October 31, 2023


WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) questioned Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during a hearing on President Biden’s proposed national security supplemental request. A transcript of his questions and Secretary Blinken’s and Secretary Austin’s responses is available below and video is available here.

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.): Thank you, Madam Chair. Mr. Secretary, in the aftermath of the horror visited upon Israel by Hamas and the ongoing war in Gaza, much of the world has turned its eye away from what's happening on the West Bank. And what we're seeing – and our own folks on the ground have been reporting this on a daily basis –  is that with support of extremists in the Netanyahu government, people like Smotrich and Ben Gvir, extremist settler violence against Palestinians has skyrocketed as more Palestinians are pushed off their land in Area C. As you know, all this does is strengthen Hamas, undermine the already weak P.A. and open another front in this war. I know the President has raised this issue with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But, according to every report I get – and I know both you Secretaries get these – we've seen no improvement. So, my question is pretty simple: what is your plan beyond urging that something be done, when our pleas continue to be ignored?

ANTONY J. BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Senator Van Hollen, with regard to the West Bank, we very much share the concern that you've expressed. The Palestinian Authority is doing everything that it can to keep security, to keep stability, in the West Bank. It's vastly under-resourced – this is another aspect of the problem. And we've urged the Israelis, for example, to provide the Authority with the resources that it needs that are being held back – tax revenues and other fees that it collects and then normally gives to the Authority – so that it can do its business to release those. And at the same time, the President himself has been very clear, very direct, and very explicit about our concerns about extreme settler violence and the impact that that's having on the West Bank, including adding fuel to the fire. We've seen that people have been, in effect, forcibly displaced from their communities as well as killed. So, this is something that we are in direct communication and conversation with the Israeli government at the very highest levels – and something we're tracking very carefully.

LLOYD J. AUSTIN III, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Tony, if I could add just: you know, I mentioned earlier I talk to my counterpart nearly every day, and this is something that I bring up every time I talk to him. As you mentioned, Senator, I'm watching these reports. And some of the things that we're seeing are fairly disturbing – and it will work against them going forward, if they don't make a decision to control this matter.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you. It really needs to stop.

Later in the hearing, Senator Van Hollen continued his questioning of Secretary Austin:

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.): Thank you, Madam Chair. Secretary Austin, thank you for your service. And I agree that we have to provide the people of Ukraine with military assistance that they need to defend themselves against Putin's aggression.

And President Biden is right to stand with Israel in its hour of need. All of us have been repulsed by the horror and brutality of the Hamas terror attacks that left over 1,400 innocent Israelis murdered, including women and children – including those massacred at Kibbutz Kfar Aza which I visited in June. When scaled to the size of the U.S. population, that is comparable to over 40,000 Americans killed – a horror that will never be erased. All of us agree that Israel not only has the right but the duty to defend itself and eliminate the threat from Hamas. Hamas must immediately release all the hostages – and as Israel conducts its operations, many of us believe it should prioritize returning the hostages safely home.

Also, as President Biden has said, it must conduct its operations in accordance with the laws of war. Not only because taking all possible measures to avoid civilian casualties and human suffering is morally and legally required, but that it is also in the best strategic interests of the United States and Israel to do so – something both you and Secretary Blinken have affirmed today.  The President has been very clear about the need to distinguish between Hamas and the overwhelming number of Gaza's over two million Palestinian civilians who have nothing to do with Hamas.

But some members of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition have indicated that all Palestinians in Gaza are responsible for the horror visited upon Israel. And Israel has imposed, as you know, a full siege on the people of Gaza: cutting off most water, food, medicine, electricity, and fuel shipments. Secretary Blinken described the desperate humanitarian situation in his testimony today. But to date, we have only seen a trickle – a trickle – of the needed humanitarian aid crossing the Rafah border. I saw the readout from your conversation today with Minister Gallant, where you indicated, and I quote, that “humanitarian law requires that there be unfettered humanitarian assistance.”

So, Mr. Secretary, simple question: we've got a trickle going – you would agree that in the interests of humanitarian law and helping innocent people in Gaza, we have to do a lot better? Simple question.

LLOYD J. AUSTIN III, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I agree, Senator. And as I said earlier, it’s a moral and operational and strategic imperative. If you fail to do that, then I think we're going to create a problem that – they will create a problem, a bigger problem, for themselves.

VAN HOLLEN: Now, the siege is being accompanied by a ferocious bombing campaign. In just the first six days of the war, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs in the densely populated Gaza Strip. Israel has stopped reporting the number of bombs being dropped, but the intense pace has continued.  Last night, my wife and I learned that someone we know well lost two family members and four of their children killed in bombing in Gaza. So, they are not yet included in the most recent death toll reported by the United Nations yesterday, which says the number of dead has risen to over 8,300 people – 70 percent of them women and children, including 3,457 children. These are U.N. figures. According to U.N. figures, that is about six times more children killed in three weeks in Gaza than the number of children killed in Ukraine during the entire war there. And if you scale the death of those Palestinian children to the United States’ population, it's comparable to over 230,000 American children killed. The executive director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, said at the current rate, more than 420 children are being killed or injured in Gaza each day. A number she said, which “should shake us to our core.” I agree.

Now, Mr. Secretary, I know that people on opposing sides of this conflict provide different reasons for why the death toll is so high. And you are right about Hamas' despicable practices of operating among civilians. But regardless of the explanation, we must not look away from these terrible facts. You and the President have repeatedly said that Israel must comply with the rules of war. But as we consider additional American military assistance to Israel's fight in Gaza, don't we have an obligation not only to state that expectation but to ensure that our support is used in a manner that complies with the laws of war and U.S. law? That's my question, Mr. Secretary.

AUSTIN: We will continue to emphasize to our allies here the necessity to account for the civilians that are in the battle space. They are a part of the battle space. They must account for them. They must do the right thing in terms of taking that into consideration as they do their targeting. They must create –

VAN HOLLEN: Mr. Secretary, with respect, my question is a little different. My question is now that we're talking about –

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY (D-Wash.): Senator Van Hollen, I apologize, Secretary Austin has just a few minutes left, and we still have four senators.

VAN HOLLEN: [My question is now that we're talking about –] additional assistance, don't we now have an obligation, not just a stated expectation for that to be the case?