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Crisis in Israel; Is Israel Holding Back n Ground Invasion?; Holder: "It's More Frightening Than Anything"

Aired July 14, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The U.S. may now wade into the middle of exploding tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Can it make a difference for the better?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, negotiating a cease-fire. Secretary of State John Kerry may travel to the Middle East in the hopes of putting the conflict on a time-out. Will Hamas or the Israeli government listen?

The national lead. He says it's more frightening than practically anything else he has seen as attorney general. What has Eric Holder so scared and what can be done to stop it?

Also in national news, "I'm about to die," the words of a passenger on a plane making an emergency landing on a tiny island, the panic inside the cabin caught on tape. What on earth forced this plane down?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the world lead and the horror show that we're seeing is unfold in the Middle East, specifically in Gaza. In the coming days, Secretary of State John Kerry may travel to the Middle East, according to U.S. officials, in the hopes of laying the groundwork for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza, which the U.S. has also labeled a terrorist organization.

Kerry has been trying to head off the type of deadly escalation we are seeing now since he became America's top diplomat nearly a year ago. After meeting with negotiators from both sides, Kerry said this:


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months. We all understand the goal that we're working towards, two states living side by side in peace and security.


TAPPER: Nine months, a decades-long, perhaps even-centuries old conflict solved in nine months. If it sounded too ambitious at the time, it was. This time, if Kerry makes the trip, officials tell CNN that he will visit Egypt and Qatar to try to get those countries to exert influence over Hamas. No visit to Israel is planned.

Egypt has already called for a cease-fire within the last few hours. In Gaza, the death toll is at least 185, according to Palestinian Authority; 70 percent of those are civilians, according to the United Nations. The death toll in Israel is zero.

Some Israel supporters suggest the media is making too much of those lopsided numbers, as if the media wants Israelis killed. Not at all. It is a simple fact to state that Israel has the advantage both offensively and defensively. The job of the media is to question whether all this killing is overkill, especially since so many of those killed are innocents, many of them children.

But we will also note the lack of Hamas-inflicted casualties is hardly for lack of trying. Militants in Gaza are firing rockets like this every few minutes into Israel. They're just not nearly as advanced or accurate as Israeli airstrikes. Israeli forces are also massing along the Gaza border, but the White House doesn't want to see Israel invade.


JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Not just the United States, but people around the world I don't know would have some hesitation about a ground offensive by the Israelis, is that it would put at risk even more civilians.


TAPPER: Israel has the Iron Dome to protect it, a missile defense system partially funded by the United States. While effective, it is not foolproof, which is why air raid sirens are becoming a constant din on the Israeli side.

Among those who have had to take cover, our own CNN team there on the ground. You're looking right now at Wolf Blitzer, host of "THE SITUATION ROOM," ducking behind a car door as shots ring out in Israel not far from the Gaza border.

Wolf Blitzer is now standing by in Jerusalem for us.

Wolf, what are you hearing about this cease-fire that Egypt is proposing?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I just read the transcript, the actual text of this Egyptian proposal. They put it out, their Foreign Ministry.

And they say it will go into effect if the two sides, Israel and Hamas, agree at 6:00 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time tomorrow morning. They have got a specific plan. Israel stops its airstrikes, any opportunity for ground invasions. Hamas stops all rocket and missile launchings into Israel. They deal with some of the other issues that have been on the table, like expanded opportunities for people to come in and out of Gaza, for example, through Israel. I didn't see any references of expanded opportunities for people to

come in and out of Gaza through Egypt. That Rafah border has been pretty much shut down for a while as well. But let's see if this Egyptian proposal gets off the ground. Egyptians had much better relations with Hamas under the late -- the former president, I should say, Mohammed Morsi, who is now in prison.

The relationship today is not great. Qatar has a much better relationship. They're involved. That would explain why Kerry would be going to Egypt and Qatar and maybe he will be coming to Jerusalem at some point to meet with the prime minister of Israel. But the U.S. doesn't deal with Hamas. Israel doesn't deal directly with Hamas. They only deal indirectly through airstrikes and rocket launches coming into Israel.

TAPPER: All right, Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem, thank you and stay safe.

