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THE SITUATION ROOM

Tanks Ready To Move In; Hamas: "Doom Will Await You"; Muslim Family Kicked Off Flight; Disabled and Left Behind; Hamas Rocket's Direct Hit

Aired January 2, 2009 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


M. OBAMA: But that's not how life ends, often. It's not so predictable. So yes, it hit him very hard.
(END VIDEO TAPE)

MALVEAUX: You can see more of my interview with the Obamas this weekend at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN.

Well, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, breaking news -- a top Hamas leader warns that doom waits Israeli troops poised for ground assault, as an air war takes a devastating throw in Gaza.

Airline outrage -- two families kicked off a plane because of something someone overheard.

Are Muslims now subject to profiling from other passengers?

And the latest earthquake drill in U.S. history leads to new concerns that a major quake could topple some California skyscrapers.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Breaking news -- rising casualties and rising desperation in Gaza, with Israel poised for a possible ground assault.

Here are the latest developments.

A fireball shoots up after an Israeli strike on a Gaza fuel depot. Aircraft reportedly struck dozens of targets today. And a United Nations official says the war against Hamas militants has already destroyed much of Gaza's infrastructure, even as Israeli tanks stand ready to move in. Palestinians sent more than 30 rockets into Israel some hitting residential areas. But there has been a decline in the number of rockets fired.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is in Jerusalem with an update -- Paula?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, with Israeli air strikes continuing on one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, the civilian death toll is inevitably rising.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HANCOCKS (voice-over): They were playing in their backyard when the Israeli air strike hit. The civilian death toll rising once again in Gaza -- three more children caught up in violence they were too young to understand.

More wounded Gazans flood into hospitals that are falling apart. Doctors tell the world the situation inside Gaza is beyond dire.

Earlier Friday, the funeral of one of the top Hamas leaders, Nizar Rayyan and his family, killed by an Israeli air strike. Thousands spilled onto the streets of Gaza City, risking Israeli attacks from the air.

This Hamas member says: "Experience has shown us the assassination of leaders does not weaken Hamas, but rather makes it stronger."

Today, Hamas' popularity is rising and its military power is increasing.

The range of the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel is certainly increasing -- hitting up to 40 kilometers away from the border. But the number of rockets is falling.

As Israel takes more Hamas targets off its list, this cockpit vision from the Israeli military showing a mosque being hit. Secondary explosions suggesting weapons were hidden inside.

Until now, the United States have not called on Israel to stop -- effectively giving the continued onslaught the green light.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are working toward a cease-fire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante, where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza.

HANCOCKS: Close to 300 foreign nationals were allowed out of Gaza, but no journalists were allowed in. Israel continues to reject international calls for a return to free press and continues to keep people guessing as to whether it will send the ground troops into Gaza.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

HANCOCKS: The Israeli air strikes enjoy strong domestic support here in Israel at this point. But a recent poll shows that only 19 percent actually support a ground operation -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Paula.

Israeli troops and tanks are ready to move into Gaza if and when they get that order. But a top Hamas leader warns Israeli soldiers: "Doom will await you." Exiled political leader Khalad Mashal said a short time ago in Damascus that his people would fight from street to street and house to house.

Let's turn to CNN's Brian Todd.

What does the Israeli ground troops -- what are they up against at this point?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, they would be up against a guerilla force that would make that house-to-house fight a real meat grinder. And analysts say the Israelis should pay attention to a difficult lesson they learned not long ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Missiles and planes in the air tanks and soldiers on the border -- all too familiar nervousness all around. The possibility of an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza has many observers warning this could be Lebanon 2006 all over again.

In that operation, aimed at Hezbollah, the Israelis inflicted devastating civilian casualties and took significant military losses of their own. They also left perceptions that Hezbollah had won by simply surviving the onslaught and that their once mighty force had lost a step.

HISHAM MELHAM, AL ARABIYA: The Israeli military is no longer invincible. The days of clear, stunning victory like '67 are gone.

TODD: Now, the Israelis will encounter a tough guerrilla-style force at close range if they invade Gaza. Analysts and Israeli officials say Hamas has hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of hardened fighters, likely equipped with anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and expert training in urban warfare.

ISAAC HERZOG, ISRAELI SECURITY CABINET: We know, of course, that Iran has trained Hamas militants, has given them training and, of course, structure of managing warfare. The whole concept of the bunkers that they've built and laid out in Gaza is similar to the operation of Hezbollah.

