Full transcript of "Face the Nation," May 12, 2024


On this “Face the Nation” broadcast, moderated by Margaret Brennan: 

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken 
  • Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas 
  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland 

Click here to browse full transcripts of “Face the Nation.”   


MARGARET BRENNAN: I’m Margaret Brennan in Washington.

And this week on Face the Nation: America’s relations with Israel face a serious stress test amid accusations that the ally likely violated international law in its war with Hamas.

Israel has issued additional evacuation orders for the million Palestinians who are either residents or refugees from the north now living in Southern Gaza. Hundreds of thousands have fled the region in the last week, as Israeli Defense Forces step up their ground campaign against Hamas in the city of Rafah.

Plus, the strain between America and one of its closest allies intensifies, as President Biden takes drastic measures to head off a full-blown Israeli invasion of Rafah. Prime Minister Netanyahu says, if they have to, Israel will go it alone.

We will talk to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and two key senators, Arkansas’ Tom Cotton and Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen.

Finally, saving Specialist Sckak’s mother, a story about how a group of special operations veterans helped a fellow serviceman’s family get their mother out of war-torn Gaza.

It’s all just ahead on Face the Nation.

Good morning, and welcome to Face the Nation.

We are learning more about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, as thousands are fleeing what was once a safe zone, the southern city of Rafah. The challenges facing the Biden administration from a diplomatic standpoint continue to grow too.

Although the U.S. supports Israel’s right to retaliate against Hamas for the brutal October 7 attack that killed more than 1,200 people, there are deep concerns about the Palestinian death toll, as even Prime Minister Netanyahu conceded that his forces have in fact killed more civilians than members of Hamas.

We begin this morning with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who joins us from the State Department.

Good morning, Mr. Secretary. I know military experts say Gaza is as complicated and challenging a battlefield as any modern warfare has seen.

But, back in December, President Biden said Israel conducted indiscriminate bombing. In February, he said Israel’s offensive was over the top. And then, this past week, he was asked on CNN about pausing the delivery of 3,500 bombs. Here’s what he said.

(Begin VT)

JOE BIDEN (President of the United States): Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers.

I made it clear that if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem.

(End VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, is Israel living up to international humanitarian law standards?

ANTONY BLINKEN (U.S. Secretary of State): Well, first, Margaret, good morning.

The report that – that we put out lays out some of the concerns that we’ve had throughout this period when it comes to humanitarian assistance, particularly the early months after October 7, and, when it comes to the use of weapons, concerns about incidents where, given the totality of the damage that’s been done to children, women, men, it was reasonable to assess that, in certain instances, Israel acted in ways that are not consistent with international humanitarian law.

It’s also critical to note that Israel itself has accountability processes to get at this. There are hundreds of ongoing inquiries looking at different incidents that have taken place since October 7. There are criminal investigations that are going forward.

Unlike most other countries in the world, Israel has the ability, the means and the actions to self-correct. But we’ve been on this every single day.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, you have been able then to conclude that Israel has violated U.S laws and weapons-sharing agreements?

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: No, what we’ve concluded is, in the case of the – the use of weapons, as you said, this is an extraordinarily complex military environment, in which you have an enemy, Hamas, that committed the most atrocious terrorist attacks on Israel on October 7 and then retreats to Gaza, hides behind and underneath civilians, in hospitals, schools, mosques, apartment buildings.

And that makes it very difficult to determine, particularly in the midst of war, exactly what happened and to draw any final conclusions from any one incident. So, we have a number of incidents that we continue to look at to try to get the best possible assessment. The Israelis themselves are doing the same thing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: Our assessments will be ongoing.

But, as I said, given the totality of what we’ve seen, in terms of civilian suffering, in terms of children, women, men caught in this crossfire Hamas is making who’ve been killed or been injured, it’s reasonable to assess that, in a number of instances, Israel has not acted in a manner that’s consistent with international humanitarian law.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So – so, I understand you’re still collecting evidence.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: That’s right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But, on the policy, can you clarify? Because even the lead Democrat on House Armed Services says it’s not clear.

Is the U.S slowing down the delivery of any weapons to Israel at this point beyond the 3,500 so-called dumb bombs?

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: As you know, Margaret, most of the population from Gaza displaced from the north and from Central Gaza has gone to Rafah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: There are about 1.4 million people there. And we said to Israel that we cannot, will not support an operation in Rafah, a major military operation, in the absence of a credible plan to protect civilians.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And they still haven’t delivered it.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: We haven’t seen that plan. We have not seen that plan.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So – so, are you slowing the delivery of any weapons beyond these 3,500 bombs? Are you pausing, for example, precision munitions, as some Republicans have claimed?

