Biden Puts Arms Shipment to Israel on Hold Amid Dispute Over Rafah Attack

President Biden paused an arms shipment to Israel last week to prevent the U.S.-made weapons from being used in a long-threatened assault on the city of Rafah, administration officials said on Tuesday night, a sign of the growing rift between the United States and Israel over the conduct of the war.

The president withheld 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs that he feared could be dropped on Rafah, where more than one million Gazans have taken refuge, the officials said. The administration is reviewing whether to hold back future transfers, including guidance kits that convert so-called dumb bombs into precision-guided munitions.

The decision to delay the delivery of the 3,500 bombs was the first time since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led terrorist attack that Mr. Biden has used his power to curtail arms as an instrument to influence Israel’s approach to the war that followed. A number of Mr. Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress have for weeks urged him to limit or halt arms shipments to Israel, something he had refused to do until now because of his strong support for the effort to destroy Hamas.

Israeli officials disclosed the weapons pause to Axios earlier this week, but U.S. officials refused to confirm it either at briefings or privately until Tuesday night. The fact that they finally did so was a clear indication of how much frustration is growing among administration officials that their Israeli counterparts are not heeding U.S. warnings against a major operation in Rafah that could lead to extensive civilian casualties. Confirmation of the arms pause came just hours after Israel sent tanks into the city in southern Gaza.

One U.S. official said the administration began reviewing arms shipments last month when it became clear that Israel seemed to be reaching a decision on a Rafah operation. Mr. Biden initially took the position that Israel should not attack Rafah without a plan to effectively minimize civilian casualties, but in recent weeks the White House has increasingly indicated that it did not believe such a plan was even possible.

Israel has not made clear whether it is on the verge of opening the assault on Rafah but has taken actions in the last couple of days that seemed to hint it was moving in that direction. Israeli forces ordered the evacuation of 110,000 civilians from Rafah and mounted airstrikes against targets on the border areas of the city in response to Hamas rockets that killed four Israeli soldiers over the weekend.

Israel called the entry of tanks into Rafah and seizure of the city’s border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday a limited operation to eliminate Hamas fighters and infrastructure tied to the rocket attack. The actions did not appear to be the vanguard of the larger attack Israel has promised. But the evacuation order and limited military moves appeared intended to keep pressure on Hamas while negotiators meet in Cairo to discuss a possible cease-fire agreement.

Mr. Biden made no mention of his decision to withhold the bombs during a speech earlier Tuesday at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the Capitol, but repeated his support for Israel. “My commitment to the safety of the Jewish people, security of Israel, and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is ironclad even when we disagree,” he said.

The administration is not halting all weapons to Israel and, at this point, has not made a final determination on how to proceed with the bombs withheld last week. In fact, officials said the administration had just approved the latest tranche of aid amounting to $827 million worth of weapons and equipment. The administration intends to send “every dollar” of the money just appropriated by Congress, the officials said.

But they said they were especially worried about the damage that could be done by the 2,000-pound bombs in a dense urban area like Rafah with so many displaced civilians. And they are still deciding whether to send the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, guidance kits.

Biden administration officials appeared particularly upset on Tuesday about the Israeli seizure of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, hampering efforts to send in humanitarian aid. The move came as U.S. officials are laboring to negotiate a deal to secure the release of some hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a temporary cease-fire.

The seizure and the closing of the Kerem Shalom crossing, the only two major entry points in the south for food, medicine and other supplies, prompted immediate warnings from international agencies that the already serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza could worsen quickly. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters that closing the crossings was “unacceptable.”

Tension between Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has grown steadily in recent months. During a call a month ago, Mr. Biden for the first time threatened to rethink U.S. support for the war if Mr. Netanyahu did not change course. While Mr. Biden did not explicitly say he would limit or cut off arms during the call, that was an implied possibility.

Since then, the White House has credited Israel with responding to the president’s demands by doing more to facilitate humanitarian aid. But differences over the possible Rafah operation remained unresolved. Israeli officials came to Washington to outline their plans for the assault but did not fully address the concerns of U.S. officials who feared a blood bath among civilians.

Administration officials told their Israeli counterparts that they could not repeat the same approach they used in northern Gaza, which led to heavy casualties and devastated much of the territory. More than 34,000 people, including combatants and civilians, have been killed in the seven months of the war, according to the authorities in Gaza.

Israel depends heavily on the United States to arm its military, especially for air defense batteries like those used alongside American forces to knock down nearly all of the more than 300 missiles and drones fired at it by Iran last month. The successful defense underscored how critical American help has been for Israel’s security.

Administration officials have long made clear that they would not halt defensive weaponry. But last week’s pause on the bombs came at the same time Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is set to deliver a report to Congress this week assessing whether Israel has used American weapons in accordance with U.S. and international law.

The much-awaited report could set the stage for a fierce debate about American responsibility for Israel’s war, which has already touched off widespread protests on college campuses. A finding that Israel has violated the law would exponentially increase pressure on Mr. Biden to further curb arms deliveries, while a finding that Israel has conducted its war legally would surely fuel protests and draw further complaints from congressional Democrats.

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