Biden refuses to supply Israel weapons for potential Rafah assault

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrike on Rafah, Gaza on May 8, 2024. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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, that have been used."

The shipment was supposed to consist of 1,800, 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700, 500-pound bombs, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

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More than 1 million civilians are sheltering in Rafah after evacuating other parts of Gaza amid Israel's war on Hamas, which came after the militant group's deadly attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

The United States’ main focus of concern is the larger explosives and how they could be used in a dense urban setting, the official said. 

Historically, the U.S. has provided enormous amounts of military aid to Israel – which has only accelerated in the aftermath of Hamas' Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 in Israel and led to about 250 being taken captive by militants. 

The pausing of the aid shipment is the most striking manifestation of the growing daylight between Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the administration of President Joe Biden, which has called on Israel to do far more to protect the lives of innocent civilians in Gaza.

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."

Israeli troops seize control of Rafah border crossing

Israeli troops on Tuesday seized control of Gaza’s vital Rafah border crossing in what the White House described as a limited operation that stopped short of the full-on Israeli invasion of the city. Biden has repeatedly warned against such an invasion on humanitarian grounds, most recently in a Monday call with Netanyahu.

Israel has ordered the evacuation of 100,000 Palestinians from the city. Israeli forces have also carried out what it describes as "targeted strikes" on the eastern part of Rafah and captured the Rafah crossing, a critical conduit for the flow of humanitarian aid along the Gaza-Egypt border.

Privately, concern has mounted inside the White House about what’s unfolding in Rafah, but publicly administration officials have stressed that they did not think the operations had defied Biden’s warnings against a wide-scale operation in the city.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Israel described the operation along the Gaza-Egypt border in eastern Rafah as "an operation of limited scale and duration" aimed at cutting off Hamas arms smuggling, but also said the U.S. would monitor the fighting.

Has Israel followed the law in Gaza war? US due to render verdict

The pause in bomb shipments 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.

The administration agreed in February at the insistence of Democrats in Congress to look at whether Israel has used U.S.-provided weapons and other military assistance in a lawful manner.

Additionally, under the same agreement, it must tell Congress whether it deems that Israel has acted to "arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly," delivery of any U.S.-supported humanitarian aid into Gaza for starving civilians there.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Tuesday that the department was trying to meet the Wednesday deadline for completing the review but "it's possible it slips just a little bit."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.