Biden mulling conditions on Israel military aid if Rafah assault goes ahead — report

Four US sources tell Politico that an offensive against southern Gaza city, where more than 1 million displaced Gazans are sheltering, could prompt strong reaction

US President Joe Biden speaks about the costs of living during an address at the YMCA Allard Center in Goffstown, New Hampshire, March 11, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
US President Joe Biden speaks about the costs of living during an address at the YMCA Allard Center in Goffstown, New Hampshire, March 11, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

US President Joe Biden would consider placing conditions on future military aid to Israel if its military moves ahead with a planned offensive against the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, US officials told the Politico news site in a Monday report.

Four officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the outlet that though Biden has not yet made a decision on limiting weapons supplies, he may be prompted to do so if a Rafah operation endangers Palestinian civilians.

“It’s something he’s definitely thought about,” one official said.

Biden over the weekend said an IDF entry into Rafah would be a “red line” for his administration but also stressed his commitment to supplying Israel with the means to defend itself.

The US has said Israel must show it has a plan to protect civilians when it launches a ground offensive in Rafah, the Strip’s southernmost city. Israel has said it will evacuate the residents but has yet to approve the military’s operational plan or publicly announce where civilians will go.

White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, confirmed that Israel has not yet provided Washington with a plan to protect Rafah civilians, but would not be drawn to comment on whether conditioning arms supplies to Israel is under consideration.

While noting that the president has been “very vocal and forthright about what we think about the situation on the ground,” she also stressed that “all the while, we need to make sure that Israel continues to have what it needs to defend itself against a very real existential threat.”

Displaced Palestinians collect food donated by a charity before an iftar meal, on the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, on March 11, 2024. (AFP)

Asked specifically about linking US military aid to Israel with the situation in Gaza, Dalton said only that Biden “thinks that there are other approaches, which we have taken and are taking, that are more effective in obtaining our goals.”

In a statement to Politico, US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said, “We are not going to comment on speculation by anonymous sources or add to what the president said this weekend.”

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Politico that no Rafah op is currently on the way.

The Biden administration has faced growing calls from his fellow Democrats to push Israel to ease the devastating humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with some saying they may try to stop congressionally approved military assistance if conditions for civilians do not improve.

“The defense of Israel is still critical,”  Biden told MSNBC in a Saturday interview. “There’s no red line [in which] I’m going to cut off all weapons so that they don’t have the Iron Dome [missile defense system] to protect them.”

Biden also said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “hurting Israel more than he’s helping” in some of the sharpest criticism of the Israeli leader to come from Washington.

Netanyahu responded by telling Politico in a Sunday interview that Biden is “wrong.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on February 29, 2024. (Nimrod Klikman/POOL)

The exchange highlighted the growing tension between Jerusalem and Washington over the ongoing war in Gaza and concerns over the mounting humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian enclave as the UN estimates that a quarter of the population is at risk of famine.

The war was triggered by the October 7 attack on Israel by Palestinian terror group Hamas which killed 1,200 people amid horrific atrocities. The thousands of attackers who burst through the border with the Gaza Strip and into southern Israel also abducted 253 people who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

Israel responded with a military campaign to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, destroy the terror group, and free the hostages, 130 of whom remain in captivity.

The conflict has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and the UN estimates a quarter of the population is at risk of famine.

Last week, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that the US is apparently considering taking steps to prevent Israel from using American arms on a planned offensive in Rafah, where over half of the Gaza Strip’s population has fled to during the war.

Ignatius wrote that Biden and other officials “haven’t made any decision about imposing ‘conditionality’ on US weapons. But the very fact that officials seem to be debating this extreme step shows the administration’s growing concern about the crisis in Gaza.”

“If Israel launches an offensive in Rafah without adequately protecting the displaced civilian population, it may precipitate an unprecedented crisis in US-Israel relations, even involving arms supplies,” former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was quoted as saying in the column.

Soldiers seen at a staging area near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, March 11, 2024 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Yet, the Washington Post also reported last week that since October 7 the US has quietly approved over 100 arms sales to Israel.

Biden in December mused that conditioning weapons sales to Israel was a “worthwhile thought” amid pressure from Democrats.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, noted to reporters last week that US law bars weapons sales to countries that block humanitarian aid, and said he and other lawmakers may try to block new weapons sales to Israel if its government does not address the crisis.

The US Arms Export Control Act gives Congress the right to stop a foreign major weapons sale by passing a resolution of disapproval. Although no such resolution has both passed Congress and survived a presidential veto, an angry debate on the issue could embarrass the White House.

Washington also has briefed Israel on a new national security memorandum that reminds countries receiving US weapons to stick to international law.

Israel says it does not restrict humanitarian or medical aid, and has blamed the lack of deliveries on the capacity of aid agencies, and asserts that it is approving more aid trucks for crossing than the agencies are able to deliver.

Trucks carrying aid into Gaza have intermittently been held up by Israeli protesters demonstrating against sending humanitarian aid to the Strip while hostages remained in Hamas captivity.

Palestinians transport bags of flour on the back of trucks as humanitarian aid arrives in Gaza City on March 6, 2024. (AFP)

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said more than 30,000 people have been killed since October 7. The terror group’s figures are unverified, do not differentiate between civilians and combatants, and list all the fatalities as caused by Israel — even those caused by hundreds of misfired rockets or otherwise by Palestinian fire.

Israel has said it has killed some 13,000 Hamas members in Gaza fighting, in addition to some 1,000 killed in Israel in the aftermath of the terror group’s October 7 invasion.

The offensive in Gaza has displaced most of the enclave’s 2.3 million people and led to critical shortages of food, water, and medicine.

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