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Crisis in Israel; Ebola Fears; White House Condemns Shelling of U.N. Shelter

Aired July 30, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The White House slamming the strike on a U.N. school in Gaza, but not blaming Israel, at least not in so many words.

I'm Jake Tapper and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, the White House condemns the shelling of a U.N. shelter in Gaza without actually naming Israel and condemns those hiding weapons in U.N. buildings in Gaza without actually naming Hamas in this particular case, so sounding tough, but is it really just finger-wagging?

Also, the pro-Russian rebels accused of shooting down Flight 17 now accused of planting land mines around the crash scene. The danger is keeping investigators out, but not CNN.

And it's being called the worst outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus ever. Yet, the CDC says the risk to the U.S. population is low, but if a mere plane ride could bring Ebola here, are health officials downplaying the potential threat?

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

And we will begin with the world lead, a U.N. school used as a shelter for 3,000 Palestinians in Gaza crumbling at this hour after shelling the building killed at least 20 people with many more wounded, according to Palestinian health officials.

Now the Obama administration is speaking out, using some of its strongest language yet after all these weeks of fighting.


MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: We do condemn the shelling of an UNRWA school in Gaza which reportedly killed and injured innocent Palestinians, including children and U.N. humanitarian workers.

Of course, we would also condemn those responsible for those hiding weapons in the United Nations facilities in Gaza as well.


TAPPER: Interesting. You may have noticed what that initial statement from the State Department did not have in it, some key proper nouns, the Obama administration condemning those people hiding weapons at U.N. buildings in Gaza without accusing Hamas in this case, condemning the shelling of that school in Gaza without accusing Israel, even though the United Nations already has.

Reporters pressed the State Department today for more clarity on that one.


QUESTION: You are not ready to condemn Israel, per se, for the shelling of the school?

HARF: Correct. We have said that there needs to be a full investigation to see what happened here.

QUESTION: But you're condemning whoever it was that did it?

HARF: Correct.


TAPPER: The State Department is not willing to go there right now, but the U.N. is. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says -- quote -- "All available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause on the strike on the school."

Israel has not claimed or admitted responsibility, but its military did say that a group of Palestinian militants fired at Israeli soldiers fired from the area of the school and the Israeli soldiers returned fire. The State Department suggests that could fit Hamas' pattern.


HARF: Look, the reason that these civilians are unsafe is because Hamas has had a pattern of hiding weapons, of hiding fighters in these schools. So Hamas has put these civilians at risk.


TAPPER: But, it does not know for sure in this case of the school that was hit today.

So if you're striking U.N. shelters in Gaza or if you're hiding weapons in them, just know that the Obama administration condemns you, whoever you are.

Let's get to our own Wolf Blitzer, host of "THE SITUATION ROOM." He's standing by live in Jerusalem.

Wolf, in some ways, this is the strongest wording we have heard yet from the U.S. on this conflict and yet it was also very careful wording.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I think it was careful because the Israelis themselves are saying it could have been Israel. On the other hand, it could have been Hamas. The Israelis say they will investigate. They say there was, as you point out, there was some firing at Israeli troops and Israel responded in that general area.

They're not necessarily ruling out the possibility that it could have been Israeli fire that killed those people in that United Nations school. And you correctly point out that the United Nations is not mincing any words. They're saying directly it was Israeli ammunition, Israeli munitions that killed these people in that school and they're condemning Israel for it.

If you speak to U.N. officials here in the region, they're very, very blunt. In this particular case, unlike other cases, they're saying that Israel was responsible. They also, by the way, do acknowledge that there have been several cases where U.N. officials in Gaza have discovered Hamas weapons stored in U.N. schools and U.N. facilities.

They condemn that as well. So it's a tough, tough situation, but the U.S. is standing back and is not condemning Israel right now, in part because Israel says they will investigate who was responsible.

TAPPER: And, Wolf, this also comes at the same time that Israel has requested that the United States resupply Israel with ammunition.

BLITZER: This is a very sensitive issue. And the U.S. has said yes. The Obama administration has said yes to Israel's request. What a lot of people don't know is that for a long time the U.S. has had a huge stockpile of weapons kept in Israel for an emergency situation.

If there were a war, for example, and Israel was running short in munitions, the stockpile is there. It's controlled by the United States, but instead of having an emergency airlift to resupply Israel, which was the case in the 1973 war, the stuff is already here in Israel.