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: Right. The answer to that – the answer that is no.

What the President said and what he’s been clear about in private conversations with the Israelis, which, unfortunately, leaked to the press – so the president responded forthrightly when he was asked about it. But what we’ve been clear about is that, if Israel launches this major military operation into Rafah, then there’s certain systems that we’re not going to be supporting and supplying for that operation.

But, at present, the only thing that we’ve delayed and are holding back are these high-payload bombs, because we’re in an ongoing conversation with Israel, given the impact that those weapons can have when they’re used in densely populated areas, including an area like Rafah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you still might deliver them?

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: So we’re in an active conversation with Israel about that. We have real concerns about the way they’re used.

But here’s something else that is critically important, Margaret. We believe two things. One, you have to have a clear, credible plan to protect civilians, which we haven’t seen.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: Second, we also need to see a plan for what happens after this conflict in Gaza is over. And we still haven’t seen that, because what are we seeing right now?

We’re seeing parts of Gaza that Israel has – has cleared of Hamas, where Hamas is coming back…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: … including in the North, including in Khan Younis.

As we look at – at Rafah, they may go in and have some initial success, but at – but potentially at an incredibly high cost to civilians, but one that is not durable, one that’s not sustainable.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: And they will be left holding the bag on an enduring insurgency, because a lot of armed Hamas will be left, no matter what they do in Rafah.

Or if they – if they leave and get out of Gaza, as we believe they need to do, then you’re going to have a vacuum, and a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, by anarchy, and ultimately by Hamas again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: So, we’ve been working for many, many weeks on developing credible plans for security, for governance, for rebuilding. We haven’t seen that come from Israel.

We’ve been working with Arab countries and others on that plan.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: We need to see that too. We have the same objective as Israel. We want to make sure that Hamas cannot govern Gaza again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well…

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: We want to make sure it’s demilitarized. We want to make sure that Israel gets its leaders.

That’s what we’re determined to do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: We have a different wad and, we think, a more effective, durable way of getting that done.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well…

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: We remain in conversation with Israel about exactly that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, your national security memorandum that you signed says Israeli civilian harm mitigation efforts are – quote – “inconsistent, ineffective and inadequate.”

The prime minister himself said Israel assesses the IDF killed 14,000 terrorists and 16,000 civilians. Does the U.S. share the Israeli assessment that more civilians have been killed than actual terrorists?

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: Yes, we do.

And I think the report makes clear that, while Israel has processes, procedures, rules, regulations to try to minimize civilian harm, given the impact that this operation, this war in Gaza has had on the civilian population…

MARGARET BRENNAN: And yet you’re still surging weapons to Israel.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: … that those have not been – those have not been applied consistently and effectively.

There’s a gap between the stated intent and some of the results we’ve seen. But, because it’s so complicated, in the midst of a war, and particularly in the midst of a war where you have an enemy that hides in civilian infrastructure, hides behind civilians, to make final determinations on these individual incidents, we’re looking at the totality of what’s happened.

We think it’s reasonable to assess, based on what’s happened, that there have been acts that have been inconsistent with Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law. But we haven’t drawn definitive conclusions. We need to pursue these investigations, just as Israel is doing itself.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time this morning.

SECRETARY ANTONY BLINKEN: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Face the Nation will be back in one minute. Stay with us.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we’re back now with Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton.

Senator, welcome back to the program.

SENATOR TOM COTTON (R-Arkansas): Thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You just heard Secretary Blinken explain the administration’s policy. He says Hamas absolutely does not abide by international law. Israel is inconsistent with international humanitarian law, but he stopped short of saying they’re violating weapons-sharing agreements.

Does this make sense to you?

SENATOR TOM COTTON: No, it doesn’t make any sense at all, Margaret.

It sounded like a bunch of weaselly, mealymouthed politics. He said it’s reasonable to assess.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: He said that like three or four times. It’s like he was coached to say that, as if it was some magic talisman to help them walk the political line they want between the pro-Hamas wing of their party and the vast pro-Israel majority of the American people.

The report that they put out Friday night, after news deadlines passed, was very clear. There is no evidence that Israel is violating international law. All civilian casualties in Gaza are solely the responsibility of Hamas.

In fact, Israel’s probably doing more than any military in history to avoid civilian casualties.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, actually, it says: “The U.S. intelligence community notes security forces in Israel have inflicted harm on civilians in military or security operations potentially using U.S. provided equipment. U.S. assesses Israel could do more to avoid civilian harm.”