TODD: That means ambush positions and landmines likely in the path of Israeli troops.

Iran denies training Hamas fighters. Analysts say the Israelis have learned lessons from 2006. They likely won't make this a drawn out ground operation. And they'll lower expectations beforehand, likely avoiding predictions that they'll completely destroy their enemy, as they said in 2006.

Still, Hamas may emerge the winner in public opinion, as Hezbollah did.

PROF. REZA ASLAN, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA-RIVERSIDE: An oppositional force like Hamas, like Hezbollah, thrives precisely on conflict. It is only relevant when it is being attacked. It can only -- it can only matter when it is being seen as defending Muslim people.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Hamas's overall structure, with social services and a political arm, is another reason why Israel is not going to wipe them out completely. But that's likely not Israel's goal here anyway. Analysts say what the Israelis want to do is simply take away Hamas's ability to launch those rocket attacks into Israel -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: So, Brian, do they need do that with a ground invasion or can they do it with air strikes alone?

TODD: Experts tell us that what they can do on the ground that they cannot do in the air is completely clean up those positions where Hamas fires the rockets from. And they can more surgically target Hamas' military leaders.

But all of those carry some very dicey risks of casualties. Everybody knows that going in, this could get very messy.

MALVEAUX: And everybody is watching.

Thank you, Brian.

Israel has always relied on citizen soldiers. All eligible men and women are drafted into the military at age 18, though there are various exemptions.

Service is voluntary for some minorities. Most men serve for three years, women for 21 months. After that, they're assigned to reserve units and may be called for roughly a month of service every year -- up to age 51 for many men and 24 for women.

Now, Israel doesn't disclose the exact size of its military, but recent estimates show about 170,000 on active duty, with a half million or more in the reserves.

For more on what a ground war in Gaza could be like, let's turn to CNN contributor and retired Army General Russel Honore. He held the top combat infantry commands and also, you know him as the leader of that military response to Hurricane Katrina.

Sir, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The things that you've been watching over the past hours or so, given the action of the Israeli military, do you think that a ground invasion at this time is imminent?

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY (RET.), CNN CONTRIBUTOR:

I think it's possible. Whether it's imminent or not, the Israelis are holding the cards here as to when they go. If they don't get the conditions that they've been achieved -- or are trying to achieve, which is to stop the rocket fire out of Hamas, take out critical targets associated with that, close down the supply routes of resupplying those rockets into Gaza.

I think they're achieving that through air power, through using precision munitions.

But if they do go in with the ground assault, it's going to be a lot different battle. Over.

MALVEAUX: And, General, you heard Brian Todd's report on the risks that Israel would be facing if they go in.

Do you think it's going to be more successful -- are they actually going to achieve their goals or is it going to be a situation like the war we saw Israel wage against Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago?

HONORE: It's going to be a different campaign. And the folks -- and Hamas should take note that this will not it be another engagement like was conducted against Hezbollah. It's going to be a different campaign.

The Israelis are some of the best in the world at about what they're about to do. That was a different campaign. They used air, primarily, strategy in Lebanon.

This is going to be -- you will see the unleashing of the most powerful interrogation of ground and air activities together, led by the army this time, bringing in artillery, mortars UAVs and with the air power in support.

This will be a different campaign. And I think the Israelis will focus on a couple of key objectives -- cutting off the supply line going into Egypt and concentrating, possibly, on some strategic be supply points inside of Gaza. But I don't think this will be an objective to go in and destroy Gaza. Over.

MALVEAUX: And, General, we're actually seeing live pictures here of Gaza City, as well as our viewers here.

And if there's anything that's going to take place this evening, should they -- do they have any advantage to attack on a ground level invasion under cover of darkness or is it better in the light of day?

HONORE: Well, with the capabilities the Israelis have, the advantage is theirs. The unfortunate thing is that since Hamas has arranged itself inside of civilian populations, it gives them a capability to continue to integrate with the population and cause more collateral damage to their people.

I think the Israelis are sharp about this. I think they will go in and if they do go in, it will be toward some specific objectives, as opposed to attacking on a broad front, where they can protect their flank and get to an objective and again put more pressure on that Hamas government to stop firing rockets or to sue for peace or to ask for a cease-fire.

MALVEAUX: OK. General Russel Honore, thank you so much for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Well, polls show widespread support and high hopes for Barack Obama.

So why are some activists targeting him now, even before he takes office?

Demonstrators reveal their demands.

Also, some casual comments result in an airline uproar, with one family kicked off their flight. Now there's some new developments.

Plus, Sarah Palin taking the news media to task -- she's upset over some reports and now trying to set the record straight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Two brothers, their wives and their children all kicked off a plane because of something that someone overheard. It is a story that is making headlines for one reason -- the family is Muslim.

CNN's Brian Todd is working that story for us -- and, Brian, can you tell us what happened here?

TODD: Well, Suzanne, members of this family -- all of them American citizens, by the way -- say they've been subjected to profiling by other passengers. They say because of their beards and head scarves, maybe even the color of their skin, they endured what one of them called discrimination.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A family trip to Florida cut short before takeoff -- eight members of the Irfan family and a friend, all from the Washington, D.C. area, were removed from an AirTran flight from D.C. to Orlando.

ATIF IRFAN, PASSENGER: They questioned me about the fact that somebody overheard -- or had thought, at least -- that they overheard us saying something either about bombs or about some other, you know, terrorist activities.

TODD: AirTran officials said only that a passenger reported hearing something inappropriate.

INAYET SAHIN, PASSENGER: The conversation, as we were walking into the plane -- because we were trying to find our seats -- was just about where the safest place just to sit in an airplane is. And we were just talking whether it was at the wing or the engine or the back or the front. But that's it.

TODD: Former TSA official Chad Wolf.

CHAD WOLF, FORMER TSA OFFICIAL: If you're going to talk about the security of the aircraft, the security of the airport and the security in general when you're flying, you need to be aware of who's around you and what comments you're making.

SOBIA IJAZ, PASSENGER: Everyone assumes that we're Muslims, we're terrorist.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure.

IJAZ: We're up to something. Every time we walk into the plane, that's kind of the -- the regular stare we get from everybody.

TODD: After some family members were questioned and cleared by the FBI, the airline refused to book them on another flight.

IRFAN: They wouldn't book us on any flight, even though the FBI agent went to the counter and recommended to them that we're completely safe.

TODD: AirTran says: "At the time, the airline had not been notified by the authorities that the passengers were cleared to fly."

IRFAN: The FBI actually was very helpful. It was more so on the airline side, on AirTran, that we felt that we weren't treated very well.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Now, an FBI spokesman also contradicts what AirTran said. The FBI says its agents did ask AirTran to rebook the family. A quote from the FBI here: "The FBI determined that there was no threat and provided assistance to help the family continue their travel plans."

Now, when AirTran refused the FBI helped the family book on -- excuse me -- booked on another airline. AirTran this afternoon did issue an apology to those nine passengers, saying that: "We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did." And they offered to pay for the flights that they got on another airline and bring them back to Washington for free -- Suzanne.

So AirTran kind of dialing back on some of this now.

MALVEAUX: So, Brian, are they considering legal action at this point?

TODD: Well, one member of the family -- one gentleman said that they are not looking for money. They were looking for that apology, which they just got. But a family friend who was with them said that he is considering a civil lawsuit.

And, by the way, two members of this family are attorneys. They're going to know exactly where to go.

MALVEAUX: OK. All right.

Thank you so much, Brian.

While much of the country was ringing in the new year, a 22-year- old man with cerebral palsy was trapped inside a school bus parked outside in 15 degree temperatures while his family frantically was looking for him.

Well, how did this all happen?

Our CNN's Randi Kaye is explaining -- Randi?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, while thousands of people celebrated the beginning of the new year in Times Square, one New York City family spent a sleepless night wondering if their missing son was even alive. Twenty-two-year-old Edwin Rivera has cerebral palsy and the mental capacity of a 2-year-old. In fact, he can't speak.

He should have been home with his family New Year's Eve, but instead, he was left strapped to his seat on a bus for more than 19 hours in freezing temperatures.

His family feared the worst until he was finally found in a bus depot miles from his home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LESLIE RIVERA, SISTER: He was cold. He was very cold. His fingertips were blue. His feet were blue. His nose was -- was just -- it was very, very pale. He was shivering.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAYE: Rivera attends a special needs school in downtown Manhattan. And normally, his bus drops him off at his home in East Harlem.

He did board the bus on Wednesday, but when he didn't come home, his family walked to the local police station and reported him missing at 9:30 p.m. That was five hours after he should have been home.

Now, police missed Rivera in their initial search of the bus depot because there are two areas where buses are parked. It is only when they went back a second time the following day that they found him.

Now, the bus attendant, 51-year-old Linda Hockaday, was arrested last night, charged with reckless endangerment. The complaint filed by the D.A. 's office says that Hockaday actually knew Rivera was on the bus, but did not want to go back and drop him off at his home or even alert the bus driver because it would have made her late for an appointment. His family is furious and they want answers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RIVERA: This is too negligent and stupidity. And just because he is the way he is, doesn't mean that he's less than a person. He just needs extra help.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAYE: We reached out to Edwin Rivera's school and the privately- owned bus company and neither has returned our calls for comment. As far as how Edwin is doing, he's in stable condition after being treated for hypothermia and dehydration at a local hospital. But there are still so many questions left unanswered in this very disturbing story -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Randi.

And this just into CNN. We have now confirmed that the bus attendant who was arrested in this case has been fired from her job.

We'll bring you more as we get it.

Demonstrations near Barack Obama's Chicago home -- what do these activists want from the president-elect before he even takes office?

We're there and we're asking.

Plus, a nightmare scenario -- some of Southern California's tallest buildings tumbling down. Details of new fears over the next big quake.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Jim Acosta is monitoring the stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Jim, what are you watching?

ACOSTA: Suzanne, this just in to CNN. The 16-year-old son of actor John Travolta died today after suffering a seizure while vacationing with his family in the Bahamas. That word from Travolta's attorney, Michael Ossi. He says the cause of death is not known. An autopsy will be conducted on Monday. Jett Travolta was the only son of John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston. They have a daughter Ella, who is eight years old.

2009 started out on a high note on Wall Street big time. The Dow rallied, closing above 9000 for the first time since November. It was the sixth best start to a year on a percentage basis.

But oil prices also rose, pushed up by concerns over the fighting in the Middle East and Russia's energy dispute with Ukraine. Crude rose 3.6 percent, to settle at $46.34 a barrel.

And a shocking new development from that massive coal ash spill in Tennessee. The EPA says it's found high levels of arsenic. Officials insist drinking water is safe, but they say the arsenic levels in the ash are high enough to harm human health. The EPA says it would normally proceed with a cleanup, but the Tennessee Valley Authority has taken responsibility to address the issue.

And these pictures just in from the battle against pirates off the Horn of Africa. The French Navy says it has captured eight Somali pirates since yesterday and handed them over to authorities in Somalia. The pirates were said to be attacking a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden. They were aboard two skiffs and armed with automatic weapons and a rocket-propelled grained launcher. And the world's oldest verified living person has died in Portugal. Maria de Jesus was 115 years, 114 days old. She had outlived three of her six children -- Suzanne.

That is a very long life.

MALVEAUX: If only we could be so lucky.

Thank you, Jim.

Almost a million Israelis now within range of Hamas rockets.

CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is on the ground with details of one direct hit.

Also, skyscrapers tumbling to the ground -- it is a new concern in Southern California. Earthquake experts are sounding the alarm.

Plus, demonstrators vowing to dog Barack Obama through his presidency until they get what they want. Well, we are talking to them about their demands.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, breaking news -- Israel facing an onslaught of Hamas rockets. Now one makes a direct hit. We're on the ground with CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson.

Also, a catastrophic Republican rift and sex and corruption scandals for Democrats -- why James Carville is predicting that and much, much more for 2009.

Plus, they are vowing to hound Barack Obama the way Cindy Sheehan did President Bush.

What these activists are demanding from the president-elect.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

As Israeli air strikes ravage Gaza, targeting Hamas and its weapons, almost a million Israelis are within range of the militants' rockets. Hamas fired fewer of them today, but there was at least one direct hit.

Let's go live to senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson -- and, Nic, what are you seeing on the ground now?

What are you hearing?

Do you believe a ground strike is imminent? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're hearing more and more rumors that this is a possibility. We know the troops are in place. We've been seeing more tanks moving toward the border around Gaza. We see troops in the cafes and restaurants around the area close to Gaza. We know they're there.

The government says that they're prepared to use them and all the rumors that we're hearing seem to indicate that.

But is this a big psychological push against Hamas or is this the real thing?

MALVEAUX: And what about that home that was hit by a rocket -- Nic?

