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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

International condemnation continues in response to an Israeli airstrike on Rafah that killed at least 45 people, that according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The strike hit Palestinians who were sheltering in a makeshift encampment for displaced people in an area they thought was safe. Tents and people were burned.

MARTIN: With us now is NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy, who is following this from Dubai. And please take note of this. We are going to hear about graphic descriptions of injuries to children in this report and the sound of an explosion. Now, with that being said, Aya, thank you so much for being here.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about the situation on the ground there?

BATRAWY: Well, Israeli airstrikes continue to pound Gaza, basically, from the north to the south. But this airstrike on Rafah really stands out for a couple of reasons. It is the single deadliest attack on the city since Israel launched its offensive on Rafah against Hamas three weeks ago. Also, the attack struck families in makeshift tents. These were plastic tarps that they were using as shelter. They caught fire from the Israeli air strike and shrapnel cut right through. It really was the stuff of nightmares. Abu Mohamad (ph), a witness in Rafah, explains why.

ABU MOHAMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

BATRAWY: He says he found one kid with his stomach sliced and intestines out. Another child had been decapitated. NPR's producer Anas Baba, he says he also saw children and body parts after the attack. Now, Israel's military says it used precise munitions and didn't expect harm to civilians from this attack, which they say targeted two Hamas figures who oversee operations in the West Bank. Israel's prime minister called it a, quote, "tragic mistake." But the U.N. relief chief, Martin Griffiths, says to call this a mistake means absolutely nothing for those killed and grieving. And here's UNRWA's director of planning, Sam Rose, talking to NPR from Gaza.

SAM ROSE: Look, regardless, when you attack a tented camp such as this, as we said all along, there will be inevitable civilian casualties. That really does leave us numb and personally leaves me quite sick to the stomach.

MARTIN: Aya, the Health Ministry in Gaza says now the overall death toll from this military campaign has now surpassed some 36,000 people. The U.N.'s top court ordered Israel to halt its offensive on Rafah just a few days ago. Is there any sign that Israel is changing course here?

BATRAWY: Just yesterday in Rafah, Gaza's Health Ministry said two employees of the Kuwaiti Hospital there, which is one of the last functioning hospitals in Rafah and all of Gaza, were killed at the gate of the hospital just hours after this tent encampment was struck. This hospital is also closing down now as a result of that attack. And last night, first responders in Rafah reported seven women and children killed in an attack on another house in Rafah. And there were more deadly airstrikes throughout Rafah. Have a listen to what it sounded like last night in the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF IDF AIRSTRIKE)

BATRAWY: You know, our producer Anas Baba is there. And he says this went on for hours. So families grabbed their belongings in the middle of the night, they fled on foot, adding to the roughly 1 million people who've already left Rafah this month. But they have nowhere to go.

MARTIN: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in remarks to Israel's parliament yesterday that his government will not yield or surrender or end the war before achieving all of Israel's goals, which is to eliminate Hamas. And remember that, you know, Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people there. Hamas is still holding hostages. But do you have any sense of whether Netanyahu is feeling this international pressure?

BATRAWY: Yeah, he's under pressure at home and abroad. Also yesterday, you know, there was an exchange of gunfire between Egyptian and Israeli soldiers for the first time since this war began. And an Egyptian soldier was actually killed. So Egypt says, you know, as this war in Gaza drags on and widens in Rafah, the dangers of its own troops now being pulled into this conflict to defend its borders is also growing.

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

BATRAWY: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Attorneys will deliver their closing arguments in the trial of former President Donald Trump, the criminal trial, in a New York courtroom today.

FADEL: Yeah, prosecutors and defense lawyers will recap weeks' worth of testimony and documents for the jurors before they begin their deliberations. But the defense says too much depends on the testimony of Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, whose credibility they question.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Bernstein is with us once again for a preview. Good morning, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what should we look out for today?

BERNSTEIN: Today is the chance for the parties to tie all the evidence together and show - or not - how it makes their case. The defense comes first. When the trial testimony began, the defense highlighted how long ago this was - pre-COVID, they said. They said the sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels never happened. They said that Trump himself never issued false documents. He just signed checks when they were presented to him. But most of all they said Michael Cohen is a liar, and there is no way to prove Trump was fully cognizant of the crimes unless you accept Cohen's testimony about conversations with Trump.

MARTIN: Andrea, as we've been talking about, as you have been reporting, that has been their defense for years. Did they make headway with that at trial?

BERNSTEIN: Cohen was an unflappable, calm witness when he was asked straight up - did you commit crimes, did you lie to Congress, did you lie to banks? - he said he had. But for the most part, these were old lies. There was one place where the defense may have raised a new inconsistency, when they pointed out that text messages suggest one of the conversations Cohen said he had with Trump about the hush money may not have happened because Cohen at that time was being harassed by a 14-year-old prankster. But the prosecution may have cleaned that up when they pointed out something that the defense didn't deal with. There were many conversations with Trump, including on the day the payments were wired to Stormy Daniels.

