US paused Israeli military aid over ‘events in Rafah’, says Pentagon chief

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The US last week “paused one shipment of high payload munitions” to Israel over concerns about its looming ground operation in Rafah, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said.

Washington has not decided the final fate of the munitions, but is concerned about their possible use in Rafah, he told a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

“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.” 

Israel sent ground troops into Rafah on Monday night, seizing the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and has threatened to expand the operation.

The US has repeatedly opposed Israel’s plans to launch a significant ground operation into the city, where more than 1mn civilians are sheltering from the fighting elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. Israel says Rafah is Hamas’s last stronghold.

“We’ve been very clear about the steps that we’d like to see Israel take to account for, to take care of those civilians before major combat takes place,” Austin said. “We certainly would like to see no major combat take place in Rafah but our focus is on making sure we protect the civilians.”

The pause in arms supplies marks the first known time that the US has held up a potential weapons delivery since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and the Jewish state launched its retaliatory offensive against the militant group in Gaza.

The US made the decision to withhold the shipment last week after discussions with Israel over how it would meet the humanitarian needs of civilians in Rafah did not fully satisfy Washington’s concerns.

Israel’s military tried to play down any rift, with Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari saying at a conference in Tel Aviv that the allies would resolve any disagreements “behind closed doors”.

“We are responsible for the security interests of Israel and we pay attention to the US interests in the arena,” he said at the event, hosted by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

In addition to the shipment paused last week, the US state department said Washington was also reviewing other future deliveries.

“We have paused one shipment of near-term assistance and we are reviewing others,” said Matthew Miller, the state department spokesperson. “We remain committed to Israel’s defence, but in the context of the unfolding situation in Rafah, it is a place where we have very serious concerns, and that’s why we take the actions we take.”

A senior US official said the process that led to the shipment pause began in April, with the Pentagon ultimately withholding 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs.

The use of some of the most destructive US-supplied bombs in Israel’s arsenal has come under intense international scrutiny since their use in heavily populated areas can lead to unforeseen civilian casualties. The US military has used 2,000-pound bombs only sparingly in its recent military campaigns in the region.

“We are especially focused on the end-use of the 2,000-pound bombs and the impact they could have in dense urban settings, as we have seen in other parts of Gaza,” the senior US official said. “We have not made a final determination on how to proceed with this shipment.”

The Biden administration had also informally delayed shipments of Joint Direct Attack Munition kits and small-diameter bombs, according to people familiar with the matter. The official said these cases remained under review.

“For certain other cases at the state department, including JDAM kits, we are continuing the review,” the official said. “None of these cases involve imminent transfers — they are about future transfers.”

None of the delays were connected to supplemental funding of $14.1bn for Israel passed last month, the senior official said.

“We are committed to ensuring Israel gets every dollar appropriated in the supplemental,” the official said, adding that the US had just approved $827mn in weapons and equipment for Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to eliminate Hamas after the group killed about 1,200 people and seized 250 hostages in its October 7 invasion of southern Israel, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive on Gaza has killed almost 35,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

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