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Israel Launches Ground Invasion of Gaza; Malaysia Airlines Flight Crashes in Ukraine

Aired July 17, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's a gruesome scene. Nearly 300 people are believed dead. We're getting in new pictures and new information this hour.

And here in the Middle East, Israel ground forces, they have now started moving into Gaza in big numbers. It's promising to hit Hamas targets hard after militants refused to agree to a cease-fire.

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.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get to the breaking news unfolding this hour in two very dangerous parts of the world. Stand by for a live report. We will go inside Gaza on the Israeli ground operation that is now under way. Israel is blaming Hamas militants for the new bloodshed that's about to unfold here in the Middle East. Much more on the story coming up this hour.

But, first, there are stunning new developments right now in the downing of Malaysian Flight 17. A senior U.S. official tells CNN the U.S. has concluded the jet was shot down, apparently by a surface-to- air missile. We're told the U.S. has not determined who was responsible and it hasn't found anything to back up Ukraine's claims that pro-Russian separatists are to blame.

Malaysia Airlines says 295 people were on board the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All of them, all of those 295 people are believed to be dead. The prime minister of Malaysia says there was no distress call before the plane went down.

The Boeing 777, a U.S.-made aircraft, went down in Eastern Ukraine near the Russian border in the volatile Donetsk region where a pro-Russian separatist rebellions has been raging. Journalists and witnesses at the scene say there's charred wreckage stretching for miles. Stunned rescue workers and rebel fighters are said to be combing the area littered with bodies, pieces of the plane at the same time.

We have correspondents and analysts standing by covering both of the major stories we're following, the breaking news here in the Middle East as well as in Ukraine.

First, let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's got the very latest on this plane disaster -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today, we have 295 lives caught up in the crisis in Ukraine, and now both U.S. and Ukrainian officials saying that they believe that this Malaysian jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

U.S. officials saying they're not certain by whom or which side of the border it came from, the Ukrainian side or the Russian side. Ukrainian officials however that I have been speaking to throughout the day, they leave no doubt. They say it was pro-Russian separatists backed up by Russia.

To support the claim they have released transcripts of what they say are intercepted phone conversations between pro-Russian separatists and a Russian intelligence agent as the plane was shot down. You hear in these transcripts, again released by Ukrainian officials, a Russian separatist, a pro-Russian separatist saying it's a passenger plane. The Russian agent saying, are there a lot of people there? What kind of plane is it? And him saying, we're checking now.

That Russian separatist seeing those bodies on the ground. That is the evidence that Ukrainian officials providing now.

I spoke a short time ago to the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine. He blames not only Russian, but President Putin of Russia, saying that Russia armed terrorists, they're murderers, the world must stop Putin.

Just to be clear here, there is some precedent in recent weeks and recent days for Russian separatists, pro-Russian separatists shooting down Ukrainian military planes, two this week within, on Monday, a Ukrainian military transport plane taken down and just in the last 24 hours a Ukrainian fighter jet also taken down alleged by Ukrainian officials, that by pro-Russian separatists.

Those are very alarming charges now coming from the new government in Kiev against Russia -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim, if pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine got ahold of this kind of sophisticated ground-to-air missile, where would they get that from? How would they be able to get that because that's a pretty sophisticated missile?

SCIUTTO: It is. This is some of the evidence that Ukrainian officials have cited to me in attaching blame for this to the pro- Russian separatists, that two weeks ago pro-Russian separatists overran a Ukrainian military base in Eastern Ukraine and acquired one of these so-called Buk Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems and at the time they advertised photographs of the captured missile system.

And Ukrainian officials go on to say the missile system has the capability at least to hit a plane at the altitude that a passenger jet like this would be flying, above 30,000 feet. Again, U.S. officials have not established that this kind of missile system has done this, but Ukrainian officials are drawing a connection here between that missile launcher captured two weeks ago and this plane shot down today.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, stand by. We will get back to you.

This Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was supposed to have landed in Kuala Lumpur this hour. This is a photo of the plane. Take a look at this as it was taking off from Amsterdam.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, has more now on the timeline of the crash.

Rene, what are you picking up?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we can tell you this is truly an international ripple effect here. We want to tell people if you're flying internationally we do know from the FAA U.S. carriers have voluntarily agreed not to operate in airspace near the Russian/Ukraine border.

