Biden threatens to halt offensive weapon shipments to Israel

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In a sharp shift, US President Joe Biden says he will stop shipments of US offensive weapons to Israel if that country goes ahead with a major invasion of Rafah, in southern Gaza.

Speaking on CNN, Biden said they would continue to supply Israel with defensive weapons, including for its Iron Dome, but if Israel goes into Rafah, the US wouldn’t supply what he called “weapons and artillery shells used in the conflict”.

Biden told CNN that he had made it clear that if the Israel Defence Forces entered Rafah, which he said hadn’t happened yet, the US would stop supplying weapons that have historically been used in situations like the one envisaged in Rafah.

The US President also acknowledged that US bombs had been used to kill civilians in Gaza.

US policy shift 

The move marks a distinct shift in US policy to the war but the administration has also been clear that Israel’s defensive capabilities would remain a priority, a view echoed by the Defence Secretary to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin explained, “Israel shouldn’t launch a major attack in the Rafah without accounting for and protecting the civilians that are in that battle space. And again, as we have assessed the situation, we paused one shipment of high-payload munitions. And again, I think we’ve also been very clear about the steps that we’d like to see Israel take to account for and take care of those civilians before major combat takes place. We certainly would like to see no major combat take place in Rafah but certainly, our focus is on making sure that we protect the civilians. And we again, we’ve not made a final determination on how to proceed with the, with that shipment, and I would highlight that this shipment doesn’t have anything to do with the supplemental appropriations that you just helped us get.”

The President had been under pressure to convince Israel to halt its assault on Rafah, with the UN Secretary General calling on countries earlier this week, including Israel’s friends, to do all they could to stop the advance.

Antonio Guterres said, “International humanitarian law is unequivocal: civilians must be protected – whether they leave Rafah or stay in the city. International humanitarian law must be respected by both parties. I also remind Israel of its obligation to facilitate the safe and unimpeded access of humanitarian aid and staff into and across Gaza. Even the best friends of Israel are clear: An assault on Rafah would be a strategic mistake, a political calamity, and a humanitarian nightmare. I appeal to all those with influence over Israel to do everything in their power to help avert even more tragedy.”

The Biden decision is already receiving push-back domestically, evidenced in a joint letter by the Republican Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying they were alarmed by media reports that his administration had delayed the delivery of a variety of weapons shipments bound for Israel, and called for security assistance to Israel to be expedited to the fullest extent possible.

Latest estimates point to some 100 000 Palestinians who have already fled Rafah amid growing unease about a full-scale military operation in the area that so far has been described as “limited” by the United States.

Due to the closure of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt after Israeli forces took control of the Gaza side of the border, a critical humanitarian lifeline into southern Gaza has now been blocked for days. All this amid ongoing ceasefire talks in Cairo Egypt, that have yet to produce a much needed deal between the Israel and Hamas.