Morning news brief
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Israel's prime minister has given orders to prepare for a military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If you picture a map of Gaza, Rafah is at the very bottom at a border crossing to Egypt. It's now the refuge for people from all over the rest of Gaza who fled Israel's offensive in recent months. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told the army to prepare some kind of plan to evacuate more than 1 million civilians from Rafah, although it's not clear where they could go.
FADEL: NPR's Eyder Peralta is following the story from Tel Aviv, and he joins us now. Good morning.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: So let's start with these threats from Israel. Palestinians have been displaced multiple times over. Now, a majority of residents of the strip are in this small piece of land in the southernmost part of the Palestinian territory. Why is Israel now moving into this part of Gaza?
PERALTA: Well, Israel says that it's going after Hamas. Remember, last October, Hamas launched an attack in southern Israel that killed some 1,200 people, and Israel vowed to destroy Hamas. And so far, they have swept from Gaza's north to itself. The bombing has killed some 28,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's health ministry. And in the past few days, Israel's defense minister and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say that Rafah, a city that, as you said, is along the border with Egypt, is Hamas' final stronghold. Netanyahu was interviewed by ABC yesterday, and he reiterated that Israel was poised to launch a military operation at Rafah. Let's listen.
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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there.
FADEL: And part of this may have already started. We're hearing reports of airstrikes this morning and some good news about hostages taken from Israel. What are you learning?
PERALTA: So we know there's been an increase in airstrikes generally in Rafah. But the Israeli military says what happened overnight was about hostages and that the airstrikes were a diversionary tactic. The military says that they rescued two of the 136 hostages who Israel believe are still in Gaza, and they say both are in good condition. A hospital official tells NPR that at least 50 Palestinians were killed last night. NPR producer Anas Baba was on the street in Rafah. Let's listen.
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ANAS BABA, BYLINE: It's very intensive shelling all around me.
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BABA: Next to my house, there is Al-Huda. Al-Huda Mosque is one of the most known mosques all over Rafah, and it got bombed to pieces. Could you exactly tell me your name, please?
AMZA NEDAL ABUL: Amza Nedal Abul (ph).
BABA: Could you tell me what's happened exactly?
ABUL: Every day we lose everything. We lose our family, we lose our health, we lose our mosques. We lose our children and our houses. You know, where's the humanity? I mean, where's the humanity?
PERALTA: Where is the humanity, she keeps asking, where is the world?
FADEL: OK, so let's ask that question. Where does the world stand on this?
PERALTA: I mean, pretty much everyone - the U.S., the U.N., the EU, the U.K. - is warning Israel against moving into Rafah, and that's because Rafah is the last remaining relatively safe space for Palestinian refugees. Some 1.4 million Palestinians are now in Rafah. I spoke to Yousef Hammash, who works for the Norwegian Refugee Council, and he describes a desperate atmosphere. To the north you have bombing and hunger, and to the south you have Egypt, which does not want to take refugees.
So everyone feels like they've been painted into a corner, that there is nowhere to run. And if bombing begins, he says, it feels like the only choice you're left with is - the only choice you're left to make is how you want to die. It's worth noting that in a phone call, President Biden caution Prime Minister Netanyahu, saying that any military operation in Rafah should be accompanied by a credible plan to protect civilians.
FADEL: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Tel Aviv. Thank you, Eyder.
PERALTA: Thank you, Leila.
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FADEL: Former President Trump has reignited questions about what he'd do to U.S. alliances as president.
INSKEEP: At a campaign rally, the ex-president told a rambling tale of a supposed conversation with the leader of an unnamed nation in NATO, the North Atlantic Alliance. Trump pictured himself saying that if the NATO ally didn't pay enough, he would not protect them against Russia.
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DONALD TRUMP: No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.
INSKEEP: The ex-president, who is famous for failing to pay his own bills, appeared to misspeak about the nature of the NATO alliance, whose members do not owe bills. The nations do commit to spend a percentage of their budgets on defense. They are also committed to defend one another and came to the United States' defense when it was attacked in 2001.
FADEL: NPR's Stephen Fowler in Atlanta was at the rally and joins us now. Good morning.
STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: So Donald Trump says he would encourage Russia to, quote, "do whatever the hell they want" to NATO countries in Europe that, in his mind, aren't spending enough on defense. Pretty controversial statement to make at a time Russia's actively at war in Ukraine and NATO allies feel threatened. What's his message with this statement?
FOWLER: Well, Leila, Trump has been critical of NATO for a while. That's not a new development.
FOWLER: I mean, in fact, his presidency was marked by consistently questioning the value of international alliances broadly and NATO specifically. I mean, he repeatedly threatened in private to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance and publicly harangued other global powers like Germany and France to contribute more to defense spending. Over the last decade, NATO members have aimed to increase spending levels to 2% of their GDP, and as of last year, only 11 of 31 countries hit that target. That includes the U.S., which spends about 3.5%.
As we heard, Trump falsely implies there are countries that haven't paid their bills or owe the U.S. or NATO directly. I mean, it's not like a country club where there are dues to be considered a member, it's a club of countries that have promised to defend and protect each other from threats. So why more spending over the years? Russian aggression over the last decade, which is complicated by Trump's vocal support of Russia.
FADEL: What's the reaction been to his comments?
FOWLER: Well, the White House issued a rare statement late Saturday calling the comments, quote, "unhinged," said it was promoting deranged chaos and stressed that the stance of President Joe Biden's administration is that NATO is the largest and most vital it's ever been. And of course, the campaign wants to make that front and center. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday that any suggestion NATO allies would not honor the commitment to defend one another, quote, "undermines all of our security." Republicans in Congress largely shrugged it off as Trump being Trump.
FADEL: An excuse we hear often from his Republican colleagues. So he's made a lot of people upset. Who is he appealing to here with these comments, Republican voters?
FOWLER: Well, yes and no. I mean, remember, Trump isn't a fan of NATO. And if he's elected again, there's no telling what he would advocate for. But some of Trump's defenders do point out the veiled threat from his anecdote was ultimately successful because other European countries and NATO did start stepping up to the plate and beefing up their spending. There are GOP primary voters that want America's global footprint to retreat a little bit and focus more domestically, but this meandering message about NATO and funding and foreign policy is typical Trump. I mean, think stories where people say, sir. It was part of a nearly two-hour riff in front of his biggest supporters, but it didn't really make that much of an impact to the crowd.
FADEL: That's NPR's Stephen Fowler in Atlanta. Thank you, Stephen.
FOWLER: Thank you.
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FADEL: Now let's check a claim that's made in the immigration debate. Republicans who blocked a bipartisan immigration plan in Congress have been insisting it's not really needed.
INSKEEP: House speaker Mike Johnson is among those making that assertion. The Republican leader has been saying that the president can close the border without the help of Congress.
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MIKE JOHNSON: I told President Biden this myself on multiple occasions, most recently a couple of weeks ago on the phone. I read him the law that says that he has all this authority, but he refuses to act.
FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been looking into this, and she joins us now. Good morning, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: OK, so let's start with a basic question. Can President Biden really shut down the border, as the speaker insists?
KHALID: Well, I posed this question to a number of immigration experts. And the simple answer, Leila, that I came away with is that any - no president can, fundamentally, wave a magic wand and suddenly seal off the country's borders. Theresa Cardinal Brown works on immigration issues at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She served in the Bush and Obama administrations, and she thought this idea was wild.
THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: Nobody has ever shut down the border. It has never happened. We did not shut down the border after 9/11. And legally, we are responsible for somebody the minute they step foot on U.S. soil. And if they walk up to the fence, they're on U.S. soil.
KHALID: And she's talking there about asylum law. And this is different than, you know, say, a national security measure, because I've heard some Republicans try to equate an asylum ban at the southern border to the so-called Muslim travel ban that former President Trump put in place. But what's going on at the southern border is different. It is an asylum issue. And, you know, the bipartisan bill that fell apart in Congress the other week would have given the president a new authority to declare an immigration emergency once a certain number of migrants had entered the country, but that was new.
FADEL: Now, didn't former President Trump kind of shut down the border during COVID?
KHALID: I guess under Title 42, if you're referring to that. That was a COVID-era measure that barred migrants from coming in because of public health concerns. The Biden administration did keep that Trump rule around for a long time, but a court struck that down. Donald Trump also tried a transit ban. It prevented many migrants from getting asylum if they had passed through a number of countries on their way to the U.S. border, but that was also struck down by the courts. President Biden has also tried a version of that. And, you know, without getting, I think, too far into the nitty gritty details, it is also being challenged in court. And I think that is one of the fundamental challenges of making immigration law via executive actions is it can get held up in the courts.
FADEL: So the president, though, is under a lot of political pressure to do something. Help doesn't seem to be coming from Congress. So can he take any unilateral steps?
KHALID: Well, I will say, the White House says that it has not ruled out other possible changes. But I think there is a distinction, Leila, between what the president can do and what he, you know, will do politically, because if he takes too tough of an approach, it could turn off some Democrats in an election year. Republicans will say that he ought to build more of a border wall or reinstate the Trump-era policy known as remain in Mexico that requires migrants to stay in Mexico until their court hearing date. But the key here is the U.S. government can't do that unilaterally. It needs Mexico's cooperation.
You know, it's not clear what the White House is considering next, but what is clear is that only 29% of Americans approve of how President Biden is handling immigration. That's according to our latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. And that means it'll be an issue that is at the top of many voters' minds heading into a presidential election year.
FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.
KHALID: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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