Israel has said no cease-fire until the rocket attacks from Gaza stop. Israeli airstrikes have been taking out what it insists are targets in Gaza for days. One of those attacks took out a center for the disabled in Gaza. Another killed 18 members of the same family. A 12-year-old boy survived that strike. The boy has sworn to avenge his family, he tells ITV News, the seeds of this long unresolved conflict sown into the next generation.

Our senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is standing by live in Gaza.

Ben, the civilians of Gaza have paid the highest price so far in this conflict.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, there's no question about it. The evidence is in the hospitals here and in the graveyards.

Now, regarding that Egyptian proposal, we have heard from one representative of Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, who is a spokesman, who said that there will be no cease-fire until the resistances, and that of course means Islamic Jihad and Hamas, their conditions are met. That's not a very good start for this Egyptian proposal.

If things continue as they are, the future in Gaza is going to look grim.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): It's a scene repeated hundreds of times in Gaza over the last week, a house blown to bits in an Israeli air raid, its contents blasted into the road. No one was hurt this time here in Jabalia in Northern Gaza.

(on camera): The house next door was hit 20 minutes ago. They received a three-minute warning. The problem is, OK, the house next door might be a target,but this one wasn't. And half of it is destroyed. (voice-over): The neighbor, Mohamed Abu Hassan, says there was no

unusual activity in the house and like many here, he doesn't understand why he and his family are being punished. "My son isn't even here," he tells me it. "He's working in Libya. Only his wife is here. Is she fighting Israel? This is tyranny."

When we left that house, we saw another one being hit. In Shasaiyah (ph), near Gaza City, 20-year-old Mohamed Al-Batsh prays at the grave of his father and 17 others who were killed in an Israeli airstrike Saturday evening, the bloodiest single strike since Israel launched its offensive against Gaza.

He recalls he had a strange premonition the first day of the war. "I looked at my father's face. He looked strange," he recalls. "I went to my room, closed the door. I knew he would die. I put my head on the pillow and cried for my father and all the other people who would die."

There may be more to it than that, however. His father, Nahad (ph) Al-Batsh, was a leader in Hamas' military wing, and in the compound where the extended family lives, we found what looked like reinforced tunnels.

While the war rages on with no end in sight, many in Jabalia are busy with what passes for ordinary life here, lining up at a United Nations center to receive their rations, flour, rice, cooking oil and sugar. Rations like these make the difference between survival and starvation in this impoverished sliver of land, stuck between poverty and war with no way out.


WEDEMAN: And, Jake, at this point, after seven days of this back-and- forth rocket fire and airstrikes, people are increasingly angry at the fact that there's been such a high civilian death toll, but they're also very exhausted, and I know that many Palestinians here in Gaza would welcome the cease-fire.

TAPPER: Ben, the big question of course is what's to prevent the cease-fire from dissolving and the violence from breaking out again, as we have seen time and time again in this part of the world?

WEDEMAN: Not much.

I mean, we have seen this before, as you said, 2009, 2012. They worked out a cease-fire. Things were calm for a while, but really it was -- the situation became -- went full circle. And it all happened again. There's no guarantee. Unless there is some sort of resolution of this century-long conflict -- and mr. Kerry's tried that already, as you mentioned -- this will probably happen again.

I was speaking to a Palestinian friend just a little while ago. I said, yes, it's probably two or three years. He said, no, no, two or three months -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ben Wedeman in Gaza, thank you so much. And stay safe. Let's bring in former CENTCOM commander and U.S. special Middle East

envoy, retired U.S. General Anthony Zinni.

General Zinni, great to see you as always.

So, Secretary Kerry may go to Egypt and Qatar to find partners or they to find them to work on negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest says there's a desire to maximize our leverage. Is there really anything the United States can bring to this process?


First of all, I think we're the only ones that have any leverage with Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think it's important for him to maximize the number of people and nations that have leverage on Hamas. It's not just Qatar and Egypt.

I think he has to bring in the Arab League, Jordan, certainly Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. I think that would help maybe assure in Israel's eyes that Hamas is answerable to somebody for whatever they agree to.

I don't think just Egypt will do it this time or just Egypt and Qatar. And I think it's going to have to be structured in such a way that it will have to be a mutual agreement as to when it stops, and there will have to be some sort of follow-on as to maybe monitoring or other things to assure this isn't just a respite as Israel feels for Hamas to maybe resume rocketing in the short-term.

