Middle East

Israel’s Rafah Operation Jeopardizes U.S. Arms Deliveries

Israel and the United States are alarmingly at odds over Israel’s current military operation in Rafah that the Israeli government correctly considers crucial to the success of its protracted air and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip.

The Biden administration, having registered its disapproval of it, has delayed the delivery of 3,500 bombs to Israel, causing friction in U.S.-Israeli relations.

Forty two years have elapsed since Israel’s relationship with the United States has been disrupted by a disagreement of this kind. In the summer of 1982, President Ronald Reagan stopped the delivery of weapons to Israel as it intensified its controversial invasion of Lebanon.

Four decades on, tensions have been on the rise following President Joe Biden’s announcement that he would not supply Israel with the offensive weapons it would require to invade Rafah.

Israel has launched a limited incursion into Rafah, where four Hamas battalions are holed up in a maze of tunnels, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reserving the right to expand the operation.

Israeli forces in eastern Rafah

The Institute for the Study of War, in its May 10 newsletter, says that Israeli forces have killed dozens of Palestinian fighters, located tunnel shafts, and seized weapons since entering eastern Rafah on May 7. Hamas, in turn, has conducted attacks against Israeli troops in a bid to slow Israel’s advance. “The sophisticated nature of these attacks required planning, coordination, and organization, further underscoring that the Hamas battalions in Rafah are cohesive fighting units that can mount a deliberate defence against Israeli clearing operations in the southern Gaza Strip.”

At the moment, the United States has not ascertained that Israel is carrying out a fullscale invasion of Rafah, an event that would  presumably lead him to cut off the flow of yet more arms shipments to Israel. To White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, Israel’s thrust into Rafah “appears to be localized” and is focused on controlling the border crossing into Gaza, where four Israeli soldiers were recently killed by a Hamas rocket barrage.

An Israeli tank in Gaza

The Biden administration fears that a fullfledged Israeli invasion will scuttle Israeli hostage/Palestinian prisoner negotiations and endanger the lives of some one million displaced Palestinian civilians sheltering in Rafah.

Israel has promised to safeguard their lives by moving them to special zones north of Rafah. But Israel’s priority is to eradicate Hamas’ military capabilities and dethrone it as Gaza’s governing authority.

Having been traumatized by the October 7 massacre perpetrated by Hamas, Israel is determined to smash it. The vast majority of Israelis agree with Netanyahu’s plan, though many are of the opinion that he should acknowledge personal responsibility for the horrendous security failure on October 7 and resign.

As Kirby said on May 9, the United States shares Israel’s belief that Hamas must be eradicated. Israel has a “duty” and a “responsibility” to destroy Hamas, Biden and his officials have been saying for the past seven months.

But with Palestinian civilian deaths having reached new heights and with some Democratic voters voicing concern or opposition to Israel’s aggressive military methods, the Biden administration has stepped up criticism of Israel. It no longer supports massive Israeli campaigns in Gaza and is apparently prepared to cut off the delivery of certain offensive weapons to Israel.

Joe Biden

The U.S. State Department, in a report released on May 10, believes that Israel has probably violated international law by having failed to protect civilians in Gaza. However, the State Department found no specific instances to justify the withholding of military assistance.

Not surprisingly, Netanyahu has reacted defiantly to the twists and turns of U.S. policy. “If we need to stand alone, we will stand alone,” he said a couple of days ago. “I have said that, if necessary, we will fight with our fingernails. But we have much more than fingernails, and with that same strength of spirit … together we will win.”

Benjamin Netanyahu

The Biden administration has made to clear that Israel should stay out of Rafah. On May 9, Kirby claimed that an Israeli invasion of Rafah, Hamas’ last urban bastion in Gaza, will not lead to its “sustainable and enduring defeat.” In his view, there are “better ways go after what is left of Hamas in Rafah than a major ground operation.”

U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has urged Israel to carry out “more precise” operations, adding that the use of 2,000-pound bombs in densely populated Gaza “could create a lot of collateral damage.”

He and other U.S. officials have advised Israel to mount targeted raids instead of resorting to air power and armor to crush Hamas.

Israel disagrees with the Americans’ assessment, and in the meantime, the Biden administration is withholding the delivery of heavy-duty bombs.

Yesterday, 26 Democrats in the House of Representatives expressed reservations about Biden’s zig-zag policy. “We are deeply concerned about the message the administration is sending to Hamas and other Iranian-backed terrorist proxies by withholding weapons shipments to Israel,” they wrote in a letter to Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser.

Their point is well taken.

Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, Israel’s main enemies, will surely be emboldened by the curtailment of weapons to Israel.

In the meantime, Gregory Meeks, a Democrat in the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee who has expressed concerns about the Palestinian civilian death toll in Gaza, is holding up an $18 billion Israeli arms package that includes F-15 fighter jets. Meeks wants to know how Israel will deploy these aircraft, which are scheduled to arrive in the next few years.

Despite these delays, the United States apparently intends to honor old arms contracts with Israel. This equipment runs the gamut from tanks shells and mortars to armored tactical vehicles and joint direct attack munitions, which convert dumb bombs into precision bombs, according to Senator Jim Risch, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

By Kirby’s reckoning, Israel is “still getting the vast, vast majority of (arms) it needs to defend” itself.

From October 7 until December 29, the United States dispatched tons of weapons to Israel, including 52,229 M795 155-millimeter artillery shells, 30,000 M4 propelling charges for howitzers, 4,792 M107 155-mm artillery shells, and 13,981 M830A1 120-mm tank rounds.

The United States has also replenished Israel’s arsenal of Iron Dome missiles.

But Israel’s current offensive in Rafah could well jeopardize the unimpeded transfer of U.S. weapons and munitions to Israel, a development that would mark a very significant turning point in Israeli-U.S. relations.

Israeli troops in Rafah