White House pauses shipment of some weapons to Israel

Washington — The White House last week paused a shipment of weapons to Israel, as Israeli leaders neared a decision to launch an operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, a senior administration official said Tuesday. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed Wednesday in testimony to Congress that “we’ve paused one shipment of high-payload munitions.” Austin said the administration is reviewing some near-term security assistance to Israel in the context of unfolding events in Rafah. Several senators were upset about the delay, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, who called the move “obscene” and “absurd.”

Austin told the senators that a final decision has not been made on what to do with the shipment, but there are things the administration is looking at when it comes to Rafah. Austin said 2,000-pound bombs can cause a lot of collateral damage and the U.S. is looking to protect the civilians in the city.

Meanwhile, Israel’s military announced Tuesday the launch of “targeted strikes” against Hamas in Rafah, which Israel has said is Hamas’ last stronghold, after Israel’s War Cabinet approved a military operation in the city.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, President Biden said he would halt further weapons shipment if Israel goes ahead with a ground invasion of the city.

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

Those weapons include artillery shells, Mr. Biden said.

The president said the U.S. would, however, continue to support the Iron Dome, the system that protects Israel from rocket fire, and be able to “respond to attacks that came out of the Middle East recently.”

While Israeli tanks on Tuesday took control of the Gaza side of the Rafah border near Egypt, Mr. Biden said he did not consider that to be reason enough to halt weapons shipments, as Israel’s military had not “gone into the population centers.”

“I’ve made it clear to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] and the war cabinet, they’re not going to get our support, if in fact they go in these population centers.”

The seizure of the Rafah crossing means one of Gaza’s two key aid corridors is shut.   

The U.S. has long held that Israel shouldn’t launch such a major ground operation in Rafah, where more than 1 million people are taking shelter after fleeing other parts of Gaza. But the United States’ concerns in discussions with Israel about addressing humanitarian needs in Rafah and how to approach Hamas have not been sufficiently addressed, the senior administration official said. When Israeli leaders appeared close to a decision on Rafah, the Biden administration began to review upcoming transfers of weapons that could be used in Rafah, and as a result, paused one shipment last week, the official said. 

Last week’s stalled shipment contains 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs, the former of which the Biden administration was particularly concerned could do severe damage in urban areas, the official said. The senior administration official said the U.S. hasn’t yet decided how to proceed on this particular shipment. 

News of the weapons pause comes after days of the administration downplaying the possibility that it delayed a shipment. 

The senior administration official said the paused shipment has nothing to do with the funding for Israel Congress passed last month. 

Israel has long been threatening a ground assault on Rafah, and confirmed the beginning of the Rafah operation after Israel said a cease-fire proposal Hamas agreed to is “far from meeting Israel’s core demands.” 

Cease-fire talks are continuing in the Middle East and CIA director Bill Burns is in Israel Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

The United States’ decision to pause the weapons shipment — and a senior administration official’s willingness to share the reasoning for the pause — point to the Biden administration’s growing concern over how Israel’s actions are harming Palestinian civilians. 

— Eleanor Watson contributed to this report. 

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