Many international civil aviation entities in Europe, they are doing the same thing. This is because of a safety concern. But at this point there are many unanswered questions. However, we do have some concrete data points about Flight 17's final moments in the air.


MARSH (voice-over): Tonight, officials are once again investigating the loss of a Malaysia Airlines flight, this time MH17, the wreckage from the Boeing 777 in a field in Eastern Ukraine.

NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: Malaysia is unable to verify the cause of this tragedy. But we must and we will find out precisely what happened to this flight. No stone will be left unturned.

MARSH: The flight left Amsterdam at 6:15 a.m. Eastern time, just past noon local time, bound for Kuala Lumpur with 280 passengers and 15 crew members. Still no word if American citizens were on board.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We have seen the public reports. I spoke to our team right before I came out here. We don't have any additional details at this point on American citizens.

MARSH: Just an hour and 56 minutes after departure, flight tracking Web site Flightradar24 shows MH17 gave its last known position at 8:11 a.m. and four minutes later lost contact with the Ukrainian air traffic control.

RAZAK: The aircraft did not make a distress call.

MARSH: Then images and amateur video of what appears to show the plane crashing just 20 miles away from the Russian border. Relatives of passengers aboard MH17 gathered at airports in Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur awaiting word about the flight. At 11:36 a.m., Malaysia Airlines tweeted they had lost contact

with MH17 from Amsterdam. "The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow."

Within hours, another flight tracking Web site showed the airspace nearly empty, with only three planes in the area, two Russian aircraft and one Malaysian flight also bound for Kuala Lumpur. The FAA in April issued a warning to U.S. airlines to avoid the region due to safety concerns over the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, saying flight operations are prohibited until further notice in the airspace over Crimea, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Though Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 routinely flew in this region over the past five days, storms in the area pushed today's flight much farther north.


MARSH: We do know that both the FAA and ICAO, which is essentially the United Nations organization that coordinates international aviation entities, they say they warned airliners about the unsafe situation arising in the region along this border.

But we should point out where the crash happened, it was out of the zone that they identified -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Rene Marsh reporting for us from Washington, thank you.

Let's bring back Jim Sciutto, along with our aviation analysts Miles O'Brien and Peter Goelz, our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes and our aviation correspondent Richard Quest.

Miles, there were no distress calls from the plane and that potentially could be very significant. Tell our viewers why.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it could mean that there was something that happened that knocked out the electrical system which made it impossible for them to transmit. It also could mean that things happened just very quickly.

It also could mean that the crew was just too busy with a handful aircraft that was compromised and just trying to keep it righted. There's any number of scenarios here. The cockpit voice recorder which records what's going on inside the cockpit, which we're told -- I'm not totally certain -- I have heard reports that the black boxes have been found. But there's no reason to believe they will not be recovered in this case.

The cockpit voice recorder will be very telling in this case. One of the things that will be interesting, Wolf, is if we hear any unusual noises at the point of impact or whatever the -- whether the missile blew up in proximity and whether there was a kinetic hit.

And did the crew see a contrail headed in its direction? All these will help build a case one way or another in this one.

BLITZER: Richard, you have been hearing from Inmarsat, Richard Quest, about this flight. What are you hearing?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, at the moment the aircraft, since it was the same type and model as MH370, would have had the ACARS system, the reporting system that you and I have talked about so often.

Inmarsat has now downloaded the data from the plane or the data they have received. They have passed it on to the regulators. So far they're not saying what that shows. But if we look back at Air France 447, when that happened, the plane started giving out many, many warnings very, very fast, 24 in all.

So what we would be looking for here is to see what sort of warnings, what sort of failures happened on the aircraft when the incident happened. I have to say, though, Wolf, looking at this particular incident, it's not going to be a huge job of working this out.

If they have got the flight data recorder and they have got the cockpit voice recorder and they have got ACARS and they have got large parts of the fuselage, that will pretty quickly determine whether there was explosives involved, what sort of explosives and where the scene, if you like, where the incident took place.

BLITZER: Tom, the vice president, Joe Biden said today the United States is sending people to help with the investigation. There are concerns though that the area has already been significantly tampered with. How could that affect the investigation?

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's a huge problem, Wolf.