ROBERTSON: Right behind me, a family had a narrow escape. A Grad rocket -- this is one of Hamas's biggest rockets -- went into the roof of the building. Fortunately, they had heard the alarm go off in this town. They had rushed to the basement to secure themselves. That's what (AUDIO GAP) crushing down into the room they were in. It broke the roof. The house is destroyed. The families say they're shaken, but will continue to live there -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: OK.

Thank you, Nic.

Thanks for -- Nic.

For a closer look at this war zone, let's bring back our own Jim Acosta.

You have a pretty good sense of the lay of the lands and what is happening at this hour.

ACOSTA: That's right, Suzanne. Let's take a look and map this out with a look at Google Earth.

We know that Israel has moved thanks to the outskirts of Gaza and called up at least 2,000 army reservists. And as we zoom in here, you'll see these are not precise locations, obviously -- just an estimation as to where these forces would be located.

And it's a good -- it's a good thing to look at just to see how serious the situation is becoming. And the big question this evening is whether Israel is considering some kind of military incursion into Gaza. And there are signs the answer to that question may be yes.

First, there were continued Israeli air strikes today. Hamas security sources say the home of a senior Hamas leader was struck in this town, called Nusseirat. That leader, according to Israel, is a leading figure in developing rockets. The home is located about four miles southwest of Gaza City. So even though you see a lot of area being detailed in this map, that is not very far from Gaza City.

Another Israeli air strike hit a fuel depot today in Northern Gaza, sending a huge fireball into the sky. Israel has targeted much of Gaza's infrastructure throughout this campaign. Meanwhile, we don't want to leave out the fact that Palestinian militants have launched rockets, hitting Southern Israel today -- several hitting along the coast near the ton of Ashkelon.

And analysts are looking at one final important sign of a possible ground incursion. Israel allowed hundreds of Palestinians to flee the war zone today at the Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel. Those who left crossed into Israel and then boarded buses bound for Jordan and en route to other countries.

Military experts say while these moves could lead to some kind of incursion, a ground offensive is not a sure thing and Middle East analysts say it's doubtful any ground attack would lead to a full- scale occupation of Gaza, Suzanne, because that would be drawn out and bloody. The Israelis have learned that in the past in similar cases in Lebanon

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you Jim. All eyes on what's happening at this hour.

Three weeks before his inauguration, President-elect Obama is being stalked by protesters. Why they're already unhappy.

Plus, now that she's a grandma, Sarah Palin isn't happy about media reports she feels are unfair to her family.

And Oprah Winfrey makes a huge donation to a struggling school. Wait till you see the reaction.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: This all-out war between Israel and Hamas has sparked protests around the world and right here at home. Susan Roesgen joins us live from Chicago.

Obviously, you're looking at demonstrations from both sides.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Voices right outside our window in the Chicago bureau in the tribune tower. We're looking at this demonstration and we estimate about 2500 pro-Palestinian marchers, they started on this side of the river and have now walked across the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue. They are heading for the Israeli consulate. It looks as if the Israeli consulate, the road has been blocked off by Chicago police. They have been chanting stop the occupation, the same things we've heard in other pro-Palestinian protests. I did speak to the Israeli federation and they are very concerned about this rally and about a previous rally on Sunday here in Chicago. They think the images, the video, the words have been inflammatory and calling on the Chicago human rights commission to condemn rallies like this one.

Once again, we haven't seen anything violent, just this huge group of pro-Palestinian marchers walking up Michigan Avenue across the Chicago River back over trying to get to the Israeli consulate. We'll let you know if they get there, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Tell us about demonstrations now against Obama as well that are taking place in Chicago.

ROESGEN: Actually, Suzanne, these folks are bro-Obama, pro the president but they want some things done. When Barack Obama says yes, we can, they say yeah, you better.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN: This is about as close as you can get to Barack Obama's Chicago home these days. There's a cop car on every corner. So anyone who wants to make a political statement is pretty much pushed off to the side. Like this group, small in number, big in spirit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm sure he knows we're here. He can talk to us.

ROESGEN: These activists represent various local and national groups like Veterans for Peace and Democracy Now. And they've joined forces to promote a list of campaign promises they want Obama to remember, promises to bring the troops home to, stop foreclosures to, make a plan for universal health care.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This campaign was to build bridges across the issues. We're working both on the domestic issues as well as globally.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROESGEN: Once again, these are activists who supported President-elect Obama, who voted for him in the election. They just don't want him to forget his campaign promises to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, to stop home foreclosures and are going to stay out there. They say in eight-hour shifts every day up to inauguration day.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Susan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

MALVEAUX: We have breaking news here. The IDF, Israeli Defense Forces say in a statement they are ready to enter Gaza when the order is given.

