Biden suspends arms shipment to Israel amid dispute over Rafah attack

President Biden suspended arms shipments to Israel last week to prevent U.S.-made weapons from being used in a long-threatened assault on the city of Rafah, administration officials said Tuesday evening, a sign of the growing rift between Washington and Jerusalem on the issue of the conduct of the war.

The president withheld 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs that he feared might be dropped on Rafah, where more than a million Gazans have taken refuge, officials said. The administration is considering whether to withhold future transfers, including guidance kits that convert so-called dumb bombs into precision-guided munitions.

The decision to delay delivery of the 3,500 bombs was the first time since the October 7 Hamas-led terror attack in which Biden used his power to reduce weapons as a tool to influence Israel's approach to the ensuing war . A number of Biden's Democratic allies in Congress have been urging him for weeks to limit or halt weapons shipments to Israel, something he has until now refused to do because of his strong support for the effort to destroy Hamas.

Israeli officials revealed the weapons suspension to Axios earlier this week, but U.S. officials refused to confirm it either during briefings or privately as of Tuesday evening. The fact that they finally did so is a clear indication of how much frustration is growing among administration officials that their Israeli counterparts are not heeding U.S. warnings against a major operation in Rafah that could cause huge civilian losses. Confirmation of the arms pause came hours after Israel sent tanks into the southern Gaza city.

A U.S. official said the administration began reviewing weapons shipments last month when it became clear that Israel appeared to be making a decision on an operation in Rafah. Biden initially argued that Israel should not attack Rafah without a plan to minimize civilian casualties, but in recent weeks the White House has increasingly indicated that it did not believe such a plan was even possible.

Israel has not made clear whether it is about to begin the assault on Rafah, but in recent days it has taken actions that seem to suggest it is moving in that direction. Israeli forces have ordered the evacuation of 110,000 civilians from Rafah and launched air strikes against targets in the city's border areas in response to Hamas rockets that killed four Israeli soldiers over the weekend.

Israel on Tuesday called the entry of tanks into Rafah and the seizure of the city's border crossing with Egypt a limited operation to eliminate Hamas fighters and infrastructure linked to the missile attack. The actions do not appear to be the vanguard of Israel's promised broader attack. But the evacuation order and limited military moves appeared intended to keep pressure on Hamas as negotiators met in Cairo to discuss a possible ceasefire agreement.

Biden made no mention of his decision to withhold the bombs during a speech Tuesday at the Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the Capitol, but reiterated his support for Israel. “My commitment to the security of the Jewish people, the security of Israel and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is ironclad even when we disagree,” she said.

The administration is not blocking all weapons destined for Israel and, at this point, has not made a final decision on how to proceed with the bombs seized last week. In fact, officials said the administration just approved the latest tranche of aid amounting to $827 million in weapons and equipment. The administration intends to send “every dollar” of the money Congress has just appropriated, officials said.

But they said they were particularly concerned about the damage that could be done by 2,000-pound bombs in a dense urban area like Rafah with so many civilians displaced. And they are still deciding whether to send Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, guidance kits.

Biden administration officials appeared particularly upset Tuesday over Israel's seizure of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, hampering efforts to send humanitarian aid. The move came as U.S. officials were working to negotiate a deal to secure the release of some hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a temporary ceasefire.

The seizure and closure of the Kerem Shalom crossing, the only two main entry points in the south for food, medicine and other supplies, sparked immediate alarm from international agencies that the already serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza could rapidly worsen . Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the closing of the crossings was “unacceptable.”

Tension between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steadily grown in recent months. During a phone call a month ago, Biden threatened for the first time to reconsider U.S. support for the war if Netanyahu did not change course. Although Biden did not explicitly say that he would limit or cut off arms during the call, that was an implied possibility.

Since then, the White House has credited Israel for responding to the president's requests by doing more to facilitate humanitarian aid. But disagreements over the possible Rafah operation remained unresolved. Israeli officials traveled to Washington to outline their plans for the assault but did not fully address the concerns of U.S. officials who feared a civilian bloodbath.

Administration officials told their Israeli counterparts that they could not repeat the same approach used in northern Gaza, which caused heavy casualties and devastated much of the territory. According to Gaza authorities, more than 34,000 people, including fighters and civilians, have been killed in the seven months of war.

Israel is heavily dependent on the United States to arm its military, particularly for air defense batteries like those used alongside American forces to shoot down nearly all of the more than 300 missiles and drones launched at it by Iran last month. The defense success underlined how critical American aid has been to Israel's security.

Administration officials have long made clear that they will not stop defensive armaments. But last week's pause on the bombs came at the same time that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is set to deliver a report to Congress this week assessing whether Israel has used American weapons in accordance with U.S. and international law.

The long-awaited report could set the stage for a heated debate over American responsibility in Israel's war, which has already sparked widespread protests on college campuses. The discovery that Israel violated the law would exponentially increase pressure on Biden to further limit arms deliveries, while the discovery that Israel waged its war legally would surely fuel protests and draw further complaints from Democrats in Congress.

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