In this particular case, Israel said they need some more munitions. The U.S. said, fine, we will give it to you from the stockpile in Israel. This will cause some diplomatic problems, no doubt, political problems, for the U.S. even though most of the Israeli military, the F-16s, the F-15s, the tanks, are U.S.-supplied.

In the middle of a war -- and this is a war, by all accounts, right now -- for the U.S. to be resupplying Israel with munitions that potentially will kill not only Hamas, but also civilians in Gaza, this will cause some heartburn for the U.S. presumably because the U.S. will be blamed for a lot of that.

So it's a very, very sensitive issue, but the Obama administration said yes to Israel. The Israelis are obviously pleased about that.

TAPPER: Wolf Blitzer Jerusalem, we will see you again at the top of the hour. Thank you so much.

The United Nations said this is the sixth time that one of its schools now used to shelter thousands of Palestinians, the sixth time it has taken a direct hit in this conflict, although officials do not call these attacks on their compounds, because they say that would suggest purposeful targeting. Either way, the U.N. teams trying to help these people called the

latest incident a breaking point, but breaking for whom? Whom should be held responsible?

And joining me now is Chris Gunness. He's spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Chris, obviously, a horrific tragedy. The Israeli Defense Forces say they're investigating what happened. From their initial review, IDF says that Palestinian militants fired mortars at IDF soldiers from the vicinity of the school and they responded by firing at the origin, which hit the shelter. That's from the initial investigation.

Do you know anything about that? Were there shots fired from nearby?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS, UNRWA SPOKESMAN: Well, you would need to ask others than the humanitarian organization working round the clock inside the installation that was hit, because we have enough work to do inside installations.

We're not responsible for what happens outside them. Because if the Israeli army is saying that because there were militants around our school, that was justification for a direct artillery hit on a school which they had been notified by the U.N. contained 3,300 people, because we phoned them 17 times, 1-7, before the shell hit the school, and the last of those calls was at 10 to 9:00 last night, which was just hours before this fatal shelling.

TAPPER: Well, I'm not sure that they're saying that justifies hitting the school, but I'm just trying to provide the larger context here. If militants are firing from near a school does Hamas or whatever group the militants are with, Islamic Jihad, whoever, do they bear any responsibility, do you think?

GUNNESS: Well, international law requires that the parties to a conflict protect civilians.

And both Hamas and the Israeli army have that obligation. So they have an obligation to allow women and children to leave a conflict zone. So if there is an intention to attack a U.N.-designated school with a clearly marked U.N. blue flag on top of it, if there is an intention to attack that, then there are certain procedures to follow. You can't just strike it because you think there are militants nearby.

But, as I say, there are questions about proportionality. There are questions about distinction between combatants and noncombatants. And I suggest you put those to the Israeli army, because our initial investigation has found it was Israeli artillery that struck the school.

TAPPER: We have put them to the army and we will continue to, but the context, of course, for instance, yesterday, the third time in two weeks rockets were found in a U.N. school, according to your own organization. Does Hamas doing that, maintaining an operations bunker under a hospital, embedding with the public, hiding missiles in U.N. schools -- how big a role do you think that plays in the rising number of civilian casualties?

And as a representative of the U.N., do you resent militants putting rockets in your schools?

GUNNESS: We don't just resent it. We openly condemn it as a flagrant violation of our neutrality.

And just to be clear, we don't know -- and perhaps you have got better information -- we don't know that these are Hamas rockets. When we find them, they don't have a label saying these belong to Hamas on them. To be clear, we found these rockets in schools which had been mothballed and shut down for the summer, as many schools are in the world.

We found them in regular UNRWA inspections. And as soon as we found them, we notified all of the parties. We followed precisely the regulations that must be followed in case -- in such cases in U.N. humanitarian operations all around the world.

So we have followed the procedures absolutely to the letter. But the suggestion that because we have found three sets of caches of rockets inside our schools justifies the Israeli army doing what it did last night is unfathomable, and it certainly does not take full account of international law.

You cannot just blow, you know, fire or a rocket cannot simply strike a school just because there are militants around it. Civilians have to be protected during times of war. And there are rules and procedures in international law for doing that. And we call on the Israeli army to follow those.

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this particular incident, which was a serious violation of international law, but we condemn the other side as well when they have committed violations against us such as placing rockets in our schools. And we again call on the warring parties to respect the sanctity of civilian life, the inviolability of United Nations premises and property, and to respect their obligations to protect humanitarian workers under international humanitarian law.

TAPPER: Chris, just for clarity, I'm certainly not justifying any attack on civilians.

