Biden Stops Some Weapons Shipments to Israel, but What’s Next?

PalestineWhite House State Department
Biden Stops Some Weapons Shipments to Israel, but What’s Next?

President Joe Biden threatened to withhold arms shipments to Israel if it continues with its planned invasion of Rafah, as he acknowledged U.S. weapons have been deployed against civilians in Gaza.

“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – 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 – that deal with that problem,” Biden said Wednesday in an interview with CNN.

The White House has long opposed Israel’s planned incursion into Rafah, but this is the bluntest Biden has been about trying to force Israel to change course. Last week, the U.S. quietly paused the shipment of 3,500 bombs it feared might be used in Israel’s assault on Rafah. Yet, it was Israeli officials, not the Biden administration, who first revealed the hold on the weapons deliveries. 

The administration is also weighing whether to halt more offensive weapons shipments, though it will not stop any equipment needed for Israel’s defense. “We’re going to continue to make sure Israel is secure in terms of Iron Dome and their ability to respond to attacks that came out of the Middle East recently,” Biden said. “But it’s, it’s just wrong. We’re not going to – we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells.” Biden reiterated he believes in Israel’s right to defend itself and said the U.S was not walking away from Israel’s security. 

Biden had come under increasing pressure, including from college protesters and some Democratic lawmakers, to condition U.S. support for Israel, especially as the country prepares its offensive in Rafah. More than a million Palestinians are in Rafah, including hundreds of thousands who fled there to escape Israel’s offensive elsewhere. More than half of them are children. “There is nowhere safe on the Gaza strip to go to,” UNICEF spokesperson James Elder said at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Wednesday. 

One pause in U.S. weapons shipments is a signal, but it likely won’t prevent Israel from waging all-out war in Rafah if it chooses. Israel is the largest recipient of American military aid; under a 2016 Obama-era agreement, Israel gets nearly $4 billion a year in weapons assistance through 2028. Congress recently approved a few additional billions in aid, including about $4 billion for missile defense. Some experts noted Israel likely has stockpiled a lot of the artillery and offensive weaponry it would need for ground offensive operations. 

“It would take more than stopping one shipment of arms,” Josh Paul, a former State Department official who worked in arms transfers and resigned in protest over the United States’s Israel policy last year, told Splinter before Biden’s announcement. 

It would take a concerted change of policy for several months,” Paul said. “But, at the end of the day, Israel is reliant on U.S. arms, and if nothing else, if there were to be pauses that lasted a week or more, Israel would have to start thinking about where its priorities lie – whether it wants to start tapping into its strategic reserves that it needs for, for example, a Lebanon contingency, or whether it can just continue raining hell on Gaza.” 

Israel has begun limited incursions into Rafah, and Israel’s seizure of a border crossing has already blocked off aid, which will exacerbate the already dire humanitarian conditions for Gazans. Ceasefire negotiations continue, though the prospects seem pretty grim right now; Hamas has said it won’t compromise further and Israel had previously signaled that weapons pauses might jeopardize those talks. Some Israeli officials, unsurprisingly, are angered at the U.S.’s potential hold on arms deliveries, like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir who wrote this on X.

How big of a rift this pause in weapons shipments opens between the United States and Israel – and how much it represents a sustained shift in United States policy – are still open questions. “This is a welcome step, but we still need to see more,” Win Without War Executive Director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement. U.S. law gives the president ample power to ensure that no more U.S. arms go to Netanyahu’s brutal war in Gaza.” 

Another test might come in a report the Biden administration is completing on whether Israel is violating international humanitarian law in Gaza. The State Department missed this deadline on Wednesday to send the memo to Congress.

Under a White House directive, Secretary of State Antony Blinken must “obtain certain credible and reliable written assurances from foreign governments” getting American arms that they’re following international law. If the State Department finds reason to doubt Israel’s assurances – and it believes Israel is using U.S. weapons to violate American and international law – it should lead the United States to halt weapon supplies to Israel.  

It’s not exactly clear why the report has been delayed. Multiple congressional sources told Reuters the administration just needed a few more days to present their findings. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said during Wednesday’s press briefing that the Department expected to deliver “it in the very near future in the coming days.”

When pressed by reporters about what that actually meant, Miller declined to give an exact timeline. “We have taken this incredibly seriously,” he said. “But it is also important we get this right, that we do a thorough job. This is the first time the Department has conducted such an exercise and so we are taking all deliberate care to make sure that we get everything in it absolutely correct.”

There has been enough reporting before the missed due date to know that this memo has divided the State Department. According to Reuters, senior officials within at least four bureaus indicated they did not find Israel’s assurances “credible or reliable.” They reportedly cited at least eight examples where Israeli military actions raised “serious questions.” Yet others within the State Department backed up Israel’s position. 

Paul, the former State official, said the reports of senior officials willing to argue that Israel’s assurances were neither credible or reliable was a positive sign. “Whether or not those actually make it into the final policy decisions, and the final report, is by itself – I never saw that in my entire time at the State Department,” he told Splinter

You might think you don’t need a congressional report to suspect that Israel might be violating international law in Gaza. Human rights groups have already documented evidence of Israeli Defense Forces violating the rules of war in Gaza, including with U.S. weapons.

All of it underscores how increasingly untenable Biden’s position has become on Israel’s conduct on Gaza – expressing concern about the country’s strategy but keeping unconditional support flowing. Biden’s public declaration to pause some weapons deliveries signaled a crack in that stance. This delayed report may signal another. Even if it does not, if you’ve gotten to the point where you stop sending bombs to your ally because you think they might drop them indiscriminately on civilians, you probably already have your answer on whether you believe Israel’s assurances that it is following international law.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin