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Bomb Blast Rocks Tel Aviv Bus; The Role of Mahmoud Abbas; Clinton Heads To Egypt

Aired November 21, 2012 - 06:30   ET


SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): There are emergency people now running, and I mean sprinting --


SIDNER: We're going to head to that area to find out what's going on. But there is definitely something else going on, just down the street from the bus. We're going to go there now.

ROMANS: All right.

SIDNER: I'm going to turn off the phone and I will try to call you with an update. But what we know there are several people injured from this blast and now there's apparently something going on just down the road where emergency personnel are literally running from this scene and going to the other scene.

ROMANS: All right. Sara, you get out of the way, figure out what's happening and make sure you're in a safe place.

Here's a sort of a hallmark of some of these bus bombings that we've seen before, secondary explosions. A package exploding on a bus. First responders come, and then there's another explosion, trying to inflict even more damage.

So that's why people can be quite nervous and running from the scene, and Sara's going to try to figure out exactly what's happened there. But again 10 people injured on this bus. People on the scenes are saying it looks like a package that exploded on the bus. Three of those people are just quite seriously taken to a hospital.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: OK. Forgive me as I check my e-mail. We're getting new information.

OK. OK. As we stay on this story here, we want to bring in, and again, waiting to hear what's happening down the road from this location in Tel Aviv, I want to bring in Ben Wedeman, our senior international correspondent on the ground in Gaza City, who has some reaction there from people in Gaza.

Ben, what are you seeing? What are you hearing?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, just about 10 minutes ago, we heard an Israeli reaction, perhaps, one of these buildings behind me got hit by several missiles -- a very large, loud explosion. And we did see a great big ball of flame coming up.

As far as local reaction to the attack in Tel Aviv we did hear a nearby mosque, loud speaker, saying what they called lions from the West Bank were behind the attack in Tel Aviv. And the loud speaker suggesting or claiming that it was an operation, as they call it, by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas movement.

Al-Aqsa TV, however, which is affiliated with Hamas, did not make so specific or explicit a claim regarding the attack, just saying that it was, quote/unquote, "a natural reaction" to events here in Gaza.

We also did hear in this area some celebratory gunfire when the news first came out of that attack in Tel Aviv -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Ben, you've been covering this conflict for years. I just want to underscore the fact that we're looking at these pictures. These were civilians, clearly targeted. Again, we're hearing from Sara that this wasn't a suicide bomber, this was someone who threw a package inside the bus and it exploded. But these are men and women who live in Tel Aviv.

WEDEMAN: Yes. And I think you have to look at the significance of that --


WEDEMAN: -- because Tel Aviv for many years has been relatively quiet, relatively peaceful. And in fact Israelis will tell you the people of Tel Aviv live in a bubble, sort of immune to the problems in Gaza, the problems other Israelis around Gaza encounter with the rocket attacks.

And given that over the last eight days, Tel Aviv has now come within range of rockets from Gaza, and today, there's been an attack in Tel Aviv, it's going to shake a certain amount of that complacency that many Israelis accuse the residents of Tel Aviv of having -- Brooke.

ROMANS: You know, it's interesting, Ben, it's Christine here. When you talk about civilians and targeting civilians, much of the criticism over the past few days has been over the civilian death toll in Gaza City as these air strikes continue inside this heavily populated, densely populated area where rockets are basically being launched right next to places where women and children and people are sleeping. That is -- that is sort of again a hall mark of this conflict when it flares up. Civilians are so disproportionately harmed on both sides.

WEDEMAN: Well, let's put it this way, in all wars wherever they are, it's the civilians who suffer most. Oftentimes, you know, when you go through the death toll, it's the civilians who lose their homes, must leave their homes, their houses are destroyed, they're in a sense the innocent bystanders in all of these wars. So, in a sense, the situation here isn't any different from that.

And it's important to keep in mind that this is a conflict that goes back 100 years. Both sides see themselves as being on the moral high ground, so to speak. And it's important not to focus simply on recent events. It's a much broader conflict, which has its roots going far back in history. And as I said, each side believes that they are in the right.

BALDWIN: This is Brooke, Ben. It's a broader conflict, and I'm glad you give us that context. This has been going back for decades and decades and decades.

But ultimately, you know, the goal, depending on who you're talking to, is peace. And when you look at these images here, on the streets of Tel Aviv, this bombed out bus, shattered glass, multiple injuries -- how much is this a game-changer in terms of these talks under way in Egypt?

