US Pauses Arms Shipment to Israel on Rafah Invasion Concerns

(Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US has paused the supply of “high-payload” munitions to Israel over concerns about a potential military offensive on the Gazan city of Rafah.

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The delivery was supposed to contain 3,500 bombs, split roughly evenly between 2,000-pound (907-kilogram) and 500-pound explosives, according to a senior administration official. Austin, speaking separately, said no final decision has been made on the shipment.

Israel needs to account for the protection of civilians in Rafah, where the US wants “no major conflict to take place,” Austin told a Senate Appropriations panel on Wednesday. The White House is worried about the damage the large bombs could inflict on dense urban areas like Rafah, where about 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering from Israel’s war with Hamas.

Austin said a 2000-pound bomb could do a lot of “collateral damage.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the weapons delay, and it’s unclear if it will have much impact on the military’s operations in Gaza. Still, it speaks to growing tensions between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden, who’s voiced opposition to an attack on Rafah and reaffirmed that message in a call between the leaders on Monday.

Privately, Israeli officials expressed deep frustration and warned their US counterparts the delay could jeopardize cease-fire and hostage negotiations at a crucial moment, according to a person briefed on the discussions. The Israelis told US officials that pressure should be put on Hamas, not on Israel, the person added, declining to be named in order to detail the sensitive discussions.

The US has stepped up its criticism of Israel in recent months, saying it’s not doing enough to protect civilians and allow aid into the besieged Palestinian territory, parts of which the United Nations says are on the verge of famine. “There have been far too many casualties in this battle space,” Austin said.

At the same time, Biden has said his support for Israel is ironclad, and he’s defended its right to pursue a strategy of destroying Hamas, an Islamist group backed by Iran.

Austin was questioned about the weapons shipment by members of the congressional panel. “Does this not send the wrong message to our ally Israel and embolden Iran and Iranian-backed groups?” asked Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican. “We should not signal to our enemies that our support is conditional.”

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine called the pause “a decision that most members of Congress would take issue with.”

But the Biden administration signaled it might hold up other consignments to Israel. In a briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US was “reviewing other potential weapon systems,” although he declined to go into detail.

Miller reiterated the administration doesn’t support an Israeli invasion of Rafah given the lack of a credible plan to avoid civilian casualties. “We just don’t believe it’s possible to move those people to other places in Gaza,” he said.

Biden’s decision marks one of the most significant moments of discord between Israel and its most important ally since Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault, which started the war. Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US, killed 1,200 people and abducted roughly 250 when its fighters stormed into southern Israel from Gaza.

Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and ground offensive on the Mediterranean enclave have killed almost 35,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Past Pauses

It isn’t the first time the US has delayed arms supplies to Israel, though its far from commonplace.

Former President Barack Obama held up the delivery of Hellfire missiles for several weeks in 2014 during a previous round of Gaza fighting. Before that, Ronald Reagan halted a shipment of cluster-type artillery shells after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. And Richard Nixon held off providing arms for the first week of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Read more: Israel Edges Into Rafah With Tension High Over Stalled Talks

Biden told Netanyahu last month, following the killing of World Central Kitchen aid workers in an Israeli strike, that ongoing US support for the war would depend on new steps to protect civilians.

The US recently signed a foreign-aid package that contains billions of dollars of fresh assistance for Israel. The paused bomb shipment isn’t connected to those funds, Austin said. Arms transfers that are under review were drawn from previously appropriated money, and the White House is committed to ensuring Israel gets all the new national security aid, he said.

Separately, a pending arms sale has been under review for months at the State Department, according to a congressional aide and an administration official. It’s a potential $260 million “direct commercial sale” between Boeing Co. and Israel for as many as 6,500 tail-kits to convert unguided bombs into GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or Jdams. The State Department would have to notify the House and Senate foreign relations committees before the sale could go forward. Delivery would take years, the officials said.

This week, Israel told residents in some parts of eastern Rafah to move out immediately in a possible prelude to an assault. It urged them to travel north to a “humanitarian area” near the Gazan city of Khan Younis, much of which has been destroyed. Israel says it’s working to ensure there will be enough tents, food and medicine for the civilians.

Israel’s military also took control of and closed the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Tuesday. It’s the main entry point for aid going into Gaza and the United Nations said it should be reopened quickly.

On Wednesday, Israel reopened the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing after it was shut on Sunday because of a deadly Hamas rocket attack. Israel said trucks with humanitarian supplies were moving into Gaza via the border post. Still, its military said the area was being targeted by more rockets launched from Rafah.

Rafah Talks

For now, Israeli officials are saying their operations in Rafah are limited and are downplaying the notion that a full-on offensive has begun.

Discussions between American and Israeli officials over Rafah are continuing and have yet to fully address Washington’s concerns, another US official said. William Burns, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, traveled to Jerusalem on Wednesday to speak to Netanyahu about his plans for the city and cease-fire negotiations with Hamas.

The truce talks remain stuck over Hamas’s demand that any pause in fighting is effectively permanent. Israel says the war can’t end — even if there’s a break for a weeks-long truce — until Hamas surrenders or is defeated as a military and governing organization.

Since the war started in October, the US has shipped more than 200 planeloads of weapons and ammunition to help Israel. The US is the biggest supplier of arms to Israel, and Biden has said there are no circumstances under which he would stop sending ammunition for Israel’s defense, including those used for the Iron Dome system, which intercepts rockets and missiles fired at the Jewish state.

(Updates status of Kerem Shalom crossing.)

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