GUNNESS: Of course not.

TAPPER: I find it horrific and appalling how many civilians have died in this conflict.

Chris Gunness, thank you. We will continue to hope and pray for peace in that part of the world.

Coming up on THE LEAD: missiles continuing to rain down on Gaza as the death toll creeps up. And my next guest says Israel should continue its campaign for as long as necessary. But what about the innocent lives caught in the middle? We will ask him. Plus, Hamas quick to blame Israel for the deaths of those civilians,

so why won't Hamas agree or stick to any cease-fire that's been proposed? Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with the world lead now, the White House has put little, little wiggle room between itself and Israel when it comes to the fighting in Gaza, condemning the shelling of a U.N. shelter that was holding more than 3,000 Palestinians. At least 20 people were killed, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Now, the White House is not blaming Israel for the attack, at least not yet, but the United Nations says it was Israeli artillery that ripped through the building.

Could this be a sign of -- more of a public sign, that is, of a rift between the United States and Israel?

Joining me now is the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Michael, good to see you as always.

I want to get your reaction to the statement from the White House condemning the shelling school, a U.N. school, in Gaza, saying they're concerned to leave their homes, that Palestinians are being told by the Israeli military to their homes, while the U.N. has said there is nowhere safe for them to go.

This does seem like stronger language than we've heard in the past. What do you make of it?


Actually, I think it was a less than the language that was used yesterday. Yesterday, the White House said Israel could do more to limit the impact on the fighting of civilians, Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. The White House, I think showed restraint this evening by waiting to hear the outcome of the Israel army's investigation of this incident. In the past, people have rushed to blame Israel. It is not so certain that Israel's responsible for this time, but it turned out, the civilian casualties were caused by Hamas rockets that fell short.

So, I think it's important that everyone investigates it. Israel has the ability to investigate as Israel conducts this military campaign, it sits with the large staff of international lawyers or looking at the international law aspects of everything we do. Of course, mistakes happen in densely populated areas, with an enemy that is deeply dug in behind the civilian population and using that population as a human shield.

Military science is not an exact science, and it's as exact as we can do, and Israel tries to warn these Palestinian civilians to leave these areas, but if Hamas is shooting around them, then Israel has to also defend themselves.

TAPPER: But, Michael, if they're not even -- let's assume that, well, I know we don't know who specifically caused this yet definitively, but the U.N. says that it was Israeli artillery and the Israelis are not denying it and they're saying that there were militants around that area and they're providing almost a justification if it turns out to definitively be Israeli action. I guess the question is you have 3,000 Palestinian civilians in this U.N. shelter. I keep hearing people say, people advocating for Israel, that Israel warns them.

If they're not safe in a U.N. shelter, where are they safe? Is there anywhere in Gaza where innocent civilians can go?

OREN: I think it's a question you will have to address to Hamas because where the civilians are Hamas is going to fire from, because Hamas has a media strategy. It wants those terrible pictures up on the television set. It creates unrest throughout the world and it puts pressure on governments to condemn Israel and to put constraints in Israel so Israel can't defend itself by condemning us in the U.N.

This is what's happened again and again. This is a pattern, and I said publicly, this is a chance to break the pattern -- with all of the pain and the tragedy involved in it, if Hamas is not dealt a decisive defeat here, then the same pattern will repeat itself and the next round of fighting will be even worse because Hamas will have bigger rockets and deeper tunnels.

TAPPER: Michael, very quickly, if you would, you have said that Hamas needs to be crushed, but the former Israeli President Shimon Peres today said, quote, "Israel has exhausted the military option" and that Israel needs to find a diplomatic end to this. Is Peres wrong?

OREN: I'm not going take full issue with Shimon Peres to whom I have great regard, but right now there have been cease-fire talks in Cairo and Hamas has refused to attend the cease-fire talks because Hamas thinks it's winning. It thinks it's going to get gains out of this operation, that it's going to get international aid and recognition legitimacy through this operation -- very important, not only for Israelis, but for Palestinians and people throughout the entire region who are facing threats from organizations like ISIS, like al Qaeda, which are exactly the same, ideologically and theologically as Hamas and it's important for the united states. This time, Israel will be allowed to win.

TAPPER: Michael Oren, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Now, let's hear from the Palestinian side. Dr. Husam Zomlot is with the spokesman to the Palestinian delegation to the UNGA Palestinian Foreign Affairs Ministry.

It's so good to see you. You're coming to us from Ramallah on the West Bank.