The FBI already has multiple agents assigned full-time in the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, as they do in Kuala Lumpur and in the Netherlands. But the problem here is the Ukrainian government does not appear to have any control over the ground. That plane went down over 10 hours ago and it appears that the only people that have been near that crash site are local townspeople and the rebels themselves.

If the Ukraine government cannot secure that crime scene, then the question is are the rebels going to allow investigators from other countries, such as the U.S. or the U.K. or any number of countries, to come in and actually do the investigation?

BLITZER: Because if they're pro-Russian separatists, they might invite the Russians to come lead this investigation. Here's the question. Will it have any international legitimacy?

FUENTES: No. If they do that, they won't have the legitimacy that they may be wanting. The question here is that it's a good possibility that these rebels shot that plane down accidentally thinking it was a Ukrainian cargo plane, a Ukrainian military plane, having no idea -- they had enough sophistication to push the button to launch the missiles, not enough sophistication to know what they were exactly shooting at.

Then the plane hits the ground, they find the pieces and realize, oh, no, we have shot down a passenger airliner. And we have innocent victims on the ground. At this point, what happens? Blame it on the Ukraine. Everybody is pointing fingers at each other. But that's going to be a huge problem.

I think Ukraine from their standpoint can claim innocence because if they don't have their own military on the ground to secure that crime scene, then how could they have military in the area to shoot that plane down?

BLITZER: Peter Goelz, there are rumors as you know that these pro-Russian separatists have already obtained the black boxes, the flight data recorder, the cockpit voice recorder. So much is unknown right now. But what concerns you about all of the tampering that potentially could be going on right now?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: There's two things, Wolf.

First is, is the boxes can bring some real light to this event, this tragedy. Even if there's just a fraction of a second of sound on the voice recorder, there are multiple microphones in the cockpit. You can trace where the sound is coming from. You can compare it to previous sounds that are on black boxes, like Lockerbie, like TWA, and do a spectrum analysis.

But the most important thing is, neither the Ukrainians nor the Russians nor obviously the rebels have the international credibility to conduct an investigation. World outrage has got to demand an independent, full investigation.

BLITZER: You used to be the managing director of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board. Do you suspect they will be involved in this investigation?

GOELZ: I suspect they will. Under ICAO treaty, they are the right to be there, as this was a U.S.-manufactured plane.

But this has got to be a broader investigation and the Russians and the Ukrainians have to step back and guarantee safety for the investigation -- for the investigators and guarantee that it's independent.

BLITZER: Let me bring back Jim Sciutto because we're hearing now from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Tell our viewers what he's saying, what it might mean. Give us a sense of this is a real international crisis right now.

SCIUTTO: It is. It's interesting because Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the crash of this Malaysian jetliner.

But when you look at his words, he's not actually claiming that Ukrainians shot it down, but saying that since this plane went down over Ukrainian territory that the Ukraine is responsible for the lack of safety and security there and he goes on to say that's because -- and this is a frequent point we have heard from Russia, from Putin, from Russia -- is that it is Ukraine provocation that has led to this conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the fight between the Ukrainian military and these pro-Russian separatists.

That's a very different interpretation of events on the ground than what you hear from Ukrainians or certainly U.S. officials. They blame and they say that Russia has instigated this by arming these pro-Russian separatists, by inciting them to violence, and in fact by sending Russians across the border to fight with the separatists and having coordination with intelligence, etcetera.

But it gives you yet another one of these cases where you have vastly different views. One side calls it black, the other side calls it white, and that's certainly happening with the downing of this jet.

BLITZER: Richard Quest, I assume once the real investigators, international investigators, including U.S. investigators from the NTSB, from the U.K., elsewhere, let's say they all get to the plane. Eventually, we will know exactly what happened. Is that right, or am I being too confident?

QUEST: Oh, no, you're absolutely right, Wolf.

They will very quickly establish what happened. Now, how it happened and the mechanisms of it happened, if this was a missile strike, that will be established pretty quickly with the range of information that they will have. If, of course, it's something much more technical concerning the aircraft, more of a TWA-type incident, then that will be more difficult.

But if you're talking about a Lockerbie, a bomb, a missile, there will be traces of the explosives, the way the aircraft will have come out of the air. They will give a very good reading on that. The question becomes immediately who carries out this investigation, both the criminal and the aviation. And for that the Ukrainians have already said, President Poroshenko has already said Ukraine is about to start and seek jurisdiction to do this.

