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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, visits Israel today. He is there as the Biden administration continues to urge Israel to scale back its air and ground campaign in Gaza.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. wants Israel to more carefully target Hamas and its leaders, as the death toll in Gaza stands at nearly 19,000. That's according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

MARTIN: For more, we're joined by NPR's Kat Lonsdorf, who is in Tel Aviv. Kat, good to talk with you.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with the situation in Gaza. What can you tell us?

LONSDORF: Well, it's been really, really difficult to get information here, and that's because there was an extended communications blackout in Gaza for the past four days or so. That's no cell service, no internet. You know, comms were partially restored last night. We finally heard from our producer there, Anas Baba, who is safe, which was a huge relief, but comms are really still shaky. We have been able to get some information both from groups in Gaza, but also from the Israeli military. For example, the military confirmed yesterday that they have completed a four-day - what they called raid on the Kamal Adwan Hospital in the north in Gaza City.

The Israeli military claims the hospital had been, quote, "used by Hamas as a major command center and that weapons had been seized there." But I should note that the situation at Kamal Adwan was already extremely dire. A senior doctor there earlier described to NPR a stream of wounded patients with complex injuries who have overwhelmed the hospital, which was also being used as a shelter for thousands of people. We've been unable to reach that doctor for several days as well. And this is all as intense fighting continues and more and more people are fleeing to the south, which is becoming severely overcrowded.

MARTIN: Yes. Can you tell us any more about the humanitarian situation there?

LONSDORF: Yeah. I mean, it's really bad. In and around Rafah city, where people have been told by Israel to flee, there are now about a million people, or nearly half of Gaza's population. Some are staying in tents. Many people are staying in apartments packed with more than 50 people in them, making it really hard to maintain, you know, any kind of sanitary conditions. So disease is spreading according to the World Health Organization, and food is really hard to come by. There is a little bit of good news. Israel opened a second crossing for aid yesterday, the Kerem Shalom crossing, which crosses in and out of Israel and Gaza. And a few dozen aid trucks did get through there, as well as the aid that's been coming in through Rafah from Egypt. But, you know, aid groups are saying it's just not enough.

MARTIN: And let me just ask about the big news in Israel over the weekend - was the three Israeli hostages...

LONSDORF: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Who were mistakenly shot and killed by Israeli troops.

LONSDORF: Yeah.

MARTIN: What are you hearing about that where you are?

LONSDORF: Yeah, I mean, people were really shocked here when that news broke on Friday night. You know, the three hostages were all Israeli, all men in their 20s, and they were killed on Friday in an active combat area in northern Gaza. The men were dressed in civilian clothes and waving a white cloth, walking toward Israeli soldiers when they were shot, according to a preliminary report by the Israeli military. A military spokesman said that the shootings were against the army's rules of engagement and were being investigated at the highest level.

But, you know, people here are upset. There have been protests here in Tel Aviv this weekend with people, you know, increasingly calling for and demanding for a new hostage deal or, you know, even a permanent cease-fire. And the families of the hostages were already putting a lot of pressure on the government, saying that these hostages have to be the top priority, and those calls are getting even louder now. They've started camping out 24/7 in front of the war cabinet building here in Tel Aviv until a new deal is reached, they say.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Kat Lonsdorf from Tel Aviv. Kat, thank you so much.

LONSDORF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The U.S. Senate has postponed its winter break so lawmakers can try to reach a deal on immigration.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Republican presidential candidates have been talking a lot about immigration. And President Biden is facing a decision about how much to compromise on as congressional Republicans demand tighter border security as a condition for aid to Ukraine and Israel.

MARTIN: Here to talk about the latest on that is NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, good morning.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So just help us understand what's going on between Biden and Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So like you said at the top, the White House has been seeking more aid for Ukraine and Israel. And Republicans have said that they will approve that money but only if they get tighter border policy. So not just resources at the border, for example, but substantial changes to make immigration policy much tighter. So as a result, the White House has said it's willing to give up some ground on immigration in order to get that funding. For example, Republicans want to make it harder for immigrants to get asylum, so that could be part of a deal.

But again, we are in early stages here. Details are sketchy. But for context here, if there were a deal on this, it could be big. As one immigration expert told me over the weekend, this could be the biggest immigration policy change since the late '90s. But it's unclear what the timing would look like. The White House has said the need for money for Ukraine is urgent, but then again, Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC's "Meet The Press" this weekend that there won't be a deal before the new year, that things are just slow going.

MARTIN: So, you know, this might be helpful for context, too, because you've been reporting on the race for the Republican presidential nomination, what are the candidates - what are those candidates saying about immigration?

