you ready, as part of an agreement, to change that position and accept previous agreements, accept Israel, and leave in peace in a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine?

HAMDAN: Well, this is a good question.

I can't answer that in a few words. If you gave me a full program, I will answer you. But I have to say in words we believe that the peace process which was from Madrid 1992 until now, for 20 years, did not work, because it wasn't built in the right way.

If there was a process built on a very solid principle, a clear principle, fulfilling the needs of the Palestinians and the right of the Palestinians, I think we will act positively towards that. Anyway, I hope that we can see a change in the new American administration talking about the Palestinian rights and the commitment towards the Palestinian rights. I think this will be a good step from the United States administration.

BLITZER: Well, what do you expect from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton? What are you looking for?

HAMDAN: Well, we expect them to start talking about the Palestinian needs, first of all, the Palestinian rights.

I have to say that Arafat recognized Israel. Until now, the Israelis are not recognizing the Palestinian people as a nation. Until now, the Israelis are not defining what they mean by the Palestinian rights, if they believe they have rights.

Until now, the Israelis are much, in fact, working to achieve the two-state solution, which they have said that they are -- to do that -- they are dividing the Palestinian lands. They are taking over 40 percent of the West Bank, and they are saying, we are looking forward to have peace.

They were undermining the peace while they were talking about the peace. I hope that the new administration, Obama administration, can make a change by saying, look, if you want the peace, you have to withdraw from occupied Palestinian land without any condition.

There is no need to have 20 years of negotiations for nothing. You have to withdraw now, and then we can talk about the arrangement. I think the United States can do that. If they did that, there would be a huge change in the region.

BLITZER: And if the Israelis were to do that, would you accept a two-state solution, Israel, a secure Israel, and an independent Palestine living next door to each other?

HAMDAN: Well, I want to say clearly, the Palestinians are seeking to have their rights. If they can't have them fully, well, this is the best choice. If they couldn't, they are ready to fight and to sacrifice in order to have those rights.

BLITZER: Osama Hamdan is a spokesman for Hamas.

Mr. Hamdan, thanks very much for joining us. Let's see what happens over the next 24 to 48 hours.

Do you believe, one final question, there will be a cease-fire?

HAMDAN: Well, I believe there is a good chance to have a cease- fire which can fulfill the needs of both sides.

BLITZER: Thank you very much for joining us. Let's hope there is a cease-fire on both sides. Appreciate it.

While officials negotiate, Israeli and Palestinian citizens are under fire, and they're fearing for their lives every day. When we come back, more on the human part of this story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Another barrage of Hamas rocket attacks in Israel today, sirens blaring here in Jerusalem as a rocket was launched toward the city. No one was hurt, but there were casualties, lots of them, in the south, in Beer Sheva, where 11 rockets landed.

I went there earlier in the day and got an up-close look at some of the damage and the fear.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): The Hamas rockets came toward Beer Sheva and hit the ground, sending people scrambling for cover even in residential neighborhoods. This house was hit by a rocket a few hours before we arrived. And from the outside, it didn't look too bad. But inside it's another story.

A mother and father and four of their children were inside the home when it was hit. When the sirens went off, they had less than a minute to run into their safe room. And they made it. They survived.

"We did the procedure," the husband says. "We went to the safe room, closed the door. We heard a big boom and straight after that an electric outage." He says the young girls were in a little hysteria. "We were lucky we entered the safe room." His wife says their fear was at first for the family and to protect the children. Then later, when they saw the incredible damage, they were stunned.

"We will go to a hotel for a few days until they find us an alternative home," she says. Their 9-year-old daughter said she was frightened when she heard the initial siren and then the large explosion.

An Israeli member of Parliament who came to the house minced no words in what he thought Israel had to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Israel, they are ready to go further.

BLITZER: But there's a major debate in Israel on whether that's wise. A former commander and mayor of Beer Sheva says he hopes Israeli air and naval airpower alone can get the job done.

While we were in this expanding and modern city, 11 Hamas rockets entered the vicinity. Some were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system. Others got through and caused casualties.

We were allowed to go inside the emergency medical command center. Sirens alert them when rockets are incoming and they brace for the onslaught of calls.

