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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm in Jerusalem today, just down the street from the Old City and the holy sites of three major religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Those sites sometimes become flashpoints in this region's long-running conflict over land. In recent weeks, Israeli authorities have made arrests in this city and well beyond it as part of their response to the Israel-Hamas war. The main focus of the war is a little bit west of here in Gaza, where Israel has struck a refugee area for a third day. Israeli forces who say they are responding to the Hamas attack on Israel damaged a United Nations-run school, which had become a shelter for Palestinians. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back here in Israel today and says he is working on ways to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: When I see a Palestinian child - a boy, a girl - pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building, that hits me in the gut as much as seeing a child in Israel or anywhere else. So this is something that we have an obligation to respond to, and we will.

INSKEEP: The U.S. is calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting, rather than a full cease-fire. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen covers the secretary. Hey there, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why call for a temporary pause?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he's not pushing for a cease-fire, as many would like him to, because he says the Israelis have a right to defend itself against Hamas, which carried out that unprecedented attack on Israel October 7. Hamas is still holding more than 200 hostages, and it is still firing rockets into Israel. But Blinken is working on ways to find safe areas for Palestinians, arrange for these temporary pauses in the fight so that you can get more aid into Gaza and get Americans out. But, you know, these are things that he's been pushing for for nearly a month now, and aid has been moving very slowly, and there has been a lot of death and destruction. Palestinian officials say thousands of civilians have been killed. Blinken says Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.

INSKEEP: Well, are Americans getting out?

KELEMEN: Well, U.N. officials say hundreds of foreign passport holders have managed to leave through the Rafah gate to Egypt the past couple of days, including nearly 80 Americans. But the State Department has been in touch with about 400 Americans and their family members, a total of about a thousand people who want to leave Gaza. And again, Blinken has been working on this since his last trip to the region, which was in mid-October. So this has taken much longer than the State Department had hoped.

INSKEEP: Why?

KELEMEN: There are a lot of players with a lot of different interests. Egypt didn't want a rush of people coming across the border. Hamas was making its own demands. Qatar has been playing a role in this diplomacy, and now there's this kind of complicated system in place where you have the U.S., Israel and Egypt and authorities in Gaza swapping lists of people who are able to leave. The State Department sends out emails telling Americans when they can go. The State Department is hoping all the people who want to leave will be able to over the next couple of days through this weekend.

INSKEEP: Michele, it's helpful that you mentioned a bunch of countries there 'cause it reminds us how many countries have some stake in this conflict. What is Blinken doing to prevent this war from spreading?

KELEMEN: Well, one big concern is to try to maintain stability in the West Bank. He's been really concerned about Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians there, and he's worried about other groups in the region backed by Iran that could get involved in this fight. And he's warning them to stay out.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And let's continue on that theme, because earlier this week, our team had a chance to visit Israel's northern border, and we listened in the darkness as Israeli troops and Hezbollah traded fire. What an Israeli officer called a slow-motion war has continued all week, and today the leader of Hezbollah is giving a speech. NPR's Ruth Sherlock covers Lebanon. Hey there, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How has the fighting changed since I was there the other day?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, yesterday we saw a pretty significant escalation. Hezbollah struck Israeli army posts with two suicide drones, and it says it's the first time they've used this kind of weaponry in this conflict. And then a branch of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, of course, says it fired about a dozen rockets from Lebanon towards Kiryat Shmona, a northern Israeli town. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, like you know, Steve, have already been evacuated from these areas. But we're also seeing reports in Lebanon of smaller Iranian-backed Palestinian factions also gathering on the southern border to try to launch attacks from there. And Israel is retaliating with airstrikes and artillery.

INSKEEP: Meaningful, the sheer number of groups you just named there who have weapons and could do something. But, of course, Hezbollah is the big one, the one that controls the ground. So what does it mean that their leader is talking today?

SHERLOCK: Well, yeah, you're right. And, of course, you know, this is the first time that Hassan Nasrallah - that's Hezbollah's leader - has spoken since the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas. And Hezbollah is allied with Hamas. They're both backed by Iran. So there's this huge anticipation to know what is Hezbollah's strategy? What are they going to do? I put this to Nicholas Blanford. He's a Lebanon-based expert on the group.

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: The statements, the few statements from Hezbollah officials and Iranian officials, particularly the foreign minister, suggest to me that, yes, we're going to escalate. We're going to put pressure on the Israelis from the north. We're going to do our bit for the Palestinian cause to help our brothers in Hamas, but we are not willing to go into a full war at this stage...

SHERLOCK: Yeah.

BLANFORD: ...With a caveat that, of course, we're in a very, very dangerous situation, one that is potentially ripe for miscalculation.