Well, will the Russians allow them? The NTSB will certainly be a part of this as indeed will the British, because it was Rolls-Royce engines. The Malaysians will be involved. The Australians will be involved. There is more than 27 or maybe 27 Australians on board. Once again, very similar to 370.

We're starting to see the makings of the investigation, Wolf, but, of course, just with 370, the question becomes who and when.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, you're former assistant director of the FBI. So far we don't know of any Americans that were on the plane. We know 295 people were are on the plane, 15 crew members, 280 passengers. The manifest shows all but 47 of the nationalities of the passengers.

So far, the State Department says no one has called in seeking information about loved ones, relatives who may have been on that plane. We will know pretty soon the identities of everyone on that plane, is that right?

FUENTES: Yes, Wolf, we should know. The FBI should have been able to have already obtain the flight manifest many hours ago, early in the investigation.

The problem is that you could have someone traveling on a passport from a different country who has dual citizenship with the U.S. and therefore it looks like they're a Canadian citizen, let's say, but they're also a U.S. citizen, but they used the Canadian transport to obtain the travel and tickets and the other documentation.

That's the problem they're having here is that there could be individuals on that plane with multiple citizenship and they have to try and figure out exactly are they Americans or not. And that's taking a little bit of time in this case.


BLITZER: Because if you board an international flight, before they let you on that flight, you're boarding a flight in Amsterdam or Kuala Lumpur, you have got to show your passport before you get on the plane. Presumably, they have a complete record at least the passports that were used by those 280 passengers. We know all 15 of the crew members were Malaysian nationals.

That's what we know on that front. You know, but you already suspect the FBI will be involved, already involved? Is that what you're saying, Tom?

FUENTES: Well, they could be involved already in terms of doing backgrounds from the flight manifest, the information, passenger list, again, working in the Netherlands where the flight originated with their authorities and also in Kuala Lumpur, if there's any intelligence that's been gathered there by their authorities, as well as through the office in Kiev.

So it's possible to do that type of investigation without physically being at the scene. But at some point, if we don't end up with the NTSB and other credible investigators from around the world at that crash site, and if they don't get there in time and the site has not been adequately preserved, it's going to be a difficult investigation to try to solve in the short run.

BLITZER: Bob Baer used to work at the CIA.

Tell us about the role of the U.S. and other intelligence services right now trying to piece together what exactly happened.

BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I can tell you right now the CIA has sent out guidance worldwide to see who's got somebody close to Putin at this point, because really the key is Russia. We have decided a missile brought it down, but whose missile and from where and on whose orders.

The only people that can answer that definitively is Putin and the KGB. The question is whether they're going to be forthcoming or not. I frankly doubt it. But it's really the Russians where all the answers are.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, everybody else, stand by. We're going to have much more on this story coming up.

Still ahead, we're continuing to follow the investigation into Malaysian Flight 17. What exactly happened? We're watching this story, apparent missile took down this airliner.

Also, the other breaking news we're following, Israel now launching a ground operation in Gaza, our correspondents in the region. They're standing by. We're also going to get the first reaction from a top Palestinian official. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're back. We're live here in Jerusalem following two major breaking news stories. The United States concluding a Malaysia Airlines jet was indeed shot down in Ukraine, 295 people on board.

Here in the Middle East, now Israel launching a full-scale ground operation in Gaza after more than a week of deadly airstrikes targeting Hamas militants and Hamas rockets and missiles coming into Israel.

Let's go to Gaza right now. Our correspondent Ben Wedeman and Karl Penhaul are both standing by with the very latest.

We have got some live pictures I also want to show our viewers. There you see some live pictures coming in from Gaza. You see flashes coming up.

I assume, Ben, that these are Israeli flashes, Israeli operations even though it's late into the night under way right now.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's correct. And we understand that the Israeli operations at the moment are concentrated on two areas of the Gaza Strip, one along the Kesofeem (ph) road, which leads to the main north/south highway in Gaza, the Salaha-Din road.

And it does appear that they have reached about -- according to our sources, about three kilometers, about a mile-and-a-half inside the Gaza Strip with tanks. We understand there are lots of clashes taking place between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen in that area.

