Analysis'Why would Hamas release hostages now?'

After Biden arms freeze, Israel can still fight in Rafah. Lebanon is a different story

Stuck in a long war against Hamas, Israel needs a steady US weapons supply to be prepared for a war on Hezbollah — which is now likely to be more aggressive

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R), speaks about the Hamas atrocities against Israelis, and pledges unstinting support for Israel, in the State Dining Room of the White Houses in Washington, DC, on October 10, 2023. (Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)
US President Joe Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R), speaks about the Hamas atrocities against Israelis, and pledges unstinting support for Israel, in the State Dining Room of the White Houses in Washington, DC, on October 10, 2023. (Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

On October 10, three days after the massacre perpetrated by Hamas in the kibbutzim and cities of southern Israel, US President Joe Biden strode to the podium in the White House State Dining Room.

Vice President Kamala Harris stood behind his right shoulder, Secretary of State Antony Blinken behind his left.

“We must be crystal clear,” said the president, seen as one of Israel’s closest friends in Washington. “We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel.”

“And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself and respond to this attack,” Biden pledged.

His well-received address included a clear warning to Hezbollah and Iran: “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t. Don’t.”

Seven months later, Biden issued another “Don’t,” but this time it wasn’t directed toward Iran and its proxies — it was a message to the very same country he pledged so unequivocally in October to back.

US President Joe Biden speaks to CNN, May 8, 2024 (CNN screenshot)

In an interview with CNN, Biden announced that his administration would not support Israel or provide it with offensive weapons if it launches an operation against Hamas in populated parts of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

“I’ve made it clear to Bibi (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and the war cabinet: They’re not going to get our support if they go [into] these population centers,” said Biden.

This wasn’t the first time an American president has held up weapons shipments while Israel was fighting Hamas. In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, the Barack Obama administration suspended a shipment of Hellfire missiles.

But Obama never got in front of a camera to announce that he was holding ammunition back from one of America’s closest allies as it was fighting one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations.

Biden did so, quite deliberately.

The IDF sought to downplay the significance of Biden’s decision, saying it has enough munitions for its planned missions in Rafah.

That may be. Israel can still smash apart the Hamas units in Rafah if it decides to.

“The IDF might have to shift away from precision munitions in the south,” said Blaise Misztal, vice president for policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. “It’s largely possible to do.”

Smoke billows from Israeli strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 9, 2024. (AFP)

The use of precision bombs has already dropped dramatically in Gaza, as IDF forces gain confidence in close artillery and drone support.

But, in the wake of Biden’s move, the Rafah option becomes far more perilous than it was last week — because of the looming threat of all-out war against Hezbollah.

“Israeli leaders can’t decide to go into Rafah now unless they want to take a huge risk on the Lebanon front,” explained military theorist Eran Ortal.

Wars of abundance

Israel didn’t build its army to fight wars on multiple fronts that stretch on for the better part of a year, as is happening now.

Over the past two decades, Israel repeatedly took on an inferior opponent in Hamas. These relatively short “wars of abundance,” in the words of two IDF generals weeks before October 7, were fought primarily using airpower, and were surprisingly resource-intensive, relying on large numbers of precision-guided munitions and interceptor missiles.

IDF Artillery Corps seen firing shells into Gaza, near the border in Southern Israel on July 21, 2014 (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

They involved considerable amounts of other ordnance as well. In 50 days of fighting during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, the IDF used some 35,000 artillery shells and 14,500 tank shells.

In 34 days in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the IDF used almost 200,000 shells against Hezbollah, or almost 6,000 a day.

These campaigns ended with Israel looking immediately to the US for emergency replenishment, especially interceptors.

Israel’s dependence on US supplies is by American design, said Jonathan Conricus, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“Pentagon officials pay close attention to Israeli stockpiles,” he said. “They don’t allow Israel to stockpile enough to have sufficient freedom of action for large-scale actions without American consent.”

An IDF soldier prays while standing next to artillery shells at a position along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on November 1, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

One of the solutions the two countries settled on was that Israel could use American munitions prepositioned in Israel, known as War Reserve Stocks for Allies-Israel, or WRSA-I. Israel tapped into the stockpile in both 2006 and 2014.

But in January 2023, the US military began quietly shipping 300,000 artillery shells from WRSA-I to Ukraine.