WEDEMAN: Well, whoever is behind it clearly wanted to derail the peace efforts that are ongoing by Egypt, by Turkey, by the United States and others. And this is oftentimes what happens, is that, for instance, let's sort of go theoretical here. There are factions, groups within Hamas, who are eager to achieve a cease-fire. I don't think there's any doubt about it.

But there may be also other sub-factions within Hamas, or other Palestinian factions, who want to see a continuation of this confrontation, who want to see an escalation to the conflict because they feel they will gain politically or perhaps militarily.

BALDWIN: Let me jump in, Ben. But --

WEDEMAN: Both sides have their hard-liners, their hawks. Yes, go ahead.

BALDWIN: But explain that. How is this a political advantage for perhaps a faction within Hamas to not have peace, to continue the fighting?

WEDEMAN: Well, if you look at the conflict over the last eight days, what you've seen is the re-emergence of Hamas as the game -- sort of the main player in Palestinian politics. From 2007, June 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza, they were isolated.

The Egyptians under President Hosni Mubarak did not like Hamas. They didn't want to deal with them. They did deal with them.

But now, they have a friendly president in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. They have good relations with Turkey. They have good relations with Qatar.

Yesterday, I followed around a delegation of the Arab League and several Arab foreign ministers, and the Turkish foreign minister, and what we see is that Hamas is very much back into the political mainstream of the Arab world, of the Muslim world, after being in the wilderness.

They have -- they have benefited from this current operation. Now, whether that benefit will continue if the situation escalates further, if there's an Israeli ground invasion, it's difficult to say. But until now, Hamas is definitely benefited from this conflict politically, regarding the Muslim and Arab world.

In terms of on the ground, I think many people here would just like Hamas to put down the rockets, put down the guns, and work out a cease-fire with Israel so they can go back to their homes and resume their normal lives.

BALDWIN: Talk about an incredibly complicated situation here. Ben Wedeman, thank you. We'll come back to you momentarily.

ROMANS: Joining me now is Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of the Meridian International Center, a public diplomacy organization that works with the State Department. He's going to talk about the efforts for a push for truce.

Ambassador, two hours ago the question was: how close are we to a cease-fire? The question now: after this bus bombing is, how far away are we?

STUART HOLLIDAY, CEO & PRESIDENT, MERIDIAN INTERNATIONAL CENTER: Well, I think it's important to recognize that it's in the interest of the international community and both parties to get a deal. So there are going to be efforts to derail these talks. Apparently, they were close and there were efforts to try to get some closure, Secretary Clinton there in the region.

But this is an escalation. But you have to remember that the agreement is about rockets coming out of Gaza and Egypt protecting and securing the border, and having some sort of guarantee from the United States and Egypt. At this point, I think that it remains to be seen whether this attack again which hopefully won't be followed by another one, will slow those down, derail those.

You can bet that Israel will step up and respond accordingly. But I'm not so sure that this, in fact, derails these talks which are about a much bigger, longer-term solution.

ROMANS: Secretary of State Clinton, you know, the United States has not talked directly with Hamas, it has labeled a terrorist organization. She will be talking to Mohamed Morsi of Egypt.

How do you -- how do you foresee that proceeding? What kind of pressure, influence must Morsi exact on the situation? Can he get it done?

HOLLIDAY: Well, Morsi's going to have to bring something to the Hamas side in the form of opening up of these corridors, providing more access to Gaza, which is what they're seeking. But there's no way that he's going to get anything from Israel unless there's a cessation of these rocket attacks. So, he's in a very tough situation.

And you have to look at the situation as sort of test for Morsi. I mean, here he is. He's prospecting the peace agreement that his country signed with Israel, but he's also his foreign minister is touring the Gaza Strip with Hamas. And, so he has to build his credibility with Israel, really, to try to look like he's really forging an honor broker role with respect to the situation. ROMANS: Let's talk about another player here, the president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. You know, he's not only played a prominent role in all of this. I want to play if we can a clip of what Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Piers Morgan yesterday.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) CALIFORNIA: I think Israel moving forward with Mahmoud Abbas is the only way to go. And to miss this opportunity, actually because the window is closing, the demographics of the area are making it increasingly difficult, because the Arab population inside of Israel is increasing every year. So this is, in my book, it is an opportunity.

And it -- if the moderate Arab nations would ever really step up to really be helpful in solving this, I believe it could be solved.


ROMANS: Your reaction, Ambassador Holliday?

HOLLIDAY: Well, typically when we've had these flare-ups and the escalations in violence, there has been some kind of peace process in play that you could go back to. And I think what Senator Feinstein is referring to is the fact that there haven't been talks with -- between Abbas and the Israeli government over issues of how you start negotiations. And he is viewed, from our standpoint, as a credible interlocutor working on strengthening the Palestinian government. But he doesn't appear to have control over Gaza.

