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US will stop sending bombs to Israel if it launches Rafah invasion, Biden says

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President Joe Biden said Wednesday he would stop U.S. arms shipments to Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orders a major invasion of the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The move comes after Mr. Biden and members of his administration spent months trying to persuade Israel to do more to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza, where about 35,000 people have been killed since attacks by Hamas on October 7 started the war.

Israel appears to be ignoring any US pressure, insisting it must use maximum force to eliminate Hamas, while Mr Biden faces domestic fury from his critics who accuse him of supporting what they call Israeli “genocide” in Gaza.

So Mr. Biden is now using the most powerful leverage he has by threatening to stop the supply of American weapons.

“I made it clear that if they went to Rafah – they haven’t yet – if they went to Rafah, I would not provide them with the weapons that were used historically to deal with Rafah, to take care of cities,” Mr. Biden told CNN.

The move could be a historic moment in the war in Gaza and in the long-standing security relationship between America and Israel, which benefits from about $3.8 billion in annual military funding, and much more is on the way.

It also marks Mr Biden’s most public break with Mr Netanyahu, although the president has stressed that other aspects of US military support for Israel would continue, such as the replenishment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel announced this week that it was carrying out a limited military operation to take control of the Rafah border crossing on the Gaza side, much to the anger of the international humanitarian community, which says it would block aid deliveries aimed at reduce the risk of famine.

Mr. Biden is facing growing criticism for his support for Israel from many in the United States, including members of his own Democratic Party, the Arab-American community and students, in what constitutes a threat to his candidacy for re-election in November.

He also said that American weapons had killed civilians in Gaza.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza because of these bombs and other ways they attack population centers,” Mr. Biden said, referring to the 2,000-pound bombs the United States suspended shipments last week.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that sending “high-payload munitions” to Israel had been delayed, demanding it do more to protect civilians as it steps up combat operations around Rafah.

Washington last month passed a foreign aid package allocating about $26 billion to Israel.

Mr BIden also spoke about nationwide campus protests against the war in Gaza, with students calling on their universities to disengage from Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.

“There is a legitimate right to free speech and protest,” Mr. Biden said.

“As always, you have the right to do this.”

But he reiterated his administration’s warning that anti-Semitism and hate speech should not be allowed on campuses.

Civilians ordered to flee eastern Rafah as Israel begins invasion – in pictures

Updated: May 9, 2024, 3:36 a.m.