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The Morning Dispatch: More Destruction in Israel
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The Morning Dispatch: More Destruction in Israel

Plus: State and local governments struggle to turn the latest CDC guidance on mask safety into actual policy.

Happy Monday! One piece of bookkeeping before we begin: Declan is on vacation this week, which means that for the time being this newsletter fully supports the St. Louis Cardinals, currently three games up on the Cubs in the NL Central.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • In the wake of updated Centers for Disease Control guidance last week that vaccinated people can safely mingle without masks, a number of states lifted or eased their public-space mask mandates, including Michigan, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington. 

  • Other states, including Connecticut and Delaware, plan to relax their mandates shortly, and still others, like Massachusetts, have said they will issue updated guidance soon. Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said he would lift his state’s mandate once 70 percent of Marylanders have received at least one vaccine dose. 

  • Israel escalated its airstrikes over the weekend in the Gaza Strip, hitting the home of a senior Hamas leader and destroying a building that was used by the Associated Press and other journalists.

  • The top Democrat and top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee reached an agreement on Friday for legislation to create an independent commission to probe the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Top congressional Republicans haven’t embraced the plan yet, saying they have yet to study it. The House is expected to vote on the bill as soon as this week.

  • The United States confirmed 16,387 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 1.5 percent of the 1,065,253 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 259 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 585,967. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 27,992 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 2,712,865 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 157,485,596 Americans having now received at least one dose.

Fighting Grows in Middle East

Fighting escalated between Israeli forces and Palestinians over the weekend. A series of Israeli airstrikes took out buildings the Israeli government said were related to Hamas militants and their ability to attack civilians in Israel. Meanwhile, scores of rockets fired by Hamas filled the skies over the Gaza Strip, with many intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and others landing on Israeli soil. 

Along with the continued air strikes, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) announced Friday night it had deployed ground troops to the Gaza Strip for the first time in this conflict. However, the IDF later walked that back, saying there were no ground troops present in Gaza. IDF lieutenant colonel and English-language spokesman Jonathan Conricus took responsibility for the flip-flop, saying he had misunderstood field reports coming into his office.

Some have speculated, however, that the IDF intentionally misled the public to think it had put boots on the ground so Hamas would do the same. The announcement sparked Hamas troops to utilize a network of underground tunnels known as the “Gaza Metro System.” Once the IDF confirmed there were troops in the tunnels, they bombed kilometers of the system, killing “quite a lot of enemy combatants,” an Israeli spokesperson said.

President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the phone on Saturday about the violence in the region. In a readout of the conversation, the White House said Biden “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. He condemned these indiscriminate attacks against towns and cities across Israel.” 

Israel also destroyed a building over the weekend that was home to multiple media outlets, including the Associated Press (AP) and Al Jazeera. According to the IDF, Hamas military intelligence assets were operating from the building, which Israel announced would be bombed ahead of time to permit civilians to evacuate. The move has garnered strong backlash from members of the media.

“We are shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza,” AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in response. He added that the strike is “an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life.”

Pruitt said they were able to evacuate a dozen AP journalists and freelancers who were inside the building before the strike took place. 

“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” he said.

Pruitt also expressed skepticism of the Israeli justification that the building contained Hamas intelligence assets: “We have called on the Israeli government to put forward the evidence,” he wrote. “AP’s bureau has been in this building for 15 years. We have had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building.”

In an interview Sunday, Conricus told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the building was a “legitimate military target.” 

“Not only was Hamas in the building, they were actively using it to fight against Israel,” he said. “They were using the infrastructure as their command center and intelligence center. They had special technological equipment in the building, which they used to actively fight and disrupt Israeli actions.”

Pressed for the evidence behind their assessment, Conricus said it is “in process” and will be shared in “due time,” but declined to say when that would be.

The fighting continued throughout the weekend, with additional Israeli airstrikes overnight Sunday, despite increasing calls for a ceasefire from around the world. 

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told The Dispatch that Israeli forces have been “going through what is commonly referred to as their ‘target bank,’” which includes targets collected over the past seven years or so.

“There is an open debate about whether now is the time to end this on a relatively high note, as Israel has neutralized a great many of the targets that it set out to hit,” Schanzer said. “That’s the primary dispute in this debate: whether more is needed to ensure a longer term calm.”

The Growing Pains of Shifting CDC Guidance

Last week, the CDC made a long-awaited change to its recommendations: Vaccinated people, the agency said, are very unlikely either to catch COVID-19 or to transmit the virus that causes it, and are thus safe to go out in public without wearing masks. But while many hailed the announcement as the most powerful sign yet that we’re finally getting back to normal, others—particularly policymakers in state and local governments—groused that the CDC had pulled the rug out from under them by flipping its former guidance on its head overnight.

With a few exceptions, including the state of New York, most state and local governments have determined that vaccine passports—systems showing who has been vaccinated and who has not—are more trouble than they’re worth. As a result, the only way to implement the new guidance seems to be to remove mask mandates altogether. It’s a difficult switch for governors and mayors to navigate, given that many have faced heavy opposition until now in following CDC guidelines by keeping such orders in place.

