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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The weekend attack on Israel by hundreds of Hamas fighters has touched off a war with heavy casualties.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israeli media say fighters associated with Hamas killed at least 700 people in their homes, at a dance festival, on the streets and on army bases. Videos show militants rounding up men, women and children, taking them from southern Israel and moving them to Gaza. Israel has launched airstrikes into Gaza, killing more than 400 people there. And this is only the beginning. A third day of war is underway.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin is with us now from Tel Aviv. Daniel, hello.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So it just seems as if there are new developments every hour. What can you tell us about what's been going on there this morning?

ESTRIN: I mean, just a few seconds ago, Michel, I heard very loud booms out the window here in Tel Aviv. There have been sirens, air raid sirens, rocket fire towards central Israel. But the army told reporters this morning that Israeli troops were still battling Hamas militants in at least seven Israeli residential communities, one Israeli family was still being held hostage by Hamas men, and that Hamas militants still continue to infiltrate from Gaza into Israel. I've been seeing all throughout the country, even in central Tel Aviv, police setting up checkpoints with their guns cocked, aimed, just in case, you know, someone shows up - a militant, perhaps. It is unfathomable to people here just the depth and the scale of these events.

MARTIN: So Hamas has been making it known that they have taken hostages back to Gaza. I think all of us saw these images this weekend. Do we know anything about how many hostages there are?

ESTRIN: Israel is saying at least dozens are being held hostage in Gaza. There are reports that that could be even more, you know, maybe even in the hundreds. We don't have a clear number, but Hamas has released a video of an Israeli grandmother paraded on a Gaza street. We've seen Hamas videos of young children they say they're holding. And many Israelis simply don't know, are their relatives dead? Are they taken captive? And especially when it comes to this dance festival, a rave this weekend that Hamas attacked, there are reports here of at least 260 people killed there, which would be the deadliest single attack on civilians in Israel ever. I spoke with Ahuva Maisel (ph). Her 21-year-old daughter, Adi (ph), was at that festival and she's missing.

AHUVA MAISEL: I don't know if she's alive. I don't know if she's dead. I don't know if she's hurt. I know nothing. I don't know if somebody captured her. We started getting - receiving phone calls, like, from Arabs, from Hamas, that they are keeping my daughter. And they say that they have my daughter, my beautiful daughter, and I hear screaming of girls.

ESTRIN: She doesn't know if those are fake calls, but we've been speaking to other Israelis who have received videos of their loved ones captive inside Gaza. There's just a lot of confusion about what happened. Israeli authorities aren't publishing a lot. They're not publishing the names of civilians killed or missing. It's Hamas, Michel, that's putting out the stream of videos.

MARTIN: And Israel has been launching heavy airstrikes on Gaza. There are 2 million people there. People are in tight quarters, it's dense. What are they facing?

ESTRIN: Well, they're facing no electricity in Gaza City since yesterday. Electricity has been cut there because of the Israeli bombings, and Israel also cut off its electricity supply to Gaza. Gaza's main hospital says it's running low on supplies. Israel bombed at least a thousand targets in Gaza, including many mosques, overnight. And our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, visited one of them. The minaret was completely toppled onto about a dozen neighboring homes, which were partially destroyed. And as he was walking through the rubble, he found one man, Mohammed Nisman (ph). He was scavenging what he could from his home - his favorite pair of pants, a T-shirt, glasses, a phone charger and a photo album. And he said that he was in bed at night when pieces of the wall fell on him in the Israeli attack.

MOHAMMED NISMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He told us, he escaped with his family, but five neighbors of his were killed in that attack. He saw people under rubble. And he said that they got no warning from Israel's army, which sometimes the Israeli army does give warnings to Gaza civilians before they attack. In a briefing, an Israeli army spokesman was asked about that and said Israel is trying to avoid civilian casualties. But at the same time, he said, Hamas didn't give Israel a warning about its attacks and that, quote, "Israel has to change our paradigm."

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: How did Hamas fighters plan and carry out such a large attack and keep it secret until the end?

INSKEEP: Yeah. You think about the different aspects of this attack - the paragliders, the fighters getting over around walls. The scale of the attack likely took months to plan, and Israel's security forces had all that time been focused heavily on Hamas.

MARTIN: So to try to understand this, we have NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre on the line with us now. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So you're joining us from Sea Island, Ga. And you're there because you're attending a conference of current and former national security officials. I'm sure this wasn't on the agenda to begin with, but what are you hearing there?

MYRE: Well, Michel, a real sense of shock. Current officials are staying pretty tight-lipped, but the former officials say they're just stunned for a number of reasons. I think, first of all, how did all these weapons get into Gaza? The Hamas arsenal has always seemed to have limits in the past, and yet Hamas has fired hundreds, perhaps even a couple thousand rockets into Israel this time.

