72°F
weather icon Clear

Biden: U.S. won’t supply weapons for Israel to attack Rafah

Updated May 8, 2024 - 3:58 pm

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he would not supply offensive weapons that Israel could use to launch an all-out assault on Rafah — the last major Hamas stronghold in Gaza — over concern for the well-being of the more than 1 million civilians sheltering there.

Biden, in an interview with CNN, said the U.S. was still committed to Israel’s defense and would supply Iron Dome rocket interceptors and other defensive arms, but that if Israel goes into Rafah, “we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells used.”

The U.S. has historically provided enormous amounts of military aid to Israel. That has only accelerated in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack that killed some 1,200 in Israel and led to about 250 being taken captive by terrorists.

Biden’s comments and his decision last week to pause a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel are the most striking manifestations of the growing daylight between his administration and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Biden has said that Israel needs to do far more to protect the lives of civilians in Gaza.

The shipment was supposed to consist of 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs, according to a senior U.S. administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. The focus of U.S. concern was the larger explosives and how they could be used in a dense urban.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden told CNN. “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.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier Wednesday confirmed the weapons delay, telling the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense that the U.S. paused “one shipment of high payload munitions.”

“We’re going to continue to do what’s necessary to ensure that Israel has the means to defend itself,” Austin said. “But that said, we are currently reviewing some near-term security assistance shipments in the context of unfolding events in Rafah.”

It also comes as the Biden administration is due to deliver a first-of-its-kind formal verdict this week on whether the airstrikes on Gaza and restrictions on delivery of aid have violated international and U.S. laws designed to spare civilians from the worst horrors of war. A decision against Israel would further add to pressure on Biden to curb the flow of weapons and money to Israel’s military.

Biden signed off on the pause in an order conveyed last week to the Pentagon, according to U.S. officials who were not authorized to comment on the matter.

The White House National Security Council sought to keep the decision out of the public eye for several days until it had a better understanding of the scope of Israel’s intensified military operations in Rafah and until Biden could deliver a long-planned speech on Tuesday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Biden’s administration in April began reviewing future transfers of military assistance as Netanyahu’s government appeared to move closer toward an invasion of Rafah, despite months of opposition from the White House.

The official said the decision to pause the shipment was made last week and no final decision had been made yet on whether to proceed with the shipment at a later date.

U.S. officials had declined for days to comment on the halted transfer, word of which came as Biden on Tuesday described U.S. support for Israel as “ironclad, even when we disagree.”

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to square the arms holdup with Biden’s rhetoric in support of Israel, saying only, “Two things could be true.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, in an interview with Israeli Channel 12 TV news, said the decision to pause the shipment was “a very disappointing decision, even frustrating.” He suggested the move stemmed from political pressure on Biden from Congress, the U.S. campus protests and the upcoming election.

The decision also drew a sharp rebuke from House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who said they only learned about the military aid holdup from press reports, despite assurances from the Biden administration that no such pauses were in the works. The Republicans called on Biden in a letter to swiftly end the blockage, saying it “risks emboldening Israel’s enemies,” and to brief lawmakers on the nature of the policy reviews.

Biden has faced pressure from some on the left — and condemnation from the critics on the right who say Biden has moderated his support for an essential Mideast ally.

“If we stop weapons necessary to destroy the enemies of the state of Israel at a time of great peril, we will pay a price,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., his voice rising in anger during an exchange with Austin. “This is obscene. It is absurd. Give Israel what they need to fight the war they can’t afford to lose.”

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Biden ally, said in a statement the pause on big bombs must be a “first step.”

“Our leverage is clear,” Sanders said. “Over the years, the United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Israel. We can no longer be complicit in Netanyahu’s horrific war against the Palestinian people.”

Austin, meanwhile, told lawmakers that “it’s about having the right kinds of weapons for the task at hand.”

“A small diameter bomb, which is a precision weapon, that’s very useful in a dense, built-up environment,” he said, “but maybe not so much a 2,000-pound bomb that could create a lot of collateral damage.” He said the U.S. wants to see Israel do “more precise” operations.

The State Department is separately considering whether to approve the continued transfer of Joint Direct Attack Munition kits, which place precision guidance systems onto bombs, to Israel, but the review didn’t pertain to imminent shipments.

The U.S. dropped the 2,000-pound bomb sparingly in its long war against the Islamic State terrorist group. Israel, by contrast, has used the bomb frequently in the seven-month Gaza war. Experts say the use of the weapon, in part, has helped drive the enormous Palestinian casualty count that the Hamas-run Health Ministry puts at more than 34,000 dead, though it doesn’t distinguish between terrorists and civilians.

AP writers Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Hezbollah leader warns archenemy Israel against wider war

Lebanon’s Hezbollah has new weapons and intelligence capabilities that could help it target more critical positions deeper inside Israel in case of an all-out war, the terrorist group’s leader warned on Wednesday.

Penn’s interim president orders pro-Palestinian protesters to disband ‘immediately’

The interim president at the University of Pennsylvania issued a warning Friday night to pro-Palestinian protesters on campus that they must “disband their encampment immediately” because of alleged legal and university police violations.

Pro-Palestinian encampment cleared from Cal State LA

Police cleared an entrenched pro-Palestinian encampment at California State University, Los Angeles, just days after demonstrators occupied and trashed a building.

U.S. envoy in Lebanon to try and head off larger war

As Amos Hochstein met with officials in Beirut, Hezbollah launched four projectiles toward Israel on Tuesday afternoon, breaking three days of relative calm.