(on camera): We're inside this Israeli ambulance. We have just left the command center heading towards an area where rockets just landed and currently there are injured and maybe even worse. We will see what's going on. (voice-over): Lieutenant Sharon Howard is the Israeli army liaison officer helping to coordinate medical care.

LT. SHARON HOWARD, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES: If there are any in need, if there are many casualties, so also medical units, the army also join again to take care of all the injured.

BLITZER (voice-over): Turns out it was a woman overwhelmed by fear during the rocket attack, very common these days. Back at the command center, the sirens kept going off.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Sara Sidner. She's based here in Jerusalem, but one of the few journalists who has actually been here in the last few days also in Gaza.

Sara, give us some thoughts right now. What are people telling you? You have been on both sides of this conflict the last few days in Gaza. You're based here in Jerusalem. What's going on, from your perspective?

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, we were talking to people also in Beer Sheva today whose house was destroyed. A rocket hit so close, it knocked out the wind. You could see sort of the wall pushed in, and there was a 21-year-old young lady there studying. She could terrified by all this and you could tell she was quite traumatized by all of this.

We also saw families in Gaza who had lost their entire homes. Everything destroyed, nothing left. Some people lost children. Some people lost fathers. But both sides, when you ask them what they want, there's this sort of anger and frustration that comes out initially. But really in the end, they want a permanent solution to all of this. And there's a lot of talk about a cease-fire and it's sort of that, well, we're close. We're close.

They want to hear -- they don't want to hear words. They want to see the results of this stopping. They want to see the results of no more rockets, no more airstrikes, no more fear on their part, at least for a while. And in the end, they really want a long-term solution. And that's what we have been listening to from both sides of the border, Wolf.

BLITZER: You think that they're, as a result, if there is a cease-fire -- and we don't even know if there will be a cease-fire, although there were some hints earlier in the day that they're getting closer and closer, but still no deal. The prime minister is meeting right now with the secretary of state, those talks continuing.

But if there is a cease-fire, do you see the potential for that expanding into real Israeli/Palestinian comprehensive peace negotiations?

SIDNER: You know, it's really hard to say, but, you know, let's be honest. This has happened before. This is not the first time that these two governments have really gone at it.

And I think it's very difficult for them to come to an agreement, when one side is really sticking to a lot of demands and the other side is saying, those are absolutely demands that we cannot meet. But what they both can likely agree on is that they want to keep their civilians safe, and the only way to do that right now is to stop the back and forth with the rockets coming over and then the response from the airstrikes from Israel.

It's one of those things where they have got to start somewhere, right, Wolf? I mean, they have to start talking and start firing at some point, because, of course, the civilians are terrified on both sides of the border. And that's -- no government wants that.

BLITZER: We will see what the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who is in the region right now, what she can achieve over the next 24 to 48 hours. She's going to meet with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, in the morning and then she goes to Egypt to meet with President Mohammed Morsi.

Let's see if she follows up and engages, as some are suggesting, maybe in some shuttle diplomacy right now.

Sara, thanks for all your excellent work. We really, really appreciate it.

We're also keeping a close eye not only on the violence in Gaza and southern Israel, but in Syria as well. Government forces there aren't letting up on their attacks on rebel forces who today got a major international boost. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: There's some live pictures I want to show our viewers right now. There are explosions happening. There you see them in Gaza City right now.

This situation is obviously not ending at all. We're standing by.

Anderson Cooper is on the scene for us. We are going to be speaking with him. There he is.

Whoa. What's going on in Gaza right now is obviously intense. We're watching this situation very, very closely. It's been an awful day in Gaza, an awful day in Southern Israel right now.

(CROSSTALK)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: This is a series of explosions, probably about six, just in the last few seconds, very close to the media center, which was a building hit yesterday, a building that's actually been hit twice before. It probably looked like about a block or two away from the media center, but a series of explosions, a number of different buildings that seem to be hit.

There's a large, huge plume of smoke now, black smoke that's rising up and we're starting to hear some ambulances, some sirens seem to be responding. But the entire area is now basically blanketed in black smoke.

