Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense fiscal 2025 budget request at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, Tuesday, March 9, 2024.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III testifies at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense fiscal 2025 budget request at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, Tuesday, March 9, 2024. (Chad J. McNeeley/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday said there was no evidence of Israel committing genocide in Gaza, but he said it was critical for the U.S. and Israel to provide humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged territory.

Austin appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss the Pentagon’s 2025 budget but faced repeated heckling from pro-Palestinian protesters who accused him of green-lighting genocide against the people of Gaza.

“I absolutely deny” that charge, he said.

Austin defended America’s continued military assistance to Israel as the country waged war against Hamas militants in Gaza who raided Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting about 250 others.

“From the very beginning, we committed to help assist Israel in defending its territory and its people,” he said. “I would remind everyone that what happened on Oct. 7 was horrible.”

But Austin also cautioned Israel needed to do more to provide aid to civilians in Gaza as they risked famine amid widespread destruction.

“If Israel wants to create lasting effects, then it must address the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people and not in a marginal way, in a meaningful way,” he said.

A lack of access to food, water and medicine will not only add to a Palestinian death toll that has topped 30,000 people but also create more terrorists, Austin said. He said he frequently encourages his Israeli counterpart to open more land routes for assistance and increase the volume of aid.

Israel said Monday that it allowed more than 400 trucks of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, the largest since the conflict began. It also agreed last week to open a crossing to funnel aid into northern Gaza after President Joe Biden threatened to condition future support for Israel on its commitment to mitigating civilian casualties.

The measures have prompted “changes in behaviors,” Austin said. However, “There needs to be more still.”

The U.S. military is stepping in to build a maritime corridor that would allow aid to pass into Gaza through a temporary floating pier and continues to airdrop pallets of food into the territory. The pier is expected to have “initial operational capability” by the third week of April, Austin said.

“It is something that we have the ability to do, and we should do,” he said.

Several senators argued the U.S. should not have to supplement aid that should instead be delivered by Israel, fearing it could put troops and Palestinian civilians at risk. Gaza authorities have said several people have been killed by aid packages dropping from aircraft.

“There’s no reason the United States should have to build a pier in the Eastern Mediterranean. There’s no reason we should have to airdrop supplies, often endangering people who have to go out into the water and get them,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, expressed concern over the uninterrupted flow of U.S. weapons into Israel. The Biden administration regularly sends arms to Israel as part of a $38 billion agreement that will expire in 2026. Those shipments continued the week of a deadly Israeli attack on seven workers delivering food in Gaza earlier this month, King said.

“We have a responsibility as well, in terms of the way the war is being conducted, because we are engaged in terms of the supply of the weapons,” he said.

Austin said he believes Biden’s conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the need to protect civilians has had a positive effect, though whether it lasts “remains to be seen.”

He also said he has personally appealed to Israeli defense officials to stress that the destructive tactics employed earlier in the war cannot be replicated if Israel goes through with its planned invasion of southern Gaza.

“Hamas is responsible ultimately for the start of this war. … But having said that, there have been far too many civilian casualties, and I think there is a way to be successful operationally and tactically and also protect civilians,” Austin said. “We need to see a better job in terms of being more precise and protecting the civilian population.”

author picture
Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now