So, it doesn’t say they’re not doing it. It says they can’t, for some reason, come to a clear conclusion.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: It – Secretary Blinken’s own – no, Secretary Blinken’s own report says there’s no evidence, that they can’t reach that conclusion.

Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agrees that the report says there is no evidence.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: In fact, he also says that Joe Biden was wrong to impose this de facto arms embargo on Israel.

Again, Israel is doing more than any military in history, in all likelihood, to prevent civilian casualties. If Hamas did not hide behind and under civilians, there would no – there would not be civilian casualties.

For that matter, if Hamas simply surrendered and turned over all these hostages…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: … there would be no more civilians suffering in Gaza.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Which is what President Biden says as well.

But I – I mean, I know you’re a lawyer. You went to Harvard Law. You were an Army officer. You deployed to Iraq. You deployed to Afghanistan. It has to trouble you when the Israeli prime minister says himself that they killed more civilians than terrorists…

SENATOR TOM COTTON: It troubles…

MARGARET BRENNAN: … thousands more civilians than terrorists.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: It troubles me deeply that Hamas is using those civilians as human shields, because that is their strategy.

Remember – Margaret, remember…

MARGARET BRENNAN: So should U.S. – but – but to that point, though, because the United States provides billions of dollars in weapons to Israel, should it have a say in how those weapons are used?

Because the – the needle Blinken seemed to be trying to thread here was to say it was very specifically tailored in terms of withholding these large bombs, the 3,500 bombs.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Well, the reason Israel needs these larger bombs is because Hamas has buried tunnels – or they’re holding hostages and where its leaders are holed up deeply underground.

They’re also potentially delaying the kits that allow these so-called dumb bombs to become smart precision bombs.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The JDAM kits that they’re reviewing.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: And – and, apparently – and, apparently, based on reports this morning, the administration even says they’re withholding intelligence about the location of senior Hamas leaders and, therefore, hostages, to include potentially American hostages, from Israel to try to force Israel not to go into Rafah.

Think about that. They’re…

MARGARET BRENNAN: The White House denies that, and John Kirby briefed the other day that the U.S. is sharing intelligence…

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Well, Margaret…

(CROSSTALK)

MARGARET BRENNAN: … including the location of Yahya Sinwar, who has not been killed in the seven months of this war.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: It was in “The Washington Post” with – with four officials familiar with it. The Washington Post is like the message board for this administration and the Democratic Party.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You believe that the intelligence community is withholding information from the Israeli military?

SENATOR TOM COTTON: I – I believe – I believe that Joe Biden is willing to do that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you have any evidence of that?

SENATOR TOM COTTON: I mean, he’s imposed – he’s imposed a de facto arms embargo on Israel and sanctions on Israelis.

In the meantime…

MARGARET BRENNAN: They’re sending weapons this weekend. That’s not an arms embargo.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: And, in the meantime – he just said last week that he’s not going to send offensive weapons. We have no idea what he’s going to withhold.

MARGARET BRENNAN: He – that was, as – as we just exchanged with – with Secretary Blinken, not a very clear statement in that CNN interview.

Democrats have said that.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Well…

MARGARET BRENNAN: But what Blinken said there was, it was just that one single shipment.

You’re saying you do not believe the secretary of state when he says that?

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Margaret, in March of 2022, Tony Blinken came on your show, this very show, and said the United States would be perfectly fine to see fighter jets sent to Ukraine.

Joe Biden immediately reversed Tony Blinken’s statement on this show. So what Tony Blinken says on this show cannot be credited, when Joe Biden is out there imposing a de facto arms embargo on Israel, at the same time he’s letting arms embargoes on Iran expire.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know $26 billion in emergency funding was just approved by the president. And there is not an arms embargo on Israel and there is not a block on intelligence sharing with Israel. You know that.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Joe Biden said last week that he’s going to stop supplying offensive weapons that can be used in an urban setting. That is the only setting in Gaza.

MARGARET BRENNAN: If they go into Rafah.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: But that is the only setting in Gaza. And they have to go into Rafah.

It – Joe Biden’s position is de facto for a Hamas victory at this point. Israel’s goal is to destroy Hamas, which committed the worst atrocity against Jews since World War II.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Hamas’ goal is to survive. If they do – if Israel does not go into Rafah and destroy Hamas in Rafah…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: … Hamas will survive.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the Biden administration says they can go into Rafah. It’s how they do it.

But I – I want to ask you more broadly, because people like Senator Van Hollen, who is going to be on here, will talk about the principle and the spirit and the meaning of U.S. law. And you know that past presidents have withheld military aid to Israel to force changes in behavior. President Reagan did that. President Bush did that.

Why do you have a problem with President Biden doing it?

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Well – well, first off, when you talk about the principle and the spirit of U.S. law, it sounds to me like they’re not talking about the letter of U.S. law, because Tony Blinken’s own report concluded they did not violate U.S. law.

Ronald Reagan’s decision to pause the delivery of fighter jets in the 1980s was totally different from what happens here – what has happened here. Israel is fighting a war of survival against a terrorist group that committed the worst atrocity against Jews since World War II.

In the 1980s, an Israeli ambassador had been targeted for assassination. Ronald Reagan knew that the pause of fighter jets would not interfere with Israel’s fighting…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: … because they had plenty of fighters. He did not pause munitions. Joe Biden is not sending munitions in the middle of a shooting war that’s a war of survival.

And look at the broader context.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Israel knew that Ronald Reagan had its back in the region. He sank half of Iran’s navy. Joe Biden has consistently given Iran hundreds of billions of dollars…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well…

SENATOR TOM COTTON: … of sanctions relief that exactly funded groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you know that they dispute that, and they are still sending weapons.

But, last month, Donald Trump told “TIME” magazine “Bibi Netanyahu rightfully has been criticized for what took place on October 7.”

Do you agree with that assessment? Are you comfortable with any criticism of the prime minister?

SENATOR TOM COTTON: Look, I – I – I think Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli leaders have acknowledged they have responsibility for the failures on October 7.

And they’ve said, as is the Israeli custom, when this war is over, there’ll probably be a commission of inquiry to figure out exactly what went wrong to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But President Trump said just last night that he would absolutely provide Israel with the weapons they need to finish the job.

This would have never happened on President’s Trump – Trump’s watch, it didn’t happen on his watch.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well…

SENATOR TOM COTTON: And if – if he were president, this war would have probably already been over, with much less civilian suffering in Gaza, because he would have backed Israel to the hilt from the beginning.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, that’s a debate on counterfactuals for another day, Senator.

But it’s good to have you here in person. Thank you for your time.

We’ll be right back.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we go now to Maryland Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Senator, the White House is continuing to send weapons to Israel. But as you’ve heard the secretary of state say, they’re narrowly – tailoring this to withhold specific kind of munitions.

Does this policy and the administration’s explanation of it make sense to you?

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Maryland): Well, Margaret, it’s good to be with you, and Happy Mother’s Day.

And let me just say that, you know, Senator Cotton totally misrepresented the position of President Biden and the Biden administration.

So, I think the president is absolutely right to withhold these big, big bombs that could be used in Rafah. Remember, the president of the United States warned Prime Minister Netanyahu repeatedly that, if there was an all-out invasion in Rafah, that the United States would make policy changes.

And Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly ignored the president of the United States, ignored the president’s efforts to try to reduce civilian casualties, ignored our efforts to try to get more humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and ignored the priority of trying to bring back the hostages.

So, yes, I support the president’s actions here, I thought, that were very important to take.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You, though, were part of this national security memorandum that we talked about with the secretary. You help tailor it.

And you said after it came out that: “The expertise and analysis of the State Department has been swept aside to facilitate a predetermined policy outcome based on political convenience.”

Are you saying that Secretary – the secretary of state’s inability to conclude anything in this report is a political choice, not based on fact?

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, I believe the facts and the law show what a lot of independent groups that the administration often relies on shows.

So, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, an independent task force that was established to review the facts and the law all concluded that, when you look at some of these incidents, they – these clearly were violations of international humanitarian law.

So, while I appreciate the fact that, as Secretary Blinken said, the administration determined that it was reasonable to conclude that violations of international law had – had happened…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: … I think there’s enough on the books to be able to point to specific cases and make specific determinations.

And, on that score, the administration did duck the hard questions.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, specifically, do you fear that this report helped essentially give political cover to Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue to do what he’s doing?

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, I fear that, by not providing an unvarnished accounting of the facts and the law, we have essentially stated that what is happening in Gaza, so, for example, with respect to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the total restriction of delivery of humanitarian assistance since the beginning of the war, by not calling that out flatly and saying that there have been arbitrary restrictions put on it, I fear that we have set a very, very low bar, a very low standard for what’s acceptable.

And I think that will come back to haunt us. So, yes, Margaret, I worry that we didn’t call out very clearly the fact that those restrictions on humanitarian assistance, which is leading to hundreds of thousands of people on the verge of starvation – over 25 people already starved to death, including kids.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: I do worry that that has essentially allowed a low bar to go, without pointing it out very clearly.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But, this week, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley said: “Before we get self-righteous about what Israel is doing, we shouldn’t forget the U.S killed a lot of innocent people in Iraq, in Syria.”

He said, the U.S killed 12,000 innocent French civilians, bombed Hiroshima, Nagasaki, 69 Japanese cities.

What do you make of statements like that? Because Prime Minister Netanyahu says something very similar.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, Margaret, there’s no doubt that – excuse me – the United – the United States has not been perfect, far from perfect.

But, since World War II, we’ve adopted many more measures to try to restrict civilian harm. And we try to improve it all the time. And, of course, after World War II, the world adopted the Fourth Article of the Geneva Conventions…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: … which is designed specifically to protect civilians in war.

So, you know…

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: … Milley can – can talk about the things that happened in World War II.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I got to…

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: But the world tried to learn some of the lessons after World War II.

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK.

We’re going to take a break and come back and finish this conversation, Senator.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: We will be right back.

Stay with us.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: And welcome back to FACE THE NATION.

We return now to our conversation with Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Senator, we’ve been talking about the Biden administration, but I want to refer to what’s happening in our own domestic politics right now related to Gaza.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on another network this week that the failed diplomacy of her husband’s administration was a – the best missed opportunity for a Palestinian state. She said that before. But she said, student protestors don’t know very much about the history of the Middle East or frankly about history in many areas of the world, including in our own country.

What do you make of the characterization and the concerns right now among so many young voters?

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, I thought, Margaret, that Secretary Clinton’s comments in that regard were quite dismissive of students’ concerns about the awful humanitarian crisis and high civilian death toll in Gaza.

And I should point out that we should be able to keep two ideas in our head at the same time. One is the right of Americans to peacefully protest. But also the need to make sure that students feel safe on campus. And, of course, we also need to make sure that we stamp out anti-Semitism and hate wherever we see it.

But I believe that the great majority of the students who are protesting are following very closely what’s happening in Gaza. They see what’s a very high civilian death toll. And so we can certainly revisit history and past negotiations, but I believe that the overwhelming majority of the students, not all, and there are some – there are some very bad elements that are involved, as well as on the counterprotest side, but I believe that the students do understand what’s happening in Gaza with respect to the civilian casualties.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Senator Van Hollen, thank you very much for your insight today and your reaction.

And we’ll be back with more FACE THE NATION –

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And a very special Mother’s Day story.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: On this Mother’s Day we have a story from Gaza that’s unlike any we’ve heard before. Zahra Sckak, a 44-year-old Palestinian woman living in Gaza City, escaped the war thanks to her American sons, one of whom is an Army specialist. Some of the things Zahra has to say about how Hamas and the Israeli army have been treating civilians are hard to hear, and even harder to confirm as the fighting continues and foreign journalists are largely barred from the area. Zahra’s story, unlike so man, that we’re learning about from this region, does have a somewhat happy ending.

We sat down with her last month and Zahra told us she left Gaza in late December with nothing but a small backpack and the same clothes she’d been wearing since the war began.

(BEGIN VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: You didn’t bring anything from your home with you?

ZAHRA SCKAK (Palestinian woman who escaped war): No it’s – you know, if it’s not, you know, damaged, it’s burned.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And there was – you couldn’t salvage anything?

ZAHRA SCKAK: I mean, if you got out alive, it’s like a big thing for you, yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): In 1998, Zahra Sckak and her husband Abedella, moved from Gaza to the U.S., where their three sons were born. Ten years later, the family returned to Gaza City. As their son’s grew from little boys to young men, all three decided to live in the U.S., while Zahra and Abedella remained in Gaza City.

After Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel on October 7th, Israel struck back and ordered over a million Palestinians in northern Gaza to head south as it prepared for a ground invasion.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why didn’t you leave?

ZAHRA SCKAK: There’s no place to go there. We’re going to just live on the street, you know? I mean, we don’t have anything to do with Hamas. So, we’ll be safe. We know that every war, it comes and pass, like, you know, just a period of time. We didn’t know that this is going to be different.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Israeli forces invaded Gaza in late October. By mid November, they were getting close to Zahra’s home. One day, from the window of her building, Zahra says she saw at least four pedestrians and two cars carrying families blown up without warning as they tried to cross the street.

ZAHRA SCKAK: And we tried to scream from the window, tell them, no, don’t pass this line (ph). He didn’t even hear us. He just passed and right away, you know, blow up. And all the body – like that, it was full, the car. And it have a lot of like a mattress and that they’re moving, like these things. And the woman just came like with all her – like her body, like full of blood. She’s the only one alive between her kids and the driver and like that. She started screaming, telling everybody, kill me. Like, yes, kill me with my – with my family.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Just to be clear, because intentionally firing on civilians –

ZAHRA SCKAK: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: With children could be a war crime.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you believe that was deliberate?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Uh-huh.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that what you are saying?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes. Because, I mean, pretty much happened in front of me like that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is it possible it was a mistake?

