UNITED STATES NEWS

Austin tells Congress Israel is taking steps to boost aid to Gaza as lawmakers question US support

Apr 9, 2024, 6:59 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress Tuesday that pressure on Israel to improve humanitarian aid to Gaza appears to be working, but he said more must be done, and it remains to be seen if the improvement will continue.

“It clearly had an effect. We have seen changes in behavior, and we have seen more humanitarian assistance being pushed into Gaza,” Austin said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “Hopefully that trend will continue.”

Austin’s comments came during a session that was interrupted several times by protesters shouting at him to stop sending weapons to Israel. “Stop the genocide,” they said, as they lifted their hands, stained in red, in the air. A number of senators also decried the civilian casualties, saying the administration needs to do more to press Israel to protect the population in Gaza.

In response, Austin said he spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, on Monday and that he repeated U.S. insistence that Israel must move civilians out of the battlespace in Gaza and properly care for them.

Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. CQ Brown Jr. were testifying on Capitol Hill about the Pentagon’s $850 billion budget for 2025. But the hearing offered the first chance for lawmakers on both sides to question the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leadership on the administration’s Israel strategy following Tel Aviv’s deadly strike on World Central Kitchen humanitarian aid workers in Gaza.

That strike led to a shift in tone from President Joe Biden on how Israel must protect civilian life in Gaza and drove dozens of House Democrats, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to call on Biden to halt weapons transfers to Israel. Half the population of Gaza is starving and on the brink of famine due to Israel’s tight restrictions on allowing aid trucks through.

Israel in recent days took initial steps to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. In a call Friday, Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that future U.S. support for the war in Gaza depends on Israel taking more action to protect civilians and aid workers.

At the hearing, Austin also said that the military is moving ahead with plans to build a pier off the Gaza coast to increase the delivery of humanitarian aid, and initial operations will probably be ready to start by the third week of this month. He said that details are still being worked out but that aid organizations will help do that.

Six U.S. military ships with personnel and components to build a humanitarian aid pier are enroute to Gaza, with several in the Mediterranean Sea, heading toward Cyprus.

The war, now in its seventh month, has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to local health authorities. Israeli authorities say 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and roughly 250 people taken hostage in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

In their opening statements, both Austin and Brown emphasized that their 2025 budget is still shaped with the military’s long-term strategic goal in mind — to ready forces and weapons for a potential future conflict with China. About $100 billion of this year’s request is set aside for new space, nuclear weapons and cyber warfare systems the military says it must invest in now before Beijing’s capabilities surpass it.

But the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are challenging a deeply-divided Congress and have resulted in months of delays in getting last year’s defense budget through, which was only passed by lawmakers a few weeks ago.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has issued desperate pleas that if the U.S. does not help soon, Kyiv will lose the war to Russia.

The Pentagon scraped together about $300 million in ammunition to send to Kyiv in March but cannot send more without Congress’ support, and a separate $60 billion supplemental bill that would fund those efforts has been stalled for months.

“The price of U.S. leadership is real. But it is far lower than the price of U.S. abdication,” Austin told the senators.

If Kyiv falls, it could imperil Ukraine’s Baltic NATO member neighbors and potentially drag U.S. troops into a prolonged European war. If millions die in Gaza due to starvation, it could enrage Israel’s Arab neighbors and lead to a much wider, deadlier Middle East conflict — one that could also bring harm to U.S. troops and to U.S. relations in the region for decades.

Israel’s actions in Gaza have been used as a rallying cry by factions of Iranian-backed militant groups, including the Houthis in Yemen and Islamic Resistance groups across Iraq and Syria, to strike at U.S. interests. Three U.S. service members have already been killed as drone and missile attacks increased against U.S. bases in the region.

Lawmakers are also seeing demands at home. For months, a handful of its far-right members have kept Congress from approving additional money or weapons for Ukraine until domestic needs like curbing the crush of migrants at the southern U.S. border are addressed. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson is already facing a call to oust him as speaker by Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene because Johnson is trying to work out a compromise that would move the Ukraine aid forward.

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Austin tells Congress Israel is taking steps to boost aid to Gaza as lawmakers question US support