BLITZER: Anderson, I know you're watching this very closely. It looks -- well, I don't know if Anderson can hear me right now. But it looks like...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: ... a cooling-down period, talk which never really materialized.

We have seen a number of explosions over the course of the last several hours. There have been multiple explosions in this area.

I'm also joined by CNN's Arwa Damon, who's standing here as well.

I mean, all of this has continued. We haven't heard rockets outgoing from Gaza City or from central Gaza, but we have certainly seen a lot of incoming explosions.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We most certainly have.

And it does seem as if in this case, whatever it was that was struck, there were then multiple explosions perhaps caused by whatever it was that was impacted. We haven't really seen this kind of a blast since we have been here.

COOPER: Yes. So you think some of those explosions were secondary explosions?

DAMON: It very well could be. If we look at the other explosions that we have seen, even when there have been, you know, large rockets, missiles being fired at various targets throughout the city, we haven't really had this kind of roll-on effect, when you do hear what does sound like secondary and third explosions then happening.

COOPER: It's really interesting, because you don't know what's in the buildings around you. You know, in the media center, which is the building about four blocks away that was hit yesterday, it turned out there was an Islamic Jihad official on the second floor who was killed in that blast.

So we have no idea what the target might have been. But this is such a densely packed city, you really don't get a great sense of who is in a building, either in the same building you're in, or who's even next door.

DAMON: No, you don't know that. And that is one of the big problems for the residents here, because, yes, on the one hand, they have been warned to stay away from what may be a potential target, but a lot of people we have been talking to -- and we saw that with the explosion that happened around the corner earlier tonight, where residents in the area don't necessarily know who is occupying these various buildings.

They don't necessarily know if areas within their vicinity are going end to up being a target. So they actually don't know how to keep themselves safe. Another of the buildings that was targeted tonight also was housing the offices of AFP journalists. They luckily were not on the floor that was struck, but they too did not necessarily know that the Israelis were going to target what they were saying was an intelligence operations unit for Hamas.

COOPER: Yes. And the earlier strike, Ben Wedeman was on the air when there was a strike very close to here, about a block or so away in the other direction. That turned out to be a villa, which was local people were telling us was owned by a banker who no longer lives there, a Fatah member who no longer lives there, and locals couldn't say who was actually living in the house at the time, whether it had been taken over by Hamas. They were unclear who might have been occupying that house. That villa was basically destroyed.

DAMON: Exactly.

And, you know, over the weekend, on a number of other occasions, we have also seen homes being destroyed and the residents inside them either being killed or in some instances surviving and surviving to tell us about how they did not think or know that there would be any sort of installation around them that the Israelis would want to target. And that is part of the reason why we see this really widespread anger, frustration, desperation amongst the people here, because they really don't have anywhere to go. They have nowhere to hide.

And that smoke is just getting thicker.

COOPER: Yes. You can't see it right now, because it's obviously very dark outside, but there is a huge area of smoke. It probably spans at least two or three blocks right now of smoke, from multiple explosions that occurred, just a short time ago, about five blocks from the location that we are now in, which is in central Gaza. And we've been seeing explosions really all throughout this area over the last -- over the last several hours.

DAMON: We really have. It's been fairly intensive. At one point, a series of explosions just coming across the entire skyline. It was a pretty difficult situation for everybody. Most certainly, now we're seeing the ambulances heading back towards that site.

COOPER: That's the first ambulance we're seeing responding. Obviously, ambulance crews have been very busy over the last several days.

We're going to try to boost the gain, just so you can get a look at what is going on right now with the smoke. You can maybe make out one of the ambulances just arriving. And another -- it looks like another explosion's about to -- that might have been just a reflection in the smoke.

DAMON: No. There it is.

COOPER: There's another blast off in the distance. Again, I can't tell how much of the smoke you're actually seeing, but this is an area in central Gaza, very close to the media center, a building that was hit twice before, a building that was hit yesterday, killing, according to these IDF officials and local Palestinian sources, one member of Islamic Jihad as well as another person who was working in the building.

That building had also been hit on Sunday. And the IDF said they were targeting a Hamas antenna on -- on the top of the building. But again, we don't know what the target was this time around.