TAPPER: As I mentioned, you were a Middle East envoy in 2002-2003. You have worked with the Palestinians and Israelis on trying to find a path to peace. You said at the time you stepped down that it was naive to ask for a cease-fire with groups classified as terrorists and it was needed for the Palestinian Authority to clash with those groups to show them that terrorism was not the way. That was 2013 -- I'm sorry -- 2003, a long time ago.

Now here we are. Obviously, Hamas and Fatah have a partnership. Do you think it's naive to try to achieve a cease-fire with Hamas, essentially one of the groups that you said it was naive to try to achieve a cease-fire with 11 years ago?

ZINNI: I think what has happened in the past is groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad , Al-Aqsa Brigades and those groups, they controlled the peace process. The more violence they could promote, the less likely the peace process would continue.

I think what has to happen is, you have to have a peace process that isn't dependent upon violence to continue. I think Secretary Kerry was naive to say nine months. You have to establish a permanent presence and working groups on the ground to work this out for as long as it would take.

And, unfortunately, on both sides for those that want peace, you're going to have to work through the violence. And, eventually, I think this appealed to the people on both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, to reject those that are promoting violence, that's the only way you're going to get through this because it will always be violence in control if you don't do something like that.

TAPPER: What do you say to the Palestinian activists who say there is nothing for the people of Gaza but violence? They see no other way out. There is obviously -- Israel with drew from occupying Gaza, but there's been a blockade. They live in poverty. Egypt is certainly no help. Isn't there a question about the conditions these individuals live in that needs to be addressed before anything can really happen in terms of peace?

ZINNI: Absolutely.

One of the opportunities I feel we missed is when Arafat left the scene and Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, came in. That was a moment when I think that we, the United States, European Union and others, could have offered things, developed schools, clinics, investment in the areas and that might have enabled the people to support Fatah and reject Hamas.

But we missed that opportunity. I think the violence that occurred while I was out there, the bombing of the Passover feast, of the Israeli families and other things just made it not an opportune moment. Our own administration was exhausted and not interested in following through.

I think as part of any peace package, this sort of reconstruction in investment, humanitarian work that you suggest needs to be part of that. That's the only way you're going to get the people to reject the more violent movements. Maybe encourage movements like Hamas a la the IRA to transition into some sort of political process and reject violence.

TAPPER: General, I want to ask you about this development. The Israeli military says they have destroyed a Hamas drone. Are you surprised Hamas has drones? How significant is this development? Where are they getting drones from?

ZINNI: Well is, my guess is Iran. But it depends on the level of technology. You know, a drone could be anything that a model airplane builder could put up. I don't know what the sophistication of that particular drone was or happened to be. But I'm sure that level of technology would have to come from some place like Iran if it's anywhere near the sophistication level beyond just a simply operated system.

TAPPER: We've been saying for days now that Israel could start a ground invasion any moment. This operation has been going on for nearly a week. What is stopping Netanyahu from ordering that ground invasion?

ZINNI: Well, first of all, mobilizing 40,000 reservists, getting them into position, getting plans done, when that process is finished, then I think you're on a time clock because you know, it's use it or lose it. That gets very expensive. People are away from their jobs. You can't keep 40,000 people in a population that size occupied doing nothing in the military.

So, I think there's a sense of urgency I think for Secretary Kerry. I don't think it will be too long after that point's reached when they're already that that decision will be made. If there's no ceasefire that's acceptable, then the temptation may be to go for it. It would be extremely bloody. House to house fighting in the most densely populated part of the earth will result in casualties on both sides but particularly the civilian population of Gaza will suffer greatly, I'm sure.

TAPPER: And, lastly, General, if you could truth-squad this for us a little bit, as somebody who worked in that region and had relationships with both Israelis and Palestinians, we're seeing a lot of civilian casualties in Gaza. Israel says they do everything to avoid them but Hamas embeds with the population. They use human shields.

There's also the fact that it is one of the most densely populated areas in the country -- in the world, rather. And if you drop bombs, you're going to kill innocent people.

Why are so many innocent civilians in Gaza dying?

ZINNI: Well, just for the reasons you mentioned. It's so tightly packed. There's little place for them to go even when this he get warnings and told to leave. Hamas obviously uses human shields and operates out of buildings that have families in them.

