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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a description today of a weekend in Gaza.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Israel says it has launched a new phase in what it calls a drive to eliminate Hamas. It sent troops into the area that Hamas rules and intensified its weekslong bombing campaign. Israel says it attacked hundreds of Hamas targets in densely populated areas. Palestinian health authorities say the death toll has reached at least 8,000, including more than 3,000 children. Fourteen hundred people in Israel have been killed. On Sunday, President Joe Biden called Israel's prime minister, urging him to prioritize the protection of civilian life.

INSKEEP: Now, for part of the weekend, internet and phone service in Gaza went out. But our colleague Daniel Estrin has been listening for one particular voice inside. And Daniel joins me here. Hi there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I'll just mention we're on a balcony in Jaffa, in Tel Aviv, which is an hour's drive north of Gaza, within missile range, but a world away. How did the communications blackout in Gaza begin?

ESTRIN: Well, our colleague Juana Summers and I were on the phone with our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba. This was Friday evening.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hi, Anas. Are you able to hear us?

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: Yeah. Hi.

ESTRIN: And just a minute or two later, the line dropped.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The main Palestinian phone provider said the bombardments of Israel cut off a generator in a main facility in Gaza. Now, I asked an Israeli defense spokeswoman, was this deliberate? Was Israel trying to knock out the communications? She said - well, she wouldn't say, but the blackout lasted about 34 hours. And this began just as Israel announced its second stage of the war, this ground operation and this intense bombing.

INSKEEP: And the cutoff for the internet set off a scramble for people really around the world, it seems, to find out what their friends...

ESTRIN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...And relatives were experiencing inside. How did you try to learn what was going on?

ESTRIN: We were also incommunicado with our producer there, and in the middle of the blackout, he managed to get a signal. He went near the Israeli border, which is risky. And he did so so he could be within range of an Israeli cellphone network. And he got in touch, and he told me that he had gone that day, on Saturday, to Gaza City, which is the area now under heavy bombardment. He saw horrific scenes of Palestinians who had tried to flee to safety on foot, and they were killed in the streets. He says rescue crews he spoke to said they had no ability to communicate to figure out where to respond.

BABA: This is not my city. I cannot even realize what street it is. I only kind of smell death - dead body under the rubbles - nothing the same. Nothing is the same. All the supermarkets are empty. There is no drinking water. Today, I spent four hours looking for just, like, 20 kilos of wheat or flour in order to bake my family some bread, and I couldn't. Yes, Daniel, everything is getting worser and worser. I tried my best today.

ESTRIN: You know, basic necessities, Steve, are dwindling in Gaza. Nearly three dozen trucks of food and water and medicines from Egypt did make it into Gaza. But that's the most that's come in one day. It's not nearly enough.

INSKEEP: Anas Baba's description is one of the most powerful ones I've heard out of Gaza, simply staggering to the border to try to get his voice out. I should mention that communications have mostly - not entirely - come back up in Gaza. So what's happening now?

ESTRIN: Well, people are back online, but they just found out that some of their relatives were dead. And, of course, now, this morning, the assault continues. Our producer Anas Baba called me to say he saw with his own eyes an Israeli tank and bulldozer on the eastern edge of Gaza City, on the main road. That could mean Israeli troops are closing in on the city.

INSKEEP: OK, tanks inside Gaza. NPR's Daniel Estrin here in Tel Aviv. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Now, troops from Israel also spent much of yesterday trading fire with a militia just over its northern border.

INSKEEP: Yeah. The Hezbollah militia controls southern Lebanon, just above Israel on the map. And we witnessed the low-level warfare with Israel as our team drove into Israel's mountains last evening. We stopped at a village near the border, and we realized it looked different than many Israeli towns.

Oh, we're here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: You see the Virgin Mary?

INSKEEP: No. I missed the Virgin Mary. Like a statue at the entrance?

ESTRIN: Yeah, right on the sign for the city.

INSKEEP: This village is called Fassuta, and it's a Catholic village, centuries old, with multiple statues of saints on the streets. And as - Leila, as you know from your long experience in the region, there have been Christian groups woven among the Arab populace around here for centuries.

FADEL: Yeah, Arab Christians. How close is the fighting to that village?

INSKEEP: Well, last night, we could hear it. And this is what it sounded like as we walked through a courtyard where kids were playing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

ESTRIN: Listen.

INSKEEP: I heard.

ESTRIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We heard booms like that every few minutes, sometimes more often than that, the Israeli Defense Forces were out there in the hills blasting back as Hezbollah fighters fired weapons into Israel.

FADEL: So what are people in that village doing there? They're not evacuating?

INSKEEP: No, they're not. Israeli authorities did tell people from many villages to evacuate within four kilometers of the border. We were told this village is 4 1/2 kilometers. And through our interpreter, I asked a resident named Mike Banawi (ph) what it is like to live there.

