Blinken: 'World's deafening silence on Hamas is astounding'

US says ‘no evidence’ of Gaza genocide, but wants Israel to deliver on aid long-term

After senior Democrat says ICJ will find Israel guilty, Austin defends Jerusalem, but warns that Gaza famine would accelerate violence; Blinken: Israel yet to brief US on Rafah op date

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Protesters interrupted US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)
Protesters interrupted US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday rejected accusations that Israel is perpetrating genocide in Gaza, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken blasted the international community for failing to hold Hamas to account, even as both officials said Israel needed to ensure sustainable improvements to the humanitarian situation in the enclave.

“We don’t have any evidence of genocide being created,” Austin said in testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee regarding US President Joe Biden’s latest budget request.

The remark came a day after footage of Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren claiming there was “ample evidence” to find Israel guilty of genocide in the International Court of Justice was published on social media.

Austin during Tuesday’s hearing declined to term the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 a genocide, but did call them a “war crime.”

Austin’s comments came during a session that was interrupted several times by far-left 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.

Gaza famine would accelerate violence

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

Injured men walk with crutches past children sitting atop the rubble of a collapsed building along a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 9, 2024. (AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 33,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far — a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7 when some 1,200 Israelis were slaughtered by Hamas-led terrorists and another 253 were taken hostage.

Last month, a United Nations-backed report warned that famine was looming in northern Gaza, where several hundred thousand Palestinians remain. The US says that 100% of Gazans are suffering from acute food insecurity as the humanitarian operation has collapsed amid the fighting.

Asked how this would impact the war, Austin responded, “It will accelerate violence, and it will have the effect of ensuring that there’s a long-term conflict.”

“It doesn’t have to happen… We should continue to do everything we can, and we are doing this, to encourage the Israelis to provide humanitarian assistance,” Austin testified.

Austin said it remained to be seen if the increase in aid could be deepened and sustained.

He added that an Israeli failure to separate the Palestinian people from Hamas “would just create more terrorism.”

People gather around the carcass of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, that was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. (AFP)

Frustration in Washington over Israel’s handling of the humanitarian situation reached a boiling point last week after an Israel Defense Forces strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy killed seven of the aid group’s workers. In a subsequent phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden reportedly threatened to halt US support for Israel’s war against Hamas if Jerusalem didn’t take major steps to improve the humanitarian situation.

Within hours, Israel’s security cabinet voted to open another northern crossing into Gaza for aid, allow maritime aid deliveries through its Ashdod Port, expand the aid convoys it allows in through Jordan and develop more effective deconfliction mechanisms to ensure that humanitarian workers are protected.

Proof is in the pudding

Austin told the Congressional panel 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 also said that the US 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 it was still being worked out who in Gaza will distribute the aid brought to the pier.

Biden has come under enormous pressure from within his Democratic party to do more to address the humanitarian catastrophe, and even longtime pro-Israel stalwart and former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi signed a letter on Friday from dozens of progressive lawmakers urging a halt to weapons transfers to Israel.

Palestinians line up for free food in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Feb. 23, 2024. Catastrophic hunger is so dire in two world hotspots that famine is imminent in northern Gaza and approaching in Haiti, with hundreds of thousands of people in both places struggling to avoid starvation, according to international food security experts and aid groups. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Over 400 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Monday — the most since the war — Blinken acknowledged during a simultaneous press conference at the State Department alongside visiting United Kingdom Foreign Minister David Cameron. “But what matters… [are] sustained results and… that includes making sure that the assistance… is distributed effectively throughout Gaza.”

Later Tuesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan praised Israel’s military withdrawal from Khan Younis “create[s] a greater opening for the movement of humanitarian goods around Gaza at a critical moment when there is a real humanitarian crisis there.”

“We welcome the opportunity to move more trucks in and around Gaza so that innocent civilians can get the food, water, medicine and other essentials that they need,” he says during a White House press conference.

But he said the amount of aid entering the Strip, which included 468 trucks on Tuesday, while good, is still not good enough.

Date for Rafah?

