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Sirens Sound In Israel; Israel Ground Offensive On Hold; Searching for "John Doe Duffle Bag"; NTSB Recreating Train Collision; Blasphemy Trial; Monday Night Football; Hope Of Ceasefire in Truce Talks; Benghazi Talking Points Were Changed; "They Pick On Women And Minorities"; Fear Of Gaza Ground War

Aired November 20, 2012 - 07:30   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Morning. Welcome, everybody. Breaking news now, a continuing conflict in the Middle East, hearing reports that there are sirens going off right now in Israel.

Wolf Blitzer is in Beersheba for us. He is on the phone. Wolf, I understand there's been an explosion in the last few minutes. Can you tell me what you've heard and what you've seen?

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM" (via telephone): Yes, Soledad. We're here in Beersheba maybe about 30, 40 miles from Gaza. And in the last few minutes, about 11 rockets, Hamas rockets have come to this area.

I think most of them were destroyed in the air by what the Israelis call their iron dome anti-missile. Just a few of them did land including a couple, I'm told, in residential areas and there are casualties.

I know that ambulances have been dispatched to the scene, and there's obviously sirens going off. So, as of the last few minutes, this conflict is clearly continuing and more Hamas rockets coming in.

I think as of now, one Israeli soldier told me just a few minutes ago he sort of lost track, but at least 30 rockets have come into the city, the fourth largest city in Israel, in the past few hours. But 11 have been detected in the last few minutes.

O'BRIEN: Talk to me, Wolf, about what the people around you are thinking and feeling, it must be absolutely terrifying to have this happen?

BLITZER: Well, I went to a home about an hour or so ago of an Israeli family, husband, wife, four kids, fifth kid was away, and they heard a rocket, they heard the siren go off, it was loud, and all of them ran down into what they call their safe room, a shelter, closet, really.

But they were all inside, and when they walked out their home was basically obliterated. We were just there. We spoke to them, we spoke to the kids. They're traumatized, obviously. Their neighbors are, as well. Very quiet, residential neighborhood, and rockets land right on the roof and we walked through the living room, walked upstairs, and the home is pretty much destroyed. You know, it's just a very, very sad story.

And you see these kinds of stories, it was a member of the Israeli parliament who was there from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and I interviewed with him, he said basically, as you know, it's awful.

He doesn't want Israel to go in on the ground into Gaza but he thinks the Israelis are going to have no choice. I know that there are efforts to get a ceasefire and hopefully that will be achieved.

But at least with some of the population here in the south, not far from Gaza, these people -- these people are very, very angry, they're very upset and they want this to end.

O'BRIEN: Wolf Blitzer is reporting for us by phone in Beersheba this morning. Thank you, Wolf. Appreciate that.

Let's get to Arwa Damon. She is in Gaza City this morning. Arwa, what does it look like where you are? We're having some audio issues. You guys have her back?

It looks like Arwa's having some audio issues. Let's see if we can fix that. Take a break. Look at some of the other top stories and come back to Arwa on the other side to get a report out of Gaza City. What do you have, John?

JOHN BERMAN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "EARLY START": Thanks, Soledad. Federal investigators joining New York police in the search for a suspected serial killer whose murdered three Brooklyn shop owners since the summer.

Cops want to question a man they're calling "John Doe Duffel Bag." He's spot the on video near two of the crime scenes. Ballistic tests revealing the same 22-caliber handgun was used in all three killings.

The NTSB will recreate that deadly collision between a parade float and a train today. It's an effort to understand how and why it happened in the first place. They'll stage a train and a truck at a railroad crossing in Midland, Texas to try to find out what could be seen when and where.

Investigators say the track's warning system, a bell, lights and a gate, they worked as designed last week, giving a 20-second warning that a train was coming. Four veterans were killed during the parade, which was meant to honor them, and their military service.

A Pakistani court has dismissed blasphemy charges against a Christian teenager whose case prompted an international outcry. (Inaudible) attorney says the high court in Islamabad found that accusations against her were legally unsound. She was arrested in August over allegations she had burned pages of the Koran for cooking fuel, a charge she denies. Some Monday night football action, the Bears and the 49ers in San Francisco, the 49ers backup quarterback Colin Caperneck did a more than capable job in his first career job.

He was filling in for Alex Smith who was out with a concussion. Caperneck threw for 243 yards including two touchdown passes. The Niners scored on each of their first four possessions on their way to an easy breezy 32-7 victory over Chicago. It was in San Francisco. It's windy out there.

O'BRIEN: Easy breezy. I have never heard a grown man say easy breezy. I've heard my kid's second grade teacher --

BERMAN: It was a sports score.

O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, breaking news out of Israel and Gaza this morning as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading into the region, in hopes of brokering some kind of peace can be done.

We're going to talk with South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn. He'll be joining us up next. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We're following developing news this morning in the continuing conflict in the Middle East. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading into the region today to try to foster some peace between Gaza and Israel, as Israel announces plans to hold off on a ground invasion.

