Burns says cease-fire is needed to help starving children in Gaza

CIA director Bill Burns said Monday that reaching a cease-fire and hostage deal in Gaza is critical to addressing the massive humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

“The reality is that there are children who are starving,” Burns said during the Senate’s worldwide threats hearing on Capitol Hill. “They're malnourished as a result of the fact that humanitarian assistance can't get to them. It's very difficult to distribute humanitarian assistance effectively unless you have a ceasefire.”

The remarks from Burns, who has been representing the U.S. in negotiations between Israel and Hamas to pause fighting and release the remaining hostages, were some of the strongest yet offered by intelligence officials since Hamas attacked Israel in October, prompting the counteroffensive. They come as the Biden administration is under increasing pressure to push Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, and after the Israel’s prime minister dismissed the idea that Gazans were starving in an interview this past weekend.

The aid world has for months warned of an impending famine in Gaza. And U.N. officials said last week that atleast one-quarter of Gaza’s population are one step away from reaching that grim milestone.Burns said a pause in fighting is critical to not only ensuring the swift delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza but also to securing the release of the hostages — something the director is actively working to address with officials in Israel, Egypt and Qatar.

The CIA director returned home from the region Saturday night — his eighth trip to try and negotiate an end to the fighting in Gaza. He said the parties are trying to broker a deal for a six-week cease-fire in Gaza that would allow for the release of 40 hostages as well as Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel.

Under intense questioning by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) about whether he believed Israel was “exterminating the Palestinian people” Burns said he understood “Israel’s need to respond” to the attack by Hamas.

“But I think we all also have to be mindful of the enormous toll this has taken on innocent civilians in Gaza,” he said.

The wide-ranging hearing Monday, which came in conjunction with the publishing of the Director of National Intelligence’s annual threats report, touched on some of the most critical national security issues facing U.S. policymakers.

It included multiple officials from the intelligence community, including Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Chris Wray, the director of the FBI.

In the hearing, intelligence community officials urged Congress to pass additional funding for Ukraine, warned about China, Russia, and Iran using artificial intelligence to interfere in U.S. elections and defended the use of a controversial digital surveillance authority to collect data on foreign individuals.

But the fighting in Gaza was touched on by multiple officials.

Haines said the conflict in Gaza will likely have a “generational impact on terrorism.” More than 1,200 Israelis were killed during the Oct. 7 attack. Since then, about 30,000 Gazans have been killed, according to the Hamas health ministry, which is controlled by Hamas.

Haines’ remarks echo those made by intelligence officials in the weeks after the attack.

National Counterterrorism Center director Christy Abizaid, told Congress in November that Oct. 7 was inspiring terrorists across the globe. While Abizaid said most of the threats posed by those groups were focused on U.S troops in the Middle East, the FBI’s Wray noted in the same hearing he was also concerned about threats against the homeland.

Wray reiterated those warnings Monday.

“Even before Oct. 7, I would have told this committee that we were at a heightened threat level from a terrorism perspective,” Wray said, referring to the possibility of a terrorist attack in the U.S. “Since Oct. 7, though, that threat has gone to a whole other level. And so this is a time I think for much greater vigilance.”

Wray said he was particularly concerned about people entering the country and committing crimes after crossing, including violent crimes.

“We are concerned about the terrorism implications from potential targeting of vulnerabilities at the border,” he said.

In the hearing, officials also addressed the strikes by Iran-backed Houthis in the shipping vessels in the Red Sea — attacks the group says are in response to Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Iran proxy militant groups in Iraq and Syria have largely stopped attacking U.S. troops in recent weeks in part, officials believe, because of U.S. counterstrikes. But Haines said despite U.S. and UK air bombardments in Yemen, the Houthis continue to launch shipping vessels in the Red Sea.

Intelligence officials have previously calculated that the Houthis would continue their campaign as long as the war continued in Gaza. But Israel has shown no indications that it is considering winding down its operations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the military would soon invade Rafah – where more than 1 million people are living – in an effort to target Hamas leadership and the group’s tunnel network.