DAMON: No. We really don't. But, again, as we were saying earlier, the way that the blast happened, where we felt the first impact, and then the way that it seemed as if there was secondary or third explosions that happened, six or seven that happened in a rapid succession, makes one wonder exactly what it was that they did hit.

And that's not actually the first time that the area behind that tower has been targeted in the past, either. We are hearing that the Israeli forces are coming back and hitting some targets multiple times, that at times they are coming in and striking the same area more than once.

And again, all of this is coming on a day where throughout the entire day there was an ongoing conversation about the possibility of a potential cease-fire, or at least a calming down of the situation. But most certainly, as we've seen everything progressing throughout the night, that does not seem like it is going to be likely anytime soon.

COOPER: We'll try to re-rack the video that we were rolling on at the time of the explosion and try to get that so we can show it to you as soon as possible, the multiple explosions that occurred, probably within the last ten minutes or so ago.

But it's surprising. It is late at night here, but we're not hearing much of a reaction or response by first responders. We saw one ambulance heading toward the scene, but no more than that.

DAMON: No, not yet, at this point in time. And it is incredibly difficult, one has to imagine, for these emergency response units to spread themselves thin at this point, really trying to respond to all of the sites that have been struck.

We keep seeing messages coming out from people who were living here, talking about various different explosions happening in so many different neighborhoods. If we just look at the intensity of what happened here tonight, and we're hearing more ambulances in the distance right now, but their job most certainly is incredibly difficult, to say the least.

COOPER: Yes. And Wolf, we went to the scene of a blast that occurred several hours ago, very close to where we are, and actually got there just before the first ambulance was getting there. By the time we left, there were probably about four or five ambulances, which had responded.

They immediately rushed out with their stretchers, trying to see if there's anybody, any walking wounded, anybody that needs assistance that they can take to the hospital. But then they very quickly often have to leave the scene in order to respond to another location, where a blast has occurred, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we're showing viewers, Anderson, some of the video from earlier, when that initial explosion went off, and you obviously jumped and crawled down. It's a dangerous situation.

Anderson and Arwa, I know that you reported earlier that the Israelis had dropped leaflets in Beirut, warning citizens to avoid some certain areas. Do either of you know if these explosions that we're now seeing are in those areas where the Israelis said to the folks, get out of these areas? Do either of you know if this area is part of that -- part of that danger zone that the Israelis described?

COOPER: Let me bring in Arwa, because she couldn't hear your question, but the question was, the area where we saw the leaflets being dropped, is this the area where we're seeing the explosions now? You went out to the area where the leaflets were being dropped.

DAMON: Actually, we went to the area that people were fleeing to. But the leaflets were really being dropped off more in that general direction. The neighborhoods that people were being told to flee were more over to the north, versus right here, which is very much the central part of the city at this point.

COOPER: This is very close to the Islamic bank that was hit also yesterday. I was actually out on that street earlier today, just to get some shots of the bank. That bank had been hit. And the reason local people felt that that bank had been hit was that that is where the salaries of Hamas members is actually paid out from, that bank. So that perhaps is why it was targeted by the IDF.

But, again, we do not know what the target was this time. Usually, the IDF puts out a statement in the wake of a bombing like this, to explain what they say, what the target.

But clearly, multiple explosions. Probably, perhaps, without a doubt, the most dramatic explosions that we saw today, and certainly not just because it was so close to our location, but just because of the sheer number of explosions. Arwa thinking, Wolf, that some of those were secondary explosions, perhaps. Not all multiple rockets hitting the buildings. But perhaps something inside the buildings that caused a secondary explosion.

DAMON: And again, I mean, you look at just the impact...

BLITZER: It's now after 1:30 in the morning.

DAMON: ... afterwards, just shaking almost the entire city itself. It felt, and one can't help but to think in this city, when it comes to the residents that are having to cope with this day in and day out, they actually don't have air raid sirens, don't have bunkers to go and hide in.

We don't know what the impact was right now of that explosion, what other buildings next to the target were affected, what the target actually was. But that is what residents say is so difficult to cope with, because even though they do get warnings on some occasions to leave, even if they have been warned not to place themselves or remain next to what may be potential targets, it's incredibly difficult for the population to determine that.