So, for all those reasons, you know, the sophistication of the Israeli weapons only goes so far when you bomb a building, you can't be sure who's all in it and you can't be sure the bombs are going to be completely 100 percent accurate.

So, you have this sort of potential for a high civilian casualties, and in the end, it's the poor innocents that are suffering as a result of this. I take you back to the time when we bombed Kosovo, which went on for almost 70 days. And after awhile, NATO and Europe and others, we had some -- we bombed the Chinese embassy by mistake and a few other civilian casualties. Pretty soon, the pressure becomes to back off.

Even though I hear Prime Minister Netanyahu saying he will not buckle to international pressure, I think you get to the point where that becomes overwhelming if it's disproportionate.

TAPPER: You see these images of four-year-olds and individuals from a disabled center. It's just horrific. You'd think that there would be some pressure at some point that he would feel. General Zinni, thank you so much.

Coming up next, if there's a scarier threat, the nation's top cop does not believe he's seen it during his whole time in office, what has Eric Holder so frightened? And someone might want to remind them they're both in the same party.

Why two potential 2016 contenders are taking very public slaps at one another.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In the national lead now, it's like mixing ammonia and bleach. U.S. intelligence suggests a toxic combination of two very dangerous groups, bomb makers from Yemen joining forces with foreign fighters who have infiltrated Syria to support violent rebel factions in the ongoing war inside Syria.

Attorney General Eric Holder did not mince words about it, calling this team up from hell more frightening in some ways than anything he has seen since taking office.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, Holder expanded on his fears during an appearance today.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. In fact, what he is saying is reflective of what U.S. officials in the counter- terrorism community have been saying, Jake. And the bottom line is that they're more worried right now than ever. And that worry is growing more every day about this perfect storm as you point out of terrorism developing with al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, teaming up with foreign fighters in Syria.

The Justice Department's top national security official tell CNN that right now, the government has more on its plate than ever to prevent jihadi trained American and European citizens with easy visa access from launching an attack in the U.S.


BROWN (voice-over): U.S. national security officials tell CNN it's a top priority, the threat of U.S. and European citizens trained in jihad overseas and returning to their homeland.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: This is a very real thing. Just last month, we saw the first American became a suicide bomber. So, this is not a theoretical problem that we are dealing with.

BROWN: U.S. officials say there are some 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria. Of that, about 3,000 coming from Europe and around 100 are Americans. The Justice Department's top national security official John Carlin tells CNN in an exclusive interview the government is actively monitoring Americans who have gone overseas.

JOHN CARLIN, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: Keep track of them and make sure that we are able to observe, disrupt them before they can come back to the United States or Europe to cause harm.

We've already brought nearly a dozen cases against foreign fighter individuals. And unfortunately, I expect that number to grow.

BROWN: Adding to their concern, those that are harder to keep track of.

HOLDER: A major concern of ours are those people who come from other parts of the world who can travel freely within say the European Union and who have the ability to come to the United States without visas.

BROWN: Adding to this clear and present danger, masteral (ph) kind of bomb makers in Yemen teaming up with terrorists in Syria, a deadly combination.

CARLIN: For those thinking about traveling abroad to join with terrorist groups, I would like them to know that don't do it. You're going to end up in jail or dead. It's not a step that you should take.

BROWN: And then there's ISIS, a terrorist group that split from al Qaeda, busy commandeering Iraq and Syria at least for now.

HOLDER: I think it's just a matter of time before they start looking outward, and start looking at the West and at the United States in particular.


BROWN: Officials are so concerned about the growing terrorism threat, they're stepping up security at airports abroad for direct U.S. flights and even here at home for passengers. Sources telling CNN that this is partly in response to intelligence revealing a new capability by bomb makers who have devised bombs that can fit into electronic devices like cell phones and laptops. That's why they're having these passengers overseas and some here at home turn on their cell phones and laptops and other devices before boarding a plane.

TAPPER: Yes, make sure it's charged.


TAPPER: Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, a terrifying United Airlines flight ends with a forced landing on a remote island. But were warning signs ignored that should have kept the plane grounded?

And later, Cleveland has not been this hot since Drew Carey made a TV show about it. We'll tell you why Cleveland actually indeed rocks in our money lead.