It would appear this is part of a tactic perhaps to cut the Gaza Strip in half, which is what they did in 2008, 2009. In addition to that, they're focused on the north. We're hearing from the villages of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia, which are the two biggest communities in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, that there's intense bombardment in that area.

One of our producers was able to get through to one of the residents of Beit Hanoun, who said that people are walking, streaming out of that town trying to get away, despite the gunfire, the shelling in that area. But the man we spoke to said, I can't go anywhere. I'm staying

in my home. Where am I going to go, he said, to the Gaza Sheraton?

So you still have a lot of people in these areas stuck in their homes. They didn't want to leave despite the fact they were getting these so-called robo-calls, these leaflets from the military telling them to leave. The feeling is they need to protect their property. Many of them have sent their families to Gaza City, where they're staying either with relatives or in U.N. schools where we know according to the U.N. more than 20,000 people have taken refuge -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl, you're there as well. Give us your impressions. What are you seeing?


From our vantage point here, Wolf, what we have seen, there has certainly been a major combined effort by the Israeli military. We have seen assault going in from the air, from the ground and from the Israeli navy as well.

A lot of the action at one point was going on behind us there on the eastern border of Gaza. At one point, we saw a daisy chain of explosions. That indicates to me possibly that that was a battery of tanks opening fire. There also appears to be a lot of other field artillery in that area as well, since we saw some kind of projectile flying from the ground impacting other targets on the ground.

And then at certain points in the evening, the fight seemed to shift more towards the northern border between Gaza and Israel. At some point, we saw illumination rounds going up into the air. That is an indication that the Israelis were looking for some kind of target on the ground.

But as Ben also mentioned, in statements from Hamas, they say that resistance fighters are gathering and they're locked in intense ground clashes with the Israeli forces as they come in on the ground, wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, be careful over there. I'm going to get back to you, Karl Penhaul and Ben Wedeman.

I'm joined now by the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.

How massive? How big is this operation, this ground operation?

LT. COL. PETER LERNER, IDF SPOKESMAN: Yes, we've amassed over the last 10 days a substantial force, infantrymen, armored corps, artillery engineers, all to put together with our intelligence capabilities in order to bring the fight to the Hamas terrorists.

This morning, in the early hours of the morning, we met 13 terrorists that had boots on the ground in Israel. An unacceptable reality we're not willing to be prepared for a terror tunnel to serve from Gaza to penetrate into Israel and let them come into us. So, we've taken the battle to them. We won't let them do it again. They will be pursued.

BLITZER: You released video of these 13 Hamas commandos if you will coming in through this tunnel -- coming out a kibbutz on the Israeli side, but then you went in and knocked them out according to the video that the IDF released.

Are you talking about hundreds of Israeli ground forces in Gaza right now, thousands of Israeli ground forces? I know you're not going to give us a specific number. Give us a ballpark number.

LERNER: It would go in the realm of thousands. Indeed, it is a substantial force on the ground. The reality that's developed over the last two years, the extents of the terrorist's infrastructure is that it was requiring us to be that forceful and be that proactive and meet those terrorists before they come into us. We don't want them in our backyard.

BLITZER: So, what is the goal? What is the end game right now? How long is this going to last?

LERNER: Well, over the last 10 days, we've appealed three times to Hamas to calm the situation down and deescalate the situation. That's all we wanted. We wanted a situation where our civilians with live in peace and quiet, with a quiet number, and not be under the bombardment of rockets.

You know, in the last 10 days, 1,003 rockets launched from Gaza at Israeli cities, at Jerusalem, at Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba, all over the country. We're not willing to be held hostage by this group of terrorists that have no regard for human life and are striking at us on a daily --

BLITZER: Is your goal to reoccupy Gaza?

LERNER: Not, not at all. We are determined to restore the state of security for the state of Israel. We have no interest what's going to be in Gaza, as long as they're not attacking us. If we are -- and as we have proven -- we are required to deal with the threat. It is a substantial threat. It and an unbearable threat and that's why our forces are on the ground.

BLITZER: So, you assume like I do, this is going to go on for days. Is that right?

LERNER: It's not time-bound. We need to be prepared for it to be prolonged. It's gradual mission. I've been talking over the last few day, we've spoken and every day, the pressure has been increased. And today, this stage is moving up to the ground forces preliminary. You know, we've entered Gaza in several points. It can go -- there are other stages that it can increase.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, spokesman for the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, thanks very much for joining us.