We look at the streets completely deserted, normal for this time of night. But we see the streets being deserted pretty much this time of day, as well. And that is, by and large, because the residents are staying inside. It's not because they fled, because they actually don't have anywhere to go.

BLITZER: And Wolf, Israeli Defense Forces have put out a statement saying, do not go near any Hamas installations. I can tell you, it's very difficult to know where Hamas has taken up headquarters or where their official buildings they may own or what the IDF may consider a target. It's very difficult to know, even if you're in a building, what else or who else may be in that building at time, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Anderson and Arwa, stand by. We're going to stay on top of this story. We're not leaving the story. Huge explosions rocking central part of Gaza City right now. We'll take a quick break. We'll resume the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Huge, huge explosions rocking central part of Gaza City, only moments ago. We're watching all of this very, very closely. I want to show our viewers what happened just moments ago. Anderson Cooper and Arwa Damon are on the scene. We'll watch this videotape, as we saw what was unfolding. Watch this.

Wow. We're not hearing the sound yet, because we weren't tracking the audio as these explosions rocked. You're going to hear the sound in a few seconds. But just watch this videotape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Whoa! Whoa.

We're live in Gaza City. I'm not sure if we're even on the air. This is a series of explosions, probably about...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So there you see what's going on in Gaza City right now. Anderson Cooper and Arwa Damon are still on the scene for us. They're watching it. Are more explosions happening right now, Anderson? COOPER: No, Wolf, they're not. We're seeing some first responders. We're seeing a number of ambulances heading toward the scene.

This is a very dangerous time, though, for first responders. They obviously want to try to get to the scene as quickly as possible. But at the same time, there are oftentimes multiple firings on one target. So they don't want to rush to the scene, only to have more rockets land and get injured in subsequent blasts.

So oftentimes, though they may park near the scene, they don't try to get too close to the scene until sort of the dust has settled, to try to get a sense of what is going on and whether the targets are going to be hit again.

And just for our viewers, we're not sure what the target was. It's very close to the media center, which was hit earlier yesterday, in which one Islamic Jihad official was killed. It's also close to the Islamic bank, which was also hit yesterday, and badly -- badly destroyed.

But -- and again, I know it's a very grainy image that you're looking at right now. It's dark here, obviously, but there's a huge, just black cloud of smoke, which now seems to stretch for several blocks, blanketing the entire area, making it very difficult to see. I don't see any actual flames, but it would be hard to imagine that there isn't something burning down there.

DAMON: And this most certainly was the largest explosion that I think we have seen in recent times. You heard the first blast, and then there were multiple blasts that took place afterwards, either secondary explosions or it was a multiple strike on that one location.

But also, when it comes to these first responders that are trying to reach these areas, sometimes they physically can't actually get there. We've seen some of these blast sites, the aftermath of them, the street covered in rubble from them. So they're having to really readjust themselves, trying to get to these various locations.

There was just a flash of light behind the building there right now. But this most certainly was a massive, massive blast shaking the city in the middle of the night.

COOPER: And as Arwa pointed out earlier, there are not air raid warning sirens here, so there is no real indication that a blast is about to occur. That's what makes it particularly dangerous for residents here. So it is -- it's very startling when a blast does occur.

Occasionally, you will hear, you know, the whistle of a missile coming in. You certainly hear missiles being fired out very -- very easily. But occasionally, you'll hear an incoming, but oftentimes, you don't hear anything.

We are about five blocks from where this series of blocks took place, didn't hear anything, until the first blast occurred. And the percussive blast, I mean, the -- you feel the impact, I mean, the shock wave of the blast for blocks and blocks. As I said, we're about five blocks away. And you could feel it, I mean, in your bones, shaking this building. Really, quite something.

I'm not sure if the video that we just re-racked and played, I'm not sure we caught, we showed you all of the blasts. I think we just showed you the tail end of some of the blasts, because there were a number of blasts.

Arwa, who has far more experience watching mortars land and artillery land from her time in Baghdad, seems to think it could be secondary blasts. Blasts based on something inside the building or inside the target that was hit, and you know, oftentimes if there's rockets being stored there or some sort of armaments, that might be a secondary blast causing further explosions. We certainly saw a series of explosions.