I want to go right to Arwa Damon. She is in Gaza City this morning for us. Arwa, what's the latest where you are?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Well, just a short while ago, we saw a rocket being launched from Gaza City over in that direction towards Israel.

And moments later our bureau in Jerusalem reported that sirens have gone off, and that they heard a thud in the distance. Israel Channel 2 reporting that it impacted outside of Jerusalem.

And most certainly throughout the morning, we have been hearing and seeing strikes coming in from Israel, as well. People here are incredibly tense.

Not many had actually hoped that ceasefire negotiations overnight would lead to any sort of break from this ongoing cycle of violence and certainly we continue to see the streets here deserted. Everyone very fearful of what the next hours are potentially going to be bringing.

At least in one occasion, we are hearing from our sources that one person has been killed so far in Gaza. Overall since this all began, 110 people have been killed, a fair number of them women and children, as well.

The vast majority of the people here that we've been talking to, Soledad, do really want to see in the short-term, of course, a ceasefire. They told us that all they really want is the ability to live in dignity -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Which might be hard to get to with the way things are looking. Arwa Damon for us this morning. Thank you for the update. Arwa, appreciate that.

Let's get to South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn. He is the third ranking Democrat in the House joining us this morning. It's nice to see you, sir.

You heard Arwa's report right there. She was describing from the Gaza side, the rocket leaving, we heard Wolf Blitzer explain what happened when that rocket hit. He said there had been 11 rockets in the last few minutes.

We were just talking to Mark Regev. He was telling us about the prospects for peace. He's a spokesperson for the Israeli government and here's what he said. Let me play that first.


SENATOR JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: -- I'm not going to question his word but it's a little late given all --


O'BRIEN: I'm sorry, sir, forgive me. That's not it. Here's what he told me a little bit earlier. He said, the bottom line for us, the Israelis is that we want peace and quiet. We want to end the rockets raining down. It has to stop.

No government on this planet would sit by idly and see its civilian population targeted the way the Israeli civilian population is being targeted. It has to end. What is the solution here? There's a hold right now, but it doesn't look like it's necessarily going to hold for very long.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM CLYBURN (D), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, thank you so much for having me, Soledad. To begin with, I think it's a great sign that Secretary Clinton is on her way to the area. I'm very confident that she will be able to have some influence on this and carry out those emotions expressed by our president.

Nobody can fathom what it's like to have rockets raining down in your neighborhoods, least more on your capital city. So, to be targeted, civilians, and casualties among children, and innocent bystanders, it's just not the way to go. That has to come to an end.

And I'm very hopeful that this pause is more than just pressing a button, but something that would give us some time to negotiate some kind of successful resolution to this. DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sir, it's Dana Bash also here with Soledad. I just want to ask you to turn to the issue of Benghazi and the talking points that have now become a real political hot potato.

The intelligence community admitted for the first time on the record last night that they, in fact, changed the talking points that Susan Rice used in the talk shows right after the attacks to take out al Qaeda and replace it with extremists.

That there's been a big conspiracy theory that perhaps it was the White House for a political move. Are you -- is there frustration there that the intelligence community has taken so long to admit that and kind of left Susan Rice hanging out on a limb?

CLYBURN: I am a bit frustrated by that. I think, as you recall, my senior senator and Senator McCain sort of went after Susan Rice in what I thought was an unfair way. I responded rather quickly that I thought that they were aiming their arrows at the wrong person.

The fact of the matter is, we all know that whatever requests were made for additional security, whatever went on before 9/11, it was all directed to the State Department, not to the United Nations.

And this had nothing to do with Susan Rice. Now we know, from the testimony of Petraeus, as well as from what has been said on last evening that the talking points she was given, she absolutely read from the talking points.

She didn't deviate from that. Now if she had deviated in some way from the talking points then they would have some issue with her --

O'BRIEN: So then -- I'm going to hop in because I'd love to hear the answer to Dana's question is so then who are you frustrated with? Are you frustrated with the Republicans who seem to be going after Susan Rice?

Are you frustrated with the intelligence community that kind of left her hanging out there? Are you frustrated with the 97 Republicans who signed a letter urging the president not to nominate Susan Rice for the secretary of state position, all of the above?

CLYBURN: Well, I guess, all of the above. Just have to say all of the above. The fact of the matter is, the expressions came from the same senator from South Carolina, and Senator McCain. That letter, signed by 97 people, was circulated by Congressman Jeff Duncan who is from South Carolina.

So I have some personal feeling about this. I have said before that Susan Rice's father, Emmitt, was born in Florence, South Carolina, the district -- my congressional district. I knew him very well. He was just an outstanding person.

As Susan Rice is an outstanding person and to have her sullied like this really frustrates me to no end. And I hate to see representatives from South Carolina, where her roots run deep, out in the forefront of this. It is just unseemly to me.

O'BRIEN: I want to read a little bit of this, this letter, what they write is she's -- Ambassador Rice viewed as having either wilfully or incompetently misled the American public in the Benghazi matter, her actions possibly give U.S. allies and rivals abroad reason to question U.S. commitment and credibility when needed.