LERNER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's get the Palestinian perspective right now.

Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiators joining us on the phone from Cairo.

Saeb, you and I well know this was totally predictable how this would unfold. Now, the Israelis not only from the air and the sea but on the ground, they move into Gaza. What's your reaction speaking on behalf of the Palestinian Authority?

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR (via telephone): Well, you know, I think this just adds to the complexities, adding fuel to the fire. This situation requires cannot be solved militarily and security means and aerial bombardment, naval bombardment, ground troops. Today, we (INAUDIBLE).

Tomorrow, as I've told you yesterday, we're going to Turkey and then to Qatar. And every effort was being exerted in order to see to it that we can have a timed ceasefire, mutual cease-fire and then both sides can come to Egypt in order to discuss the details. And we were moving on and we were going, you know, ahead with this.

Now with this ground attack, number one, you know, in 2008, Israel went together. Then in 2012, Israel bombarded Gaza. In 2014, you know, they say that they're going to eliminate the threat and every time, you know, people are getting more and more into the military situation and militarism and that's the net result. This needs, number one, a de-escalation, ceasefire by both parties in order to go to Egypt and begin serious discussions on the day after. Secondly, we need to look at the bigger picture, a comprehensive settlement on the basis of two-state solution.

Look, for the last 45 years, what Israel has done in the West Bank, in Gaza, demolished homes, incursions, reoccupation. Does this lead to stability, peace and security or does this lead to more, you know, extremism, more militarism and so on?

This needs a political solution. I hope the Israeli government will give the Egyptians a chance in order to bring the deal into an implementing stage. I think we need de-escalation. I really I believe if they continue with this ground assault and ground incursion, they will just add to the complexities.

BLITZER: Well, here's the question, Saeb. As you know, the Israelis accepted the initial Egyptian proposal for ceasefire. They stopped firing into Gaza for six hours. Hamas rejected it.

Is there any hope right now -- and there's high level Hamas delegation where you are in Cairo. There's a high level Israel delegation where you are in Cairo. Right now, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is there. Is it too late now? Can there be an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire?

ERAKAT: Absolutely. You know, the six hours we spoke about last night, we managed to pull it out, both sides for six hours. We just finished a meeting now. We can do it. We can still do it.

So, that's why we're urging all sides to give the Egyptian effort a chance it deserves. And that's the only game in town. That's the truth.

If the Israeli government, on the other hand, wants to continue the aerial bombardment, naval bombardment, ground assaults, well, this will only kill the Egyptian initiative and this will add to the complexities. I don't think we can reach a solution through this military means.

This requires de-escalation by putting the implementation of the Egyptian initiative into what I term as a timed ceasefire. Let's give it five days instead of six hours. And during five days, we can set and let us very careful, the day after an order to reach the ceasefire and then to begin a process that will end this current situation.

BLITZER: Saeb Erakat, joining us from Cairo -- Saeb, thanks very much. As usual we'll stay in very close to you -- Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

We're going to continue to monitor Israel's ground operation now under way in Gaza. You heard the spokesman from IDF saying that thousands of Israeli ground forces are now on the ground in Gaza.

Also, we're watching the breaking new story, the apparent downing of a Malaysian airliner with 295 people on board. What does this mean for the conflict in Ukraine, the relationship that Russia has with the U.S. and Europe.

Much more of our SITUATION ROOM special report on these two breaking news stories. That's coming up.


BLITZER: We're watching two breaking news stories. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Jerusalem.

The Israeli military has moved ground forces, thousands of them into Gaza right now. Much more on that coming up.

Also, another huge breaking news story in Ukraine. A Malaysian airliner flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, flying over Eastern Ukraine, was apparently shot down by a surface-to-air missile, 295 people on board, 15 crew members, 280 passengers.

Freelance journalist Noah Sneider is at the crash site. He's joining us now.

Noah, tell us what happened. What you're seeing over there and what you know about this horrible, horrible takedown.

NOAH SNEIDER, FREELANCE JOURNALIST (via telephone): Thanks for having me.

You know, essentially we all arrived here late in the afternoon, early evening. The plane had already been crashed and been smoldering for a few hours, it sounded like. You drive up and there's sort of a long road running between two open fields.