We've also seen a number of times with IDF targeting, like there was in the media center yesterday, three rockets were fired into that building yesterday, from various locations into the second floor of the building. So that also, allowed you to see multiple blasts.

BLITZER: What I saw from the video, the picture...

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: ... so we can get a little better sense of what's going on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It looked to me, and you know, I don't know this for sure, but what it looked like was that the -- they hit a target, there may have been explosives there, and that caused what Arwa's describing as these secondary explosions. If there are munitions, if there a warehouse or something. That's what it looked like, but we don't know that for a fact. Obviously, we're going to check as soon as we can what's going on over there. But that was pretty powerful.

Your experience, and in Arwa's experience -- in your experience and in Arwa's experience, do the Israelis strike usually around this time? It's approaching 2 a.m. local time, Anderson?

COOPER: Yes, without a doubt. I mean, just in the last couple of nights, we have seen that. And in the last seven days of this conflict, seven nights of this conflict, we have seen that, as well. It's usually around this time that the number of strikes increases.

In fact, I just saw another flash in the sky, and I think in a few seconds, we'll hear another blast. That was farther off in the distance, and you can generally tell by how much time there is between you seeing a blast and actually hearing the sound of it, how far away it is. When it's very much in the distance, it sounds sort of like a distant rolling thunder.

DAMON: The other thing, too, though, is that also this explosion that we just saw, very much in the central part of the city. And it's worth noting that the Israelis dropped leaflets in the northern part of the city, the neighborhoods that were on the outskirts close to the Gaza-Israeli border, telling residents to come to central Gaza, to keep themselves safe, advising them, telling them, warning them that this is where they should come.

So we also saw this fairly sizable influx of people coming in from these outlying areas, trying to seek sanctuary. We saw them piling into schools. And one can just imagine what this experience has been like for them at this point in time. Hearing this echoing across the city.

COOPER: Yes, Wolf, and we're still trying to find out more information on exactly what the building was that was hit and what may have been inside of it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to stay on top of the breaking news.

Anderson and Arwa, stay with us. Don't go away.

I also want to alert our viewers, the meeting now between the prime minister of Israeli and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has just wrapped up. They have concluded no additional statements, at least not yet, coming from the U.S. or Israeli side. We're watching this part of the story.

Hard to believe that only within the past several hours, there was a lot of speculation how close the two sides, Israel and Hamas, were, thanks to Egyptian intervention, to some sort of cease-fire. But you see what's going on in Gaza City right now. That cease-fire seems very, very remote.

We'll take another quick break, resume the coverage from Gaza City right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right back to Anderson in Gaza City, where we're following the breaking news. Huge explosions in the past few minutes. What's the latest, Anderson?

COOPER: Well, I'm here with Arwa Damon. We're watching this huge plume of smoke, which continues to roll through the streets around the area that was -- that was hit.

We also now just saw two rockets being fired from Gaza City from an area about ten blocks or so, it looked like, away from where that blast occurred. Those rockets actually kind of heading over the building that we are currently in.

Arwa Damon is getting -- has been gathering some information on what may have been the building that was targeted. What are you learning, Arwa?

DAMON: Well, our Palestinian colleagues here are telling me that that building that seems to have been the target was called the Abu Hadra (ph), a complex that houses government offices, passport offices. But we are seeing, actually, on social media right now, that the building seems to be -- seems to have caught fire, although it's quite difficult to see from here, is perhaps a residential building. And that again goes back to the very difficult, difficult situation that the population here finds itself in.

Because a lot of these targets that the Israelis are hitting are, in fact, in residential areas. And they have now, of course, been expanding their campaign as we have seen over the last few days, not just targeting sites that are used by Hamas to launch missiles, but targeting government installations. The Israelis have been saying that they do not necessarily differentiate between the government in Gaza, which is, of course, the Hamas-led government, and its various institutions and the sites that the Hamas militant wing is using to launch rockets.

And here it certainly seems that we have yet another example of that. The target was most likely this government compound that is located just behind the tall building right there, pretty much.

COOPER: Yes, that tall building is the media center that was hit yesterday on the second floor by three rockets, killing an Islamic Jihad official and also very close, more to the left, about a block or two away is the Islamic bank that was also struck. That's the bank where salaries for Hamas officials are paid out from, Hamas a major employer in Gaza City.