I want to bring in our guests here to talk about this. This is much more Karen Hanretty and Jamaal Simmons. Obviously, this could be very big news if we actually see a ground invasion, Israeli forces into Gaza.

What is the risk here that Barack Obama faces if this thing really explodes on the grounds in the Middle East?

JAMAAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Obviously, Israel is America's strongest ally in the Middle East and president Obama has talked about making sure they're secure. At the same time, there's a problem with the way this is being perceived throughout the rest of the Muslim world. We don't want to exacerbate tensions as nation by getting in the middle of or being perceived as allowing this to happen without having any kind of backup for the Palestinian people, not necessarily Hamas but the people being hurt in bombings.

MALVEAUX: Karen, you've seen the Bush administration. We saw Secretary Rice, as well. They've been calling for a cease-fire here. And but she's not going to be traveling to region. Obviously, it seems as if they don't have a lot of time to get things done and make very much impact. What can they do today, the next day, the following day to influence things on the ground?

KAREN HANRETTY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think that probably the less involved the Bush administration is right now, probably the better off for Israel and the perception around the world. And certainly I think it's helpful also to the Obama administration.

Look, there's been a lot of the criticism. I would argue wrongfully so that the Bush administration has been too involved and too pro-Israel. I think a lot of eyes around the world will be looking will the Obama administration be as pro-Israel as the Bush administration has been.

MALVEAUX: Jamaal, what is your sense of that? Is there position basically the same as the Bush administration or are they going to be tougher on either side?

SIMMONS: You think about the way President-elect Obama ran, he ran as someone who wanted to engage people from different sides and try to find common grounds, things they have in common. It's interesting the timing of this that Israel would make this move in the midst of the U.S. transition where things are a little bit dicer here in our political scene. You don't have one president in firm control and able to make a big statement. We'll have it wait and see what happens when we get the next president in the office three weeks from now.

MALVEAUX: Karen, what do you think of the timing of this? Do you think it's more looking forward and a test for the Obama administration, or do you think it's more looking ahead at the Israeli elections coming up, as well?

HANRETTY: I think Israel is about Israel's security. They have been bombed for long period of time by Hamas. Hamas broke this cease fire and Israel has their own elections, their own future and Israelis who are asking themselves will there be an Israel 50 years from now probably aren't closely at what's happening in American politics.

MALVEAUX: When you look at the priorities of the Obama administration, this wasn't one they were talking about during the campaign. Does this need to become a higher priority? A lot of Americans say they don't have the stomach for this to look at the Middle East peace process and try and try again where other presidents have failed.

SIMMONS: The one thing about being president is that you can't predict what's going to happen any morning when you wake up. So the Obama administration has to get up to speed pretty fast and get moving and get a secretary of state, Hillary Clinton in office. She's got a lot of experience having dealt with the Middle East. There's a team in place ready to go when they get into office to deal with these issues. It's a little bit more trickier time because we've got one president on the way out, the other one moving to Washington as we speak.

MALVEAUX: I want you guys to stay with us for a minute. We want to bring in Nic Robertson.

Obviously, you've been watching the situation on the ground. Tell us what you are seeing, what you're hearing, and whether or not this warning here they are waiting for the order to go, whether or not that really makes a difference from your vantage point.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it certainly adds and puts more psychological pressure on Hamas by the Israeli defense forces saying their troops are ready, that they're in a position to go once the order comes. This makes it very, very immediate. If there were ever a moment's doubt in the minds of Hamas that perhaps there might it be another day or two days here by the Israeli defense forces sorting themselves out, this is clarification. So it puts a lot of more psychological pressure on Hamas. We're hearing, as well, these rumors, sort of drum beat coming from people that are close to this situation indicating that it might be happening soon. Again, psychological pressure or the real thing? But it's all sort of adding to the pressure, and if the forces are really ready to go in, then what are they waiting for? Waiting for the right weather, the right political climate? Perhaps? It's not clear. But if they're ready and waiting and on standby, they can only keep them in that heightened state for a certain amount of time.

