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Explosions in Tel Aviv after Residential Tower is Destroyed in Gaza; Loud Explosions And Sirens Heard In Tel Aviv; Gaza Tower Block Collapse After Israel Airstrike; Israel, Gaza Militants Exchange Fire In Escalating Confrontation. Aired 3:23-4p ET

Aired May 11, 2021 - 15:23   ET




ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

RICHARD QUEST, CNNI HOST: Good evening, we continue to following the breaking news from the Middle East, from Israel and from Gaza. After a 13 story residential tower has collapsed in Gaza City after it was targeted by an Israeli airstrike, it all happened a short while ago.

Now, we don't know if the building that subsequently collapsed had been evacuated. We don't know the level of casualties, but looking at the fact that there were several buildings densely packed together, and you can see in another video the picture of the building collapsing, and you see this - here we go, just pause for a second to watch.


Now, that building houses offices used by Hamas, it's also got apartments. The Israeli Defense Forces say they fired four warning rounds first. But as you can see the tightness of the area, and - we just don't have any idea of the magnitude of casualties so far from what took place.

We understand that the building had 40 apartments and offices.


The military wing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad has vowed to retaliate for this airstrike and they have done so by firing rockets at Tel Aviv. CNN teams heard sirens on the grounds there.

In Tel Aviv loud explosions have also been heard across the city. Now, some of those explosions may have come from Israel's Iron Dome defense system that intercepts incoming Palestinian or Hamas rockets. Israeli media reports that a bus has been hit, and you're seeing pictures here of this near Tel Aviv. Three people wounded.

And another rocket attack has apparently killed a women in a nearby town. The major international airport Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv has been closed because of the threat of rocket fire. There is much to unpack through all of this.

Elliott Gotkine is with me, he is in Tel Aviv, and safe. Elliott, I want to take this step by step so we know the current position. Tell me, the rockets that were fired in response to the Israeli attack on the high on the tower in Gaza City, do you know how many reached Tel Aviv?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, FREELANCE JOURNALIST: Well, according to Hamas' military wing they fired roundabout 130 rockets toward Tel Aviv. Now, I can tell you that the first siren sounded at around 19 minutes ago, so about quarter to nine local time.

I heard the sirens - woke my children up, went down to the shelter, and then overhead we could hear a number of loud booms and loud explosions. There was subsequent kind of like, on and off small sirens about five times in total, and then more loud explosions. The windows were kind of shaking on my building and elsewhere. But it's hard to say precisely how many hit.

But in my experience from previous occasions when these rockets have been flying and aimed in Tel Aviv, and sirens have sounded that the sounds I was hearing tend to be the Iron Dome missile defense system, the Iron Dome missiles knocking out the rockets being fired.

But as you just said in your introduction, Richard, we know that in Holon, which is just to the south of Tel Aviv, that a bus was hit and according to Hamas they have been trying to target Ben Gurion Airport which is - that's why it's closed right now.

QUEST: So now we know the current situation. Talk me through the time scale of the evening. What led up to the Israelis attacking the tower in Gaza City?

GOTKINE: I don't know if necessarily there was one specific incident, or particular attacks that led them to targeting that particular building. Speaking with the IDF spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus this morning in Ashkelon which was hit overnight and throughout the day by more rockets - he said that the IDF already had targets in mind before the current outbreak of hostilities.

So leading on from that, one would assume that the building that they targeted this evening was on its list. And I don't think there's a surprise that there was a further escalation in airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, given the rockets that have been fired into Israel throughout the day.

But one thing to add to that, Richard, I think that when rockets were being fired on Ashkelon, which is about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip, I think that that was considered obviously not great from Israel's perspective, but it was seen as a relatively, let's say moderate attack, if you like. Firing rockets on Tel Aviv will not be viewed in the same way, and one would expect a very forceful response from the IDF.