ZAHRA SCKAK: How come? If it’s mistake from, like, one part, what about the others? Civilians just walking, two women just walking by, one boy. Come on, like, you know, it – there’s something like wrong about it.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): When asked about Zahra’s account, the Israel Defense Forces replied, quote, “the IDF is not at war with civilians in Gaza, the IDF is at war with Hamas. Hamas has embedded itself in civilian infrastructure. The Area referred to is an active combat zone and in order to mitigate harm to civilians, an evaluation was carried out.”

At her home that evening, Zahra says gunfire shattered the windows and shells hit the building.

ZAHRA SCKAK: With all this like noise and when the shell start, one after one like that, we just start to crawl down – downstairs, just go down the first floor and hid somewhere.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You and your husband?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes. While we’re crawling down, it’s like the shooting didn’t stop and the shells, like, one after one like that. And you feel your house start to burn, you know, because I mean everything is hot around you. You can’t even touch anything.

The bomb kept going until the second day in the morning. You know, my husband start to, like, to fade because, I mean, he’s diabetic. His sugar was low like that. So you know something’s going to happen to him if I didn’t get him out.

Now that’s the – you know, the main thing I couldn’t get out like that, you know? Because, I mean, all the rocks like that, it covered the exit where we were like hidden. So, that what took me like a while like to get out. And it was three days passed.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You were three days under the rubble?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes. And it’s like a miracle, I swear, like, you know? What happened to us, it’s like, it felt like – like you died and you just went back to life again.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): With help from a neighbor, Abedella walked with Zahra to this building owned by his family. In the lower level of a weightlifting center called The Super Gym, Abedella’s brother and dozens of other relatives were taking shelter in a space with no electricity or running water and one bathroom.

It was here that Zahra discovered Abedella’s foot had been injured during the attack on their home. He was shivering from what appeared to be an infection. Due to fighting, it was days before she could get to a hospital.

MARGARET BRENNAN: At the hospital, there were no antibiotics.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Nothing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: No painkillers.

ZAHRA SCKAK: No, not at all.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Nothing. They gave you nothing?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Exactly. Yes. Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because they had nothing?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Al Ahli Ara (ph) hospital was overwhelmed with patients.

ZAHRA SCKAK: While we’re like waiting to get to him, into the operation, he passed away like while he was sitting down.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Waiting for the surgery?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Right. I couldn’t believe it at first. The doctor kept talking. And he told me, you should be happy. And I said, like, why? I mean, why you are saying like all that. And he said, because, I mean, he passed here in the hospital, not in the street like others. So, you should be happy. I didn’t like understand like that he’s gone or, you know, because, I mean, he’s the only one for me in Gaza. And I felt that loneliness is just like, like, what’s going to happen to me? So, I started to hit him. I swear. Like, I hit him.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You hit the doctor?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because of what he was saying. ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because he was telling you, you were lucky?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Exactly. He just saying a lot of people just come and pick him up and, you know. But I couldn’t let go like that. I, you know, kept like holding him. And everybody said, let go. And I couldn’t that easy like that. I just – I don’t know.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): At that point, Zahra’s eldest son, Fadi, was living in California. He had been struggling to stay in touch with his parents.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When you think about that last time you were able to speak to your father, do you remember a lot of it?

FADI SCKAK (Zahra Sckak’s son): I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. He was, you know, screaming on the – on the phone, you know, begging for mercy.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Did you ever say goodbye to your father?

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Fadi had been in touch with the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem to help get his parents out of Gaza. He was told the U.S. would try to get them permission to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing in the south, but could not help them travel through the war zone to get there.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s a very frustrating thing to be told by the most powerful government in the world.

FADI SCKAK: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I can’t help you.

FADI SCKAK: Yes. And I mean –

MARGARET BRENNAN: As an American citizen.

FADI SCKAK: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): His father’s death made him more determined to help his mother.

FADI SCKAK: And after he passed, I knew that, you know, nothing matters more like to me than saving my mother from there. Because, honestly, she – she did not deserve to go through that. I should have been the one there.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Back at The Super Gym, roughly a week after her husband died, Zahra says two armed men she believed to be from Hamas killed three Palestinian women when civilians sheltering there defied the men’s orders to leave.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Everybody was like, you know, didn’t believe what happened exactly with that. It just like – even if it happened in front of you, they said, if for – like if they’re Israeli people, yes, like, we can believe it like that. But they’re one of us, like, you know? We’re – they’re Palestinian like us. Like, they’re doing this?