MARTIN: So how will the prosecution deal with Cohen's history of lying?

BERNSTEIN: Cohen testified and there was backup that many of the lies, like the lie to Congress, were done to benefit Trump - in that case, to hide dealings over a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. But mostly, the prosecution worked hard to present all kinds of documentation they could use to back up Cohen's claims. For example, Trump's former controller described a meeting where he was told by Trump's former chief financial officer that Cohen would be reimbursed through payments that were described as a legal retainer, which the prosecution says they were not. Hope Hicks, Trump's former communications aide, testified that when Trump told her Cohen made the payment out of the kindness of his heart, she didn't believe it because Cohen's the kind of person who always wants credit.

MARTIN: What about the meetings with Trump that only Cohen testified about?

BERNSTEIN: So here's one example of how the prosecution dealt with that. So years ago, Cohen testified to Congress that Trump told him in the Oval Office in 2017, don't worry, Michael, your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedExed from New York, and it takes a while for that to get through the White House system. He said essentially the same thing in this trial. And the DA presented evidence from four current and former Trump employees that showed Cohen indeed met with Trump in the Oval Office, that it did take a while for checks to get through the system and that Cohen did get his first check in early February. So the DA is likely to lean into all that corroboration to say, you don't have to take Cohen's word for it - this all happened beyond a reasonable doubt. It goes to the jury tomorrow and there could be a verdict any time after that.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Andrea, thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: As wildfires burn in Canada and Mexico, fire officials in the U.S. are concerned about the upcoming season. Right now, upwards of a quarter of the U.S. government's wildland firefighting jobs are vacant.

MARTIN: NPR's Kirk Siegler covers the country's wildfire crisis. And he's with us now from Boise. Kirk, hello.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, this actually sounds really alarming, given what we know about the summers getting hotter and drier due to climate change. How big of a concern are these vacancies?

SIEGLER: Well, it's huge. Everyone from the local rural fire chiefs, who are kind of the first responders to a lot of these wildfires in the West, right up to the federal fire bosses. Everybody's talking about this. You know, the U.S. Forest Service is often called the fire service because a huge part of what they do today is they mobilize the air tankers, the smokejumpers, the elite hotshot crews to these big fires, the ones that get away from the first responders and are threatening lives and whole cities that are now built out into the woods in this region. They're the cavalry, so to speak.

MARTIN: So what's being done about this?

SIEGLER: Everyone says this labor shortage isn't really new, especially since the pandemic. And nobody's surprised about this. And there's the thinking that the federal government will probably get by with what they've been doing. And that is, you know, cobbling together different private contract crews, maybe borrowing firefighter teams from Mexico or Canada, assuming they're available, if things get really bad this summer to try to shore things up and close the gap. But those aren't ideal strategies.

MARTIN: OK, Kirk, you're saying these vacancies aren't new. What's the bigger picture here? What's going on?

SIEGLER: Well, the biggest thing, Michel, is the pay. I mean, especially for rookie firefighters, it's relatively low. And the risks right now are super high when you just look at how overgrown the forests are. For a hundred years or more, we've been putting out most natural wildfires. And then, as you say, you add climate change, drought, the rising temperatures. It's a dangerous job. And it's also super expensive to live in the Mountain West, Boise included, right now. So here's how one of the country's top fire managers, Grant Beebe, put it to me. He's over at the National Interagency Fire Center here in Boise.

GRANT BEEBE: They can afford to take the job, but they can't afford to live in the place they're taking the job, right? If we don't have government housing provided, a barracks or something, which many of our places don't have that kind of housing, then they have to compete for housing in the local market or live in their car.

MARTIN: Live in their car?

SIEGLER: Yeah, he's not exaggerating. In the sort of traditional firefighting towns - like Boise, where I am, Redding, Calif., Missoula, Mont. - I mean, you can now make 25 bucks an hour or more working in a restaurant or that new Amazon warehouse. And you get to go home to your family at night. So I think that the feds are really counting on people who are just dedicated and love the job to stay on right now. I met a federal hotshot crew member named Lily Barnes from Oregon. She was out in the woods in the past week doing wildfire prevention work.

LILY BARNES: Yeah, it's rewarding. We're surrounded by highly motivated, intelligent individuals. Yeah, it's a good team environment.

MARTIN: All right, Kirk, you've told us this is clearly a national problem. Is there any federal or national solution being contemplated?

SIEGLER: Yes, but it's stalled in Congress. At least the agencies trying to recruit and are still trying to hire positions right now, they can point to a recent pay bump for wildland firefighters that President Biden first enacted in 2021. Congress did recently extend that through September. But the bills I'm talking about, they were introduced almost two years ago now to make the pay permanent and add other mental health benefits and other things. They're totally stalled. And so what we're seeing right now is the experienced engine captains, the crew bosses, they're leaving. And that experience exiting doesn't really bode well for the summer fire season.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Kirk Siegler joining us from Boise, Idaho. Kirk, thank you.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. 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 co-host of Morning Edition, 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.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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