Thus we believe that making her the face of U.S. foreign policy in your second term would greatly undermine your desire to improve U.S. relations with the world and continue to build trust with the American people.

The Congressional Black Caucus incoming chair, Marsha Fudge, who you know well, says that she actually thinks that this is more about the fact that Susan Rice is a woman, and that she's -- she's black, I want to play a little bit of what she said.


REPRESENTATIVE MARCIA FUDGE (D), INCOMING CHAIRWOMAN, CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS: How do you say a person like Susan Rice is not qualified? You may not like her. You may not like the administration, but don't say she's not qualified. It is a shame that any time something goes wrong, they pick on women and minorities. I have a real issue with that.


O'BRIEN: Would you agree with what she's saying that there's a racial or a sexist component to a lot of these comments? Or would you say that the letter seems to say they use the word incompetent, and they use the word undermining the desire to improve U.S. relations.

CLYBURN: You know, these are code words. We heard them during the campaign. During this recent campaign we heard Senator Sununu calling our president lazy, incompetent, these kinds of terms that those of us, especially those of us who were grown and raised in the south, we would hear these little words and phrases all of our lives and we'd get insulted by them.

Susan Rice is as competent as anybody you will find. And just to paste that word on her causes problems with people like Marcia Fudge and certainly cause a big problem with me. I don't like those words. Say she was wrong for doing it, but don't call her incompetent.

That is something totally different. A lot of very competent people sometimes make errors. And to say that she erroneously did it, I don't have a problem with it. But to call her incompetent, a PhD, Rhodes scholar being called incompetent by someone who can't hold a candle to her intellectually.

By someone who said, and Senator McCain called her incompetent, as well, but he told us that Senator Palin was a very competent person to be vice president of the United States. That will tell you a little bit about his gesture. O'BRIEN: Congressman Jim Clyburn joining us this morning. It's nice to see you, sir. We appreciate your time. Will Cain I know that you are not a fan of the whistle so we'll chat about this a little more on the other side.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I just have to ask you if Maureen Dowd a racist? Is he speaking code? In the last two or three days those liberal columnists suggested that Susan Rice is not qualified to be secretary of state for reasons that had nothing to do with Benghazi. The way she's conducted herself as a diplomat is not conducive to secretary of state.

What I have issue with is you using -- not you, Soledad. People using the generic term they and then suggesting they speak in code terms. So we need to talk about who is they? Who are we accusing of racism?

O'BRIEN: I am happy to discuss "they" with you on the other side of the break so we can get there on time. Still ahead on STARTING POINT -- you make a good point, though, I think.

Israel putting up plans for a ground offensive into Gaza on hold, but what happens if that hold ends and they do invade? We'll examine what that could look like. That's coming up next.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Israel's potential ground invasion of Gaza is on hold at least temporarily to give diplomacy a chance. But there are tens of thousands of Israeli troops are near the Gaza border.

CNN's Chris Lawrence has a look at what a potential ground operation could look like.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If Israel Defense Forces invade Gaza, they would likely go under the cover of darkness.

HAIM MALKA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Where they have an advantage, a tactical advantage on the battlefield through night vision, equipment and the ability to operate in the dark.

LAWRENCE: But they would likely find Hamas better armed than it was four years ago.

JEFFREY WHITE, THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE: We have better tank weapons, for sure, and might be more capable in inflicting damage on Israeli forces.

LAWRENCE: Analyst Jeff White says Hamas' first line of defense will be a kilometer or two inside the border fence. They would try to draw the IDF into kill zones of IEDs, snipers and preset border fire, but the Israelis beat that tactic with better intel four years ago and now have new capabilities.

WHITE: They've developed cameras that they can actually roll or throw into a house that shows what's going on inside the house.

LAWRENCE: Geography works for and against Hamas. Gaza is densely populated, difficult for Israel to fight in without causing some civilian casualties. But Gaza is also long and narrow, which is terrible when you're trying to defend it.

Artillery station in Israel can reach all points of Gaza because it's so narrow. Israeli forces can move in from multiple entry points because it's so long.

WHITE: They can compartmentalize the fighting inside Gaza, isolate the one Hamas unit from another and operate it, you know, selectively against pieces of the Gaza strip.

LAWRENCE: A former Israeli general says Israel is running out of targets outside of population centers. Hamas leaders have holed up inside mosques or among civilians. A ground war could lead to a situation similar to 2009, when a U.N. report accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza.

MALKA: That is weighing on the minds of Israeli policy makers now, as they consider whether to go into Gaza on the ground.


LAWRENCE: There's also the smaller risk of Israeli casualties. If IDF troops are kidnapped or killed, that could spark a domestic backlash against Prime Minister Netanyahu, something he has to consider, just a couple of months away from an election.

A prime minister who is seen as standing up to Hamas could be seen as protecting Israelis along the border, but a prime minister who loses Israeli troops, that could very much hurt politically -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: It can be very complicated. Chris Lawrence for us this morning. Thank you, Chris. Appreciate that. Back in a moment.