A key Democrat on Tuesday said he is noncommittal about approving an $18 billion F-15 sale to Israel, even as centrist members of the party who previously supported unrestricted military aid to the country become increasingly skeptical amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

And the topic of U.S. military support for Israel overshadowed a hearing with the defense secretary that same day on the Pentagon’s budget request.

Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had expressed reservations about the fighter jet sale and demanded a classified briefing from the Biden administration, raising questions as to whether he will greenlight the pending deal.

“I want to know what types of weapons and what the weapons would be utilized for,” Meeks told CNN on Tuesday.

“I don’t want the kinds of weapons that Israel has to be utilized to have more deaths,” he said. “I want to make sure that humanitarian aid gets in. I don’t want people starving to death, and I want Hamas to release the hostages. And I want a two-state solution.”

Meeks was referring to the Israel-Hamas war that began after the militant group launched a fatal attack on the country in October and took people hostage. Israel has responded by waging war in the Gaza Strip, which has led to the deaths of tens of thousands, according to many estimates. The “two-state solution” calls for separate nations — one for Israelis, another for Palestinians.

The sale includes 50 Boeing-made F-15 fighter jets; Raytheon-made Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles; and Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munition kits, which convert dumb bombs to precision-guided munitions. Politico and other outlets first reported on the sale last week.

Israel would not receive the fighter jets and munitions from the sale until the end of the decade.

The top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs panels have the authority to block arms sales, and the State Department typically alerts them to deals before formally notifying Congress in order to avoid embarrassing allies. The top Republicans on the committees, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho and Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, signed off on the sale soon after the Biden administration submitted the informal notification on Jan. 30.

The office of Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Md., declined to comment as to whether he supports the F-15 sale. Cardin met with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday.

Other House members previously supportive of U.S. military aid to Israel signed onto a letter to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week expressing concern over the sale. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a former House speaker, as well as Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, the top Democratic defense appropriator, signed onto the letter alongside 38 other Democrats.

They also criticized Biden for another Israel arms transfer last week, noting in the letter that it “reportedly includes 1,800 MK-84 2,000-pound bombs, 500 MK-82 500-pound bombs and 25 F-35A fighter jets.”

The letter, which Meeks did not sign, called for a halt to offensive arms transfers pending Israel’s investigation into its strike last week in Gaza that killed seven humanitarian aid workers, six foreigners and one Palestinian.

It also called on Biden to “ensure that any future military assistance to Israel, including already authorized transfers, is subject to conditions to ensure it is used in compliance with U.S. and international law.

‘2,000-pound bombs’

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin fielded questions during a Senate hearing from members of the Democratic caucus who are increasingly concerned with ongoing U.S. weapons transfers to Israel amid the war.

“I was surprised that at the very week the World [Central] Kitchen attack occurred, continuing the humanitarian crisis, that the administration approved the transfer of additional munitions to Israel, particularly offensive munitions,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “Two-thousand-pound bombs are not defensive. They’re offensive, and they’re not very precision.”

The Israel Defense Forces have acknowledged they were responsible for an attack that killed aid workers with the humanitarian organization.

Austin also faced skepticism from Democrats and Republicans alike over the Biden administration’s plans to construct a temporary pier in Gaza to deliver humanitarian aid.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said “the pace of humanitarian aid is insufficient” and cited World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain — the widow of former Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — who had warned of imminent famine.

“There’s no reason the United States should have to build a pier in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Kaine added.

Gen. Michael Kurilla, who oversees troops in the Middle East as the leader of U.S. Central Command, told the House last month that force-protection plans for the Gaza pier remain classified. Austin said Tuesday that nongovernmental organizations would be tasked with distributing the aid coming in through the pier, though the details have yet to be worked out.

Austin said he pressed Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on the need to open humanitarian corridors into Gaza and to ensure civilian evacuation and safety before any potential Israeli offensive into Rafah, where roughly 1.5 million Palestinians have fled amid the six-month-long campaign.

Still, Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said that “U.S. security assistance to Israel must therefore continue unimpeded.”

Austin replied that the Biden administration is “doing everything we can to make sure we get them what they need as quickly as possible.”

“I would expect that as the nature of this fight begins to change, to become a more precision fight, then their requirements should change a bit,” he said. “We will stay abreast of their needs, and we will continue to provide security assistance as quickly as we can. We remain committed to helping Israel defend itself, but we expect that they would execute operations responsibly.”

Numerous protesters from the activist group Code Pink repeatedly interrupted the beginning of the hearing, shouting “stop the genocide in Gaza.” The interruptions prompted Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., to briefly recess the hearing, at which point the protesters left en masse.

Austin told senators that “we don’t have any evidence of genocide” in Gaza. The International Court of Justice in January found there was a “plausible” risk of genocide in Gaza and called on Israel to take steps to protect civilians and allow entry of humanitarian aid.

After a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Biden called for an “immediate cease-fire” in Gaza and threatened U.S. policy changes absent “a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers.”

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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