QUEST: Right. OK, right. So, now we really do have an escalation of tit-for-tat. You had Ashkelon have rockets during the day which leads to the Israelis tonight firing on and collapsing that tower, which leads to more rockets being fired tonight on Tel Aviv. And to be clear, it's your view, their will be retaliation from Israel for those rockets that you heard this evening.

GOTKINE: I think it's an understanding, speaking with people in the IDF that this is something that will be viewed as a major escalation, the barrages of rockets onto Tel Aviv, even if that in itself was in response to airstrikes that have taken place previously.

I think where we are right now, Richard, is the violence - and as you say, the tit-for-tat has kind of taken on a life of it own -

QUEST: Right.

GOTKINE: - and certainly the immediate future, and the next few hours and days, perhaps, it's hard to see how this is going to deescalate despite calls from the international community -

QUEST: Right.

GOTKINE: - for exactly that to happen.

QUEST: Right.


GOTKINE: So this is unfortunate, the situation we're in right now.

QUEST: And, Elliott, I just - just slightly (ph), I would ask the same - this same question to somebody who, of course, is in the - in Gaza City and you would have to take their children down to an air raid shelter for shots. Hopefully the children are okay, not - I mean, obviously frightened at - to one level, but that they're okay.

They're absolutely fine. In fact, they've gone to their mother's now because my son's bedroom is actually the shelter in her apartment, so it's easier for them to go in there. So they're all fine, thank you.

QUEST: Thank you. All right, thank you. We'll take a break, this is CNN. More breaking news coverage in a moment.


QUEST: Breaking news as we continue to follow out the Middle East. For the past few hours, Israeli forces have been launching airstrikes on Gaza, and in return Palestinian groups have been firing rockets into Israel, targeting Tel Aviv.

Loud explosions heard in and around Israel's largest city. At least one woman is reported to have been killed in a nearby town. Several people have been wounded after a rocket hit a bus. You can see the pictures.

In Gaza, a residential building - 13-story residential building collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike. It's not immediately clear how or if there were casualties, and we're getting aftermath pictures of the airstrike on that residential building in Gaza. Take a look.


QUEST: Now this was a 13-story residential building. You saw the pictures of it collapsing a moment or two ago. It was hit by an Israeli airstrike, according to our CNN camera crew that saw it and was on the ground.



QUEST: Now Omar Shakir is the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch. He joins me from Palo Alto, California by -- he joins me by Skype. I think you can -- we can all agree whatever side one's on -- on this is a very serious deterioration in what's going on and a massive escalation. What happens now?

OMAR SHAKIR, ISRAEL AND PALESTINE DIRECTOR, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Absolutely. I think we're the closest we've been since maybe 2014 to full-fledged hostilities.

I mean you have Israeli authorities striking directly at residential buildings that house dozens of Palestinian families who in a heartbeat have become homeless, beyond just the 13-story building you mentioned a minute ago, in recent minute we've heard of other residential structures that either have been struck or have been threatened to be struck.

At the same time we're seeing a barrage of rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups into Tel Aviv, into other major Israeli cities wreaking havoc, killing three Israeli civilians. We're really I think on the brink of something that could lead to much more bloodshed and repression.

QUEST: OK, Omar. So that's the situation. What needs to happen, in your view, to pull everybody back?

SHAKIR: Look, I think the starting point to all this, of course, were the events in Jerusalem where you have a government policy there to, you know, promote a Jewish majority, leading to discriminatory evictions of Palestinians from homes they've lived in for decades.

I think while that situation has now been calmed down by a delay in the court process, the reality is the cycle of vicious violence will continue, so long as the Israel/Palestine issue remains not a priority for the international community. There must be accountability for serious abuses.

Right now we need people to immediately push powers, the United States, the European Union to push for a ceasefire. But that must be step one. Step two must be to pursue accountability in human rights mechanisms that can get at the source of these longstanding issues, which is deep discriminatory Israeli rule and Palestinian, you know, violence that comes, you know, often in response to those actions.

QUEST: Call me a cynic, but does it suit the leadership on both sides to let this fester?