Israel made moves to increase local production. In July of that year, the IDF signed a deal with Elbit for 40,000 shells a year, or 3,300 a month. Obviously, that isn’t enough.

Every bomb Israel uses in Rafah comes at the expense of its ability to take the fight to Hezbollah in Lebanon in the future

In order to keep up with the demands of destroying Hamas since October 7, the IDF has had to draw on its stockpiles saved for a potential fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Every bomb Israel uses in Rafah comes at the expense of its ability to take the fight to Hezbollah in Lebanon in the future.

A full-scale war in the north, which could erupt at any minute, would continue to be incredibly demanding on Israeli supplies. A 2021 exercise meant to simulate a fight against Hezbollah had the air force strike 3,000 targets in one day.

Smoke billows during an Israeli strike on the southern Lebanese border village of Odaisseh on May 8, 2024. (Rabih DAHER / AFP)

The actual ongoing fight between Israel and Hezbollah keeps expanding as well. It began as exchanges of fire close to the border, but now features regular Israeli strikes deep into Lebanon.

“We are in overdraft in our supply of munitions for a war in Lebanon,” said Ortal. “There is nothing we have that can cover that gap.”

Open season

Since October 7, Biden has prioritized keeping the war from escalating too far in the north. He has issued warnings like the one on October 10, deployed aircraft carriers and sent emissaries to try to hammer out a diplomatic end to the fight.

Hezbollah members raise flags of the Lebanese terror group during the funeral of a commander and another operative who were killed by an Israeli drone strike, in Chehabiyeh village, south Lebanon, April 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

But with his decision on Rafah this week, Biden has made more likely the outcome he fears the most.

“It is like declaring open season on Israel,” lamented Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “Hezbollah is more likely to be aggressive.”

“It bolsters our enemies and provides them with a false sense of confidence,” said Conricus.

Even were Biden to change course if full-blown war breaks out in the north, it would take valuable time for the bombs to reach Israeli units from the US.

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Furthermore, an end to the cross-border strikes in the north depends on a ceasefire-for-hostage deal in Gaza — something made far more difficult because of the weapons halt.

“Why would Hamas release hostages now?” asked Oren, maintaining that Hamas sees a major Rafah operation as even more unlikely given the steadily stiffening US resistance.

A Rafah operation has become more dangerous to Israel than to Hamas.

And the more time passes, the worse Israel’s international standing becomes, not least of all in Washington. Hamas is sure to take notice.

At this stage, a Rafah operation has become more dangerous to Israel than to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, widely believed to be hiding around Rafah.

“Biden’s created an American diplomatic Iron Dome for Hamas,” quipped Oren bitterly.

Mourners carry coffins draped in Lebanese flags as they arrive in the southern Lebanese village of Qana Tuesday, April 30, 1996 to bury 91 victims in a mass grave beside the UN post in which they were killed by Israeli shells on April 18. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ali Mohamed)

Even if Israel does go into Rafah, as Netanyahu continues to promise, the White House will be watching closely for a mistake to prove to Israel that it knew better. One stray tank shell could turn Rafah into the next Qana, the Lebanese village where in both 1996 and 2006 Israeli strikes killed dozens of civilians, turning world opinion against the continuation of the campaigns.

Biden has made civilian deaths more likely to happen, argued Misztal.

“It’s counterproductive and ironic,” he said. “Biden is increasing the risk to civilians by denying Israel precision weapons.”

Displaced Gazans wait for their turn to bake bread at the makeshift tent camp in the Muwasi area in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Dec. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Not that Hamas minds. Misery in Gaza, whether from hunger or being caught in the crossfire, serves the organization. The more Gazans suffer, the more pressure is applied to Israel to stop the war and leave Hamas intact and victorious.

Biden has more cards to play if Israel pushes ahead in Rafah despite the warnings. He could stop opposing the International Court of Justice investigation of Israeli “genocide” in Gaza, and could stop vetoing dangerous resolutions at the United Nations Security Council.

Ultimately, such policies would likely make it harder for Biden to influence Israeli actions.

“In the long run,” Conricus predicted, “this will set into motion a chain of events that result in more independent military actions with less regard for American advice.”

But that long-term future will look bleak if Israel can’t finish the fight it’s in right now, on more than one front.

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