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): In an interview, the owner of The Super Gym denied that the incident happened there.

So did a Hamas spokesman, who told us, quote, “Hamas has never attacked civilians.”

MARGARET BRENNAN: Hamas says it is fighting for the Palestinian people.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Islamic Jihad says they are fighting for the Palestinian people. Did you see, from what you witnessed, any help being given by these groups to the Palestinian people?

ZAHRA SCKAK: Not at all. I swear, it’s like, they’re careless about their people.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Increasingly desperate to get his mother out of Gaza, Fadi turned to the Michigan based Arab American Civil Rights League.

ALICIA NIEVES (Attorney, Arab American Civil Rights League): Our calls, our emails are of just the most incredibly sad stories that you could imagine from Americans talking about their family who are in war, in active, live combat.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): One of their attorneys, Alicia Nieves, first learned about Zahra’s case in mid-December.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How many Palestinian Americans that you know of are in a position like Fadi where they’re trying to get loved ones out now?

ALICIA NIEVES: There are thousands right now that are trying to –

MARGARET BRENNAN: Still?

ALICIA NIEVES: Yes. What struck me about Fadi’s case was that it said that his brother was an active U.S. military member. And I thought, at that moment there was a possibility that something impossible could happen, which is, we can actually get somebody from northern Gaza.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why do you think the fact that his brother was active duty Army made a difference?

ALICIA NIEVES: Because I had experience in a previous conflict where I was introduced to military veterans that were demonstrating a willingness and a capability to extract people from active conflict zones. I knew this was a time to make a call to the veterans that I knew to see if there was any way that they could help in this situation.

(END VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN (on camera): When we come back, how a team of special operation veterans got Zahra Sckak out of Gaza.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Attorney Alicia Nieves connected with the Special Operations Association of America, an organization made up of former military and intelligence professionals who have experience volunteering to help civilians get out of conflict zones, including Afghanistan and Ukraine. But Gaza posed some unusual challenges, especially the part of Gaza City where Zahra Sckak was struggling to survive. But the rescue team started planning, and Fadi got through to his mother to help tell her, help is on the way.

(BEGIN VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): In December, Zahra Sckak sent this photo of herself to her eldest son, Fadi, who told her a group of people she’d never meet needed it to identify her and rescue her from Gaza City.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You must have thought, that’s impossible.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes. But when I saw the first message from Brian, yes, this is one of the team, in that minute, I started to believe.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Alex Plitsas is a member of the Special Operations Association team that took on Zahra’s case.

So, what was the situation on the ground when you began planning this escape? How intense was it?

ALEX PLITSAS (Member, Special Operations Association Of America): It was extremely intense. At that point Zahra was trapped behind Hamas lines in an enclave in northern Gaza. So, it was an active combat zone.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Plitsas is an army combat veteran and former counterterrorism official at the Pentagon. He worked with former Green Berets, intelligence professionals, and a Marine fluent in Arabic, all of whom were eager to help Zahra’s middle son, Ragi Sckak, a 24-year-old Army specialist who was serving in Korea while his mother was in Gaza.

ALEX PLITSAS: And so for us it felt kind of personal. And we just pictured ourself in those shoes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, why can’t the U.S. government do what you’re doing?

ALEX PLITSAS: There are no U.S. government employees of any kind, either military or civilian, on the ground inside Gaza. Having had experience in this type of work in government and understanding what the legalities are, we’re kind of able to step into the – in the void and try to set it up the right way.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): The group of special operators came together quickly in December.

FADI SCKAK: My mother, she’s just afraid.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Just days before, Fadi Sckak had made a very public plea for his mother on U.S. television.

FADI SCKAK: Every wakening second is hard to, you know, imagine losing her.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Things started to fall into place around Christmas. Top officials at the State Department reached out to Israeli and Egyptian officials to secure their support for the special operations team to carry out the mission.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Israeli military, just to be clear, had to help you get Zahra out of Gaza, is that correct?

ALEX PLITSAS: We did need help from the Israeli government for approval to move inside of north Gaza, because it can be incredibly dangerous when you try to operate as an independent actor, especially in a war zone.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, can you tell us some of the options you considered?

ALEX PLITSAS: Everything was on the table in terms of options to get them out. Hamas still had shoulder-fired, you know, RPGs or small arms fire like AK-47s that could have hit helicopters, and that – that type of rescue really wasn’t feasible. And then you look at maritime operations, can you come in over the beach? And you realize, as you start to move through, you have to eliminate some of these options that are not realistic.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In this case, was someone driving up a car, a vehicle of some sort, to move her around?