SHAKIR: Absolutely. I think what you had happening in Jerusalem, you know war, protests, mobilization by Palestinians concerned about an instance of forced eviction. And I think Hamas authorities most certainly seized the opportunity to promote themselves as the defenders of Al-Aqsa mosque.

And certainly, you know, this Israeli government, given the political situation of the country, undoubtedly have taken brazen steps that have been avoided in the recent rounds of escalations. It's clear that political leadership on both sides are clearly pushing us in the wrong direction.

QUEST: And yet, at the same time, if both sides -- if both sides find an expediency in letting this continue, where then does the real pressure to bring both sides back to the table?

Now, since Trump has gone out of the office, the Palestinians don't necessarily have the same loathing, of course, for the -- for the U.S. administration. But does Joe Biden wield the same power over Netanyahu that Trump did and the European Union. I mean who's listening to them anyway?

SHAKIR: Absolutely. Look, I mean the U.S., this Biden administration has sought to deprioritize the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Certainly there are other important issues in the world but the reality here is you have millions of Palestinians who live under apartheid.

You have everyday land grabs, discriminatory evictions and other actions. Those sorts of actions lead to these sorts of repression and bloodshed. And until the U.S. government and European Union and other states really take the sorts of human rights measures that a situation of this gravity warrants, we're going to continue to see these cycles of violence.

So it's incumbent upon the United States to realize that simply rolling back 50 percent of the Trump agenda won't change the ugly reality on the ground here. You need a full reset and a new approach that's grounded in human rights and accountability.

QUEST: Omar, thank you very much. Again, the Israeli and Palestinian director of Human Rights Watch joining us from California.

So as the situation seems to deteriorate tonight with a -- with a tower block having been felled on the Palestinian side, or collapsed on the Palestinian side after being rocket-hit, now we've got Ben Wedeman with us in Jerusalem and Oren Liebermann, who's our defense Pentagon correspondent who fortuitously was also our Jerusalem correspondent until recently.

But let's start with you, Ben. Your gut feeling. Everybody's saying this could -- this is -- could be or is as bad as 2014. For those that don't remember, why is that significant?

[15:40:00] BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Because in 2014 you had a similar situation to what you have now. It started with protests in Jerusalem that turned violent with a harsh Israeli response to those protests, which quickly led to frictions with Gaza and a war that went on for weeks, much of July and well into August of 2014, killing hundreds, more than a thousand people.

And we have a similar situation now. It started here in Jerusalem a few weeks back with protests over the Israelis putting over -- putting barricades outside Damascus gate. And then you had the protests against the forced evictions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

And you've had massive protests in the Haramesh-Sharif Temple Mount behind me. And now Gaza has become involved with this rocket fire by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. It seems like, though, unlike 2014, that the speed of escalation is much higher and it does appear that we are heading to something perhaps along the same lines as 2014.

But in the end all of this, in a sense, Richard, is futile. Because basically the problems of this land, this land of Palestine and Israel are simply not being addressed. Your guest from Human Rights Watch rightly pointed out that essentially it's a civil rights problem here that is being dealt with in a military way. And that is simply not going to solve the problem. It's just going to prolong it and just make it worse, Richard.

QUEST: OK, but while that is certainly at the core of the issue, solving it. Oren Liebermann, you -- you obviously have deep experience there. But now you're in Washington.

President Biden will have been vice president during that period of 2014 and will be highly, highly familiar with the issues at hand. So how would you expect from a defense point of view and from a state point of view the U.S. would respond here?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I would also expect President Joe Biden to be highly, highly familiar with how difficult it is to make any sort of progress. Under the Obama administration they tried a couple times for negotiations.

They got negotiations going but they never led anywhere. And I suspect Biden would realize that already. From a defense perspective, everyone expects Biden has Israel's back when it comes to support, when it comes to making the right statements for rockets coming out of Gaza towards Israel. And we've seen that already.

Biden is across what's happening, and he'll continue to do. Is he expected to invest a tremendous amount of political capital in trying to make progress on a two-state solution? No, absolutely not.