What do you make of the White House condemning the shelling and expressing concern for loss of Palestinian life, while at the same time the U.S. has agreed to send more ammunition to the Israel Defense Forces?

HUSAM ZOMLOT, PALESTINIAN DELEGATION SPOKESMAN: Well, Jake, it's really the only word I can say is finally. Finally, the U.S. sees the Palestinian people as human beings, that the targeting of these civilians is a basic violation of our universal values and the international law and a dent to our humanity. I hope this will lead to a policy of the U.S. that would see things as is and will stop just supporting the Israeli narrative no matter what it is and I just heard the Israeli former ambassador again, blaming the victim.

Actually when I hear him and the Israeli spokespeople, I feel like the people in Gaza are being murdered twice -- the first from the Israeli bombardment and the second by the Israeli propaganda that it was them who were killed because they wanted to die. It was them who were after their death and as if raped women should not shout it has been raped, and saying that Israeli Defense Forces are into Gaza, invading Gaza in self-defense. But when the people of Gaza take any action to defend themselves it's terrorism and the Israelis only have security needs and the Palestinians have no security needs.

Jake, I am from Gaza. I was born in Gaza. I lived in the city. I lived in the city. I know every neighborhood. I know the families. I know the faces and all of the people.

What is happening is unjustified by any standard. You could not justify the absolute mayhem and destruction of entire neighborhoods.

TAPPER: Husam, let me just ask you, there was an Egyptian cease-fire proposal two weeks ago and it was rejected by Hamas, and as you know, yesterday, the Palestinian Authority put forward a cease-fire proposal, also rejected by Hamas. Is Hamas leading the people of Gaza toward certain death with these continual rejections of cease-fire proposals?

ZOMLOT: No, Jake, this is also misinformation. The only party that has been rejecting all cease-fires is Israel. It is the party that has been engaged in this aggression and this aggression is not against Hamas only, it is against the Palestinian people.

And this aggression did not start in Gaza, it started here in the West Bank, in Hebron, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah. They invaded all of our territories, they killed 11 Palestinian, mostly children, by the way. And in the West Bank, we have no rockets, we have no tunnels, yet the colonization of our land is unabated on a daily basis.

So, this has nothing to do only with the rockets and by the way, what is happening confirms our fears that this is an Israeli military doctrine, kill as many civilians so you put pressure on the political and military leadership of the militants.

TAPPER: But, Husam, can I just get some clarity --

(CROSSTALK) ZOMLOT: This is the 1,000th time and Israel has been founded -- let me finish this one -- Israel has been exercising this ever since it has been founded and not only in Palestine. In Palestine, in Lebanon, everywhere they just wreak havoc in the infrastructure. They go into the liquidation of the nation, of the people, of their --


TAPPER: Isn't it true that the Palestinian Authority yesterday --

ZOMLOT: And the only power house -- only power generated.

TAPPER: Isn't it true that the Palestinian Authority yesterday proposed a cease-fire and Hamas said no?

ZOMLOT: The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization has proposed a united Palestinian position. And this united Palestinian position goes like this: number one, Israel must end its aggression immediately, unconditionally because it started this war. By the way, it's always portrayed in the international media, especially sometimes the mainstream like yours, as if it's only the Palestinians who initiate violence and the Israelis, the poor Israelis react. It's untrue.

You know, one day before the Gaza war, there was a shelling of Gaza and one man lost his life and one child lost his life. It's always Israel who initiates violence and we, in a way or another, and some of these factions, react.

As for our position -- yes, Jake, we have proposed a Palestinian initiative and this initiative entails the following, immediate cessation of Israeli aggression, immediate end of Israeli draconian illegal siege that has gone for too long, seven years, that has sent gas into the dark ages. Very basic needs, Jake.

TAPPER: Right.

ZOMLOT: Very -- babies (AUDIO GAP) in Gaza for all these years, water, so it's about time to end this siege and our initiative even goes beyond.

TAPPER: But, Dr. Zomlot, and we're out of time.

My only point is you made this proposal and Hamas rejected it. So, that's not the only point, but I'm afraid we're out of time. We'll have you back again. Thank you so much for your time.

I wish you and I wish to Michael Oren, as well, peace in the region and I hope that your families, both your families stay safe.

When we come back, the rebels' new strategy to keep Flight 17 crash investigators out, land mines. It might be working on inspectors, but it's not working on our own CNN reporter who made it to the site hours ago. What he saw coming up.