House lawmakers press Austin on Rafah, Israel aid and Gaza pier plans

House lawmakers press Austin on Rafah, Israel aid and Gaza pier plans

House lawmakers on Tuesday pushed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on civilian protection plans for an imminent Israeli attack on Rafah, an upcoming assessment of Israel’s compliance with U.S. human rights and arms transfers laws, as well as the Gaza pier the military is building to deliver aid to the besieged enclave.

Austin told Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., that Israel hasn’t provided “detailed plans” to evacuate civilians from Rafah before its offensive while telling Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., his main concerns involved a “lack of execution” in sustaining an evacuation of Palestinian civilians.

“I doubt they’ll move all of them out, but the preponderance of the people, sure,” Austin told Khanna. “The number of civilian deaths will depend on what they’re doing,”

Austin’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to invade the southern portion of the Gaza strip “with or without” a hostage-for-ceasefire agreement that the U.S. has struggled to broker.

Netanyahu is under cross-pressure from rival members of his coalition on how to proceed, with War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz emphasizing a hostage deal and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling for “no half measures” and “total annihilation” of Rafah and other Gazan cities.

Some 1.7 million displaced Palestinians have fled to Rafah in the wake of Israel’s seven-month invasion of the enclave following Hamas’ October attack on Israel last year.

“This is not a time for vague ambiguities, will you please commit today and send a clear message to Mr. Netanyahu that he should not go into Rafah?” asked Khanna.

“What we have emphasized throughout is they must do what we expect to protect civilians in the battle space, a much better job than what we’ve seen thus far,” Austin replied.

Austin’s Monday remarks come after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Defense News last week “We have been absolutely clear about our grave concerns about an invasion of Rafah.”

“The president has been clear and has said publicly that our policy in Gaza will be determined by Israeli conduct in Gaza and we’ll make our decisions accordingly,” said Sullivan.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., also asked Austin about his role with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in submitting a report to Congress by May 8 on Israel’s use of U.S. military aid.

Under an executive memorandum President Joe Biden signed in February the Pentagon and State Department must assess Israel’s compliance with human rights laws in a report to Congress, with noncompliance possibly resulting in the suspension of military aid.

“The assessment that’s upcoming, as you know State is working on that assessment,” Austin told Sherrill. “I’ll confer with [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken at some point, but we’ve not had that conversation yet,” Austin told Sherill.

Reuters reported last week that some senior U.S. officials working on the assessment have advised Blinken that Israel is not abiding by international humanitarian law in Gaza.

Additionally, Slotkin and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., pushed Austin on force protection plans for the $320 million pier the Biden administration s building to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza amid ongoing Israeli restrictions on assistance.

Austin said Israeli forces would respond if U.S. troops came under fire from Hamas or other militant groups.

“Given the difference we have with the Israelis on civilian casualties, we better get right clear on what their response is going to be when we are shot at because I do not think many Americans feel it reflects the same values that we have here,” said Slotkin.

Gaetz also criticized the pier plan for the potential for U.S. troops to come under attack and said Congress should hold a military authorization vote on whether to allow it.

Congress passed $14 billion in additional Israel military aid earlier this month as part of a $95 billion package that also included Ukraine and Taiwan security assistance.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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