The fighting right now underscores how difficult it is, especially since the outcome of this fighting whenever it ends, however it ends, isn't going to leave the political situation between Israelis and Palestinians any better. In fact, it'll be worse. And it was already difficult enough to try to

make any progress. We've seen the statements from the U.S. as well as from other countries urging de-escalation.

Crucially in the past in the rounds of fighting while I was there, the U.N. and Egypt were working behind the scenes to try to find some off- ramp to de-escalation. I would have to believe they are as well. But it certainly doesn't look like that ramp is right here in the immediate future.

QUEST: Ben, when the Israeli forces fired at those tower blocks, they must have known that there was a very real chance that one of them would collapse.

WEDEMAN: Yes. And I think that that was the purpose actually. I mean the Israelis have one of the best armed forces in the world. And they make these calculations when they target a building like that, if it collapses that was their intention.

Now, what's interesting is that prior to the actual collapsing of the building, several drones came along and did what is called a knock on the roof. Basically, a warning to the people inside the building to get out.

And we've seen on social media it appears that the doorman of the building was speaking on the phone with somebody in Israel who was telling him to tell the residents of the building to leave immediately. But obviously when you're using that kind of firepower in a very cramped space like Gaza, the risks of innocent people being killed are huge. Richard.

QUEST: Ben in Jerusalem, Oren at The Pentagon. Please gentleman both, when there's more from your areas to report, come back immediately and we'll take you to air.


This is CNN. We'll have more coverage of what's happening in the world in a moment, including a live report from the Israeli town where dozens of rockets have reportedly been fired, in a moment. This is CNN.


QUEST: And our breaking news tonight, there have been heavy exchanges of fire between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military. A 13 story tower has collapsed in Gaza following an Israeli airstrike. It's by no means clear if the building had been evacuated or if there are casualties.

And loud explosions have been heard in Tel Aviv over the past couple of hours. The Armed Wing (ph) of Hamas says its brigades targeted the city with 130 rockets. A bus was hit south of Tel Aviv, wounding several people - that includes a five year old.

Hadas Gold is in Ashkelon in Israel. The significance, Hadas, of where you are is that Ashkelon has been targeted over the last few hours with rockets. Tell me more.

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ashkelon has been targeted very heavily by rockets in the last few hours. We're actually standing in the lobby of a building that was hit directly by a rocket very early this morning.

Before 6 am there were at least six injured including one critically. We've been here all day, and Richard, I've lost count of the number of times that we've had to run into the bomb shelter which is just behind me.

We actually stepped out of the bomb shelter, Richard, where we were doing some of our lines (ph) because children are trying to go to sleep there - they're sleeping in the bomb shelters tonight. We're trying to give them some space, to give them some rest. But if we hear those air raid sirens, as we have been doing all day long, we will be going back into that shelter that is behind me.

And just around me in the lobby, we can see the remnants of that rocket attack. There are no - there's no glass in the windows to the lobby door here, but people are still living in this building. They are coming in and out of the bomb shelter as they hear the air raid sirens, some of them are staying in the bomb shelter.

And throughout the day we have been hearing not only those air raid sirens, but also planes flying overhead, some of them as far as we could tell going towards Gaza, some of them leaving Gaza - occasionally we'll also hear explosions in the distance.

And then, for a while, it seemed to be a pattern. We would hear an airplane high overhead, we would hear some explosions, and a few minutes later we would get an air raid siren and rockets would be headed our way, and this was repeating itself over, and over again.

And then later in the evening, as you noted, things really escalated because Ashkelon is pretty close to Gaza. And while they're not necessarily used to getting rockets - especially in the numbers we have seen in the last 24 hours, we're only about 10 kilometers away from the Gaza border.


But then rockets started being fired toward Tel Aviv. And as you noted, Hamas is claiming that 130 rockets were fired towards Tel Aviv. We do know that at one point the Ben Gurion Airport was shut down briefly. Air raid sirens and rockets being fired to Tel Aviv is a major, major escalation. Hamas -- Hamas knows that, and the Israeli military says that they are responding in kind.