And the debris from the plane is scattered throughout the fields. So, both the carcass of the plane itself but also the bodies of all of the people who were inside, their things, pretty much anything you would find from someone on their way to a beach vacation -- sandals, toothpaste, shorts, swimming trunks and it's all basically scattered throughout these fields.

People here say that the plane exploded in the sky and rained down. They thought they were being bombed. There's been pretty frequent shelling going on in surrounding cities, clashes between the Ukrainian forces and rebel separatists here in Eastern Ukraine and the locals thought that was coming to their village.

This is a pretty small sort of countryside town where nothing has happened in the last 30 years. And they're now faced with the wreckage and I think everyone here, from their emergency responders to the separatist fighters to the locals are in shock.

BLITZER: I take it, Noah, the wreckage, the bodies are scattered over a wide area. Has this area been secured? Are authorities in place watching what's going on, or are people just walking around doing what they want to do?

SNEIDER: No. There's two large groups at least that I've seen of rebel fighters that arrived rather quickly. They have guys stationed around (INAUDIBLE) plane went down.

The extent to which they've secured it is more difficult to say. Like I said, the fields are pretty wide, a few kilometers at least. And it's now pretty dark. So, nobody is guarding the entire perimeter, I don't think.

There's local responders, emergency responders, firefighters, that have set up camp and appear to be staking out the night. The separatist fighters have promised to guard the place. What that means none of us really know.

I haven't seen anyone sort of picking through the, picking through the rubble, so to speak. Locals are staying in their homes for the most part. I don't think it's really crossed anyone's mind to mess with things.

BLITZER: Noah, I know this is a horrible situation. Thank you so much for that eyewitness account of what's happening at the scene.

I want you to stand by because I want to go to the White House right now.

Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is getting new information on what President Obama, the administration are up to as far as this horrible, horrible takedown of this Malaysian jetliner.


it's unusual day at the White House with all of these global crises unfolding. The president and the vice president are not here.

The president is in New York right now for some fundraisers. But I can tell you, Wolf, that upon landing in New York City, the president held a couple of conference calls. The first call was with his secretary of state, John Kerry, to talk about not only the downing of the plane but also the situation in Gaza. So, he talked to John Kerry about that.

And then after that phone call, Wolf, he convened a separate conference call with his national security team, the CIA directors, chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and other top officials about what's going on with the plane crash. The president directing his team to basically have the firm understanding that there is to be an international investigation at the site of this plane crash.

And, Wolf, these calls are just two of many phone calls the president had. There's a video of John Kerry, they're leaving the White House. I think most notably the phone call with Ukrainian President Poroshenko, where the president expressed some concern about the integrity of the crash scene there in Ukraine, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Looks like that crash scene, we just heard from the freelance journalist, Noah Sneider, obviously is awful right now.

Jim, stand by.

The downing of the Malaysian jet is adding a lot more strains right now to the already tense relationship between Washington and Moscow.

Our foreign affairs correspondent Elise Labott is over at the State Department.

Elise, what are you hearing there? All of this happening a day after the president announced tighter sanctions against Russia?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, and President Putin responded saying that's going to boomerang and push U.S.-Russian relations to a dead end. So, clearly, that already raw situation is going to be exacerbated. We're told Secretary of State Kerry cancelled a planned speech tonight to an Israeli organization. He was going to obviously, we're talking about the crisis in Gaza.

And that's what officials are telling me, you can't envy this national security team, Wolf. So many world crises, they're trying to identify Americans that might have been on board. So far, none yet, but clearly, that's a concern. You have this ground invasion of Gaza. All hands on deck here at the State Department and certainly the days ahead dealing with Russia on the investigation and what will happen will be a key factor in that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Just when you think all of these international crises out there can't get a whole lot worse, they clearly do.

Elise, thanks very much.

Let's bring back our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, our national security analyst Bob Baer, former CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty.

And Asaf Agmon, a retired Israeli air force brigadier general who knows a lot about -- quick question, General. Israel is always concerned about surface-to-air missiles taking down commercial aircraft coming into Israel. How difficult would it be to take down a plane, a Boeing 777 flying at 35,000 feet?

