US will stop sending weapons to Israel if it launches Rafah invasion, Biden says

Ultimatum could be historic moment in Gaza war and American-Israeli relations

US President Joe Biden steps off Marine One in Chicago, Illinois. AFP
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President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he would stop shipments of US weapons to Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orders a major invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The decision comes after Mr Biden and members of his administration spent months trying to persuade Israel to do more to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza, where about 35,000 people have been killed since the October 7 Hamas-led attacks triggered the war.

Israel has seemed to shrug off any US pressure, insisting it must use maximum force to wipe out Hamas, while Mr Biden has faced domestic fury from critics who have accused him of supporting what they call Israel's "genocide" in Gaza.

So Mr Biden is now using the most powerful leverage he has by threatening to stop the supply of American weapons.

“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,” Mr Biden told CNN.

The decision could be historic moment in the war in Gaza and in America's longstanding security relationship with Israel, which benefits from about $3.8 billion in annual military funding, with much more on the way.

It also signals Mr Biden's most public break with Mr Netanyahu, though the President stressed that other aspects of US military support for Israel would continue, such as replenishing the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel this week said it was conducting a limited military operation to gain control of the Rafah border crossing on the Gaza side, much to the anger of the international humanitarian community, which says this would block aid deliveries aimed at curbing the risk of famine.

Mr Biden has faced growing criticism for his support of Israel by many in the US, including members of his own Democratic Party, the Arab-American community and students, posing a threat to his bid for re-election this November.

He also said that US weapons have killed civilians in Gaza.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centres,” Mr Biden said, referring to the 2,000-pound bombs that the US paused shipments of last week.

The Pentagon said earlier on Wednesday that a shipment of “high-payload munitions” to Israel had been delayed, demanding it do more to protect civilians as it increases combat operations around Rafah.

Washington last month passed a foreign aid package that allocated about $26 billion for Israel.

Mr BIden also touched on the nationwide protests on campuses against the war in Gaza, with students calling for their universities to divest from Israel's actions in the Palestinian territories.

“There's a legitimate right to free speech and protest,” Mr Biden said.

“As always, you have a right to do that.”

But he repeated his administration's warning that anti-Semitism and hate speech should not be allowed on campus.

Civilians ordered to flee eastern Rafah as Israel begins invasion - in pictures

Updated: May 09, 2024, 6:50 AM