And the real question for the Israeli government, for any deal, he is has to sign on to something that can be enforced. And right now, Hamas is calling the shots in Gaza. So the question is: can he exert influence in Gaza? Is there a way that he can forge some sort of authority that allows him actually to deliver a deal?

ROMANS: All right. Stuart Holliday from the Meridian International Center -- thank you very much.

HOLLIDAY: Thank you.

BALDWIN: We're continuing our coverage of this breaking story, this bus explosion on the streets of Tel Aviv.

We have someone on the phone now, Audrey Shemesh. She lives in an apartment in and around this area.

Audrey, are you with me?

AUDREY SHEMESH, TEL AVIV RESIDENT (via telephone): Yes, I am.

BALDWIN: Audrey, do me a favor and just tell me -- tell me where you are right now and what you're seeing.

SHEMESHS: All right. I'm at my house now, and it's really, really close. It's in -- it's called Henrietta Szold, and the bomb was in the Henrietta Szold and Shaul Hamelech. I can see, I don't know if you hear the helicopters now. I can see the area.

And you know there are people over there, reporters, and it was really scary.

BALDWIN: Are you frightened?

SHEMESH: Yes, I am. But I'm more frightened from the fact that the army took my husband on Friday night I have to tell you the truth. So, but, you know, I'm afraid for my husband and I'm afraid in my home. I can't get out from my home because there are a lot of soldiers here and all the policemen that are looking for another terrorist here. And it is frightening -- yes, I am frightened.

BALDWIN: Audrey, explain for people who have never been to Tel Aviv, this, you know, beautiful, large city in Israel. Many people take vacation there, many people describe Tel Aviv almost as if it's a bubble, sort of immune to this sort of violence.

What is it like on a normal day?

SHEMESH: Tel Aviv is amazing city. Tel Aviv is -- I'll tell you my parents, all my parents live in New York and San Francisco, but Tel Aviv, it's heaven really. There are a lot of (INAUDIBLE), and a lot of good restaurants. It's a lovely place. I think it's the best place in the world, really.

And normal days there are a lot of people here, and going out, you know, there's big sea, beautiful places here, and that's all I can tell you about Tel Aviv. It's amazing.

BALDWIN: So to hear I describe Tel Aviv, as this amazing place, the best place on earth, and now to see images that we're showing here live on CNN of shattered windows, people being rolled away on stretchers to hospitals here, disheartening?

SHEMESH: It makes me really sad to see that this is the situation. And really, really sad. And the Hamas, and the jihad, and the Al- Aqsa, they want to say that, and this is really sad. And they -- I guess, for now, I don't see any solution. They don't want to stop with this. Just want to go on and go on and go on.

And it really makes me sad, because I believe in peace, and I believe that we had a partner on the other side we could get peace. But unfortunately, and I'm saying really unfortunately from the bottom of my heart, they just want us not to live. That's it. Just want to kill us.

BALDWIN: Audrey Shemesh on the phone in an apartment perched precariously close to this location here in Tel Aviv. Audrey, thank you for calling.

ROMANS: Now, let's go to Fred Pleitgen, he's in Ashkelon. He's in a place where residents there have been hearing and feeling and witnessing rockets from Gaza City, and now, they are reacting to the news of this bus explosion far away in Tel Aviv. What can you tell us about the reaction there and hopes for a ceasefire?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, that's very interesting, because people here, even before this bus explosion happened, of course, and as you quite rightly pointed out, this basically takes rocket attacks all the time. In fact, this morning alone, we had to go into a shelter six times because there were rocket attacks here on the city of Ashkelon.

There were, of course, rocket attacks in other places as well. And people here are not at all thrilled with the prospect of a ceasefire in the coming days. I spoke to people last night. I spoke to people this morning, and they say they don't feel that their military has done the job in Gaza just yet.

They are aware of the fact that a lot of these rockets positions have been taken out, but they also say that they believe that if the military operation is stopped now or stopped very shortly, that they're going to have to be dealing with a similar situation like the one they have right now a couple of months down the line, maybe a couple of years down the line.

There's a way they call this in Israel. They call this mowing the lawn, which is you cut the grass, and after a couple of years, it's just grown back again and you have to conduct the same operation all over again. So, people say here, they want a longer-term solution and they just don't feel that what's been done so far is something that could achieve that.