BRIG. GEN. ASAF AGMON (RET), ISRAELI AIR FORCE: It's very easy, a sitting duck target for such a system. This is, for example, one of the reasons that we've blocked transforming this kind of weapons system from Syria to the Hezbollah. They tried to move it to the Hezbollah and we stopped it. This is a very, very easy target.

BLITZER: So, you're saying that you have evidence, what, that Iran was sending a similar kind of surface-to-air missile to Hezbollah in Lebanon that could take down Israeli and other commercial aircraft flying over Israeli air space?

AGMON: The Syrians have such systems. When the fight started in Syria, they've tried.

BLITZER: The Syrians, not Iran. The Syrians. OK.

AGMON: No, no. The Syrians, and tried to move such system to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. And according to international sources we blocked this transforming of these systems.

BLITZER: The international reports suggest that Israel went in and blew up these facilities?

AGMON: Yes. This is very dangerous system and we will not allow that such system will go into the hands of the Hezbollah for --

BLITZER: All right. General, stand by.

I want to take a quick break. There's a lot of news happening right now. Much more on the downing of this Malaysian airliner when we come back.


BLITZER: We're following the disaster, the takedown of a Malaysian airliner flight, the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. It was apparently shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine. And people on both sides of the battle between Russia, the pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government, they're fighting it out who's responsible.

Jill Dougherty is joining us, our former foreign correspondent. Jill, you spent years covering this part of the world. Putin --

Russian President Vladimir Putin said this wouldn't have happened if the Ukrainians hadn't renewed their military operation against pro- Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

What do you make of the reaction so far to this disaster from Putin?

JILL DOUGHERTY, FORMER CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, that reaction is really shocking because, actually, if you look at it, who did this? Who carried it out?

Apparently, at this point -- and there's a lot unknown -- it would appear the most logical explanation is that there were rebels, these separatists, who got their hands some way on these weapons and its serious weapons, Wolf. You know, this is not something that one person can shoot. You need a team and they have to be trained.

So, already, you're upping the ante in terms of the weapons that either have been taken by these rebels or have been provided to these rebels, and I think it's very serious for the relationship, the practically nonexistent relationship between Russia and the United States right now. Complete lack of any type of trust now that you have this incident.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, you used to work at the CIA. You have a good appreciation of what's going on. I assume the investigators, whoever they may be, they will be able to quickly determine the surface-to-air missile or missiles that were involved. They'll be able to determine where they came from, right?

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, absolutely, Wolf. I think they'll be able to look at satellite photography and see that these missiles came from Russia and where they were. They're identifiable by overhead. So, they'll know whether it was fired, fairly quickly, from eastern Ukraine or Russia.

The question is, you know, where does the conflict go from here? I don't see Putin giving up the Eastern Ukraine or standing down. I mean, this is the nearer broad for him, he invaded the Crimea, he clearly is involved in this conflict from the Ukraine and he's going to deny he had anything to do with shooting down that Malay airliner. And, you know, frankly, this could worsen it very quickly.

BLITZER: And, Jill, as you know and you've spent a lot of time in Russia, you were our correspondent there for many years. The U.S./Russian relationship right now is awful. And I suspect it's about to get a whole lot worse, right?

DOUGHERTY: I would absolutely agree, Wolf. And, you know, one of the real problems is that there is a lot of kind of -- let's call it serendipity in what is going on right now, unpredictable things that come and blindside events. And each side now, the United States and Russia certainly very much, is saying, no, it's actually on purpose. This is being done with a purpose, and that is very dangerous because, of course, it diminishes any type of trust and also makes it look as if these things are happening for a reason.

Right now, you have a situation that could be simply a result of the chaos, unfortunately, right in that area, a lot of heavy fighting. The lack of clarity about what kind of weapons Russia is providing to the rebels, what the rebels are capable of -- the rebels who are doing things on their own. That's another possibility that if they have those weapons, they could be doing it on their own.

This is out of control. And I absolutely agree that this could get much worse.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, thanks very much. Bob Baer, thanks very much to you as well.

A huge, huge crisis unfolding in Ukraine right now. Also, the breaking news we've been following from here in the Middle East. Israel has now deployed, has moved thousands of its ground forces into Gaza.

Stay with us. Stay with CNN for complete breaking news coverage.

In the meantime, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" continues our coverage right now.