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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After seven months of war and tens of thousands of deaths, a pause in the fighting in Gaza seemed to be in sight yesterday.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So it seemed, and in the city of Rafah, people celebrated...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

INSKEEP: ...With cheering, honking car horns, setting off firecrackers. Hamas announced it had just agreed to a cease-fire deal, and then Israel said the terms that Hamas claimed to have agreed to were not the terms that Israel put forth on the table. This morning, Israeli tanks are in Rafah and in control of Gaza's border crossing with Egypt.

MARTIN: NPR correspondent Aya Batrawy has been tracking these developments from Dubai, and she is with us now. Good morning, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So it has been a whirlwind 24 hours there for people in Rafah. Could you just tell us how we got here?

BATRAWY: It really has been. I mean, this actually really began, you could say, Sunday afternoon when Hamas fired rockets from Rafah into Israel, killing four soldiers. And this was in the middle of ongoing cease-fire talks in Cairo. Now, Israel, which had been planning an attack on Rafah, then dropped flyers and sent messages for people to leave certain parts of Rafah. The order impacts at least 100,000 people.

There were chaotic scenes of people frightened, packing their bags, again displaced for the fourth and fifth time, trying to walk with canes, wheelchairs, whatever they could carry. And just when it looked like Hamas and Israel were dug in for this major battle on Rafah, Hamas says they're ready to release hostages and accept a truce, something that huge numbers of supporters of Israeli hostages were waiting for.

MARTIN: You know, obviously, you know, for these hostages and for the people of Gaza, the stakes could not be higher. So what do we know about the deal that Hamas agreed to?

BATRAWY: So the devil here is really in the details, Michel. Now, this was a version of the deal that Egypt and Qatari mediators had been hammering out with Hamas over the weekend in Cairo with the CIA director there as well. Now, Hamas leaked a draft of this proposal. And basically, it calls for three phases to end the war, starting with a six-week pause and the release of some Israeli hostages in exchange for, you know, Palestinian prisoners and more aid coming into Gaza.

But ultimately, the sticking point has been and continues to be that Hamas wants a deal that ends the war, and Israel says that would just leave Hamas intact. So Israel's war Cabinet says the current deal doesn't meet its requirements, but they will send negotiators this time around to Cairo. They weren't there over the weekend. And meanwhile, you know, we're seeing these striking images of Israeli tanks in control of Gaza's border crossing just across from Egypt.

MARTIN: What about that? What does Israel's military operation look like in Rafah now? I mean, is this the major assault on the city that the U.S. and others had been warning against?

BATRAWY: So, Michel, this really just depends on who you ask. You know, a U.S. official told NPR in Washington, this did not appear to be that, but they said the White House has real concerns about this unfolding Israeli operation. Now, the Israeli military says this is a, quote, "precise counterterrorism operation" aimed at Hamas infrastructure. They say they killed 20 militants overnight. But for Palestinians in Rafah, this is what they feared the most. You know, hundreds have been killed in Rafah in Israel airstrikes over the past weeks. There were intense air strikes again overnight, striking homes and killing families sheltering there.

And aid organizations say this is also a nightmare scenario for them as well, because the area that Israel told people to evacuate from in Rafah is where Gaza's main crossing with Egypt is. Now, this is a gateway for people to leave Gaza, but also for aid organizations to have their staff enter and for aid to enter Gaza, and it is now sealed at a time when people are dying of hunger. So this is why we heard, like, the International Rescue Committee saying, for example, this is as bad as it gets.

And there's also the question of where do people in Rafah go? You know, aid groups on the ground running field hospitals and aid distribution say the areas people were told to flee to by Israeli military are uninhabitable and don't have vital services or even shelter. And so I think right now, it's just unclear to us how far Israel's military really intends to push into Rafah.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Aya Batrawy. Aya, thank you.

BATRAWY: Thanks so much, Michel.

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MARTIN: It's inauguration day in Russia, and there is a familiar face in the spotlight.

INSKEEP: Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking the oath of office for the fifth time at the Kremlin. At the end of this term, he will have been in power longer than Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

MARTIN: NPR Russian correspondent Charles Maynes is on the line with us from Moscow to tell us more. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So given the war in Ukraine, how would you describe I guess what I would call the state of the country as Putin hits this milestone?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, I think the way I'd put it is that Putin's decision to invade Ukraine has changed everything here, you know, from the products Russians buy to where they can travel to what they can say and what they can read. The economy, culture, media, education - they all now serve the war effort, which is increasingly framed not as a battle with Ukraine, but with what Putin calls the collective West. And that fight also extends to value systems. You know, Putin presents Russia as a global leader in defending so-called traditional values from Western liberal propaganda of LGBTQ+ rights in particular. That's in his view.

And these days, Russia is a drastically more repressive society. The public space for dissenting views has disappeared completely, enforced by a rash of new laws that criminalize public criticism of the government or the war effort. And so most who disagree with the president are either in exile, jail or silenced out of fear of persecution.

MARTIN: And I think people will remember that Putin's probably best-known critic Alexei Navalny died in jail just before the election. Does that mean that Putin faces no challenges at all?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Putin's hold over political life here has arguably never been stronger, and yet the decision to invade Ukraine has upended Putin's reputation for providing stability to Russians following the collapse of the Soviet Union. So instead, we have now tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians dead, relations with the West in tatters. And, you know, this wasn't something that the public was clamoring for, at least not outright.

