US will stop supplying some weapons to Israel if it invades Rafah, Biden warns | Joe Biden

Joe Biden has issued a blunt warning to Israel that his administration will stop supplying bombs and artillery shells if its military pushes ahead with an offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in what could mark the start of a turning point in relations between the two countries.

The US president delivered the warning in a television interview in which he brushed aside Israeli and Republican complaints and made clear his administration would not provide the weapons for an offensive on Rafah, which the US, the UN and other aid agencies warn would trigger a humanitarian disaster.

“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,” Biden told CNN.

The president was speaking after it was announced his administration had paused the delivery of 3,500 munitions, more than half them 2,000lb bombs, which can cause devastating damage and severe civilian casualties when dropped on densely populated areas.

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

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on a Rafah offensive to destroy what Israel says is the last stronghold of Hamas in Gaza, despite repeated US warnings about the humanitarian impact on more than 1 million Gazans sheltering in the city, has brought a simmering US-Israel rift to the surface.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said he did not believe the US would stop supplying arms to Israel, but called Washington’s decision to hold up some weapons shipments “very disappointing”, even frustrating.

Joe Biden “can’t say he is our partner in the goal to destroy Hamas while on the other hand delay the means meant to destroy Hamas”, Erdan told Israel’s Channel 12 News.

The hold on the munitions delivery also drew a quick response from the Republican leadership.

“Israel faces an existential and multi-front threat … and daylight between the United States and Israel at this dangerous time risks emboldening Israel’s enemies and undermining the trust that other allies and partners have in the United States,” the House speaker, Mike Johnson, and Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, wrote in a letter to the president.

The White House decision drew support from progressive Democrats, including Senator Chris Van Hollen.

“We should use the tools available to us to enforce the president’s objectives and US policy,” Van Hollen said. “A partnership must be a two-way street, not a one-way blank cheque.”

Biden stressed the US would continue to supply ammunition for Israel’s main air defence system, Iron Dome, which performed well in the face of an Iranian missile and drone barrage last month, but he said Washington would not supply offensive weapons that would be used in an offensive the US believes will be disastrous.

“We’re going to continue to make sure Israel is secure in terms of Iron Dome and their ability to respond to attacks that came out of the Middle East recently,” he said. “But it’s just wrong. We’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells.”

US officials made clear that the pause would not be a one-off if the Rafah offensive went ahead: other arms deliveries that have already been approved could be delayed, and shipments waiting for approval could also face obstacles, such as a pending consignment of 6,500 joint direct attack munitions, or JDAMs, which convert freefall “dumb bombs” into precision-guided weapons.

A Guardian investigation this week found a US-made JDAM was used in a March airstrike in southern Lebanon that killed seven health workers. Analysis of debris found at the site of the attack revealed shrapnel from a 500lb (227kg) Israeli MPR bomb, as well as the parts of the JDAM that connect the munition to the guidance system and remnants of its motor.

The US administration has refused to use the phrase “red line” but has stressed that Biden was serious when he told Benjamin Netanyahu in a call on 4 April that an attack on Rafah would lead to a significant re-evaluation of the relationship.

The weapons – 1,800 2,000lb bombs and 1,700 500lb bombs – had long been seen by experts as the most likely to be targeted for any potential restrictions on arms supplies to Israel given how destructive they are in urban settings.

US officials insist that the pause is not because of legal concerns, but is a policy decision. There is nervousness in the administration about making legal judgments in case they are used against Israel in legal disputes before the international criminal court and the international court of justice.

However, the Guardian understands that conversations in recent months have focused on how the Israeli military’s use of certain munitions diverges from the Pentagon’s rules on the use of such weapons in heavily populated urban settings.

A graphic showing a map of Rafah

Israeli troops on Tuesday took control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a vital lifeline that is now closed. Israeli officials said it was the first step towards a full-scale assault on Rafah city, an offensive Biden has been trying to head off.

Rafah’s mayor, Ahmed al-Sofi, warned that the southern city was “on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented proportions” in an appeal to the international community on Wednesday. “The streets of the city echo with the cries of innocent lives lost, families torn apart, and homes reduced to rubble,” he said.

The highly significant US move on arms supplies comes amid mounting international pressure on Israel to pull back from a full-scale attack after its seizure on Tuesday of Rafah’s border crossing with Egypt, and criticism of Israel’s use of large aerial munitions in areas packed with civilians.

Austin’s comments confirmed earlier briefings by unnamed officials that the weapons shipment had been held up because of Israel’s threat of a full-scale offensive in Rafah.

”We are especially focused on the end use of the 2,000lb bombs and the impact they could have in dense urban settings as we have seen in other parts of Gaza. We have not made a final determination on how to proceed with this shipment,” one US official said.

A second US official, also speaking anonymously and quoted by the Washington Post, said the decision was a “shot across the bow” intended to convey to Israel the seriousness of US concerns about the Israeli offensive in Rafah.

An Israeli military spokesperson attempted to play down the shipment delay – saying that allies resolve any disagreements “behind closed doors”. However, the move appeared to mark a significant moment in US policy.

While the US, EU, UK and other countries have pursued an escalating sanctions campaign against extremist Israeli settlers and far-right organisations, against the background of the Gaza war and settler violence on the West Bank, US attention has moved recently to the Israel Defense Forces.

The weapons hold-up comes against the background of the expected delivery of a report by the US Department of State that examines whether Israel’s war conduct is credibly in compliance with assurances that American-supplied weapons will not be used in contravention of US and international humanitarian law.

The White House and Pentagon declined to comment.

On Monday, the Israeli army called on 100,000 people to evacuate eastern Rafah. Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA

Israeli forces on Tuesday seized the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt in Rafah, cutting off a vital route for aid into the Palestinian territory. On Monday, the Israeli army had called on 100,000 people in eastern Rafah to evacuate.

Despite the assault in Rafah, the US has said it believes a revised Hamas ceasefire proposal may lead to a breakthrough as talks resume in Cairo. Israel had previously said the terms in the proposal had been softened, but the White House spokesperson John Kirby said the new text suggested the remaining gaps could “absolutely be closed”.

The CIA director, William Burns, is to travel to Israel on Wednesday to meet Netanyahu, a source said.

The delays to US arms shipments appeared to be the first since the Biden administration offered its full support to Israel after Hamas launched its 7 October attack, in which about 1,200 people were killed and about 250 others were abducted, of whom 133 are believed to still be in captivity in Gaza, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas has led to a seven-month military campaign that has killed 34,789 Palestinians, most of them civilians, the Gaza health ministry has said.

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