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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. often criticizes Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, but it rarely takes action.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

But now President Biden has sanctioned four Israeli settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank who are accused of violence against Palestinians. This comes against a backdrop of the ongoing Israel-Hamas fighting in Gaza and efforts to work out a temporary cease-fire.

MARTIN: For a closer look at this, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Greg, hello.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So President Biden has issued this executive order against Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Could you just tell us what the significance of this is?

MYRE: So it's mostly symbolic, but it is symbolism that reflects this growing U.S. frustration with Israeli policies. This executive order names these four Israelis. They're accused of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. It's a chronic problem, and it's been on the rise. Our NPR colleague Daniel Estrin spoke with one of those sanctioned, Yinon Levi, who has a farm in the West Bank.

YINON LEVI: (Speaking Hebrew).

MYRE: So he's saying that it's hard for him to believe this. It sounds very strange, but he'll check it out. And he says he employs 15 Palestinian workers and that he actually claims to have good relations with them. So Levi also says he has no financial assets in the U.S., no plans to travel to the U.S. So it seems it's mostly about the U.S. sending a public message of disapproval to Israel. And Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his government is dealing with this issue, though in general, his government is extremely supportive of the settlers.

MARTIN: So let's turn to Gaza now. What are the latest developments in the fighting there?

MYRE: Yeah. Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, went into southern Gaza yesterday to the city that's been the main battleground, Khan Younis. He declared Hamas forces had been defeated there, and his visit seemed to support his claim. He also said Israel will push further south, all the way to the border of Gaza, specifically the town of Rafah on the border with Egypt. And this can really pose some complications because so many Palestinian civilians are crammed into southern Gaza, specifically Rafah. But Gallant certainly gave the impression the Israeli military remains on the offensive.

MARTIN: So what does this mean for these efforts to work out a temporary cease-fire in Gaza, another one?

MYRE: Yeah, Michel. There's both ongoing fighting and ongoing efforts for a cease-fire. Hamas says it's studying the proposal. We're expecting to hear from them fairly soon. This plan could include a cease-fire that might last for up to several weeks, with Hamas releasing some Israeli hostages and Israel freeing some Palestinian prisoners. Now, we should note the working assumption is that Hamas leaders in Gaza are in tunnels beneath Khan Younis or in that area. We can't independently confirm this, but it's quite possible the Hamas leaders are looking at this cease-fire plan below the city while Israeli troops are above ground in the city.

MARTIN: So with Israel claiming these advances, how would you describe the fighting strength of Hamas at this point?

MYRE: Hamas is still fighting back, and it's inflicting casualties on Israeli troops. The group also still has its tunnel network in southern Gaza, which allows it to ambush Israeli forces on occasion. But Israel says it has eliminated many Hamas commanders, and the group is not fighting in cohesive units. It's more small-scale, guerilla-type operations. Also, Hamas rocket attacks into Israel have dropped off dramatically. Hamas fired thousands of rockets in the early days of the war, back in October. A volley of about a dozen rockets was directed at Tel Aviv on Monday, and Israel shot them down. And I only mention this because it was the first rocket attack on the city in weeks.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We've been closely following the Republican presidential primary contest, so it's easy to forget that there is also a nominating process happening on the Democratic side, too.

FADEL: Yeah. The first where President Biden will actually be on the ballot happens tomorrow in South Carolina.

MARTIN: Joining us now to tell us more about this is Maayan Schechter with South Carolina Public Radio. Maayan, good morning.

MAAYAN SCHECHTER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So President Biden is the incumbent, obviously, pretty much unopposed. So going into tomorrow, expected to win. So what will you be looking at once the results are in? And while you're at it, Maayan, why don't you just remind us about why South Carolina is going first this time around? This is new.

SCHECHTER: Sure. So a year ago, the Democratic National Committee, with President Biden's backing, of course, voted to put South Carolina first. It's a nod to the state's diversity, specifically those Black voters here who make up about two-thirds of the Democratic Party base, much higher, of course, in other early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. What I'm really looking at on Saturday is turnout, and within that turnout, who shows up and who doesn't show up as they did perhaps - maybe four years ago.

And I'm watching that turnout for two reasons. One, it could counter this narrative we've heard a lot from either polls or pundits that people in the president's own party just aren't energized this election cycle to back Biden. The other part is that leaders really want to show off this race, especially to doubters in other states, that South Carolina truly deserves to stay first and especially go first in 2028, where, of course, the stakes may be even higher. So it's important for the party. It's important for the DNC to tell everyone, hey, look, South Carolina is diverse; South Carolina does back Biden; and we are the best state to look at where Democratic voters, particularly Black voters, are today.

MARTIN: So say more about that if you would because, as you said, like, back in 2020, Black Democrats in particular in South Carolina were credited with saving Biden's campaign. When, you know, people voted for him there, really pushed him ahead of other strong primary challengers, at least people who looked like they were strong. Could you just say a little bit more about the diversity of the state?

SCHECHTER: Sure. You know, South Carolina is one of the top fastest-growing states in the country. It's still very white, higher than 60%. But African Americans here make up about 26% of the state's population, which is almost double what it is nationally at nearly 14%. And Black voters here do make up a majority of the state's Democratic Party, as I said earlier, accounting for somewhere around 60% of the base. And that's three times higher, actually, than the percentage of Black Democrats who voted in 2020, according to Pew Research.

MARTIN: So as you've been speaking to voters, what's motivating them to vote?

SCHECHTER: Everyone has their own personal motivator. What I hear a lot from voters are kitchen table issues like health care. You know, for instance, I've talked to people who are maybe diabetic or they know someone who's diabetic. And so that $35 insulin cap has been super helpful. That's a concern for so many Black South Carolinians here. And that's actually a personal story for Congressman Jim Clyburn, whose late wife was diabetic. There's also Democratic voters who are super motivated after the Supreme Court, which obviously has a conservative tilt because of Trump's nominees - they're very unhappy with the court unwinding abortion rights and what that's meant for states. South Carolina has a six-week ban. But I will say the overwhelming reason, and, frankly, the biggest concern I hear from a lot of voters, is just Trump. They see Trump as undoing a lot of the good that they say Biden has been able to achieve.

MARTIN: And as briefly as you can, what are some of the hesitations people in Biden's party have about him there?

SCHECHTER: Right. Age, not listening to their generation, exhausted by another Trump-Biden rematch, and also Israel's war in Gaza are the top issues I hear.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Maayan Schechter with South Carolina Public Radio. Maayan, thank you.

SCHECHTER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

FADEL: Yeah. Many residents of the small town say the accident, all these months later, is still impacting their lives.

MARTIN: Oliver Morrison of member station WESA has been reporting on the derailment and its aftermath. He's here with us now to tell us how the town is doing. Welcome, Oliver.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So I think a lot of people may remember some really frightening images from there. I'm thinking about that plume of toxic chemicals spewing into the air. Have those chemicals been cleaned up?

MORRISON: The train company has dug up more than 175,000 tons of soil and processed more than 40 million gallons of water. It's now starting to backfill the empty holes with uncontaminated soil. There are a couple of streams that go through town that have an oily sheen when you kick up dirt on the banks, but the Ohio EPA says they're cleaning that up, and that'll last through the summer.

MARTIN: Are residents there still worried about the impact of these chemicals on their health? And are those worries valid?

MORRISON: At least 50 families never returned to town because of worries about things like bloody noses and irritated eyes. Most people in town I talked to who once had symptoms told me that those symptoms subsided after a few months, and the EPA currently says it's safe. But many residents are wondering about the long-term impacts on their health, and their still has not been a comprehensive effort to track those. Norfolk Southern says they're still developing a plan to compensate residents for long-term health issues.

MARTIN: So besides concerns about health, which are, of course, important, how is the town doing?

MORRISON: Well, most business owners say their businesses have fallen off, and that includes things like salons, restaurants and a local greenhouse. Here's Don Elzer, who owns several businesses in town.

DON ELZER: Our manufacturing sector, I think, is doing very well, but that doesn't rely on people coming to town, so they're doing fine. It's more the retail that's having a problem.

MORRISON: Elzer says the village's reputation as a toxic town is still hurting. The village has just begun a marketing campaign, paid for by the train company, to turn around this image. But this has created some divisions in town because some residents are still saying loudly that it's not safe, while others are trying to get out the message that it is.

MARTIN: We talked about compensation for long-term health effects earlier. You know, has any compensation come from Norfolk Southern, given that, you know, this did cause big financial problems for the town and for residents?

MORRISON: Well, the biggest expense has been their cleanup, but they have paid for the housing costs for residents who are displaced. That program is coming to an end this week, but it's also - one of its biggest things was committing $25 million to refurbish the village's park, and that included a new pool, an amphitheater and pickleball courts that are coming. The company also set up a program to reimburse homeowners whose homes sell for less than they are worth. And I did talk to several realtors in the area who say that the village's homes are selling again.

MARTIN: And President Biden said he was planning to visit East Palestine this month. Do we know why he's traveling there now?

MORRISON: Well, a senior White House official told me that one of the reasons is the mayor of East Palestine, Trent Conaway, finally sent him a formal invitation. The mayor had criticized Biden last year for visiting the Ukraine instead of East Palestine, and he gave a warm welcome to Donald Trump and discouraged Biden from visiting. But a couple of weeks ago, the mayor did formally invite Biden. Conaway's tune changed because he said he thinks a visit from Biden could help get the word out that the town is safe to visit again.

MARTIN: That's Oliver Morrison with member station WESA in Pittsburgh. Oliver, thank you.

MORRISON: 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.