MALVEAUX: You've been talking to people on the ground. What is their sense about a ground invasion? Is this something that a lot of people there that you talk to support? Do they support this move by the Israeli military if, in fact, that happens?

ROBERTSON: They certainly support for stopping Hamas firing missiles into the south of Israel. Government officials believe they've got the support of the population to bear the brunt of the rockets being fired out. So that part of the population that the government feels is secure, the public support, the government knows it could lose if it goes into Gaza. Doesn't achieve its objective and gets high army casualties. That is the big risk. A lot everyone does national service in this country. That means for the parents around the country, their children are there, that means a lot of young people are there themselves or have friends there. So this matters a lot to people what happens to the soldiers here. So that is a high concern. This is what we saw two and a half years ago in the war in south of Lebanon when there was high casualties among the Israeli troops. This turned public opinion against the government here when they perceive that the government wasn't achieving its stated objectives in Lebanon. So that's the political risk for the government right now. But right now, they do seem to have the support of the people to take on Hamas. This for the people is an intolerable situation, these rockets.

MALVEAUX: OK. Nic, we'll get back to you. I want to bring the panel back.

Turn the corner. Obviously, Barack Obama on Monday meeting with congressional leaders to push for the economic stimulus package. An op-ed in "The Wall Street Journal" says "We don't need a bailout. Nor do we need the government picking winners and losers in a massive new- new deal spending extravaganza. It's not his tax cut that will get us out of this economic jam." In one sentence for Jamaal and Karen, what does Barack Obama need to say on Monday?

SIMMONS: He's going to go into congress and talk to the congressional leadership what we need to do next. The bigger problem here is the credit markets aren't moving. As someone told me last week, it's like a marriage after infidelity. The only thing to restore trust is time. We have to take time to let the credit markets get back to work.

MALVEAUX: Karen what does he need to say?

HANRETTY: Barack Obama needs to acknowledge that American ingenuity and entrepreneurialism is what has made this country strong. He should say he's going to cut the capital gains tax and let people invest in America again.

MALVEAUX: All right. Karen and Jamaal, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much.

Sarah Palin, she is a new grandmother but she's not happy at the media anyway. Why the Alaska governor is pushing back at recent coverage.

And students at a struggling school are stunned by a very generous gift and the person who gave it, Oprah Winfrey.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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MALVEAUX: Sarah Palin is making her voice heard about reports that she feels are unfair and unflattering to her family. CNN's Brooke Anderson joins us live.

Brooke, tell us what she is saying. What's going on?

BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sarah Palin is being fiercely protective of her family, Suzanne. Palin's grandson isn't even a week old. Yet, baby Tripp's arrival and the reports that followed have spurred her to jump to the defense of his parents.

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ANDERSON: It was a sensitive subject on the campaign trail. Governor Sarah Palin's unwed teenage daughter pregnant. Palin tread lightly and was optimistic. GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), ALASKA: Some of life's greatest opportunities come unexpectedly.

ANDERSON: Now that baby Tripp Easton Mitchell Johnston has arrived, talk has turned once again it his parents, 18-year-old Bristol and her boyfriend Levi.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's still living at home. He's an apprentice electrician in the North Slope oil fields. He's working full time. He's dropped out of high school. Hopes to get his GED at some point. Bristol also has dropped out of high school and is hoping to complete her degree through correspondent courses.

ANDERSON: "People" magazine broke the news of the birth but grandma Palin took issue with its description of the baby's parents. Palin left a voice mail with "People" this week saying "You need to know that both Levi and Bristol are working their butts off to parent and going to school and working at the same time. They are certainly not high school dropouts." She asserted that claims to the contrary harm Bristol's reputation and Levi's reputation and Levi's chances for good work opportunities.

Levi spoke to the Associated Press in October which reported he had left high school to take a job as an apprentice electrician. Palin who has publicly encouraged kids in the past to finish school issued this clarification through a spokesperson to CNN. Bristol begins her final semester of high school next week where she will get the last credit needed to graduate. Levi is continuing his online high school work in addition to working as an electrical apprentice on the North Slope.

With a new baby, school, work and a wedding in the near future, for Bristol, Levi and grandma Palin, 2009 promises to be a very busy year.

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ANDERSON: Now Bristol Palin told CNN via a spokesperson, I am fortunate to have a supportive family and triple is so precious and we love him so much with our hearts that I can't imagine life without him now. And Governor Palin is quote, over the moon about her new grandson.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you, Brooke.

