Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the Pentagon had no evidence that Israel was carrying out a genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Austin made the comments in testimony at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that was disrupted several times by demonstrators protesting U.S. support for Israel’s assault on Hamas. More than 33,000 people have died in Israeli bombardments on Gaza, according to Gazan health officials, and severe hunger is sweeping through the Palestinian enclave.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican, asked Mr. Austin to address the protesters’ concerns.

“Is Israel committing genocide in Gaza?” Mr. Cotton asked.

“We don’t have any evidence of genocide being created,” Mr. Austin replied.

“So that’s a no?” asked Mr. Cotton. “Israel is not committing genocide in Gaza?”

“We don’t have evidence of that, to my knowledge,” the defense secretary answered.

South Africa has brought a suit before the International Court of Justice contending that the Israeli military campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide, an accusation that Israel vehemently denies.

The court issued an interim ruling that Israel must take actions to prevent acts by its forces in Gaza that are banned under the 1948 Genocide Convention. The prohibited actions include indiscriminately killing Palestinians and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Critics who contend that the campaign is genocidal accuse Israel of indiscriminate bombings that have leveled civilian apartment blocks, public buildings and mosques. Many of the dead were women and children. They have also accused Israel of using hunger as a weapon by restricting the aid entering Gaza.

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Israel has argued that its bombing campaign has been aimed at military targets, accusing Hamas of using civilians as shields. The Israeli military says Hamas has built hundreds of miles of tunnels underneath the heavily populated enclave’s buildings.

Israeli officials also deny they have unduly restricted the aid coming into the country and have accused United Nations agencies and other aid organizations of being inefficient in distributing assistance.

The hearing room was not the only scene of protest on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The police arrested around 50 people who briefly shut down a cafeteria for senators, their aides and visitors to the Capitol.

Dozens of protesters, including clergy members and laypeople from different Christian denominations, peacefully occupied the cafeteria at peak lunch hour, chanting and singing to demand a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and an end to U.S. arms transfers to Israel.

“The Senate and their staffers cannot eat until Gaza eats,” the protest’s organizers, led by Christians for a Free Palestine, declared.

The Capitol Police blocked off the cafeteria for around 30 minutes as it was cleared out. Staff members having lunch crowded into a nearby seating area, and then quickly returned to the cafeteria when it was reopened.

Kayla Guo contributed reporting.



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