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Morning news brief

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say Republican Senator John Thune is from Texas. He is from South Dakota.]

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The fighting in the Gaza Strip is getting closer and closer to the largest hospital in southern Gaza, one of only about a third of hospitals still functioning there.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Thousands of civilians are sheltering at Nasser Medical Center in Khan Younis. But after airstrikes and combat nearby, many of them are evacuating. Some 85% of the population is displaced. And in Israel, tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet are raising questions about the durability of his governing coalition.

FADEL: NPR's Becky Sullivan joins us now from Tel Aviv to talk about all this. Good morning, Becky.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so let's start with Gaza, where I know it's hard to get information right now because communications have been down for days. But what do you know about what's happening at the hospital?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, that's right. So what we do know there is that, a few days ago, witnesses say an airstrike hit just about 150 yards from the entrance to the hospital. That killed eight people, according to Doctors Without Borders. And we've seen videos come out on social media - this limited connectivity that people have - showing civilians evacuating as you can hear gunfire and explosions behind them. We heard from Leo Cans. He's the head of mission for Palestine with Doctors Without Borders. He was at the hospital on Tuesday. Yesterday, he came out and put out a little video clip that said, you know, the situation there is catastrophic.

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LEO CANS: The fighting is very close to us. We hear a lot of bombing around, a lot of shooting around.

SULLIVAN: And Israel - you know, they say that Hamas uses hospitals for cover for its operations. The military said Tuesday that a Hamas fighter launched some kind of munition from the hospital grounds at Nasser Hospital. That's not something NPR can independently verify. Another thing to note is that there is a hostage who was released back in November telling media that she and about 30 others were kept for weeks in this hospital - at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis.

FADEL: Now, Israeli officials have been talking more openly about a war in the north, where the Israeli military and Lebanese Hezbollah are trading fire. Is a new front in this war starting to look like a real possibility?

SULLIVAN: You know, there's a lot of talk about that. As you say, the militant group Hezbollah is based there, and it's important to note that they are much better armed than Hamas. And so what we have seen, Leila, is that rockets and other attacks over the border have really ramped up over the past two weeks. There has been an American envoy up there this month trying to reach a diplomatic agreement to try to calm things down. Reuters is reporting last night that Hezbollah has rejected that so far. And what we're hearing is that both sides are doing a lot of talk, saying that they're ready for war.

As an example, last night, the Israeli military chief of staff, Herzi Halevi - he says, I don't know when the war in the north is, but, quote, "I can tell you that the likelihood of it happening in the coming months is much higher than it was in the past." Israel has withdrawn troops from northern Gaza, we know. And, this morning, a former Israeli national security adviser said that one reason for that is to train them and to redeploy them along the northern border in preparation for this possible war. So we don't know, but the odds seem maybe increasingly likely - hard to say.

FADEL: Now, the man leading this war - the Israel-Hamas War - is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How are Israelis feeling about how this is all going?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, there has been a lot of anger here, especially over the hostages, that has sparked up again over these last - or just over the last day. There is debate over what caused the death of two hostages whose bodies were recovered from Gaza in December. Hamas says they were killed in an Israeli airstrike. Yesterday, the Israeli military denied that. But, importantly, they couldn't rule out that maybe the two hostages were killed as the result of an Israeli military action indirectly. All this is to say there's this growing skepticism over Israel's argument that military pressure is needed to bring about a new hostage release. And so there is, you know, some unity that was there at the start of the war, especially in Netanyahu's war cabinet, that is kind of starting to fray.

FADEL: NPR's Becky Sullivan in Tel Aviv - thank you for your reporting, Becky.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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FADEL: Amid the Israel-Hamas war that's gone on more than 100 days, another conflict is emerging.

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MUMTAZ ZAHRA BALOCH: Pakistan undertook a series of highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts in Iran.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman announcing this morning that her country's military has struck Iran. Iranian media report nine people were killed, and it comes after Iran this week struck sites in Pakistan and Iraq.

FADEL: On the line to help us understand what's going on is NPR's Diaa Hadid. She covers South Asia, including Pakistan, from her base in Mumbai. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so set the scene for us first here. What happened, exactly?

HADID: Well, Pakistan says it carried out airstrikes inside Iran that targeted hideouts of militants which it accuses of conducting cross-border attacks. And that came after Iran conducted its own surprise attacks inside Pakistan. Local media reports that, in one of those strikes, a mud hut was hit, killing a child and a baby. Now, this is all taking place in an area called Balochistan. It's vast, and it straddles Pakistan and Iran. It's rugged, porous and impoverished. And it's long been a space where militants, separatists and smugglers have thrived, and they've used it as a redoubt to attack both countries. So even in the past, Iran has conducted small ground incursions into Pakistani Balochistan in pursuit of militants.

