White House reportedly looking into holding up weapons supplies to pressure Israel

NBC says Pentagon reviewing which munitions could be used to push Netanyahu to reduce intensity of war, allow more aid into Gaza; administration says no change in US policy

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden speaks at Earth Rider Brewery in Superior, Wisconsin, on January 25, 2024. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US President Joe Biden speaks at Earth Rider Brewery in Superior, Wisconsin, on January 25, 2024. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Washington is weighing using weapons supplies as leverage to pressure Israel to reduce the intensity of its operations in the Gaza Strip, according to a Sunday report by US television network NBC.

Although no decisions have been made, the White House asked the Defense Department to review which weapons could be used as leverage on Israel, the report said, pointing at 155 mm artillery shells and JDAM kits to turn missiles into precision munitions.

The report cited three current US officials and a former official.

The White House did not issue an outright denial in its response to the report on Sunday, but said that there is no change in its Israel policy.

“Israel has a right and obligation to defend themselves against the threat of Hamas, while abiding by international humanitarian law and protecting civilian lives, and we remain committed to support Israel in its fight against Hamas,” a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said. “We have done so since October 7, and will continue to. There has not been a change in our policy.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the report.

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip, in a position near the Israel-Gaza border on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. (AP/Leo Correa)

The administration is focused on offensive military equipment in its review of what it could possibly withhold or delay,” the report said. It noted, however, that officials “have also discussed offering the Israeli government more of the weapons it has requested” — to encourage Israel “to take some steps the administration has requested.”

NBC said defensive systems and munitions, like Iron Dome interceptors, are not under consideration for having their delivery slowed down.

One of Washington’s goals is to convince Israel to open humanitarian corridors to allow more aid to reach Gazans. The US has also repeatedly urged Israel to do more to reduce civilian casualties.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done and that they need to be more careful about,” says an administration official.

In December, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken fast-tracked the sale of munitions to Israel, bypassing congressional review, including 155 mm artillery shells and related equipment worth $147.5 million.

Displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024. (AFP)

Earlier the same month, Blinken used the same emergency authority to fast-track the sale of $106 million in roughly 14,000 tank shells to Israel on December 9.

The White House has been pressing Israel on the amount of humanitarian aid it allows in Gaza, its vision for the “day after” Hamas and the growing number of civilian casualties in the Strip.

The Netanyahu government has made some concessions on humanitarian issues, including allowing large shipments of flour to enter Gaza through the Ashdod port earlier this month.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is of increasing urgency for Biden, as he faces protests from progressives upset about his administration’s support for Israel in its offensive against Hamas in Gaza and the rising civilian death toll.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up an Arabic copy of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ found in Gaza during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2024 (Tomer Appelbaum/POOL)

Biden faces an election in November, and is lagging behind likely GOP challenger Donald Trump in most polls. In November, Biden helped broker a temporary ceasefire that saw critical aid reach Gaza and the release of some hostages held by the terrorists.

Last week, Defense Ministry Director-General Eyal Zamir conducted a working visit to Washington, during which he met with senior Pentagon and State Department officials, as well as executives from major US defense companies to discuss the advancement of the defense deals.

Defense sources told The Times of Israel that Israel’s plans to procure a new squadron of 25 F35i stealth fighter jets, a squadron of 25 F-15IA fighter jets — the Israeli variant of the advanced F-15EX — and a squadron of 12 Apache helicopters were advanced during the discussions.

The Defense Ministry delegation also worked to advance the continued supply of American munitions amid the war.

War erupted in Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians slaughtered amid brutal atrocities, and seizing over 250 hostages, over 130 of whom are still held captive in Gaza.

Activists block the Kerem Shalom crossing to prevent humanitarian aid entering Gaza, January 28, 2024 (Courtesy Tzav 9 activist group)

Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign that the Gaza health ministry says has killed over 26,000 people. The UN estimates that some 1.9 million Gazans are currently displaced due to the war, with many being forced to find shelter in tent cities or makeshift camps and slums sprouting up in parts of the Strip.

The figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed some 10,000 terror operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Israeli protesters, including the families of hostages, have been blocking aid shipments into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing in recent days. Biden administration officials were pressing Israel to ensure the crossing remains open, the Kan public broadcaster reported Thursday.

According to the report, the US officials called for the crossing to continue operating as usual and said Israel must ensure aid continues flowing into Gaza, without specifically referring to the protests.

On Sunday, the IDF declared the area around the crossing a closed military zone, aimed at preventing such demonstrations moving forward, but many protesters bypassed the blockades regardless and blocked at least some of the aid from entering.

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