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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Israel is observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here's how it sounded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN RINGING)

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sirens blared across the country, traffic stopped on highways and Israelis stood for two minutes of reflection. The annual event is taking place in the middle of a war. Israel is fighting Hamas in Gaza, and its military has sent more signals that it is about to attack Rafah, the city where Palestinian civilians have fled the fighting elsewhere.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Tel Aviv and covering the story. Lauren, welcome.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: We've heard talk about Rafah for a very long time, so what indications do you have of action now?

FRAYER: Well, today, Israel's military began dropping leaflets over Rafah, sending out text and voice messages and posting maps on social media with arrows showing people where to flee the eastern periphery of Rafah. This is what Israel said it would do, evacuate civilians before any ground incursion into Rafah. Now, the United States and the United Nations have tried to discourage Israel from attacking Rafah because this is where nearly 1.5 million people, basically half of Gaza's population, has sought refuge. But the Israel Defense Minister called U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin overnight to tell him, basically, Israel is going ahead anyway.

INSKEEP: Israel has said there are Hamas battalions that are hiding in that very crowded city. And I guess we should note Israel is talking about sending in ground troops. Haven't they already been attacking Rafah from the air?

FRAYER: For months, yes. And these people in Rafah are also struggling with shortages of food, water, medicine. The head of the U.N.'s World Food Program, Cindy McCain, was asked about conditions in Gaza on NBC's meet the press yesterday, and here's how she described it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

CINDY MCCAIN: It's hard. It's so hard to look at and it's so hard to hear also. I'm so hoping that we can get a cease-fire and begin to feed these people, especially in the north.

FRAYER: She says full-blown famine is already happening in the north of Gaza and spreading south to areas where we're seeing evacuation orders today.

INSKEEP: We heard Cindy McCain mention a cease-fire. Weren't there talks underway until very recently intended to produce a cease-fire?

FRAYER: Yes, and they fell apart last night. Over the weekend, Hamas sent a team to Cairo for talks. Israel did not send a team but was working through mediators from Egypt and Qatar, participants say. The CIA director was there. Israel and Hamas have both issued statements blaming the other. But basically, the impasse seems to be over whether a cease-fire would've been temporary or permanent, whether Israeli troops would withdraw from Gaza altogether.

But within hours of the breakdown of those talks, Hamas said it fired rockets at Israeli troops amassing on Gaza's border. But Israel says those rockets hit a border crossing where humanitarian aid goes into Gaza. Incidentally, this is a border crossing that Secretary of State Antony Blinken was actually visiting when he was in the region here last week. Now Israel says it's had to close that crossing because of the violence. So this means less food, water, medicine reaching those people who desperately need it.

INSKEEP: Got to ask about another bit of news from over the weekend - or a shutdown of news from over the weekend. Qatar, you mentioned, one of the mediators in these talks - also has a very influential TV station, Al Jazeera, and Israel is pushing it out of the country.

FRAYER: That's right. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long accused Al Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for Hamas. Yesterday his cabinet voted unanimously to shut down Al Jazeera inside Israel. Israeli cable networks severed the signal last night. I've actually just tried to access aljazeera.com from here in Tel Aviv while we're talking, I cannot, though some of the channel's social media is still working. But press freedom groups are very upset. The Foreign Press Association here says Israel has joined a, quote, "dubious club of authoritarian governments" now.

INSKEEP: There'll be much more debate about that. NPR's Lauren Frayer in Tel Aviv. Thanks so much.

FRAYER: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Some other news now. China's president is visiting Europe. Xi Jinping says he wants to deepen Chinese investment in countries that the United States would like to align against China where necessary.

MARTIN: Yes, and the Chinese leader can expect two different welcomes. He is holding a state visit with the president of France, where Chinese trade practices are seen as unfair and China is seen as the strategic partner of a hostile Russia. But he's also traveling to Serbia and Hungary, whose leaders see China more as a friend.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Paris. Welcome.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: OK, so what's President Xi doing with French president Emmanuel Macron?

BEARDSLEY: Well, first of all, they're going to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Franco-Chinese relations. France was one of the first Western countries to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1964, Steve, some 15 years before the U.S. did. There'll be a red carpet, state dinner and all that, but the real substance will be about trade and the war in Ukraine. Take trade - Macron will not be meeting Xi alone. He is bringing in European Union Commission head Ursula von der Leyen. These talks are not just about France. They concern the EU and its 400 million-plus market of consumers. China is among the EU's top trading partners, but things are not well.

The EU says China's market-distorting practices create an unfair playing field, says China is subsidizing its electric car and solar panel industry and flooding the EU market. This could kill the electric car industry in Europe. And here's a figure, 97% of solar panels in the EU are made in China.

INSKEEP: Wow, a story we've heard in the United States, where China is producing desirable products but at prices that threaten local manufacturers. Are European countries all on the same page about what to do?

BEARDSLEY: No, they're not, and Xi knows this. And he's not against dividing Europe - and not only. I spoke with Philippe Le Corre, senior fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute and a professor at ESSEC Business School in Paris. Here's what he said.

PHILIPPE LE CORRE: President Xi Jinping probably thinks that he can have a good conversation about Europe and how it can detach itself from the United States, which, of course, is not so easy.

BEARDSLEY: Well, China wants, of course, a multipolar world, not one led by the U.S. And Macron, too, has spoken about strategic autonomy for Europe. He's said that Europe should find its own path and cannot always rely on or follow the U.S. And here's what Le Corre said about Macron.

LE CORRE: He will try to play the middleman. And he presents himself as somebody who can speak to both the United States and China. Not many people can do that these days. So in this very changing geopolitical environment, Macron thinks he can have his third way.

INSKEEP: Although, Macron has a particular side that he's picked in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely, Steve. And Macron will warn Xi of the dangers of backing Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. This war is a huge threat to European security and stability and Macron is saying that all the time now. Beijing may not be supplying weapons outright to Moscow, but it is providing machine tools, parts and computer chips that Russia is using in weapons production. Macron will put pressure on China to use its influence with Russia over this war. He's already talked about a truce during the Olympic games this summer.

INSKEEP: Eleanor, it makes perfect sense that the president of China would go to France, but why Serbia and Hungary?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, it is very strange. So it'll be a completely different atmosphere, a very warm welcome for Xi, for Beijing. These are like-minded countries. Chinese are the biggest investor in Serbia, which shares a resentment of NATO from the Kosovo War 25 years ago, and Xi may announce a new electric car vehicle plant in Hungary. And both of these countries, we might add, have good relations with Russia.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Boeing is hoping it has better success in space than it's lately had inside the atmosphere.

MARTIN: The company is launching two NASA astronauts tonight from Florida's Cape Canaveral on a mission to the International Space Station. This is the first time Boeing's Starliner capsule will carry people, and this comes after years of delays.

INSKEEP: This is probably a bad time for a joke about missing bolts, so we'll just cover the story here. Central Florida Public Media's Brendan Byrne hosts the space exploration podcast and radio show "Are We There Yet?" Brendan, are we there yet (laughter)?

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Almost, Steve, few more hours (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK. How big a deal is this launch?

BRENDAN BYRNE: This is a really big deal, Steve. This launch is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. So after the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA needed a way to transport its astronauts to and from the ISS. They gave development deals to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014. But they want to have two capsules operating. SpaceX is sending astronauts now. Boeing is going to certify this capsule for future missions. So here's Starliner pilot and NASA astronaut Suni Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNI WILLIAMS: We're thinking about this for not only our flight but for the flight of Starliner, you know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. You know, everybody who's going to come behind us and fly the spacecraft, we want to make it as best as possible.

BRENDAN BYRNE: And that's because they're going to be alternating these flights between Boeing and SpaceX moving forward.

INSKEEP: Are Boeing and SpaceX directly competing here for space business then?

BRENDAN BYRNE: Not in this particular instance, Steve. NASA really wants to have redundant ability to get people up to the station. So about every six months, they'll switch off between two.

INSKEEP: OK. So how is this working here? SpaceX has flown how many missions so far, and then there's the other coming from Boeing?

BRENDAN BYRNE: That's right. SpaceX has flown nine missions so far for NASA and another four private flights before Boeing has even sent a single person up. And this has been delayed because Starliner's first uncrewed test flight in 2019 failed to reach the space station. That was a huge setback for the program. Software was improperly written - no one caught it before the launch. They re-flew the mission in 2022. It was mostly deemed a success.

But there were some issues with the propellant valve that helped control the spacecraft. And the following year, in 2023, more worrying issues popped up in Starliner. They found the lines that held the parachutes weren't strong enough, and the tape used to wrap hundreds of feet of wire in the capsule were flammable.

INSKEEP: Wow.

BRENDAN BYRNE: So they worked to fix the issue, and NASA said that's what these test flights are all about. Found those issues and fixed them, and now they're ready to launch Suni and Butch.

INSKEEP: OK, so NASA is confident here. But there would be reason for people following the news to worry here, I think.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, that's right. You know, Boeing says its focus on this project has always been astronaut safety - that's the No. 1 priority. But, you know, as you mentioned at the top of our conversation, Steve, Boeing has been in the harsh spotlight recently for continued production and quality control problems with its 7307 Max jets. And you're right - it's really hard to separate that image of Boeing's safety issues with its planes and this space mission. Boeing's Mark Nappi was asked about that recently. Does Boeing see this as a must-win for its image? Here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK NAPPI: I don't think of it in terms of what's important for Boeing as much as I think of it as in terms of what's important for this program, what's important to follow through with the commitments that we made to our customer.

BRENDAN BYRNE: And that commitment includes the successful test flight of these two astronauts, Butch and Suni, who will spend about a week at the station.

INSKEEP: Central Florida Public Media's Brendan Byrne. Thanks so much.

BRENDAN BYRNE: You got it, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME'S "HEAD FIRST") 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.