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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The war in the Middle East has put civilians in the line of fire.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's been true of just about every conflict there, and it's certainly been true since this latest attack staged by Hamas Saturday that killed hundreds of Israelis. Israel has responded with airstrikes on Gaza, the heavily populated area where Hamas is based and from where the attacks were launched. On NPR, Israeli Cabinet Minister Ron Dermer insisted that the world should accept Israeli operations that kill civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RON DERMER: Even in the most targeted strikes that you can possibly have, you are going to have civilian casualties. And what has happened time after time is people will all of a sudden be with Israel unequivocally at the beginning when we're just victims, but when we fight and we fight to win, all of a sudden the tide turns. It cannot turn now.

MARTIN: And now Hamas has made a threat, saying it will execute civilian hostages if Israel strikes civilians without warning.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is covering all of this from Tel Aviv. Hello again, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the Israeli military doing?

ESTRIN: Well, it's continuing to attack Gaza with airstrikes. And the Israeli army spokesman says Israel has nearly regained control of the border with Gaza - nearly. It thinks there still might be a few Gaza militants inside Israel. There were a couple of firefights in two Israeli communities along the Gaza border. They say that Israel killed many hundreds of militants, maybe even past a thousand, inside Israel, but that there are no more infiltrations across the border. And Israel has nearly completed the evacuation of civilians, Israelis, along the border. So far, officials say over 900 Israelis have been killed, and more than 680 Palestinians have been killed. Of course, enormous concerns about hostages inside Gaza.

INSKEEP: Yeah, well, how do the hostages complicate the Israeli effort to respond or retaliate to these attacks?

ESTRIN: It clearly complicates it, right? If you have Israeli bombardments on Gaza, what happens to the Israeli civilians who are held there captive? I put that very question to the army. They didn't want to respond. They are saying that there are over probably 100 to 150 civilians, Israelis, and soldiers held captive in Gaza. We don't have the exact numbers, but the Israeli army spokesman said it was atrocious, he said, the messages they're getting from the Hamas military spokesman threatening to kill, execute Israeli hostages if Israel bombards and kill civilians without warning. Of course, Hamas wants a prisoner exchange with Palestinians in Israeli jails. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has done a prisoner exchange with Hamas in the past. But I think right now Israelis are simply astonished. They're astonished at the hostages. They're astonished at the entire aftermath. There is a feeling that the government is absent. I've heard that a lot, a failure to protect, to rescue communities, even today. A lot of volunteers are pitching in to help rescue people from the areas of fighting. I spoke to one person who was rescued, an Israeli journalist, Amir Tibon.

AMIR TIBON: The government - where are they? We don't understand what's going on. I mean, this is a huge failure of the government. We have to fight. We have to win. But this will not be forgotten.

ESTRIN: I hear that a lot, Steve.

INSKEEP: Daniel, Israel said - or an Israeli defense minister said that Israel would cut off food, water and electricity to Gaza, which it almost completely surrounds. What are you hearing, if anything, from inside Gaza?

ESTRIN: You know, the Gaza border is sealed off, so I, as a journalist, cannot get in. And now Gaza's border with Egypt is sealed, so Palestinians cannot escape. But we do know over 180,000 Palestinians have fled their homes, according to the U.N., seeking shelter inside Gaza. Our producer Anas Baba met one woman who was in a hospital, and she was saying she doesn't feel that there's anywhere that's safe in Gaza, Steve.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: She says that there are just scores of families that are seeking shelter at the hospital, but she says there's nowhere safe in Gaza.

INSKEEP: Something powerful about that word, (non-English language spoken) - no, no, no, no, no. Daniel, thank you very much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: People around the world showed support for Israel in recent days. Landmarks from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the White House in Washington were lit in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag.

MARTIN: But some Americans also marched in support of Palestinians or issued statements blaming Israel. These activists highlighted Israel's ongoing treatment of Palestinians in the generations-old conflict over land.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann has been tracking this. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who's marching for the Palestinians?

MANN: Well, these are progressive and far-left groups and Islamic political organizations that have long advocated for Palestinian independence. Here's the sound of a protest in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: From the river to the sea...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Palestine will be free.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...Palestine will be free.

MANN: And it's worth pointing out, Steve, that song, that chant by some interpretations calls for establishment of a Palestinian state with borders that could effectively erase Israel from the map. There were pro-Palestinian protest marches with hundreds of people in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, San Diego and Washington, D.C. At some of these rallies, pro-Israel protesters also gathered, and in some places, scuffles broke out between activists.

INSKEEP: Weren't there also student groups at Harvard University that issued a statement on this?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. Roughly 30 Harvard student groups, many led by Arab or Muslim activists or students with ties to predominantly Muslim countries, they co-signed this letter which reads - and I'm quoting here, Steve - "We hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence." These groups described Israel as a colonial apartheid country.

INSKEEP: OK, I understand the political argument or the historical argument they're making. In the 1940s, Israelis and Palestinians, according to the U.N., were both supposed to get a state. Israelis got theirs. The Palestinians didn't. In more recent times, Gaza has been isolated and surrounded by giant walls put up by Israel. But the most recent news here is of Hamas fighters killing or kidnapping women and children. How did the activists account for that?

