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Israel treads carefully as US threatens Rafah offensive could lead to arms halt

For the first time, Biden announced he would halt shipments of American weapons to Israel if Netanyahu orders a major invasion of the city of Rafah.
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US President Joe Biden (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images).

Published: 9 May 2024

Last updated: 9 May 2024

President Joe Biden said for the first time on Wednesday that he would halt shipments of American weapons to Israel – which he acknowledged have been used to kill civilians in Gaza – if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orders a major invasion of the city of Rafah.

Israel had committed to the US and Egypt to restrict its operation in Rafah, which started on Monday, aiming only to deny Hamas authority over the border crossing that connects Gaza with Egypt, and concentrating on the eastern side of the city.

The parties agreed that a private American security company will assume management of the crossing after the IDF concludes its operation. Israel has also pledged not to damage the crossing's facilities to ensure its continuous operation.

Witnesses described frightened families leaving Rafah on foot, riding donkeys, pushing trolleys and packed with their belongings into overloaded trucks hours after reading leaflets dropped by the IDF that told residents and displaced people in eastern neighbourhoods to leave.

The IDF said they had broadcast instructions through “announcements, text messages, phone calls and media broadcasts in Arabic” telling residents to head to an “expanded humanitarian zone” on the coast and around the city of Khan Younis.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant stated that the IDF’s operations in Rafah would end immediately if a hostage agreement is reached with Hamas. Visiting Rafah, he said that the operation "will not stop until Hamas is eliminated in the area or the first hostage returns to Israel".

Two senior US officials told Axios that the Israelis made clear they wanted to capture the Rafah crossing in order to put pressure on Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in the hostage talks.

But while the crossing is a strategic asset, it can also quickly become a liability.

According to Palestinian reports, 22 Palestinians, among them eight children including babies, were killed by Israeli bombs and shells in eastern Rafah overnight into Monday. In Israel, the bombing was reported as a response to mortar shelling from the Gaza Strip that killed four Israeli soldiers and wounded 10. Israel has since reopened the Kerem Shalom for humanitarian aid deliveries after it was shuttered following the deadly attack. The move was promised during a call between Biden and Netanyahu on Monday.

Negotiations going nowhere fast

An Israeli delegation made up of lower-level officials arrived in Egypt after Hamas announced it supported a revised version of a hostage negotiations deal. Netanyahu said he had instructed the delegation going to Cairo to insist on the original terms for the return of the hostages, alongside the "vital requirements for ensuring Israel's security".

The opening words of the draft agreement – supported by Hamas – declares that there should be a "temporary cessation of military operations between the two parties". This is largely unproblematic. Six weeks would pass while people are released, Israeli forces would withdraw from some areas, and displaced Gazans would be able to return to what, if anything, is left of their homes.

But then stage two would begin. The draft agreement then talks about a "return to sustainable calm", which it defines as "a permanent cessation of military and hostile operations".

Other changes in the draft shift the balance so that, in the very first days of the deal, Hamas would be able to secure the release of hundreds of the most dangerous and iconic terror chiefs and murderers, including at least 150 serving life terms, in return for the release of very few of the hostages.

This is unacceptable to Israel's government and Hamas statements indicate it isn’t budging. In a CNN interview, former peace negotiator Aaron David Miller described Middle East negotiations as having "only two speeds: slow and slower”.

US arms on the table

The United States has described the taking over of the Rafah border crossing as a “limited” operation but indicates that it was watching closely what happens next. Washington adamantly opposes a major offensive in Rafah, convinced that there is no way Israel could conduct one while ensuring the safety of the million-plus Palestinians sheltering there.

The US confirmed that it paused a shipment of bombs to Israel amid concerns over their potential use in a Rafah incursion. The shipment, which was held back last week, includes 1700 bombs weighing 500 pounds and 1800 bombs weighing 2000 pounds – among the largest conventional weapons in the US arsenal. The heavy munitions leave a massive crater and can send deadly shrapnel hundreds of feet from the impact site.

In the background, the State Department is rushing to finish a high-stakes report due to Congress this week determining whether the Biden administration has accepted assurances from Israel that it is using American weapons in accordance with international law.

The report to Congress is part of a new policy instituted by Biden in February requiring foreign aid recipients to provide written assurances that they are using that aid in compliance with international law, and that they are not obstructing the assistance of humanitarian aid.

Israel provided its first written assurance of compliance with the directive, officially known as National Security Memorandum 20, in March. The US has not, to date, found Israel to have violated the memo but its assessments of Jerusalem’s compliance were ongoing.


Biden says he will stop sending bombs and artillery shells to Israel if they launch major invasion of Rafah (CNN)

Israel commits to limit Rafah operation, grant control of crossing with Egypt to private U.S. firm (Haaretz)

Israel hasn't crossed "red line" with current Rafah operation, U.S. officials say By Barak Ravid (Axios)

Israel launches Rafah offensive it says is start of mission to ‘eliminate’ Hamas (Guardian)

‘No safe place’: people in Rafah describe terror as Israeli assault begins (Guardian)

For displaced Gazans, leaving Rafah is moving from one hell to another (Haaretz)

‘Sustainable calm’ proposal splits Israel and Hamas (BBC)

Hostage families urge US, other countries to press Israel to reach deal with Hamas (Times of Israel)

WATCH: 'Headed for destructive ambiguity': Fmr. peace negotiator reacts to Hamas-backed ceasefire deal (CNN)

US confirms holding up sale of heavy bombs it feared Israel would use in Rafah (Times of Israel)

Israeli, Hamas delegations arrive in Cairo amid mixed signals (Haaretz)

Sinister Hamas terms would let it keep most hostages, win the war, inflame the West Bank (Times of Israel)

IDF says Kerem Shalom Crossing reopened to Gaza aid, days after attack forced closure (Times of Israel)

US paused shipment of bombs to Israel amid concerns over potential use in Rafah incursion, US official says (CNN)

A high-stakes report looms over Biden on whether Israel violated international law (CNN)


Hamas has offered a ceasefire deal. Here’s why that won’t bring an immediate end to the war in Gaza (CNN)
When Hamas declared on Monday evening that it has “agreed” to a ceasefire deal, it caught many off guard. Israel was evidently not expecting it, and it was not even immediately clear what Hamas had agreed to.

Poll: Majority of Israelis support prioritizing hostage deal over Rafah operation (Times of Israel)
56 percent of Jewish Israelis would prefer an agreement over invading Hamas’s final remaining stronghold in Gaza, Israel Democracy Institute finds.

Hostage deal or Rafah operation: Where do Israeli citizen's priorities lie? - survey (Jerusalem Post)
Arab Israelis, with far more consensus than Jewish Israelis (88.5%), said that Israel’s priority should be reaching a deal to release the remaining hostages.


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