Blinken was asked whether Israel has informed the Biden administration of the date on which it plans to launch an invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had decided on a date. Hours later, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US was not briefed on the decision, and Blinken gave the same response on Tuesday.

The Walla news site reported on Tuesday that Gallant informed Austin that Israel had not actually chosen a date for the Rafah operation, indicating that Netanyahu’s announcement had more to do with keeping Hamas’s feet to the fire in the hostage talks or appeasing the premier’s right-wing base that is demanding an invasion of the Gaza’s southern-most city.

Blinken said the Biden administration continues to hold discussions with Israel regarding a potential Rafah operation, voicing its opposition to such an offensive due to its belief that the IDF will not be able to safely evacuate the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah and to care for them once they have been moved.

“We’re talking to them about alternative and effective ways of solving the problems that need to be solved, but doing it in a way that does not endanger the innocent,” Blinken said, noting that a senior-level delegation of Israeli officials will be visiting Washington next week to discuss the matter further.

“We are committed to ensuring that Hamas cannot govern or dictate the future of Gaza or anything else for that matter, but how Israel conducts any further operations in Gaza matters a great deal,” he added.

Illustrative: Trucks lined up at the entrance to Ashdod Port during a protest against humanitarian aid deliveries entering the Gaza Strip, February 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

For his part, Cameron said world powers must plan for the possibility that ongoing hostage talks may not bear fruit and that Israel could move forward with its operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Plan A is for the US, Qatar and Egypt to secure a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas for a temporary pause in the fighting that can be turned into a sustainable ceasefire, during which Hamas leaders are removed from Gaza and terror infrastructure is dismantled. “That is the way to have a political process that brings the war to an end,” Cameron said.

“We have to be aware that if it doesn’t work, we have to think about Plan B — what is it that humanitarian and other organizations can do to make sure that if there is a conflict in Rafah, that people can achieve safety — they can get food, water and medicine,” the top British diplomat said, noting that he would be discussing the matter in his meeting with Blinken.

Calling out international silence on Hamas

As for the ongoing negotiations between Israel and Hamas to secure a truce through a hostage deal, Blinken said the terror group has been presented a “very serious offer” that “should be accepted.”

“The fact that [Hamas] continues to not say ‘yes’ is a reflection of what it really thinks about the people of Gaza, which is not much at all,” Blinken said. “The ball is in Hamas’s court. The world is watching to see what it does.”

Family and supporters of hostages held in the Gaza Strip hold up their hands, painted red to symbolize blood, to call for the captives’ release and to mark six months since the Hamas-led Oct. 7 terror assault, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

He then tore into the international community and apparently the media as well, after each of the questions posed by reporters insinuated criticism of Israel over its role in the humanitarian crisis.

“So much of the understandable outrage and anger is directed at Israel for the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, but some of that might also need to be directed at Hamas. It is astounding to me that the world is almost deafeningly silent when it comes to Hamas,” Blinken said.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today had Hamas not chosen to engage in one of the most horrific acts of terrorism on October 7, and had they, having done that, not refused this many months to stop hiding behind civilians, put down their arms, release hostages and surrender. Where is the outrage there?”

Sullivan said he believes Israel is prepared to agree to a ceasefire deal with Hamas.

Sullivan was asked during a White House press briefing what Biden’s failure to secure a hostage deal before the end of Ramadan this week, after he sought to broker a deal before the holy month started, says about his ability to bring peace around the world.

“It says more about the fact that you have a party, Hamas, [that] is holding innocent people that it took hostage six months ago,” Sullivan responds. “It doesn’t get a lot of attention in the commentary.”

“There could be a ceasefire in place today that would extend for several weeks to be built upon longer if Hamas would be prepared to release some of those people, so let’s train the attention where it belongs, which is the world should say at this moment that ‘Hamas, it’s time. Let’s go. Let’s get that ceasefire.”

“I believe Israel is ready and Hamas should step up to the table and be prepared to do so as well,” he added.

Sullivan said he spoke Monday morning with Qatar’s prime minister and urged him to secure an answer from Hamas to the latest hostage deal offer that was put forward over the weekend.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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