'Civilians have been killed' by those bombs. 'It's just wrong'

Biden: I won’t give Israel offensive weapons to attack in populated parts of Rafah

Unprecedentedly blunt threat marks stunning shift from president, who long rejected conditioning aid to Israel; official says US still committed to freeing hostages

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden meets with campaign volunteers at the Dr. John Bryant Community Center, May 8, 2024, in Racine, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden meets with campaign volunteers at the Dr. John Bryant Community Center, May 8, 2024, in Racine, Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden said Wednesday that his administration will 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,” Biden told CNN.

The interview marked Biden’s toughest public comments yet on the matter, as concern has grown in the administration that Israel is not planning to heed US warnings against a major offensive that the White House feels wouldn’t take into account the million-plus Palestinians sheltering in Gaza’s southernmost city.

The remarks also appeared to amount to a threat by Biden to make permanent the hold his administration placed last week on a transfer of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs to Israel over concerns that the IDF could use them in densely populated Rafah, as is has in other parts of Gaza.

Asked, “Have those bombs been used to kill civilians in Gaza,” Biden responded that they had. “Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which [Israel] goes after population centers,” he said, without elaborating on the strikes in which they were killed.

“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah… I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem,” Biden said.

He distinguished, though, between a potential full-on incursion into Rafah and the operation launched by the IDF earlier this week that was limited to the Rafah border crossing, but noted that “it’s causing problems with (bordering) Egypt.”

“But it’s just wrong. We’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells,” Biden asserted.

He clarified that the US will continue supplying Iron Dome missile interceptors and other defensive weapons to ensure that Israel can respond to attacks from adversaries across the region, such as last month’s massive missile and drone barrage from Iran.

“We’re not walking away from Israel’s security. We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in [populated] areas,” he said.

Asked if Israel has crossed his red line regarding its conduct in Gaza, Biden responded “Not yet,” but indicated Jerusalem was as close as it has ever come following last week’s weapons shipment holdup.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have said an offensive in Rafah is necessary to win the war against Hamas, which was triggered by the terror group’s October 7 onslaught. According to Israeli defense officials, four of Hamas’s six remaining battalions are in Rafah, along with members of the terror group’s leadership and a significant number of the hostages it abducted from Israel.

For months, the US said it could not support a major Rafah offensive without a credible plan in place to ensure that civilians there would be protected. To date, Jerusalem has yet to present such a full-fledged plan to Washington, which contributed to the shift in Biden’s approach on Wednesday, according to a US official.

The Biden administration has sought to advance alternatives to “smashing into Rafah,” specifically proposing that Israel coordinate with Egypt to choke off Hamas’s underground weapons supply from the Sinai and carry out more targeted strikes against the terror group’s leadership that avoid placing civilians at risk.

The US official speaking to The Times of Israel Wednesday said Netanyahu was turning a Rafah operation into an all-or-nothing political campaign. The official claimed this was an extension of the approach Israel has used thus far throughout the war, in which it has tried to defeat Hamas solely through military means, only to find the terror group resurfacing in areas already cleared by the IDF.

Displaced Palestinians arrive in central Gaza after fleeing from the southern Gaza city of Rafah in Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip, May 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Biden says he ‘absolutely’ hears protesters, slams antisemitism

The Wednesday warning from Biden was particularly remarkable, given that he pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign that he would not place conditions on US aid to Israel, “given the serious threats that Israelis face.” Just five months ago, he pushed back on calls from progressives to take a tougher approach, arguing that privately counseling Netanyahu would be more effective than issuing public threats.

He has stressed in previous speeches, including in Israel immediately after the October 7 Hamas invasion and slaughter, that Hamas fights from within civilian areas: “They use Palestinian civilians as human shields,” he said in an October 10 address. And his officials have repeatedly castigated Hamas for doing so. “[Hamas is also] embedding themselves among civilians, hiding in and underneath apartment buildings, mosques, hospitals,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted last month.

But as the humanitarian situation in Gaza worsened and the US deemed Israel as chiefly responsible for it, the White House gradually began shifting away from its bear-hug policy. On April 1, after an IDF strike killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen, Biden threatened to cut support unless Israel took immediate steps to ensure a sustained surge in humanitarian assistance.

Israel subsequently put in place several measures that led to a significant boost in aid for nearly a month, but that momentum slowed over the past week. Israel shuttered its Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza after a deadly Hamas attack from Rafah on IDF troops stationed nearby, and it closed the nearby Rafah Crossing when its troops took over the Palestinian side on Monday. Kerem Shalom reopened on Wednesday.

The US offered tepid support for the limited operation to remove Hamas from the Rafah Crossing area but warned that its stance could shift if the offensive widened or if the delivery of humanitarian aid was hampered for a sustained period. Hours later, the White House confirmed the reported hold on the weapons shipment.

A senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the move risks encouraging Hamas to reject compromise proposals in the ongoing hostage negotiations.

But the US official responded by highlighting the ever-climbing casualty count in Gaza. Hamas’s health ministry puts the death toll near 35,000, though the figure cannot be verified and doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants, while including civilians killed by terrorists’ errant rocket fire. Israel says it has killed over 13,000 Hamas and other gunmen in Gaza.

Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 8, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Footage of children — some lifeless — being pulled from the rubble continued to come out of Gaza this week, as Israeli warplanes targeted Hamas in eastern Rafah and other areas throughout the Strip.

The US official acknowledged the difficulty Israel faces fighting an enemy that embeds itself deep within civilian populations after massacring some 1,200 people in southern Israel and taking 252 hostage on October 7.

