Return to Transcripts main page


John Kerry Defends Middle East Diplomacy Moves; Strike Hits Gaza's Only Power Plant; Hamas Rejects Palestinian Truce Proposal; Proposed 24-hour Truce; Hamas Rejects Truce

Aired July 29, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting live from Jerusalem. I'd like to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

A new call for a cease-fire is rejected. The fighting is clearly intensifying. And Israel's prime minister is warning of a protracted campaign against Hamas.

Here are some of the latest developments. The Palestinian authority led by Mahmoud Abbas today called for a 24-hour truce that could be extended to 72 hours. But a Hamas official in Gaza quickly said Hamas has rejected the proposal. Another spokesman says Hamas is open to sending a Palestinian delegation to Egypt. A senior Israeli official tells CNN Israel is prepared for a cease-fire but nothing firm has been agreed upon.

A strike today hit Gaza's only power plant. Hamas television says the house of a senior political leader was also hit. And a radio station run by Hamas was also bombed. Medical officials in Gaza now say more than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed, 53 Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians have died.

In a news conference, the secretary of state of the United States, John Kerry, talked about preventing civilian deaths and he brushed aside criticism of his diplomatic efforts.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is not about me. This is about Israel and Israel's right to defend itself and our strong support for Israel's right to defend itself but about whether or not there is a way forward that could avoid the loss of soldiers for Israel and the loss of civilians in everywhere.


BLITZER: Israel has clearly stepped up its military offensive in Gaza. A Palestinian official says at least 40 percent of Gaza's fuel was burned in an Israeli strike on the only power plant. He says it will take at least a year to get the plant operating again.

Israeli officials including a spokesman for the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, just told me he's denying that Israel hit that power plant, suggesting that it may have been an errant Hamas missile.

Let's go to Karl Penhaul right now, he's joining us from Gaza City. So, Karl, how damaging is this stepped-up Israeli military offensive that we've seen right now? What does it mean for Palestinians living there in Gaza City where you are and elsewhere?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's absolutely devastating on a number of levels, Wolf. On the one level, you have thousands of -- 10s of thousands, in fact, and now displaced by the fighting in United Nation shelters alone, more than 180,000 people. And then, you know, we've seen these calls by the Israeli military by pamphlet (ph) or SMX text message for people that clear out of northern Gaza, that head to Gaza City where it should be safer. And then, of course, the uptick in violence here last night.

And so, that means in a lot of these ordinary apartment buildings, multiple families are crammed into one single building. And then you add to that the strike on the fuel storage tanks at the Gaza power plant. And the head of the power plant there told us he believes it was an Israeli tank shell that set those fuel tanks on fire. So, you've got power outages to most of the Gaza strip. If you look behind me, it's largely in darkness, apart from a few windows that appear to be lit by personal generators.

And added to that as well, also the water situation because the International Red Cross says part of that infrastructure has been hit and that is consistent with what we've seen in the streets. At some time, you see groups of neighbors digging down in the sidewalk to try to repair the water mains themselves. So, certainly, the civilian population bearing a huge brunt of this offensive -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Totally painful situation indeed. Explain the confusion because a top aide to the Palestinian authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, says all Palestinian factions have agreed to a 24-hour cease- fire that could be extended to 72 hours. But within minutes, Hamas, a spokesman in Gaza, says, not true. They haven't agreed to any cease- fire. They are willing to send a delegation, though, to Cairo. What's the latest on the Palestinian front? How divided do you see that the Palestinian authority might be from Hamas?

PENHAUL: Well, as you and I have seen over the last few days, Wolf, getting these cease-fires in place, even getting a fairly brief humanitarian pause in place is a delicate balance, because there are a number of terms and conditions that each side wants to be fulfilled. They each have a group that they wish to oversee such a cease-fire. And also, they don't want the other side to try and get any military advantage during that truce.

But in the latest round, it seems that perhaps the Palestinian authority and the west bank that doesn't see eye to eye with Hamas here in Gaza put forward the proposal. Maybe they were grandstanding Hamas here on the Gaza strip, weren't on board, then we heard from some of Hamas's international representatives that maybe they were on board and ready to explore it. And to be honest, right now, I think this is all still in the balance. It could come off. It may not come off. And even if it does come off, well, a big question, will it hold -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's just after 8:00 p.m. here in the Middle East. We'll see what happens now that it's getting dark. Yesterday, we saw what happened where you are, Karl. The skies were totally illuminated by Israeli flairs. We'll see what happens in the coming hours. Karl, stand by. Over there, Karl Penhaul, be careful.

Let's go to southern Israel right now. Sara Sidner on the ground for us right near the Gaza border. Sara, you're standing literally not very far in front of an Israeli iron dome anti-missile battery system. What is going on where you are right now?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we do know that sirens have gone off about four to five kilometers from where we are in southern Ashkelon. And so, we are listening to the sounds of helicopters above as well. We have not heard this particular anti-missile system going off here, the iron dome has been silent for the last few hours since we've been here. We do know, since midnight, that 30 rockets have come over the border. Those two sirens may be signaling more.

And as you know, when it starts to become dusk, when night starts to fall, it seems the action, both coming into Israel and going into Gaza, starts to really heat up. I also want to mention, Wolf, that though you're seeing sort of an empty field there and we have been seeing soldiers sort of practicing going through, holding their guns and walking through the field, we're also just behind our photographer, Dan.

There is a whole neighborhood here. We've been seeing people come out, talking to them. And they have told us they are absolutely sick of feeling terrified from the sounds, first of the sirens and sometimes the whistling of missiles. It's been going on for, now, 22 days. And they want it to be over. But they want it to be over for good. That is the sentiment of Israelis, especially those who are here on the border. They do not like to hear about civilians being killed in Gaza. They think that is terrible. But they are also very sick of feeling like they are targets. And they are just trying to go about their daily lives here on the border -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, we're going to get back to you. Stand by. Sara Sidner in Ashkelon right near the Gaza border. We'll take a quick break. More of the special coverage coming up here on CNN. I'll speak with the Israeli army's top military spokesman. We'll get a Palestinian perspective. Lots of news happening. Stay with us.


BLITZER: In the absence of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Israel is now warning of what the prime minister is calling a protracted campaign in Gaza which means the death toll on both sides almost certainly will go up.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, he's joining us once again right now. Colonel, thanks very much for coming in. A lot of concern. This power plant, the major power plant in Gaza, hit by a shell. Something -- was it the IDF responsible for blowing up that power plant?

LT. COL. PETER LERNER, SPOKESMAN, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCE: We've spoken a couple of times during the course of the day. I've gone through our air force, our navy, our ground forces on the ground. I haven't been able to determine that it was IDF activity. The power station definitely was not a target from the IDF point of view. We're still looking into it.

BLITZER: So, it's possible it could have been a mistake or it could have been what?

LERNER: It could have been an errant mortar on behalf of the Palestinians. We saw it happen yesterday with their rockets that they launched from -- within Gaza that actually struck Shifa Hospital and Shati refugee camp. So, that's a possibility. We haven't got that confirmation either way.

BLITZER: There was a report that a senior Hamas official was killed in one of these Israeli strikes. Is that true?

LERNER: Yes. We've -- our current activities are taking place on the entire scope of striking Hamas, striking the terrorist capabilities from the tunnel that is the easy infiltration into Israel, via the leadership, via the infrastructure of the organization itself. So, indeed, we are pursuing the organization. We are paralyzing its capabilities and the individual terrorists are feeling threatened.

BLITZER: Well, is there a name of a top Hamas official that was killed today?


BLITZER: Did you have a name, somebody you're familiar with? Because these reports out there that a top Hamas official may have been killed in one of these strikes.

LERNER: Not that I'm aware of.

BLITZER: The Finance Ministry was attacked as well. Was that Israel that went after the Hamas Finance Ministry in Gaza City?

LERNER: Well, clearly, when they are channeling hundreds and thousands of dollars and millions of dollars into this infrastructure of tunnels, specifically doing that -- you've seen these tunnels. They are -- that is a major project. That needs major money. Where is that coming from? It is the Hamas government building that infrastructure.

BLITZER: So, the Finance Ministry would be a legitimate target from the IDF's perspective?

LERNER: Absolutely.

BLITZER: So, that's why you hit it? That one you're confirming you did hit? LERNER: They're striking -- we're striking the infrastructure of the

organization, whether it's the internal security ministry or the treasury, they are all part of this. You know, it's a guise of a government but it's only governing terror.

BLITZER: Now it's dark. As you know, last night when it got dark, the skies over Gaza became illuminated with these Israeli flairs. Should we bracing for more of that tonight?

LERNER: Indeed. You know, the IDF is in the midst of a campaign. We are -- we'll continue with our campaign until we meet our goals. We have to stop the rocket fire. We've had more rockets out today. We have to sever the tunnels so that they cannot pose a threat. And we have to send a clear message to Hamas that terror does not pay. You cannot fight Israel. You cannot make a decision to attack the Israeli state. 75 percent of our country is under this threat today without consequences. So, they are paying for their bad, bad decisions.

BLITZER: How close are you to achieving those goals? Let's go through them one of them at a time -- one at a time. The tunnels, how close are you to eradicating tunnels going from Gaza into Israel?

LERNER: Well, we've advanced quite well over the last two weeks with the ground force activities. And, indeed, we have exposed over 30. And we are demolishing one by one, day by day. So, it is increasing every day, so that we can take that threat off of the table.

BLITZER: How many more are there?

LERNER: We assess that there are still some more that need to be dealt with. I don't want to go into specific figures because there are still chances that there are tunnels that we have no knowledge about but are already inside Israel, and this is a concern. We are operating in order to locate them.

BLITZER: What about missiles and rockets?

LERNER: The rocket capabilities that we've found, we've struck over 3,000 of these rockets to our knowledge. They've launched about 2,200 at Israel in the past three weeks. So our assessment is they've -- they're depleted around 60 percent of their capabilities.

BLITZER: So they still have how many?

LERNER: About 3,000, 4,000.

BLITZER: Three or four thousand. Still in various storage depot, facilities, underground, inside Gaza, is that what you're saying?

LERNER: Yes, absolutely. They have these capabilities. That is what they're doing. They are trying to maintain that capability to launch. And indeed, at 2:00 this morning here in Israel, Tel Aviv was again under fire from these long-range rockets.

BLITZER: What's the status of the Iron Dome anti-missile system that you have, which has worked so effectively? Do you have enough? Because I know you're seeking, what, another $225 million or so in U.S. assistance to pay for more of these anti-missile systems coming in. What's the status of the Iron Dome? Is it still in good shape as far as you're concerned?

LERNER: The Iron Dome is operational. It's saving Israeli lives every day.

BLITZER: Do you have enough material to deal with incoming rockets?

LERNER: Indeed. It is saving lives every day. We will be able to do so. We are confident that we can continue to operate with that.

BLITZER: All right, Peter Lerner, the lieutenant colonel, spokesman for the IDF. Thanks very much for coming in.

LERNER: It's a pleasure.

BLITZER: Much more coming up. So why did Hamas apparently reject a 24- hour truce with Israel proposed by the Palestinian Authority? I'll ask Khaled Elgindy. He's a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank. He's a scholar in Washington, D.C., right now. Much more of our news when we come back.


BLITZER: Hamas quickly batted down a proposed 24-hour cease-fire almost as soon as it was floated by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Khaled Elgindy is with the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He's a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. He's joining us now live.

Khaled, thanks very many for joining us.

So, why did it take - why did Hamas so quickly reject what the Palestinian Authority said was a deal for at least a 24-hour cease- fire that could have been extended to 72 hours? It didn't take very long for Hamas in Gaza to reject it. What's going on here?

KHALED ELGINDY, CENTER FOR MIDDLE EAST POLICY, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, I think just a quick point of clarification. The proposal that was put forward by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was actually on behalf of all PLO (ph) factions, as well as those factions that are outside the PLO, including Hamas and Islamic jihad. So it was a pan-Palestinian initiative that was put forward.

What that suggests, I think, is that there is internal division within Hamas, both between the political leadership outside of Gaza and those inside, as well as between the political wing and the military wing.

BLITZER: Well, so explain, because a lot of us are a little confused. Khaled Meshaal, who's the leader, the political leader of Hamas, where does he stand as far as a cease-fire, where does he stand as far as working together with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority?