Take for example Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, who in the wake of the CDC announcement said his mask order would go unchanged—then reversed his position just hours later, arguing there is no practical way as a matter of policy to distinguish between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. “I don’t know if that’s the type of rule that was written in coordination with anyone who has been a governor or a mayor over the last 14 months,” he told the New York Times.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, whom President Biden appointed CDC director earlier this year, has maintained that the abolition of mask mandates was not the goal of the new policy. “This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere,” she said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday. Rather, the goal was to ensure Americans know that the science shows “it was safe at the individual level” for vaccinated people to go unmasked.

Walensky also served as an example last week of some of the incongruities inherent in the operation of an organization like the CDC—which exists in part to communicate up-to-date scientific knowledge to the public on the one hand, but frequently operates at the speed of bureaucracy on the other. Testifying before a Senate health committee last Tuesday, she offered a stringent defense of what was then the CDC’s guidance on masking: “We still have about a third of counties in this country that have … very high transmission rates, and many counties and areas in this country that have less than 20 percent vaccination rates. So, in that context, we are keeping our public health guidance to recommend masking for people who are vaccinated.”

Over the weekend, however, the Washington Post reported that Walensky had actually signed off on the forthcoming guidance the night before her testimony.

“When that guidance changes, it’s not a spectrum,” she said over the weekend. “It’s a switch. We have to pick the time and the day that this guidance is going to change, that the new guidance is going to appear on the website.”

Worth Your Time

  • While we’re on the subject of the CDC’s creaky responses to new COVID-related developments, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic has a good survey of how the agency’s communication during the pandemic “has lagged so consistently behind the research that it’s brought new meaning to the concept of ‘following the science.’” The agency has a hard job, he writes. But that’s not enough to curve their grade over the last year: “In lieu of clear guidance, [the CDC] has routinely delivered confusion and surprise, complicated our ability to grok this virus, and mostly done so in a way that followed the science—with a six-month lag. That’s how you get lurching shutdowns, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on hygiene theater, bans on beach walks, rules against outdoor bars, closed playgrounds, mass confusion about protecting ourselves and our families, and a large number of Americans who have tuned out public-health officials entirely. Guidance is overrated. We needed an actual guide.”

  • Federal investigators are reportedly looking into potential incidents of “Havana syndrome” in the United States—a set of symptoms experienced by U.S. personnel in Cuba in late 2016, including headaches and nausea, that led government officials to fear a mysterious form of attack by an adversary like Russia or China. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences argued that the symptoms are most likely caused by “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy.” In Foreign Policy last week, chemist Cheryl Rofer questioned the science behind those claims. “Aside from the reported syndromes, there’s no evidence that a microwave weapon exists—and all the available science suggests that any such weapon would be wildly impractical,” she wrote. “It’s possible that the symptoms of all the sufferers of Havana syndrome share a single, as yet unknown, cause; it’s also possible that multiple real health problems have been amalgamated into a single syndrome.” She pointed out that proponents of the idea haven’t outlined how such a weapon would work: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In his Sunday French Press, David goes deep on a recent controversy touching a niche subject close to his heart: transracial adoption and the laws that govern it. Last week, America’s largest Protestant foster care and adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services, proposed changes to adoption law to permit case workers to “consider the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of the child and the capacity of the prospective foster or adoptive parent to meet the needs of such background” while placing children with families. This provoked backlash from conservatives, who accused the agency of capitulating to the “woke” left. But it’s a reality, David writes, that families who commit to transracial adoption or foster care face unique challenges for which it’s important they be prepared. “Call something ‘woke,’” he writes, “and too many Americans wall themselves off from engagement and reflexively oppose ideas that should be carefully considered.”  

  • In his Friday G-File, Jonah chews over a common liberal response to the CDC’s latest masking guidance: hand-wringing over the idea that unvaccinated people may soon be able to go without masks, too. “My own response to this is, basically, I don’t care,” he writes. “My family and friends are vaccinated. I’d like the people sitting next to me to be vaccinated too—for their sake. But I really don’t care very much, because even if they’re contagious, I’m extremely unlikely to get COVID. And if I do, the symptoms are going to be mild. That’s what the science says.”

  • Rep. Liz Cheney, stripped last week of her role as GOP conference chair, joined the Dispatch Podcast on Friday to discuss the 2022 midterms, the future of the Republican Party, and the events that led to her ouster. “At the end of the day,” Cheney said, “if being on House leadership on the Republican side requires the embrace of that lie [that the 2020 election was stolen], that’s not something I’m willing to participate in.”

  • In her Friday Uphill, Haley surveyed the grim reality of how those lies have filtered down into the rank-and-file of the Republican conference—all while leadership continues to deny there’s an issue at all. “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election,” House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week. “A lot of people question it, to be frank with you,” House Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Andy Biggs said hours later. “Republican lawmakers—who see Trump as essential to their efforts to retake the House—are wary of contradicting him,” Haley writes. “If you ask them whether Joe Biden lawfully won the presidency, most won’t give you a straight answer.”

Let Us Know

Maybe it’s just freak coincidence based on where we live, but your Morning Dispatchers have so far been a little underwhelmed by the supposedly apocalyptic quantity of Brood X cicadas we were told we’d be getting all year. Have any of you had a different experience? Up to your ears in massive, unsettling bugs?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).