Students and teaches at one struggling school was floored not just by the tremendous gift they received but also by who gave the gift which is of course Oprah Winfrey. CNN's Brooke Bolduan joins us live with that story.

BROOKE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have heard of her. These are inner city students who rap about change and now a certain someone has changed their lives with a single letter.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BOLDUAN: Their song is a rap turned viral video written by middle schoolers with lyrics that go over the heads of some adults. Now these singing scholars at the Ron Clark Academy, a private school in Atlanta, received a real letter, and no, not from Barack Obama, but we will call her a friend.

RON CLARK, FOUNDER, RON CLARK ACADEMY: It said dear Ron, I saw the video of your school on the website and I think it is incredible what you are doing by sharing your passion with the students and teachers around the country and bravo, bravo my good friend, Oprah Winfrey. And I freaked out.

BOLDUAN: Wait. There was more.

CLARK: Then a sheet of paper fell out and I picked it up and there was a check for $365,000. I was like, what? I looked and I couldn't believe it. There was no one there to tell and I was all excited. It was amazing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is history.

BOLDUAN: $1,000 for every day of the year. This is an inner city school where tuition can run $14,000 a year, and according to Clark whose school depends on donations to support the students whose families cannot afford that whole tab. He plans to use this Christmas check to open up the doors for even more students.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is such an amazing gift.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a powerful moment in history.

BOLDUAN: And at the school where Clark's staff teaches by day and fund raises by night, this gracious gift may encourage others to give as well.

CLARK: So hopefully other people will say, hmm, maybe I should send a check to the school, wink, wink, and get more support.

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BOLDUAN: You like that, wink, wink? The story is not over, because they may be Washington bound. Oprah told Clark on the phone maybe she will have the students on the show when she is filming from Washington, D.C. so we are hoping to get Ron Clark's kids invited to the inaugural event as well.

MALVEAUX: What a great story, Brooke.

BOLDUAN: Thank you, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Well, with the death of his father and mother, Michelle Obama shares clips of her family that have never been seen before. Plus a newly discovered danger towering over southern California. Quake experts are concerned that some of the tallest buildings are in danger of collapse.

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MALVEAUX: Barack Obama is getting a head start on the economic stimulus package. The president-elect will meet with house speaker Nancy Pelosi and senate majority leader Harry Reid on Monday and discuss what they are now calling an economic recovery plan. An aide tells CNN that he hopes to meet then with republican leaders.

Well, Californians live in the fear of the next big earthquake, but now there is a new concern. CNN's Kara Finnstrom joins us with this report.

Kara, tell us what is happening.

KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the fact is that we have not had a massive earthquake to test today's skyscrapers so scientists staged a mock earthquake and prepared their own projections of what might happen.

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FINNSTROM: The largest earthquake drill in U.S. history is now causing its own shake-up with engineers debating one of the troubling conclusions, scientists predict that during a massive quake in southern California about five high-rise steel buildings could collapse. And now a description of this --

SWAMI KRISHNAN, CALTECH: Well, for those few stories of the localized damage and then those four stories give way and then the stories up above come pancaking down.

FINNSTROM: Scientists used computer models and analyses from past earthquakes to find out what could happen in a 7.8 earthquake. Part of the research showed that some skyscrapers steel structures may be vulnerable.

LUCY JONES, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY: Because of what was discovered after the 1994 earthquake and how there were cracks in some of the buildings, it raises the possibility that some of them could collapse.

FINNSTROM: But the principle inspector for L.A.'s safety department says that the building codes won't change based on predictions telling CNN, "it is basically a hypothetical theorem that civil engineers and some geologists say is a possibility, but we are just not convinced that five high-rise steel buildings collapsing in an earthquake, that this is going to happen." Cal Tech scientists point out Louisiana engineers were warned about potential levees toppling over before Katrina hit. They want southern Californians forewarned.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that the big earthquake is waiting to happen. It happens every once 50 years and the last big earthquake was 1887 and we are due for the big one at some point in time, and so we really need to be prepared.

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FINNSTROM: I did speak with the city fire official who said that their department and other emergency officials are also looking at the projections of the scientists, and the huge drill which took place in November touched on much more than high-rises. It covered every aspect of a massive earthquake from the fires that might follow to the possible problems with water and electricity. Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Thank you.