ALEX PLITSAS: That was a really – the only realistic option. But you can imagine, you know, trying to get cars and fuel inside Gaza is difficult.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): Using satellite imagery and coordinating with multiple governments, the team of operators carefully planned the mission.

ALEX PLITSAS: I was operating from an encrypted chat platform sitting in my living room in Connecticut. You know, my other teammates were kind of spread around the U.S. But collectively we worked our government contacts and they stepped in and helped.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): But they called off the rescue twice because conditions on the ground weren’t right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This is crazy making.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes. I know.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You’re getting all excited –

ZAHRA SCKAK: Uh-huh.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And nervous.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And then nothing happens.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Right. But they kept me like really like a strong like that, just telling me that I’m going to take care of you. Like, you know, just no panic. I believe it from the first time like that they will do something. They care about you, you know? MARGARET BRENNAN: These are people you never met.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Exactly, yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thousands of miles away.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who are trying to help get you out.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes. You see it’s like a – words, like, can like express how much, you know, you need to thank them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When people hear the term “special operators,” they think of some out of the movie action scene. Is that what we should be picturing here in north Gaza?

ALEX PLITSAS: People have seen too many movies. They’re thinking, you know, you’re going to see G.I. Joe show up in a giant truck. What you need are people who can blend in, in the area. So, local national, Palestinian Arabs who speak Arabic with a Gazan accent who are – have a reason to be where they’re supposed to be and everything else is really what you kind of need there to be quiet. That was who was at the heart of the operation.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): A network of trusted drivers got Zahra Sckak and her brother-in-law, who’s a U.S. citizen, out of Gaza City and all the way to Rafah.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What are you seeing as you’re driving through north Gaza?

ZAHRA SCKAK: You don’t know that this is Gaza or somewhere else. Like, you know, there’s no street, there’s no buildings. It’s – you know, it’s like all ground –

MARGARET BRENNAN: Destroyed.

ZAHRA SCKAK: Yes, Gaza was like not Gaza anymore.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): On December 31st, Zahra Sckak made it through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, where U.S. officials met her and expedited a green card for her.

Fadi met her in Cairo.

FADI SCKAK: You could just tell by looking at her she’s been through hell. Like, I could literally see her bones. And it was very visible. And that was just, you know, I didn’t know what to say. And, yes. But it was very happy moment for me just to be able to be next to her and to know that she’s safe.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): By February, Zahra Sckak and her sons were reunited in the U.S. This is the first Mother’s Day in ten years that she’ll spend with all three of them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, if Zahra’s so hadn’t been in the U.S. Army, what would have happened to Zahra?

ALEX PLITSAS: Shed’ still be stuck in north Gaza, along with a number of other folks with no means of getting south, no food, no water, not access to medicine. And whether she would still be alive at the moment, I simply couldn’t tell you.

MARGARET BRENNAN (voice over): We were able to confirm aspects of Zahra’s story through relatives, photos and published accounts. But with the war still raging, we could not find a second witness to the incidents in which she describes what sound like war crimes against civilians, committed by both the Israeli army and Hamas.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There are parts of what Zahra shared with us that are very hard to confirm. Do you think she’s telling us the truth?

ALEX PLITSAS: I find Zahra to be a wonderful human being. I think she’s a person of integrity. And I think for me to second guess her or the Israelis or Hamas or any of them I would be speculating because I wasn’t there. But I certainly don’t find her to be somebody who’s less than truthful.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you hope people at home who hear your story understand about Gaza?

ZAHRA SCKAK: We’re not just a number, you know? We’re like a human being, like that. I mean we like deserve better life. The people, like, over Gaza, I mean, it’s not their choice to go through this war.

(END VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN (on camera): State Department officials say that so far they’ve helped get 1,800 people out of Gaza, most of them U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. U.S. officials tell CBS News that there are, quote, “active inner agency conversations about what more the U.S. can do to help the Palestinian people caught in the crossfire like Zahra Sckak.”

We want to thank two of our “60 Minutes” colleagues, producers Andy Court and Annabelle Hanflig for their help getting this story on our broadcast. And we also want to thank FACE THE NATION producer Richard Escobedo and editor Matt Jeffries.

That’s it for us today. And we want to wish all of the mothers out there a happy Mother’s Day, including my mom and my mother-in-law and all the moms who work on this broadcast.

Thank you all for watching.

Until next week, for FACE THE NATION, I’m Margaret Brennan.



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