Second, how did Israel's domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, not know about these plans? There's sort of this long-standing belief that the Israelis can listen to almost any phone call or communications in Gaza. It has a large number of Palestinian informants working for them there. And how come the Israeli military wasn't better positioned when this attack began? Israel normally has a very robust force in southern Israel just outside Gaza.

MARTIN: So yes, those are all the questions we have. Can we answer any of those questions at this point? I mean, do we know anything about how did they do this in such large numbers at such scale and with such coordination?

MYRE: Right, well, remember, Gaza is a small territory, maybe five miles wide, 25 miles long. And Israel has this very sophisticated border fence that even includes an underground wall to guard against Hamas militants digging a tunnel under the fence, as they've done in the past. But as our colleague Daniel Estrin has reported, militants cut through the fence or blasted through the fence in multiple points. And in the past, just a single breach would have been considered a major failing.

And Israeli soldiers at the border have written on social media that militants overtook their base, killing soldiers, and that there were fewer troops there because it was a holiday over this weekend. And there's also talk of what role Hamas' main patron, Iran, might have played. We know they've had this very close relationship for many years, but not clear what Iran did, if anything, at this point.

MARTIN: So Greg, you've covered the region and you've covered this conflict for many years. Can you tell us a bit more about how Hamas has developed these capabilities?

MYRE: Yeah. The Palestinians first launched a major uprising in 2000 against the Israeli occupation, and that's when Hamas began firing these rockets. They were crude, homemade weapons. They traveled just a few miles, very inaccurate. I remember the Israeli military saying at the end of the day, Hamas fired 10 rockets and five hit Israel. Well, what about the other five? A couple apparently didn't make it out of Gaza, a couple probably landed in the Mediterranean Sea.

So Hamas was even cutting down light poles and using them as their launching tubes. So a lot of these rockets were just made in auto repair shops. But bit by bit, Hamas got better. They got technical help from abroad. And these parts have been smuggled into southern Gaza through these tunnels to Egypt. Now they have this huge arsenal capable of hitting deep inside Israel.

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

MYRE: Sure thing, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: While the world focused on violence in Israel and Gaza this weekend, a series of earthquakes struck western Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: So far, the Taliban government says more than 2,000 people are dead, and rescue efforts are ongoing.

MARTIN: On the line with us now to tell us more is NPR's international correspondent Diaa Hadid. She's based in Mumbai and covers Afghanistan. Diaa, welcome.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So it's been more than two days since the earthquakes. What can you tell us about the - what's the latest information you have for us?

HADID: Well, today, there was an aftershock actually that sent thousands pouring into the streets of Herat. That's the biggest city in the area. But by far, the hardest hit place was from Saturday. It's a remote district called Zendeh Jan, where about a dozen villages were reduced to rubble. Most of the casualties are women and children. A lot of the men were outside farming the land when this happened. And I spoke to UNICEF's field officer for western Afghanistan, Siddig Ibrahim. He says the dead included more than 500 children. He says the death toll is likely to be far higher because people are quickly burying their dead. They aren't formally reporting them. He says so many women and children died because when the first earthquake struck, they rushed into their homes.

SIDDIG IBRAHIM: People thought it was a bomb or a missile was coming down, and everybody rushed inside their homes. And unfortunately, the earthquake continued and the houses start collapsing. And that's why the fatality among the women and children is the highest.

HADID: They thought bombs were falling nearby because that was their reality through two decades of war between Western-backed forces and the Taliban.

MARTIN: It just sounds awful, especially on such an awful weekend already. Are people still looking for survivors?

HADID: Yes, Ibrahim from UNICEF says they are. And he described to me one village that he saw.

IBRAHIM: It's very shocking to see that not a single building is actually standing, just rubble on the ground. And people were actually digging, trying to see if there anybody trapped, to get them out.

HADID: He says people are using shovels. They've got nothing else. But mostly they're not finding people alive.

MARTIN: So you've been telling us about the worst affected area. What's it like in other areas?

HADID: The earthquake also shook the western city of Herat. And since then, families have been sleeping in cars, mosques and parks. The thing is the Taliban had actually banned women from entering parks a while ago, and they've loosened that restriction now. Ibrahim from UNICEF says Taliban officials have also plainly asked for help. And that suggests how big this calamity is and how dire.

MARTIN: And so is international aid coming in? The Taliban have been reluctant to accept it.

HADID: Yes, some aid is coming in through the United Nations, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. And the Taliban is also on the ground. They've dispatched a whole army corps to help out. Ordinary Afghans are donating food, blankets, even their own blood. The real issue is, once the emergency phase is over, will money come in to help people rebuild their lives?

MARTIN: That is NPR's Diaa Hadid. Diaa, thank you so much for your reporting.

HADID: You're welcome, Michel. 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.