U.S. Under New Pressure to Halt Arms Transfers to Israel

June 2024
By Carol Giacomo

U.S. President Joe Biden came under fresh pressure to halt the transfer of weapons to Israel after the state launched a deadly bombardment of Rafah that killed at least 45 people.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre (L) and White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby field questions from reporters on May 28 about an Israeli airstrike on Rafah over the weekend that killed Hamas operatives and dozens of civilians. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On May 28, CNN reported that its analysis of videos and a review by explosive experts showed that U.S.-made munitions were used in the Rafah attack, which occurred May 26, two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to “immediately” halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city.

Earlier in the month, Biden threatened to suspend the delivery of some U.S.-made offensive weapons if Israeli forces entered population centers in Rafah, a refuge for civilians fleeing the fighting that is also viewed as a Hamas stronghold. U.S. laws and a U.S. presidential directive impose requirements on presidents to curb U.S. weapons transfers to countries that violate international humanitarian law or fail to avoid harming civilians.

But even after Israeli strikes killed what the Gazan Health Ministry said were dozens of people sheltering in tent camps and wounded 249 more, the White House suggested that the military offensive still had not crossed a redline that would force significant changes in U.S. support for Israel.

On May 28, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that what the Biden administration does not want to see in Rafah is a “major ground operation” in which “thousands and thousands of troops [are] moving in a maneuvered, concentrated, coordinated way against a variety of targets on the ground.”

He said that type of operation was not happening, and “I have no policy changes to speak of,” although he called the deaths in Rafah “devastating.”

For months, the Biden administration has straddled the sensitive question of whether Israel has violated U.S. and international humanitarian law as it sought to punish Hamas for the extremist group’s brutal Oct. 7 attack that killed more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals.

One particular deadly attack occurred on April 1 when seven employees of World Central Kitchen, an aid group, were killed by Israeli airstrikes. The Israeli military took responsibility for the catastrophe, The New York Times reported on April 8, and said it presumed some of World Central Kitchen’s vehicles were carrying militants, raising new questions about Israel’s ability to identify and protect civilians.

On May 10, the Biden administration announced the results of its internal review of Israel’s use of U.S.-provided weapons in the war in Gaza, as called for in National Security Memorandum-20. (See ACT, March 2024.)

The report said that “it is reasonable to assess” that U.S. weapons have been used in violation of humanitarian law and that Israel has acted in ways that blocked U.S. humanitarian assistance. But it does not make a specific enough finding to trigger sanctions against Israel.

The report also found that the U.S. intelligence community “assesses that Israel could do more to avoid civilian harm.”

U.S. law, regulation, and the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy require the United States to withhold military assistance when U.S. weapons are used in contravention of international humanitarian law.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who authored a proposed legislative amendment that prompted the drafting of the national security memorandum, said the report “ducks the ultimate questions that [it] was designed to determine,” according to AI Monitor.

The issue has divided the State Department, where some officials urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to conclude that Israel has violated the terms of the memorandum and others pressed him to certify that it did not.

In early May, the Biden administration paused the delivery of a shipment of 3,500 500- and 2,000-pound bombs to Israel, Axios reported May 5, but other weapons continue to flow.

The United States provides more weapons to Israel than any other country, including $80 billion last year. Since Oct. 7, these transfers have included bombs, artillery shells, precision guidance kits, guided missiles, drones, and ammunition.

Israel’s Rafah operation has spawned international outrage and a demand for an end to the fighting, including from leaders in the European Union, the United Nations, Egypt, and China. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has requested arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister and defense minister, and the Biden administration has expressed concern about the lack of a clear Israeli plan for postwar Gaza.