And some observers argue this points to the inherent fragility of today's Russia. There's a powerful president in Vladimir Putin, but no institutions to check him. And, you know, I recently spoke with Maksim Samorukov. He's a fellow with the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center who argues that as long as the country is built around the whims of one man, Russia will always remain one potential step away from collapse.

MAKSIM SAMORUKOV: It's not that some external enemy, external opponents or domestic opponent's threatening the existence of Putin's regime, but rather Putin himself because of his self-defeating decisions, because of his propensity to make moves that create problems for the survival of his system.

MARTIN: Do we have any idea of what Putin's objectives are now, how he's going to use that system in this fifth term?

MAYNES: Well, Putin's vowed to fulfill Moscow's goals in Ukraine. The question is what that might entail - for example, more mobilization or higher taxes. Putin's also promised a slew of social programs, suggesting he thinks that Russia can do it all, despite the cost of the war and Western sanctions. But Putin's real focus has often been on bigger forces at play. You know, he argues this is a pivotal moment when the world is realigning into a new order with Russia at the forefront.

And in that sense, some, like Samorukov, the Carnegie analyst, argue Putin - healthy, but age 71 - is in a race against time. He's a man in a hurry. You know, he's now in the pantheon of longest-serving Russian leaders, certainly in the modern era, at a quarter century and counting. But it would seem he has a lot still to do to achieve his greater mission, which is to reestablish some form of the Russian Empire and reverse the outcomes of the Cold War.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: The House of Representatives could vote today on whether to oust the speaker - second time that's happened lately.

MARTIN: Last year, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy lost his job in a divided House. Just a few Republicans voted against him, but that was enough because Democrats did not save him. Now an even more closely divided House votes on Speaker Mike Johnson. Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene is leading this effort, but this time, Democrats appear ready to help the speaker if he needs it.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt will be following whatever happens, and she's on the line. Good morning.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, let's just remember, under the current rules, any one lawmaker can start this process. Greene is the latest to try it. Why?

SPRUNT: Well, this all started because she was angry about the way Johnson handled a set of six appropriations bills for this year. That package passed in the House with more Democratic support than Republican support. And then the same thing happened with the foreign aid package, including money for Ukraine, something that she and others in the conference oppose. She's been raising money off of this effort to potentially oust the speaker. It's been getting lots of attention. Here she is last week. She said House Republicans need a leader who will support Donald Trump's agenda.

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MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: Not working for Hakeem Jeffries, not working for Joe Biden and not going to be twisted and lulled into continuing the disgusting practices of Washington, D.C.

INSKEEP: For those who don't follow us every day, Hakeem Jeffries is the House Democratic leader. And, of course, he's a factor here, by the way. So how is Speaker Johnson responding to this threat?

SPRUNT: Well, leading up to this week, he'd been saying he's not focused on this. He's got a job to do, that the overall effort is bad for Republicans and for the Republican Party. Yesterday after emerging from a long meeting with Greene and Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie, who's co-sponsoring this motion of Greene's, Johnson said he understands their frustration that the conference isn't advancing more conservative policy.

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MIKE JOHNSON: The reality is we are working with the smallest majority in U.S. history with a one-vote margin. It makes it very difficult for us to - using my football metaphor, as I often do - throw touchdown passes on every single play.

INSKEEP: He's making a case for what you do in divided government. You don't get everything. You get what you can, and then you go on to the next election. That's what Johnson is saying. So how does the threat to Johnson compare to last year's threat to his predecessor, McCarthy?

SPRUNT: Well, the math is a factor. Greene just doesn't have the votes. Top House Democrats have already said they'll support a motion to basically set all of this aside, a motion to table. It would avoid a situation where members stand on the floor and directly cast their votes to remove or keep Johnson. And I've talked to Republican members who are pretty upset with the speaker's choices so far, but they still say that removing him as speaker would be a mistake. They say it's unproductive. They don't want to relive the chaos of trying to elect another speaker. And of course, it's an election year. They worry it doesn't look good for the party to be mired in this sort of infighting just months before people go to the polls. And, you know, not to mention, there's no clear successor for Johnson. Of course, if Democrats do save his job, it sort of boosts Greene's claims that he's operating far too closely with Democrats.

INSKEEP: Is Greene going to go through with this if she doesn't have the numbers?

SPRUNT: We'll find out later today. Last week, she insisted she was done waiting and would move ahead this week, but she met with Johnson yesterday for about two hours. When she came out, she gave very brief remarks and basically said, we had a nice chat, long chat. We'll have another one today.

INSKEEP: We just had a nice chat with NPR's Barbara Sprunt. Thanks so much.

SPRUNT: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: And finally, today, some universities are changing their commencement plans because of the student protests against the war in Gaza.

INSKEEP: At least two universities, Columbia and USC, canceled the main graduation ceremonies, although USC is throwing a party on the football field instead. Emory University in Atlanta plans to hold its main commencement ceremony off campus, and some other colleges are adding extra security.

MARTIN: Isa Johnson is about to graduate with a degree in journalism from USC. She also missed her high school graduation in 2020 because of COVID. She says a lot of her classmates are upset.

ISA JOHNSON: They're kind of just like, you know, I want a normal graduation. I just wish things could be normal on campus.

INSKEEP: University of Virginia senior Charlie Burns also did not have a high school graduation in 2020.

CHARLIE BURNS: So any kind of disruption in my college graduation, especially my grandparents are visiting from Kansas City - that would be a huge bummer.

MARTIN: The schools that have canceled their main commencements plan to focus on smaller ceremonies where students are able to walk onstage to accept their diplomas. 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.

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