SHERLOCK: You know, Steve, I think the salient point here is that for Iran, it's a strategic calculation. Hezbollah has these thousands of missiles, and Iran has used the group as a powerful deterrent with anyone who wants to attack Iran's nuclear program or try to destabilize the regime - knows they have to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon. So the question is, if Hamas looks like they're about to be defeated, will Iran commit Hezbollah to the war and, you know, invite this wider regional conflict?

INSKEEP: Ruth, here on the Israeli side I've gotten a sense of the human cost of all this. I've been in a hotel full of people who were evacuated from the north. I've been up north and talked to people who aren't evacuated and are stressed out by the constant gunfire. What is the human cost on the Lebanese side?

SHERLOCK: Well, there's, you know, over 25,000 people already displaced in Lebanon. Some of them are living with relatives or in university halls turned into shelters. I spoke with one woman. She's a public official from a southern Israeli - excuse me, a southern Lebanese town. And she talked about how she's already been displaced twice by the fighting, by the Israeli airstrikes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: And she's saying, you know, she's especially cautious about staying anywhere dangerous because she remembers the 2006 war with Israel, and that's the case for many Lebanese, Steve. They remember conflict, and they want to do everything they can to avoid getting dragged into another one.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks for your insights.

SHERLOCK: Thanks so much.

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A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The former king of crypto is going to prison. A jury in New York found Sam Bankman-Fried guilty of seven criminal counts, including securities fraud and money laundering. NPR's David Gura covered the trial. David, this trial seems to have had a very brisk pace.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Yeah. And from the very start, you know, right after Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested in the Bahamas, federal prosecutors claimed this was an open-and-shut case. So, yes, Sam Bankman-Fried was this new kind of crypto celebrity. He had disheveled hair. He wore shorts and T-shirts. A, I think you'll agree with me, he didn't look like any other billionaire CEO. But the U.S. government said none of that mattered. Prosecutors said a fraudster is a fraudster, and they pushed back hard against Bankman-Fried's defense that he was just trying to figure out how to navigate this new kind of finance, an industry in its infancy. Prosecutors told the jury this was not a case about the ins and outs of cryptocurrency. Last night, Damian Williams made some brief comments. He's the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Williams said he and his colleagues have seen schemes like this one over and over again.

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DAMIAN WILLIAMS: The cryptocurrency industry might be new. The players, like Sam Bankman-Fried, might be new. But this kind of fraud, this kind of corruption is as old as time, and we have no patience for it.

GURA: And, A, Damian Williams said he wants Bankman-Fried's conviction to send a message to other fraudsters, as he put it, a message to people who think they're untouchable.

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WILLIAMS: Those folks should think again and cut it out. And if they don't, I promise we'll have enough handcuffs for all of them.

GURA: The U.S. government put this case together so fast. The trial, A, was long, but not as long as everyone expected, and the jury didn't waste time. It took just five hours to make its decision.

MARTÍNEZ: It sounds like this outcome wasn't a huge surprise.

GURA: No, the prosecution had a very solid case here with a lot of documentary evidence. But the government also had three key witnesses. These were Sam Bankman-Fried's co-conspirators, a group of his deputies and close friends. It included his ex-girlfriend, who ran Alameda Research, this trading firm. And one by one, these cooperating witnesses told the jury that Bankman-Fried directed them to commit crimes. You know, their testimony was so compelling that Bankman-Fried decided to throw a Hail Mary. He took the stand himself so that jurors could hear from him directly. It's fair to say that backfired. But Bankman-Fried faced a withering cross-examination that lasted for almost eight hours, and prosecutors used Bankman-Fried's own words, A, against him. They poked holes in his story, made it clear to the jury that the scheme was his idea, and he knew that as cryptocurrency prices plummeted last year - and man, did they - that his company's implosion was unavoidable.

MARTÍNEZ: When's he getting sentenced?

GURA: Judge Lewis Kaplan has scheduled a sentencing hearing. That'll be on March the 28. Now, Bankman-Fried is just 31 years old, and the maximum penalty he faces, A, is 110 years in prison. His lawyer gave us a statement. He said Bankman-Fried maintains his innocence and plans to, quote, "continue to vigorously fight the charges against him." So he's going to appeal. But Bankman-Fried faces other legal challenges. The U.S. government has been planning to try Bankman-Fried on several other criminal counts. It's unclear if prosecutors are going to go ahead with that, because this one turned out the way that it did. The judge wants to know that by February. On top of that, there were civil suits. And Bankman-Fried's parents are also fighting a lawsuit filed by FTX's debtors. They're trying to claw back billions of dollars that disappeared when Bankman-Fried's crypto empire collapsed.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's David Gura. David, thanks.

GURA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.