US also reviewing sale of JDAMs, but transfer isn't imminent

US confirms holding up sale of heavy bombs it feared Israel would use in Rafah

Feeling its concerns over looming major offensive weren’t getting through to Israel, Washington took unprecedented step to ensure its heavy explosives weren’t used in south Gaza city

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

A man inspects the damage to a building after overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 25, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
A man inspects the damage to a building after overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 25, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The Biden administration on Tuesday night confirmed reports that it had recently held up a large shipment of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs that it feared Israel might use in a major ground operation in the densely populated southern Gaza city of Rafah.

This is the first time since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war that the US has held up a weapons shipment for the IDF, which it has been supplying on a near-constant basis since October 7.

Washington adamantly opposes a major offensive in Rafah, convinced that there is no way Israel could conduct one while ensuring the safety of the million-plus Palestinians sheltering there.

The US held a pair of virtual meetings with top Israeli officials in recent months to express concerns regarding a potential Rafah operation and to present alternatives for how Israel could target Hamas in the city without conducting a full-scale invasion.

Those talks will continue, but the White House determined that they were insufficient in getting its concerns across, a senior Biden administration official told The Times of Israel.

“As Israeli leaders seemed to approach a decision point last month on such an operation, we began to carefully review proposed transfers of particular weapons to Israel that might be used in Rafah,” the official said.

Smoke billows following Israeli strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 7, 2024. (AFP)

The review resulted in the pausing last week of a shipment of 1,800 2,000-lb bombs and 1,700 500-lb bombs, the official revealed, noting that the White House was particularly concerned that Israel would use the 2,000-pound bombs in densely populated Rafah as it has in other parts of Gaza.

The official clarified that no final determination had been made regarding this particular shipment.

The senior official also appeared to confirm a report that the US had delayed a sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) to Israel but clarified that this transaction was in a much earlier stage than the shipment of heavy bombs it held up last week.

“For certain other cases at the State Department, including JDAM kits, we are continuing the review. None of these cases involve imminent transfers. They are about future transfers,” the official said.

The senior official emphasized that the weapons shipments under review were drawn from funds appropriated years ago and were not part of the aid that Congress approved for Israel last month.

“We are committed to ensuring Israel gets every dollar appropriated in the supplemental,” the senior administration official stressed, noting that the US had just approved another $827 million worth of weapons and equipment for Israel.

Displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip carry their belongings as they await transportation following a call to evacuate by the Israeli army on May 6, 2024 (AFP)

The confirmation from the Biden administration came hours after several of its spokespeople signaled their initial approval of the operation launched by Israel early Tuesday morning to take over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

The spokespeople said Israel’s stated goals in the operation were legitimate, but warned that this assessment could change if the offensive expands in scope and leads to an extended hampering of aid shipments into Gaza.

“What we’ve been told by our Israeli counterparts is that this operation last night was limited, and designed to cut off from Hamas’s ability to smuggle weapons and funds into Gaza,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in a briefing.

“This does appear to be a limited operation so far, but it does to a great extent depend on what comes next,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a separate briefing.

“One of the things that Israel said — which is very much accurate — is that Hamas [still] controlled the Gaza side of Rafah crossing, and Hamas was continuing to collect revenue from that crossing being open,” the State Department spokesperson explained. “So it is a legitimate goal to try and deprive Hamas of money that they could use to continue to finance their terrorist activities.”

For months, Netanyahu has been declaring that Israeli troops will carry out an operation to root out the final Hamas strongholds in Rafah, regardless of whether an agreement is reached in the ongoing hostage talks. According to Israeli defense officials, four of Hamas’s six remaining battalions are in the city, along with members of the terror group’s leadership and a significant number of the hostages it abducted from Israel during the October 7 onslaught that sparked the war in Gaza.

An IDF tank crushing an ‘I love Gaza’ sign at the Gazan side of the Rafah-Egypt border crossing. (X screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

The IDF operation early Tuesday led to the closure of the Rafah crossing — one of the main gates used to funnel aid into Gaza. The closure came as Israel’s nearby Kerem Shalom crossing also remained shuttered after a Hamas rocket attack over the weekend killed four IDF soldiers and wounded others stationed nearby.

The White House said that Netanyahu had promised President Joe Biden during a call Monday that he would reopen Kerem Shalom, but that did not occur on Tuesday. Administration spokespeople said Israel had committed to reopening Kerem Shalom on Wednesday and to reopening Rafah for fuel convoys that day as well.

Miller differentiated between the operation at the Rafah crossing, of which he appeared to approve, and the IDF’s announcement on Monday urging some 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from eastern neighborhoods of the city.

He clarified that evacuating civilians ahead of a military operation is welcome in theory, but charged that Israel was taking the step without the proper mechanisms to care for the evacuees once they had moved.

Also this week, the State Department was slated to deliver a report to Congress determining whether the Biden administration has accepted assurances from Israel that it is using American weapons in accordance with international law.

The report to Congress, which will be released to the public, is part of a new policy instituted by Biden in February requiring foreign aid recipients to provide written assurances that they are using that aid in compliance with international law and that they are not obstructing the assistance of humanitarian aid.

Illustrative: Palestinians queue to get water during a distribution organised by “Doctors Without Borders” NGO at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 21, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by Mohammed ABED / AFP)

The policy was outlined in a memo that required the State Department to issue a report to Congress by Wednesday. Miller indicated on Tuesday, though, that his office might need some more time to finish the report. “It’s possible it slips just a little bit.”

In the lead-up to the Wednesday deadline, progressive lawmakers have been intensifying their pressure on the administration to deem Israel out of compliance with international law in what would likely lead to a restriction on US military aid.

Eighty-eight Democrats signed a letter to Biden on Friday expressing “serious concerns regarding the Israeli government’s conduct of the war in Gaza as it pertains to the deliberate withholding of humanitarian aid.”

Israel insists that it does not block relief entering Gaza and that any shortages are the result of the inability of aid agencies to distribute it to those in need. It has also pointed to a surge in aid that began last month. The uptick followed a threat from Biden to shift his policy regarding the war if Israel didn’t take immediate steps to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which rights groups say is on the verge of famine.

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