And keep in mind that a city like Ashkelon doesn't only deal with rocket attacks on during times of crisis, but they deal with them in normal times, as well. They have rocket attacks here in any given week, at any given month, they'll have several. So, people here, they obviously take the air raid sirens very seriously.

They have sort of an eerie routine. The people here that we've been speaking to say they just cannot go on like this. They want this to stop and they want a solution for good.

ROMANS: Fred, you say mowing the lawn. That's so frustrating. I mean, I know for diplomats and for people who've been searching for a solution for peace, the whole concept of mowing the lawn, you cut the grass, and then a couple of years later, you're right back where you started. That makes it so, so difficult on both sides.

PLEITGEN: Yes, it certainly does. And of course, not just on the Israeli side, on the Gaza side, as well, where, of course, people are looking for a solution. People don't want to live in a place that's confined, that they cannot leave, also that has no economic prosperity whatsoever. And the same is true here on this side, as well.

If you take in a town like Ashkelon at the moment, you go to the local malls here and about 80 percent of the stores are closed. You ask people who have to go out to work a lot of them can't go out to work. You ask people who have children. They say they keep their children indoors most of the day. All the schools here are closed. Public life is all but shut down. Yet, you see people on the streets, people on the streets here are very wary, waiting for the next possible siren, listening all the time, trying to stay in the vicinity of some sort of hardened shelter. So, it is certainly something that weighs down on public life, that halts public life, that holds up public life, and also, of course, holds up economic development not just here but, of course, in Gaza, as well.

So, it's certainly a situation where the people say they need a solution. They want the solution. However, they want a long-term solution so they don't have to deal with what they're dealing with right now. Again, as I said, in a couple of months, in a couple of years, have the same sort of military campaign and rockets raining down on their heads.

ROMANS: All right. Fred Pleitgen is in Ashkelon where the rockets have been raining and raining. Let's bring you up to speed of what's happening here, because you're seeing these pictures on your screen now that's a bus bombing in Tel Aviv.

BALDWIN: Yes. Forty-nine minutes past the hour, and if you're waking up thinking that Hamas and Israel are one step closer to reaching peace, that's not the case. These are pictures of a bus bombed out on the busy streets of Tel Aviv here. Ten injured, three critically. According to our correspondent, right there, on the scene, Sarah Sidner, she was reporting that this is a result of a package.

It wasn't a suicide bombing. Someone left a package on the bus. The bus exploded. Windows shattered. People running about. Here's the new change. As we were talking to her live on the phone, she began to run. We had to let her go, because sirens were heard blaring. We don't know what happened. She said people, all of a sudden, including the police chief, she mentioned, were, were, were running, they were racing away.

We don't know what they were racing away from. We don't know what they were racing toward, but clearly, an incredibly frightening scene as the level of violence has been ratcheted up in this conflict in Israel.

ROMANS: It's been maybe a year since we've seen a bus bombing like this, and one reason why people run from these scenes is because, sometimes, there are secondary explosions. And so, that is very fresh in the minds of first responders, of witnesses, of people who live around the area.

They're very concerned about a potential secondary explosion. We should also tell you we don't know who's responsible for this.

BALDWIN: That's right.

ROMANS: That also really complicates already very tense and dangerous situation. Last night, destruction rained on Gaza City and rockets rained into Israel. It was the same kind of violence that we have been seeing now for eight days. Two hours ago, the story was how much closer are we to a ceasefire? Now, after this, the question is, how much farther away are we to a ceasefire?

BALDWIN: You know, we were talking to Ben Wedeman in Gaza City, and he was perched above this mosque, and he was saying that once this explosion had happened on the streets of Tel Aviv, that they're on a loud speaker from this mosque basically quoting Ben that they were saying the lions from the west bank were behind the attack.

In his words, seeming to be claiming this military wing of Hamas, this part of the movement, claiming, but we do not have concrete reporting on that. We also know that via Twitter, Hamas has tweeted basically blessing what you're looking at, that this exploded bus here on the streets of Tel Aviv.

It's tough, because, when you look at this, and you think about the possibility of peace and a ceasefire, which depending on who you ask, some don't want that. They say it's politically advantageous not to have that, you know? But if they want this peace and we know that the Secretary of State is in, you know, meeting with Mohamed Morsi, the newly-elected president of Egypt, which really has this unique role now.

It's sort of this new iteration of Egypt. He has been, you know, supportive (ph) of Hamas in the past, fiery speeches in the past, yet, at the same time, you look at the economy of Egypt, and as a key power player in the region, he will really emerge as the key peacekeeper.

ROMANS: It will be a test for him.


ROMANS: It will clearly be a test for him how he manages the relationship, the peace agreement with, you know, Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, but at the same time, how they handle the situation in Gaza City where he does have a representative there. Another point about this, this was in Tel Aviv, an attack on a bus, clearly, targeting civilians.

When you talk, the criticism in the last few days has been about the civilian misery in Gaza City, because of these destructive air strikes from the Israeli military into Gaza City.

And our Ben Wedeman points out in these conflicts, it is, it is -- withstands the test of time that it is civilians who bear the brunt of these disagreements between countries, between territories, between peoples, and this has been quite, quite difficult for civilians, no question. Clearly, in Gaza City, they are bracing for retaliation.

BALDWIN: Reza Sayah live for us this morning in Cairo where we know Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be meeting with the president there, Mohamed Morsi. And Reza, if you can just hit home for us really the significance, the integral role that Egypt, this new version of Egypt with this new president, will be playing in this overall peace process?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Egypt is seen by many as the logical peacemaker, because they're the only government that has credible relationship with both Israel and Hamas. Of course, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood now heavily influential in the Egyptian government had links. Hamas was born out of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the same time, Egypt still has a peace deal with the Israeli governments and has explicitly said that it's going to honor that peace deal. So, for those reasons, Egypt is being viewed as an effective mediator between these two governments. And for the past few days, there was some optimism coming from the Egyptian officials that a ceasefire was imminent.

Yesterday, Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, said he expects a ceasefire to be established on Tuesday. Obviously, that hasn't happened. And in many ways, it looks like the violence is escalating. Now, with this apparent bus attack in Tel Aviv, we could be, we could be entering another phase.

That certainly doesn't bode well for Egypt's status as a possible peacemaker, but they remain optimistic. They say they're going to continue the talks, now with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coming. They're hammering away at it, seeing if they can achieve anything.

BALDWIN: Reza, who are other players here who are also taking part? The Arab league, Qatar, and also, Turkey, friendly with Hamas. How do they play into all of this?

SAYAH: I think much of what we've seen from the Arab league is an effort to score PR points. Of course, the Arab nation in this region had long been criticized for not doing enough to stand up for the Palestinians. Over the past week, they have held a lot of press conferences, made a lot of aggressive statements, condemning the Israeli air attacks, and standing with the Palestinians.

But when it comes to concrete action and getting material support to Hamas, we have not seen that. That is because many of these Arab nations like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, they have strong economic links, military links, with Washington, and there's all sorts of signs that they don want to jeopardize those links.

So, the key player in this, again, has been Egypt. They have been the country, the government here in Cairo, that have been talking both to Israeli officials and Hamas officials. And again, still hopeful that despite this new round of violence today, that something can get done.

BALDWIN: We will follow you there in Cairo. Reza Sayah, thank you so much, again, as we are hours away from that meeting between Mohamed Morsi and Hillary Clinton -- Christine.

ROMANS: I want to bring in on the phone from Tel Aviv actually on the scene of that explosion, Yonatan Yagodovsky. Are you there?


ROMANS: What can you tell me about the explosion and the casualties? Bring us up to speed about what you're seeing at the scene and what's happening to the people who are on that bus.

YAGODOVSKY: Well, around ten o'clock -- I'm sorry, 12:00 our time, there was an explosion at a bus in the city center of Tel Aviv. Again, (INAUDIBLE). Others were suffering from the grass (ph) and penetrating injuries for (INAUDIBLE). There are patients who have taken to the nearby medical center of Tel Aviv. And the moment the scene has (INAUDIBLE).

ROMANS: And the people have been taken to the hospital. Yonatan Yagodovsky, thank you on the scene. Don't go away. We're following this breaking news throughout the morning.

BALDWIN: I'm Brooke Baldwin sitting alongside Christine Romans. Thanks so much for being with us. CNN, of course, continues in just a moment. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien right after this.


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, "STARTING POINT": Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning is breaking news. There's been a bus explosion in Tel Aviv. it's being called a terrorist act as rockets fly into Gaza. Secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is still trying to broker that ceasefire or at least a de- escalation. But will this new violence counteract those efforts?

BALDWIN: Also this morning, millions of Americans on the roads, rails, sky this year. We'll get a check here, the outlook. Really one of the busiest travel days of the whole year coming up.

ROMANS: And, it could be the end of the road for Hostess, the maker of Twinkies and its union failed to reach a last-ditch agreement. Is there still hope for your sweet treats?

O'BRIEN: It is Wednesday, November 21st, and "STARTING POINT" begins right now.