ELGINDY: Khaled Meshaal has been really one of the more moderate voices in Hamas' leadership for a long time. He has been sidelined somewhat, particularly since the Egyptian coup last year, which has tended to embolden the hard-liners inside Gaza, including the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, as well as more hardline political leaders. So he's still officially the head of the political bureau of Hamas, but he, being on the outside, he has less control over actual decision making operationally on the ground.

BLITZER: Because he's in Doha, Qatar. He's not in Hamas. So what I hear you saying is that Khaled Meshaal, other political leaders in Hamas, they might be willing to go along with a cease-fire, one put forward by the Palestinian Authority, presumably supported by Egypt. But the military wing that's actually doing the fighting, launching the missiles, doing the infiltration through the tunnels, and Islamic jihad, they're not yet ready to accept a cease-fire, is that right?

ELGINDY: Well, I don't know about Islamic jihad, but I think, you know, there's at least the possibility that there is an internal division. And the lack of ability to communicate a single message I think is a sign of that. So I think the situation's also very, very fluid. And so it may be a question of timing. It may be a question of posturing. I think we'll know more as far as the status of this cease- fire proposal in the, you know, hours and that -- ahead. But it's very hard to say now. I'm just putting forward a theory that it's -- it likely points to this internal rift within Hamas.

BLITZER: So there's a serious rift within Hamas. By the way, we're hearing here in Jerusalem, we're hearing some sirens going off. There's some - I think I heard an Iron Dome go off as well. The fact that Hamas keeps launching rockets and missiles into Israel, what do you think their point is? What are they trying to achieve?

ELGINDY: Well, I mean, right now they actually have a fair amount of support from the Palestinian public, both inside Gaza and the West Bank. I think what they are desperate to avoid is a return to the status quo ante, the way things were before everything -- you know, before this current crisis in which everybody stops fighting but we return to the blockade that existed before. And there's no change in that. I think Hamas feels that their leverage, as far as getting the blockade lifted, which Palestinians support universally, the only leverage they have is while there's fighting, unfortunately. So I think they're trying to improve the position in terms of ending this seven-year blockade on the Palestinian people in Gaza, which has really had a devastating impact on normal life.

And I think it's important to point out that this is not a blockade purely on smuggling weapons. This is a blockade that is essentially punitive. That keeps Palestinians from exporting, from even going abroad to study or pursue a basic normal life inside Gaza. So that is their primary objective.

BLITZER: And the objective of these tunnels that have been built going from Gaza into Israel, I understand the tunnels going from Gaza into Egypt, that was used for smuggling all sorts of supplies, also smuggling weapons. What's the point of building these I guess at least 30 or 40 or 50, we don't even know how many, of these tunnels that go into Israel, why would -- what would be the objective of Hamas to do that? I went down into one of them yesterday.

ELGINDY: Yes, I mean, I think it's part of the, you know, the context of all of this is that there is the blockade, but there's also a 66- year conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that is still unresolved. And as long as these immediate grievances, like the blockade, like the continued occupation and so on, go unresolved, then Hamas will continue to find ways to rearm, as well as pose a threat to Israel. So simply removing materially or physically, you know, elements of that threat without addressing the actual sources of the conflict I think misses the point. And so clearly - I mean to answer your question, the goal is -- or the objective of these tunnels is to continue to pose a threat to Israel. And, you know, I think it sort of points to the futility of kind of the military option that Israel has always favored.

You know, a lot of this is kind of deja vu. In 2008, early 2009, we went through this same procedure. We heard a lot of the same talking points about ending the threat posed by Hamas rockets and so on and so forth. And what happened since then? Since then, Hamas has rearmed the sophistication of its rocket capabilities has increased. And now there are new threats. And that is because it was only -- that cease-fire arrangement was only a matter of silencing the guns, not addressing the underlying issues. And I think that's a mistake that should not be repeated.

BLITZER: Khaled Elgindy joining us from Washington. Khaled, thanks very much for that analysis.

ELGINDY: Thank you.

BLITZER: When we come back, the secretary of state, John Kerry, he's responding now to a lot of the criticism he's getting for his failure to achieve a cease-fire when he was here in the region the other day. Stand by for that.