Biden threatens to stop arm shipments if Israel invades Rafah

People search with flashlights by an impact crater at the site of a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (-)
People search with flashlights by an impact crater at the site of a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (-)
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President Joe Biden said Wednesday he would stop US weapons supplies to Israel if it attacks Rafah in southern Gaza, his most direct warning to date over the prosecution of the war against Hamas.

In an interview with CNN Biden also deplored the fact that civilians had been killed by the dropping of US bombs on the Palestinian territory.

His fresh warning came after the US last week halted a shipment of huge American bombs to Israel as it appeared ready to proceed with a major attack on Rafah -- a city packed with Palestinian civilians sheltering near the Egyptian border.

"If they go into Rafah, I'm not supplying the weapons that have been used… to deal with the cities," Biden said. "We're not gonna supply the weapons and the artillery shells that have been used."

Biden, a self-described Zionist, had long resisted stopping any of the $3 billion in weapons the United States sends each year to Israel -- and pushed Congress for an increase in the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas that triggered the major Israeli retaliation.

But US officials say privately that his hand was forced after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear he would go ahead with an assault on Rafah, defying Biden's public appeals to spare the city.

Under increasing pressure from the left of his own party to limit arms shipments, the Biden administration paused delivery last week of 1,800 2,000-pound (907 kilogram) bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs.

"Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs," Biden said. "It's just wrong."

Biden may worry about alienating centrist voters if he shifts too far, while Netanyahu knows he needs US support at a time of wide global anger against Israel.

"We're not walking away from Israel's security," Biden insisted in the CNN interview. "We're walking away from Israel's ability to wage war in those areas."

- Incremental pressure -

The Biden administration has previously taken smaller steps to show displeasure with Netanyahu, including imposing sanctions on extremist Israeli settlers and letting through a UN Security Council resolution that supported a ceasefire.

Major US interventions in the past have changed Israeli behavior. In 1991, Israel begrudgingly attended the Madrid conference that led to a peace process with the Palestinians after then-president George W. Bush held up US loan guarantees to build settlements.

In 1956, heavy US pressure including economic threats forced Israel as well as Britain and France to give up their grab of the Suez Canal from Egypt.

But experts questioned if Israel could be persuaded this time as it sees its war in existential terms after October 7, the deadliest attack ever on the country.

"I cannot imagine American displeasure with the prospect of a Rafah invasion doesn't loom large in the Israeli government's calculus," said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"At the same time, Israelis have other calculations, too," he said.

- Will Israel listen? -

Raphael Cohen, director of the strategy and doctrine program at the RAND Corporation research group, noted that Israel dialed back air strikes and opened border crossings after Biden voiced anger last month following an Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers.

"Despite Netanyahu's rhetoric, Israel takes American pressure quite seriously," he said.

But avoiding a Rafah invasion "functionally means leaving at least four battalions of Hamas fighters plus its senior leadership intact and over 100 hostages in Hamas hands," he said.

"From an Israeli strategic perspective, that's probably a nonstarter and it also may fracture Netanyahu's coalition."

Even with the pause of US shipments, Israel is believed to have a significant weapons stockpile. It has a major domestic defense industry and the Biden administration has repeatedly shipped weapons that fall beneath the threshold for congressional notification.

Ari Tolany, who follows the arms trade for the progressive Center for International Policy, doubted the halt would have "an immediate operational impact" but said it sent a message to Israel not to drop 2,000-pound bombs, as it already has in the war.

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