MANN: Yeah, the timing of these marches, Steve, as some Israeli neighborhoods were still under siege, sparked rage from many politicians. You know, Democrats and Republicans spoke out, especially here in New York. Governor Kathy Hochul called the New York City march abhorrent and morally repugnant, and Senator Chuck Schumer described the rally as coldhearted. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate and a Republican, condemned that student statement as abhorrent and heinous and called on Harvard officials to denounce the letter. I did reach out to Harvard officials for a comment, and they have not responded. It's worth pointing out in New York City, meanwhile, the NYPD has increased security around synagogues and Jewish community organizations.

INSKEEP: Do you hear pro-Palestinian activists responding to the criticism?

MANN: Well, I spoke to Manolo De Los Santos, who heads a group called the People's Forum in New York City. He defended his organization's right to protest peacefully to criticize Israel for the treatment of Palestinians. I asked him if he's comfortable with Hamas's attack on civilians, the deliberate killing and kidnapping of young people and elderly Israelis. We spoke by phone. Here's what he said.

MANOLO DE LOS SANTOS: I do know it's a war. I wish there weren't Israeli young people who had to die, the same way I regret the fact that so many thousands of Palestinians are dying.

MANN: De Los Santos told me he wouldn't criticize any part of Hamas's attack. I should say, Steve, NPR has spoken with other supporters of Palestinian independence who have called for nonviolent resistance.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, the turmoil in the Middle East adds new urgency to disputes here in Washington, D.C. President Biden will address the nation later today.

MARTIN: But the House of Representatives remains paralyzed until Republicans can elect a new speaker. This comes after a small bloc of hard-right Republicans led an effort, which Democrats joined, to remove Kevin McCarthy from office. At first, McCarthy said he would not run again for speaker, but at a news conference Monday, which was called ostensibly to call for more U.S. support for Israel, the California Republican indicated he would serve again if he could get the votes.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: That's a decision by the conference. I'll allow the conference to make whatever decision. Whether I'm speaker or not, I'm a member of this body.

INSKEEP: OK, let's turn to NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's McCarthy thinking?

DAVIS: The attack on Israel has scrambled a lot of the calculations here on Capitol Hill. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul said he thought it was dangerous to remove the speaker the way Republicans did. And he also made the point on CNN recently that without a speaker, Congress can't move legislation. They can't pass aid to Israel. They can't pass a resolution he's authored condemning Hamas for the attack. And they can't do anything until there's a speaker in place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL MCCAUL: I look at the world and all the threats that are out there, and what kind of message are we sending to our adversaries when we can't govern, when we're dysfunctional, when we don't even have a speaker of the House?

DAVIS: All of this seems to have affected McCarthy. He made extensive remarks on Israel. He called a press conference even though he is not the speaker of the House. But as of now, it still seems pretty clear he doesn't have the votes. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican who's one of his top detractors, reiterated this on Monday on social media, saying that it was, quote, "time to move forward."

INSKEEP: I guess we should remember the math. Any House Republican who loses a few House Republican votes can't win. There are a couple of other Republicans who seem to be in the running - Steve Scalise, who has been number two in the House up to now, and Jim Jordan, very prominent committee chairman.

DAVIS: Republicans are trying to hash this all out this week. They held a meeting last night, essentially just to vent some anger from everything that played out last week. They're going to have a candidate forum tonight where Scalise and Jordan will address their colleagues behind closed doors. If all goes to plan, they're going to hold a closed-door, secret-ballot election amongst just Republicans on Wednesday morning. And if they think a Republican can get the votes before the full House, they could move to the full House floor very quickly, even as early as Wednesday. There is a lot of hesitation among Republicans, especially Republicans like McCaul, to have this all play out on the floor like it did in January. They don't want to go 15 rounds. They don't want to go several days, especially following the attack on Israel, because there's a real fear of projecting this sort of image of democracy in the U.S. in disarray in a very public fashion.

INSKEEP: Just briefly, some people will wonder, like, could the Democrats get involved? Could Democrats give a few votes to someone? Is - does there still seem to be no likelihood of that at all?

DAVIS: There still seems to be no likelihood of that at all.

INSKEEP: OK. How else has the war in the Middle East affected Congress?

DAVIS: Well, in the Senate, I think it's created new urgency around a lot of nominations that are not filled. There's been a blockade of hundreds of military appointees by Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville. There's also new focus on getting ambassadors confirmed. Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is waiting to be confirmed as ambassador to Israel. Also, Steve, Ukraine aid - changes the tenor of that debate around the U.S. role in aiding democracies. And there's already conversation over whether Congress should couple Ukraine aid with possible aid to Israel.

INSKEEP: Just a reminder that when it comes to money, the United States can do nothing if the House of Representatives cannot vote. Is that correct, Susan?

DAVIS: That is correct.

INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis, always a pleasure hearing from you. Thank you.

DAVIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.