But the Biden administration has given Jerusalem seven months of unconditional support and cannot maintain it, the US official said, citing the massive civilian cost in Gaza and the destabilizing nature the war has had on the region. The official clarified that this does not change Washington’s commitment to secure a truce deal that would see the release of the 132 hostages still in Gaza.

The US official denied that Biden’s hardened approach was motivated by political consideration.

In the CNN interview, Biden said he “absolutely” has heard the message being shouted against his Israel policy at campus protests across the country.

But he then appeared to begin an argument that the anti-Israel campus protests are not as representative as some might assume based on the commotion they have caused and the vast media attention they have received. A poll published Tuesday on the Axios news site showed that an overwhelming majority of US university students aren’t participating in the anti-Israel campus protests that have swept the country and beyond, and don’t see the Israel-Hamas war as a top issue for them.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel student protesters lock arms at the entrance to Hamilton Hall on the campus of Columbia University, on April 30, 2024, in New York City. (Jia Wu / AFP)

“If you look at the data, these demonstrations are real, but they’re not nearly as… ” Biden said before shifting his response to reference the speech he gave earlier this week condemning the antisemitic undertones of the campus protests.

“There’s a legitimate right to free speech and protest… There’s not a legitimate right to use hate speech; there’s not a legitimate right to threaten Jewish students; there’s not a legitimate right to block people’s access to class. That’s against the law,” he said, reiterating points he made in a pair of speeches earlier this month.

“I made a speech on Holocaust Day and pointed out that it took seven decades to get to the place where after the Holocaust occurred, and there’s still antisemitism. Look what’s happened in seven [months]… Everybody’s sort of forgotten about what happened in Israel. Those 1,200 young kids murdered. I saw pictures… [of] a mother and her daughter being roped together and then kerosene poured and burned to death. Nothing like this has happened to the Jewish community since the Holocaust,” he said.

‘Who is going to occupy Gaza?’

Biden later in the interview urged Netanyahu to plan for who will govern Gaza after the war, highlighting a bitter point of contention between the US and the premier, who has refused to hold substantive cabinet discussions on the matter due to concerns they could collapse his coalition.

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners have called for Israel to permanently occupy Gaza and reestablish settlements in the Palestinian territory. The premier has signaled his opposition to these steps but has been criticized for blocking clear alternatives to Hamas’s rule, such as a reformed Palestinian Authority, leaving US officials concerned that Gaza will either remain in Hamas’s hands or will be governed by anarchy.

“We’ve got to think through what is happening after this is over. Who is going to occupy Gaza?” Biden asked.

He then described the US postwar vision, saying he has the support of five Arab states but declining to name them “because I don’t want to get them in trouble.”

Einav Zangauker holds a sign identifying her son Matan (24), one of the hostages taken captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip during the October 7 massacre, as she stands on the roof of a car during a demonstration by hostages’ relatives and supporters in Tel Aviv on May 6, 2024. (Jack Guez / AFP)

The president appears to be referring to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar, whose leaders have held several summits along with representatives from the Palestinian Authority aimed at crafting a regional peace plan that can be implemented after the war. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held several joint meetings with his counterparts from those five countries.

Biden revealed that the leaders of those five Arab countries “are prepared to help rebuild Gaza, prepared to help transition to a two-state solution… to maintain the security and peace while they’re working out a Palestinian Authority that’s real and not corrupt.”

The countries have all clarified that any financial or military assistance they would provide to help revive Gaza after the war would be conditioned on Israel agreeing to create a pathway for an eventual two-state solution — something that Netanyahu has rejected out of hand.

Biden said he told Netanyahu shortly after October 7, “We’ll help you get [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar.”

“We will help you focus on getting the bad guys,” Biden recalled having told Netanyahu during his visit to Israel less than two weeks after Hamas’s terror onslaught.

Biden then repeated the rest of the message he gave to Israeli leaders then — one he has previously shared publicly.

“When I went over [to Israel] immediately after that happened, I said to Bibi, ‘Don’t make the same mistake we made in America [after 9/11],” he said, lamenting what he characterized as US missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Protesters speak to the press as they gather at a pro-Palestinian encampment to support during a rally at George Washington University in Washington, DC, May 6, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

Move kept under wraps until Holocaust remembrance speech

Biden’s interview was hailed by progressive Democrats who have urged him to take this approach for months, while Republicans fumed.

“Netanyahu should not have gotten a nickel so long as he continued this incredibly destructive war. I’m glad to see that the president is beginning to move in that direction,” Senator Bernie Sanders told CNN.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah tweeted, “We stand by allies, we don’t second guess them. Biden’s dithering on Israel weapons is bad policy and a terrible message to Israel, our allies and the world.”

Shortly before the interview, US House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell penned a joint letter to Biden blasting his decision last week to hold up the weapons transfer to Israel, saying the move “flies in the face of assurances provided regarding the timely delivery of security assistance to Israel.”

Biden signed off on the pause in an order conveyed last week to the Pentagon, according to US officials who were not authorized to comment on the matter. The White House National Security Council sought to keep the decision out of the public eye for several days until it had a better understanding of the scope of Israel’s intensified military operations in Rafah and until Biden could deliver a long-planned speech on Tuesday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In a joint letter sent to Biden, the top Republican lawmakers noted the move will not impact the billions in military aid to Israel recently passed by Congress but said “security assistance to Israel is an urgent priority that must not be delayed.”

“These recent press reports and pauses in critical weapons shipments call into question your pledge that your commitment to Israel’s security will remain ironclad,” the two wrote.

Most Popular
read more: