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Israel-Gaza war: will US decision to withhold weapons supplies stop assault on ‘red line’ Rafah?

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But for the last two months, Washington has repeatedly complained that Israel has failed to share military plans showing how it would prevent mass casualties among the 1.4 million Palestinians that United Nations humanitarian agencies say have taken refuge in Rafah, after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the tiny Gaza Strip.

If Israel’s operation in Rafah proceeds without taking US concerns into account, “we’re not going to supply the weapons and the artillery shells that have been used,” Biden said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. “Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs. It’s just wrong.”

Analysts noted that Biden’s remarks are the first acknowledgement by Washington that American armaments have been used to kill Palestinian civilians.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, almost 40,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed during Israeli military operations since October.

Israel says around 1,200 people were killed during the unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel last October 7.

A camp for internally displaced Palestinians near the border with Egypt, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Photo: dpa

Israel believes the Palestinian militant group still holds 93 out of the 252 people it took hostage in Gaza, along with the bodies of at least 35 captives who have since died from illness or were inadvertently killed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

The Biden administration announced its decision to withhold the bomb shipment after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected a deal proposed by Egyptian and Qatari mediators to pause hostilities in Gaza to facilitate the release of some Israeli hostages held by Hamas in return for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Israeli ground forces ploughed into the eastern part of the Rafah area of Gaza on Tuesday to conduct a 90-day operation against the four Hamas brigades ensconced there.

Biden is the first American president to have placed constraints on weapons supplies to Israel since Ronald Reagan imposed a six-year blockade on cluster bomb deliveries in 1982, after a Congressional investigation found that Israeli forces had dropped them on civilian population centres during its invasion of Lebanon.

Smoke rises above a building at sunrise, in the aftermath of Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday. Photo: AFP

The US has provided Israel with billions of dollars in annual military help since 1999, with the amount being increased over time to US$3.8 billion.

A 2008 amendment to US arms export laws made it incumbent upon the government to ensure that Israel enjoys conventional military superiority over all its Middle Eastern rivals.

Citing unidentified officials, US media reports have said other equipment supplies to Israel under review by the Biden administration include Joint Direct Attack Munition kits used to convert so-called “dumb bombs” into precision-guided munitions.

However, the White House missed a Wednesday deadline to submit a report to Congress on whether Israel has violated US and international laws by using American weapons against civilians in Gaza.

Since the Gaza war broke out, the US has supplied Israel with tens of thousands of precision-guided artillery and tank shells, along with extensive quantities of other offensive weaponry including ammunition for tanks’ machine guns, missiles for drones, and disposable shoulder-fired rockets to the IDF.

As such, Israel already possesses the weapons and munitions needed to carry out the 90-day operation it launched on Tuesday, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Wednesday.

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World leaders call for de-escalation after Iran launches air attack on Israel

World leaders call for de-escalation after Iran launches air attack on Israel

But Israel’s rhetoric masks the potentially decisive impact that further delays in weapons deliveries currently being considered by Washington would have on its ability both to wage its wider campaign in Gaza – or to mount an offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon that members of Israel’s war cabinet have been pushing for since the outset of the war with Hamas in October.

The IDF “probably has sufficient reserves” of the 2,000 and 500-pound bombs to use in Rafah “if it decided it was operationally necessary”, said Jonathan Panikoff, who served as US deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East from 2015 to 2020.

However, the IDF “may be hesitant to use them”, out of concern that doing so would leave it with insufficient reserves of the weapons that could be needed “in the event the conflict broadens in Gaza or a conflict erupts in the north with Hezbollah”, he told This Week In Asia.

On the other hand, the change in Israeli military tactics that Washington wants “almost certainly would require proceeding at a much slower and deliberate rate with the ground operation in order to be more targeted”, said Panikoff, who is currently director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

In turn, that would require a longer timeline – something that Netanyahu “personally would almost certainly benefit from politically” as well, he said.

An Israeli tank is seen near the Shalom Kerem crossing in southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip on May 6. Photo: Xinhua

Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, said the US had “enormous leverage with Israel as its main great-power backer” in military defence terms and as its “principal political defender” in international forums such as the UN.

She described Washington’s decision to pause the shipment of 3,500 bombs as a “crucial step towards accountability and self-interested, pragmatic foreign policy” towards Israel from the US.

Washington’s strategic objectives in the Middle East and North Africa region and even globally “are imperilled by Israel’s invading Rafah with no sound political plan for the day after the war nor anything approaching a credible plan” to evacuate and protect Gaza’s civilians, she said.

While the Biden administration had “pressed a first crucial button, it did not yank the full lever of American leverage over Israel”, she told This Week In Asia.

“This was a warning shot across Israel’s bow, and one that it could have very easily avoided” if it had provided Washington with something approaching a credible plan for civilian protection in a Rafah invasion.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport in October 2023. Photo: TNS

Biden and Netanyahu are both under mounting domestic public pressure to bring an end to the Israel-Gaza war.

Seven in 10 likely American voters, including 83 per cent of supporters of Biden’s Democratic Party, back the US calling for a permanent ceasefire and a de-escalation of violence in Gaza, according to the results of an opinion poll released by advocacy group Data for Progress on Wednesday.

An opinion poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute on Tuesday found that 56 per cent of Israeli Jews believe that their government should prioritise the release of hostages held by Hamas instead of proceeding with the Rafah operation.

Marks said opinion polls in Israel had shown a shift over the past two months “towards wrapping up the war and getting hostages back”.

But extremists in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition “who might bolt, thereby collapsing it, appear unmoved”.

She said greater leverage from the US could be needed to “place Israel on a path towards preserving, or at least not actively undoing”, the US’ strategic interests in the region, Marks said.

“And the Biden administration should be ready to recalibrate based on Netanyahu’s response,” Marks added.

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