MIKE BANAWI: (Through interpreter) It's terrifying that you - that being out and about in the village, you feel like you're in a prison, that they're - that you're - they're - the rockets are chasing you at any time. Anyone could be hit. And it's a rocket that could really kill quite a number of people, and that there's only five seconds to get to a shelter because we're so close to the border that if you go up on a hill, you can see over the border.

FADEL: Steve, I mean, you were pretty close to this. Could you get a sense of what the fighting is like out there in the dark?

INSKEEP: Yeah. We talked with an Israeli officer who called it a slow-motion war. Hezbollah, you'll recall, is allied with Hamas in Gaza. And many days, Hezbollah is firing antitank weapons into Israel. If you shoot them high, the projectiles can lob in and go for miles. Israeli forces respond with artillery or drones or rockets. People are being killed. Civilians are affected. And in fact, yesterday, about the time we were driving around up there, rockets hit a different village than the one we visited.

FADEL: Are the soldiers up there aware of the risk that this sparks a wider war?

ESTRIN: They are trying not to be. We're told Israeli soldiers are encouraged not to watch the news, not to follow social media. They might even get their phones taken away. They're told not to be manipulated and just respond to the tactical challenge in front of them. Of course, Leila, you and I do follow the news. We're aware of the wider picture, and we know this is a dangerous game. Hezbollah is seen as a proxy for Iran, whose foreign minister made warnings on NPR that groups like Hezbollah have their finger on the trigger of a wider war. So each side is aware of the pressure not to go too far.

FADEL: Yeah. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Now we'll turn back to domestic news. President Biden is taking some big steps today to try to rein in artificial intelligence.

INSKEEP: The White House is worried it's moving so fast and has a lot of risks.

JEFF ZIENTS: AI can use data, your own personal data, to make social media even more addictive for you or your kids. That's not a good thing. AI systems can use your data to discriminate against a person of color who wants to buy a home. That's unacceptable.

FADEL: That's White House chief of staff Jeff Zients. NPR's Deepa Shivaram spoke with him ahead of a new executive order being announced by the president today. And she joins us now. Hey, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hey, there.

FADEL: So you've been talking to the White House about this for months. As they look at the problems and the opportunities of AI. What's the biggest development in this new executive order?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. So a lot of what has been done so far between the White House and tech companies has been voluntary. For example, the White House had asked tech companies a couple of months ago to expand their testing process for AI systems, which is called red teaming. And that makes sure that the AI doesn't discriminate or can't be hacked by people who want to use it in negative ways.

But in this new executive order, the government is going one step further. They're trying to do this by providing some oversight of that red-teaming process for bigger, high-stakes new AI systems. They want companies to do this testing, but they also want the results of that testing to be shared with the government. When I talked to the White House chief of staff, Jeff Zients, he told me that companies can't be the only ones involved in the AI development process.

ZIENTS: They can't grade their own homework. We will have resources in the federal government to pressure-test and make sure that the companies are doing good testing, that the companies are doing all they can to secure the safety of these products.

FADEL: In reality, though, Deepa, how can the government do that? Does this executive order have teeth to hold AI developers accountable?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. That's a fair question. The White House is able to require that sharing process because they're invoking the Defense Production Act, which was a Korean War-era law that expands presidential authorities, especially when it comes to things around national security. And that law had kind of fallen by the wayside a little bit. But since COVID, this administration, and the last one, have found new ways to use it. Even with that, though, some of the enforcement elements here are definitely still in the works. And ultimately, there's also room for Congress to create laws that would regulate AI companies, particularly on privacy rules when it comes to data. And while we know that legislators are meeting about it, there hasn't really been any forward-moving action on that getting passed anytime soon.

FADEL: This is such cutting-edge technology, and it's moving really quickly. How prepared is the government workforce for all these changes and its new watchdog role?

SHIVARAM: I mean, yeah, to your point, this is a really expansive executive order. The EO also calls on agencies across the federal government to set up new standards and safety programs for how AI can be used across the country in everything from creating new drugs to how it could help teachers and classrooms. And they're going to try to develop a new system so that you can tell online if something you're looking at is created by AI, essentially like a watermarking system. So you'll know if it's true or if it's legitimately from the government so that people don't get fooled by fake tax-fraud collars or fake videos of President Biden. And all of that work will require an equipped workforce, right?

The White House says they've got a lot of folks who are leading the charge on AI right now, but officials are being very clear that they also want more people to come in from everywhere in the country and around the world to work in the public sector on AI development. They need to expand their recruitment. And that's something this order is also trying to address by easing some immigration rules for AI specialists.

FADEL: NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thanks, Deepa.

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