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US withholds weapons as Israel launches operation in Rafah


FILE - Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike east of Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 6, 2024.
FILE - Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike east of Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 6, 2024.

For the first time since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the Biden administration has paused the shipment of weapons to Israel amid mounting concern over its plan to expand a military operation in Rafah that the United States does not support.

The decision follows discussions with Israel on how it will “operate differently against Hamas there than they have elsewhere in Gaza,” a senior administration official said in a statement sent to VOA. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

A ground assault on Rafah, in the southern part of Gaza, would endanger the lives of 1.3 million civilians who evacuated from the north and central parts of the territory to seek safety from Israel’s military response to Hamas’ Oct 7 attack on Israel.

Administration officials have repeatedly said the U.S. will not support a Rafah invasion unless Israel provides a credible plan on how it would protect civilians. In an April 4 phone call, President Joe Biden warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he would withhold military aid unless Israel changes its war conduct.

President Biden told CNN in an interview aired Wednesday night that the U.S. would continue to supply Israel with defensive arms, such as Iron Dome munitions.

“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah — they haven’t gone in Rafah yet — if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, that deal with that problem,” he said.

Deliberations on withholding arms began in April as Israel seemed closer to a decision on Rafah, the official said. Since then, the Israelis “have not fully addressed our concerns,” and the decision to pause the arms transfer was executed “last week.”

The shipment was supposed to consist of 1,800 2,000-lb. bombs and 1,700 500-lb. bombs. The administration said it is mainly concerned with the “end-use of the 2,000-lb. bombs and the impact they could have in dense urban settings as we have seen in other parts of Gaza."

US withholds weapons as Israel launches operation in Rafah
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The official said other equipment under review includes Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, kits that convert so-called “dumb bombs” into precision-guided munitions.

The paused shipments are drawn from previously appropriated funds, not from the supplemental appropriations that Congress passed in April.

“We are committed to ensuring Israel gets every dollar appropriated in the supplemental,” the official said, highlighting the recent approval of $827 million worth of weapons and equipment, the latest tranche of foreign military financing.

The pause marks the first time the U.S. leveraged a weapons transfer to influence Israel’s war conduct since Hamas’ October 7 terror attack.

Israeli army soldiers stand atop the turret of a tank positioned in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 9, 2024.
Israeli army soldiers stand atop the turret of a tank positioned in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 9, 2024.

Lawmakers' pushback

In a Senate hearing Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers that the administration has not made a final determination on how to proceed with the shipment, “in the context of the unfolding events in Rafah.”

The announcement was welcomed by progressives in President Biden’s Democratic party but criticized by Republican lawmakers.

“The president’s apparent inability to keep the most radical voices on his left flank out of the Situation Room isn’t just a shameful abdication of leadership – it’s dangerous,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the move “absurd.”

“You want to micromanage the war? We dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Did anybody in America really worry about that?” he said.

McConnell and Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson sent a letter
demanding answers from the Biden administration on why it had delayed the arms delivery.

Reports of the pause in the weapons shipment first surfaced Tuesday on the same day that President Biden reiterated his support for Israel.

“My commitment to the safety of the Jewish people, the security of Israel, and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is ironclad, even when we disagree,” he said in an impassioned speech Tuesday to honor the memory of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi persecution.

Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid, nearly $4 billion a year, most of it in the form of military assistance.

“The American taxpayer has subsidized Israel's manufactured humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” said Ari Tolany, director of security assistance, arms trade and technology at the Center for International Policy. “If the administration will continue to arm and train Israel no matter what, Israel has no incentive to change its behavior,” she told VOA.

The decision follows a whirlwind of events in the past few days regarding the possibility of a cease-fire in Gaza.

A deal to end hostilities paired with the release of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians detained in Israeli jails appeared within reach Monday when Hamas said it has accepted the terms for truce. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected that version of the deal and ordered Israeli forces to carry out a “limited operation” in eastern Rafah.

Report to Congress

At the same time the administration missed a Wednesday deadline to submit a report to Congress on whether Israel is violating humanitarian law while using U.S.-supplied weapons in Israel’s war against Hamas.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said during Tuesday’s briefing that the National Security Memorandum "will not be transmitted today. We continue to work to finalize the report. We expect to deliver it in the very near future.”

Under the National Security Memorandum 20 (NSM20), issued in February, Biden directed the departments of State and Defense report to Congress within 90 days on whether U.S. partners that were provided with American weapons have complied with international and U.S. laws.

That includes the Leahy Laws, two legislative provisions named for Senator Patrick Leahy that mandate the U.S. cut off assistance to any foreign military or law enforcement units if it determines there is credible evidence of human rights violations.

Israel provided its assurances of NSM20 compliance in March, and the State Department was due to report to Congress on Wednesday whether it finds Israel's assurances credible.

The delay could be due to a “substantive disagreement being resolved or just regular bureaucracy,” rather than an effort to created added pressure on Israel, said Josh Paul, former director of the State Department agency that deals with weapons transfers.

“But we will see what the report says,” Paul told VOA. “If it becomes an extended delay, that could be indicative of a rewrite.”

Human rights groups and independent observers have for weeks called for a suspension of American weapons transfers to Israel, alleging they have been used in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.

In April, Paul, alongside other former administration officials and academicians, submitted a report detailing what it said were unlawful Israeli attacks on civilians using American weapons.

Amnesty International submitted a similar report ahead of the NSM20 deadline.

VOA congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson and Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb and State Department bureau chief Nike Ching contributed to this report.