And you can hear echoing tonight, the sound of ambulance crews arriving on the scene -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa and Anderson both stand by. Anderson is going to have a lot more coming up in an hour on "AC 360." Both stand by. We're watching the breaking news falling.

Clearly, if there is going to be a cease-fire, that cease-fire doesn't look like it's taking place any time soon, based on what we're seeing in Gaza City right now and the intense bombardment that was going on in southern Israel earlier in the day.

The Israeli military strikes against the militants and the rocket sites in Gaza certainly have taken a toll on Gaza civilians. Brian Todd is getting ready to give us a closer look now at the fighting's human toll as well as its implications. We want to warn our viewers: some of the images in this report are very disturbing -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's almost inevitable when there's a conflict in Gaza, civilians will be caught in the crossfire. It has happened in this case, but there's a big question over which side is put under more international pressure when images of civilian casualties are broadcast.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The pictures are jarring. Children dead, children badly injured in Gaza. A doctor nearly breaks down.

AYMAN AL-SAHABANI, PHYSICIAN: You can't imagine. If it's yours, baby, how do you feel? TODD: From Cairo to Ramallah, civilian casualties in this conflict have led to protests against Israel, supporting Hamas. Israel's leaders are hearing a similar refrain to what they heard four years ago when they were roundly criticized by the United Nations and others for causing hundreds of civilian deaths during operation Cast Led (ph), a bloody ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

This time around, Israeli officials say they're doing everything they can to minimize that.

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: We've had cases of pilots who have had to abort missions because they've seen that rockets are in the middle of playgrounds or in the middle of mosques or the middle of schools.

TODD: Israel's ambassador to the U.S. says rockets have been routinely fired at Israel in recent days from civilian areas in Gaza. He says many militants have regular jobs by day, and become fighters at night.

OREN: They dress in civilian garb, and they're virtually indistinguishable from the civilian population, other than the fact that they have guns. But beyond that, we actually have cases of rockets that have been placed in civilian homes. We have pictures of them. And these homes have families in them.

TODD (on camera): Israeli officials also tell us that in Gaza in recent days, militants have either posed as or mingled with journalists. In one case, they say a militant was riding in a car marked "TV." In another, militants stayed in a building known to be used by media outlets.

(voice-over) Israeli officials say it's an effort by Hamas to sensationalize casualties on the Palestinian side and generate more international pressure on Israel.

Hamas' leaders have said they have no choice but to fight from among civilians in one of the most crowded places on earth, and they call Israel's campaign a massacre of civilians.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: One analyst says Hamas could also seek to capitalize on support it's getting elsewhere in the Palestinian territories to generate more pressure on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president who's been Hamas' rival for power in the region, someone who has not really been heard nor seen from very much during this conflict.

But Wolf, as you know, he's getting set to meet with Hillary Clinton in the coming hours.

BLITZER: What about the Israeli efforts? They keep saying they're trying to avoid civilian casualties. They're taken measures to do so. What's going on on this part of the story?

TODD: Right, Wolf. Israeli officials are telling us on this side, and I know they've told you there, they're dropping leaflets into neighborhoods in Gaza, even putting blast phone calls out to tell residents to leave those areas, warning of air strikes coming.

Israeli officials say militant leaders often won't let them leave their neighborhoods in those situations. We can't independently verify that, but Israel is saying making an effort to let people know when they're going to strike.

COOPER: Brian Todd, watching this part of the story for us. Brian, thanks very much.

We've been following the breaking news in Gaza City within the past 15, 20 minutes or so. Major, major explosions occurring right in the central part of the city. Anderson Cooper is on the scene for us. Arwa Damon is there, Ben Wedeman. We have all of -- a full team of reporters and producers, camera crews on the scene for us. We're watching what's going on. We're not going to go very far away from this part of the story.

Anderson will be back in one hour on "AC 360." I'll be back watching what's going on here in Jerusalem.

Just within the past few moments, even at this late moment, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrapped up their talks here in Jerusalem.

Remember, much more coming up. That's it for me right now. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.