FADEL: OK. So you're describing cross-border incursions that have happened before. So what's different about what's happening right now?

HADID: This kind of escalation is rare, according to analysts I've spoken to, like Mosharraf Zaidi. He's a columnist and a director of a think tank in Islamabad. And he spoke to me from a flight, so you can hear some whooshing noise.

MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: The scale of what Iran did was unprecedented. And certainly, Pakistan's response and the nature of it, the speed of it and the size of it are also, to my memory, unprecedented.

HADID: And amid these tensions, Pakistan expelled the Iranian ambassador. The prime minister and the Pakistani foreign minister have both cut overseas trips, and they're coming home.

FADEL: So it's unprecedented. It sounds like it's escalating, at least diplomatically. And it comes at a time of uncertainty. The war between Israel and Hamas has now gone on for more than 100 days, as I mentioned. Are these hostilities related at all? Is that conflict turning into something bigger?

HADID: Well, it may be connected in the sense that Iran appears to be concerned. It's accused of playing a role in the current war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza through proxy groups that are accused of attacking Israeli and American interests in the region. And amid that conflict, there was an attack claimed by the Islamic State in Iran that killed over 90 people earlier this month. So Iran might feel that it needs to reassert its dominance and authority in the region.

FADEL: Hmm. So what's next? Is there a sense that these tensions between Pakistan and Iran could escalate further?

HADID: Well, there does seem to be some probing for a way out. China, which is an ally of both countries, is offering to help defuse tensions. Will it work, though? The mood in Pakistan is of surprise and anger. And the AP reports Iran's military will also begin, today, a planned air defense drill from a seaport near Pakistan, and that might also add to tensions.

FADEL: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thank you, Diaa.

HADID: Thank you, Leila.

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FADEL: Russia invaded Ukraine almost two years ago.

MARTÍNEZ: President Biden used to say Ukraine had U.S. support as long as it takes. But lately, he hasn't been able to make that promise. That's because Republicans in the House of Representatives have not said yes to a request for more aid. Here's House Speaker Mike Johnson at the White House last night.

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MIKE JOHNSON: We understand that there's concern about the safety, security, and sovereignty of Ukraine, but the American people have those same concerns about our own domestic sovereignty and our safety and our security.

MARTÍNEZ: Johnson says he wants big changes in U.S. border policy first before agreeing to any more money for Ukraine.

FADEL: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was at the White House yesterday, and she joins us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: OK, so the president summoned congressional leaders to the White House to talk about Ukraine. How did the conversation go?

LIASSON: According to White House and Senate officials, it went pretty good - according to House Republicans, maybe not so much. Now, you heard speaker Mike Johnson talking just there. He didn't say no to Ukraine aid. He is still willing, in theory, to provide more aid, but he's continuing to tie this to border policy. He insists on big changes and that the border policy changes should take priority. President Biden says he's willing to make concessions on the border in order to get Ukraine aid also because he's under pressure from blue-state Democratic governors and mayors who are grappling with increased numbers of migrants. So it's not just Republicans in border states. And in the Senate, there is a bipartisan group trying to work out a deal on the border that would be tied to Ukraine aid. And so far, they say they are making progress.

FADEL: OK. So the president is willing to make concessions. There's a bipartisan group working on it. Is that enough to get a deal?

LIASSON: In the Senate, yes, but the House is a question mark. Yesterday, the speaker of the House listed off a series of policy measures that he thinks are essential. They're basically elements of former President Donald Trump's border policy. They were in a bill passed by the House, but this bill has no chance of clearing the Senate because no Democrats would vote for it. And of course, it needs 60 votes. The question is, would enough Republicans in the House accept anything less than that? Many hard-right Republicans see bipartisan bills - bills that you pass with Democratic votes - as failures. That's one of the reasons Kevin McCarthy lost his job as speaker. So there's also a school of thought that says some Republicans would rather have the border as an issue to use against President Biden going into the 2024 election than actually get a bill. In the Senate, there are Republicans like John Thune of Texas and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia who say, look, this is the best chance of getting any Democratic support for big changes in the border; even if Republicans won the White House in November, we couldn't pass anything like this because Democrats would never vote for it.

FADEL: What are Democratic leaders saying?

LIASSON: They talked to reporters outside the White House also. They say this would only happen if the two issues are handled together and in a bipartisan way. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he's optimistic. He put the chances of a deal as a little bit greater than half. He and Biden have been saying that the stakes here are really high. This is urgent. If Russia wins, takes over Ukraine, it will hurt the national security of the United States. It'll hurt NATO and the world.

FADEL: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. 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.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.