Biden admits Israel used US bombs on civilians in Gaza, threatens arms suspension

AFP , AP , Thursday 9 May 2024

Israel shelled Rafah on Thursday as US President Joe Biden offered his starkest warning yet over the conduct of its war on Gaza, vowing to cut off arms transfers if an offensive into the southern Gaza city goes ahead.

File photo- US President Joe Biden. AP


Biden, in an interview with CNN, said the U.S. was still committed to Israel's defense and would supply Iron Dome rocket interceptors and other defensive arms, but that if Israel goes into Rafah, “we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells used.”

The U.S. has historically provided enormous amounts of military aid to Israel. That has only accelerated Israel launched its war on Gaza on October 7.

Biden's comments and his decision last week to pause a shipment of heavy bombs to Israel are the most striking manifestations of the growing daylight between his administration and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Biden said Wednesday that Israel’s actions around Rafah had “not yet” crossed his red lines, but has repeated that Israel needs to do far more to protect the lives of civilians in Gaza.

The shipment was supposed to consist of 1,800 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) bombs and 1,700 500-pound (225-kilogram) bombs, according to a senior U.S. administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. The focus of U.S. concern was the larger explosives and how they could be used in a dense urban area.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers," Biden told CNN. “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.”

“We’re not walking away from Israel’s security," Biden continued. “We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier Wednesday confirmed the weapons delay, telling the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense that the U.S. paused “one shipment of high payload munitions.”

“We’re going to continue to do what’s necessary to ensure that Israel has the means to defend itself,” Austin said. “But that said, we are currently reviewing some near-term security assistance shipments in the context of unfolding events in Rafah.”

It also comes as the Biden administration is due to deliver a first-of-its-kind formal verdict this week on whether Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and restrictions on delivery of aid have violated international and U.S. laws designed to spare civilians from the worst horrors of war.

Biden signed off on the pause in an order conveyed last week to the Pentagon, according to U.S. officials who were not authorized to comment on the matter. The White House National Security Council sought to keep the decision out of the public eye for several days until it had a better understanding of the scope of Israel’s intensified military operations in Rafah.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, in an interview with Israeli Channel 12 TV news, said the decision to pause the shipment was “a very disappointing decision, even frustrating." He suggested the move stemmed from political pressure on Biden from Congress, the U.S. campus protests and the upcoming election.

Israeli troops on Tuesday seized control of Gaza’s vital Rafah border crossing in what the White House described as a limited operation that stopped short of the full-on Israeli invasion of the city that Biden has repeatedly warned against, most recently in a Monday call with Netanyahu.

Israel has ordered the evacuation of 100,000 Palestinians from the city. Israeli forces have also carried out strikes on the eastern part of Rafah and captured the Rafah crossing, a critical conduit for the flow of humanitarian aid along the Gaza-Egypt border.

 'Extreme fear'

The Israeli military said Wednesday it was reopening another major aid crossing into Gaza, Kerem Shalom, as well as the Erez crossing.

But the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said the Kerem Shalom crossing -- which Israel shut after a rocket attack killed four soldiers on Sunday -- remained closed.

AFP journalists reported heavy shelling in Rafah early Thursday, and the Israeli military later said it was also striking further north in the centre of the Gaza Strip.

An army statement later on Wednesday said that Hamas naval commander Mohammed Ahmed Ali was killed in an air strike "in the past day". Hamas did not immediately comment.

Civilian life in Rafah, meanwhile, "has completely ceased", said displaced Gazan Marwan al-Masri, 35, noting "the streets are empty" in the western part of the city.

"We are living in Rafah in extreme fear and endless anxiety," said Muhanad Ahmad Qishta, 29.

"Places the Israeli army claims to be safe are also being bombed," he told AFP.

 'Catastrophic' health situation

An emergency doctor working in Rafah and nearby Khan Younis said that with humanitarian access compromised, the health situation was "catastrophic".

"The smell of sewage is rife everywhere," said the doctor, James Smith. "It's been getting worse over the course of the last couple of days."

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that hospitals in southern Gaza had only "three days of fuel left" because of the border closures.

"Without fuel all humanitarian operations will stop."

Truce talks

Talks involving Qatari, US and Hamas delegations aimed at cementing a long-stalled ceasefire deal were ongoing Wednesday in Cairo, said Egyptian Al-Qahera News.

It noted that there were "points of contention" during the discussions, but also reported some "convergence" without elaborating.

A senior Hamas official said the latest round of negotiations would be "decisive".

Hamas "insists on the rightful demands of its people", the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly about the negotiations.

In Jerusalem, CIA director Bill Burns met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the "possibility of Israel pausing the operation in Rafah in exchange for captives releases", an Israeli official said, also on condition of anonymity.

The Hamas official had previously warned the Cairo talks would be Israel's "last chance" to free the captives still in fighters' hands.

Mediator Qatar also appealed "for urgent international action to prevent Rafah from being invaded and a crime of genocide being committed".

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