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, immigration is absolutely huge among the Republican candidates. The candidates and voters alike talk about immigration a lot, about fears about immigration, about threats that they think it poses. And in particular, the candidates use immigration to hit President Biden. So, of course, this means that immigration will probably be important to Biden in 2024 because the Republican nominee will attack him on it no matter what. And depending on how much Biden compromises here - again, if this deal happens - he could also anger progressives.

I spoke to one Democratic strategist this weekend who told me that compromise could be a huge letdown for some progressive Democrats and non-progressives. He pointed out that if funding for these war zones weren't on the line, Democrats would ask for, for example, a path to citizenship in exchange for making asylum harder. The fear for some Democrats is that their party will get no immigration concessions here, and no one knows when the next opportunity to change immigration policy would even be.

MARTIN: So back to the Republican side. The former president Donald Trump is still the candidate to beat in the GOP primary. And, you know, attacking immigrants has always been - at least some immigrants - has always been part of his political message.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

MARTIN: What's he been saying recently?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, this weekend, he used language that echoes Adolf Hitler.

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

KURTZLEBEN: He used the phrase that immigrants are, quote, poisoning the blood of the United States. And this is not the first time he's used this phrase this cycle. He used it on a right-wing talk show earlier this year. Last month, he also called left-leaning Americans vermin in a speech. That's another echo of Nazi language. I reached out to the Trump campaign asking why he repeated that poisoning the blood phrase, if he's - if this is a provocation. I didn't get any response.

But to zoom out here, like you pointed out, let's remember that Trump has always used inflammatory immigration against immigrants. In his campaign announcement speech in 2015, he linked them to violent crime, and rather than alienating voters, it endeared some to him. So the GOP has learned that there is a huge appetite among their base for hard line immigration policy. And what we're seeing on Capitol Hill is a party that has learned that from Trump, just how motivating this issue is for some voters.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: A major trial is kicking off in Hong Kong this week. Jimmy Lai, the media tycoon and democracy activist, is going to court after more than a thousand days in detention.

MARTÍNEZ: Lai was arrested in 2020. The newspaper he started, called Apple Daily, was shut down the following year. China's prosecuting Lai under the country's sweeping national security law. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

MARTIN: With us to explain why this trial is so important is NPR's Emily Feng, who is nearby in Taiwan. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So why is Hong Kong prosecuting Lai so aggressively?

FENG: Well, because Jimmy Lai has become a symbol of opposition against Beijing's control of the region. Everyone in Hong Kong knows his story, how he escaped as a child stowaway to Hong Kong and then had this extraordinary rise as a textile and clothing mogul. And his fortune is what kept Apple Daily going. This was an influential tabloid that was unabashedly in support of democratic reform and antigovernment protests, and that put Lai in the crosshairs.

He's currently serving a five-year sentence for fraud, but today he's on trial for much more serious charges of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law. This is a closely watched trial in Hong Kong. Today, there were journalists outside the courthouse, a few supporters, but mostly hundreds of police guarding the courthouse where he's being tried. Here's Lai's son, Sebastien Lai, who lives in Taiwan.

SEBASTIEN LAI: Hong Kong is trying to tell the rest of the world that they're open for business, that they want foreign direct investment. But if you essentially criminalize journalism, you know, just supporting democracy, well, it's very hard to do that.

FENG: He says his father's case is being turned into a political show for Beijing to show just how aggressively it will punish any dissent.

MARTIN: Are other people besides Lai being targeted by authorities?

FENG: Oh, absolutely. I mean, they've basically smothered all opposition in Hong Kong. Independent media outlets have mostly closed, like Apple Daily, or a few people who haven't been arrested have moved abroad. They've sentenced many activists and lawmakers who spoke out or protested sometimes years before the national security law took effect, and they're also going after people living abroad.

So this month, for example, Hong Kong's government issued more arrest warrants, offering rewards of hundreds of thousands of dollars for anyone who could turn in five activists who live outside of Hong Kong. One of these activists is Simon Cheng. He was detained while working as a trade officer at the British consulate in Hong Kong. And it's his advocacy against Beijing in the United Kingdom that he's wanted for.

SIMON CHENG: They try to do a political show no matter where you are, no matter what nationality you're holding, provided you're critical of the Chinese leadership or the government's policy. And you will be the target and you're violating their own law, and they will hunt you down.

MARTIN: So when do we expect a verdict and is there any chance there might be an acquittal?

FENG: Lai's legal team is saying that the trial is going to take at least a few weeks. There's estimates of up to 80 days. So this trial is going to stretch far into early 2024. Chances for an acquittal for Lai are very low. So far, there has been a 100% conviction rate with people charged under the national security law. Even if he is acquitted, he faces multiple other sentences that he's already been found guilty for.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Emily Feng in Taiwan. Emily, thank you so much.

FENG: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRAZYJAZZ AND CHILL SELECT'S "PASTIMES") 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.
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.