QUEST: Hadas, thank you. Stay safe, and of course when there's more we'll -- we'll -- we'll come immediately to you to hear about it.

Around the world leaders are monitoring this conflict with great concern. And some have started publicly calling for calm. We'll be at the State Department in just a moment with CNN.


QUEST: Now let's talk about more about this with Danny Danon, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. He is with me from Tel Aviv via Skype. Ambassador, the situation is serious bordering on grave and there's no obvious way of de-escalating. How do you do it?

DANNY DANON, FORMER ISRAELI AMBASSADOR: So, first, we have to acknowledge the reality. Israel is under fire in the last day, 48 hours more than 700 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel in the last two hours, hundreds of rockets flew to the Tel Aviv area.

And everybody, millions of Israelis to run to seek shelter from those rockets and unfortunately we do have casualties. What we are doing now, we are defending our people.

We are retaliating, and I believe it will be a meaningful retaliation that will teach the liberty of (ph) Hamas not to threaten the well- being of the Israeli citizens. But I cannot give you a date when it will be finished. Where it -- now as we speak we are in the middle of the cycle. We are under attack, and we are defending ourselves.

QUEST: But the -- the extent of the defense that you're doing, I mean the pictures of the building in Gaza city collapsing; firing missile, a rocket straight with such ferocity that the Israeli military must've known -- well, did know that this was going to collapse a 13-story building.

DANON: Richard, this is only the beginning. We are determined to protect our citizens. We will continue to target headquarters of Hamas. What we are doing, we are actually warning the residents in those buildings to leave the building before because we don't want to see any civilian casualties.

But we are determined to teach Hamas a lesson. And it is unacceptable that we will have to live tonight in shelters. I have to take my two daughters tonight and sleep with them in a sheltered room like many Israelis tonight.

QUEST: Right.

DANON: This is unacceptable. So yes, I agree with you. But no one wants to see those pictures of the towers in Gaza being collapsed. But if that will be the price that the people of Gaza and the (inaudible) Hamas will have to pay, they will pay that price.

QUEST: Would Israel be better off in this situation if Donald Trump was still president versus Joe Biden?

DANON: No, I don't think it has to do with the administration in Washington. We do have the support of the U.S. and we thank them for standing with us in this crucial moment. We had to deal with Hamas when Donald Trump was in the White House and now when Biden is in the White House.

And don't look for logic, when you deal with a terrorist organization, you don't look for logic. [15:55:00]

Unfortunately, they incited -- they used the Temple Mount in order to incite violence again. And now there is no real reason for why we are in the middle of a clash today. But it's only because Hamas decided they wanted to do it.

QUEST: So we really are in a very serious situation. Hamas fires rockets on Ashkelon and parts of Israel. Israel responds and levels a third (ph) 12-story building. Hamas sends rockets to Tel Aviv tonight.

Israel, the prime minister says that, you know -- and you just basically made -- you know the policy better than anyone that this will not stand. And we are in the -- we are in the midst or you're in the midst of a massive escalation, and there's no easy or obvious way to -- to ramp it down.

DANON: It is unfortunate. And we have to deal with this issue every few years, unfortunately. You know it's not driven (ph) for us -- it's not well (ph) for us to say that we have to explain to our children what's happening and that we have to target those buildings in Gaza.

But we don't see any other choice because we are dealing with a radical organization. And we just heard their voices coming from Gaza. They claimed victory. They know they cannot win, but they are able to terrorize us. In order to prevent that we are fighting back.

QUEST: Ambassador -- former ambassador to the United Nations, sir, thank you. And I will say to both sides, I hope you and the family remain well.

And now the story's developing and it's developing quickly, as you can imagine. We will have full coverage of this form all sides and we will continue with the coverage as it becomes clear.

It's nighttime now in Israel, but our coverage doesn't stop because the news never stops. Neither do we. This is CNN.



QUEST: Good evening.