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U.S. pauses Israel weapons shipment over Rafah assault concerns

The United States halted a major shipment of offensive weapons to Israel last week, a sign of its growing concern about a possible military offensive on Rafah, senior administration officials told NBC News.

The move comes as President Joe Biden pushes Israel and Hamas to compromise and reach a ceasefire deal that would avert a full-scale attack on the southern Gaza city, where more of a million Palestinians are taking refuge in disastrous conditions.

Israel’s military said it reopened a key border crossing on Wednesday following pressure from Washington and a day after its ground forces took control of the Gaza side of another crossing – a move that fueled fears about the arrival of humanitarian aid in the enclave, but which the United States has announced. Officials said it was a limited operation and not the full-scale assault that Biden warned of.

The Israeli military appeared to downplay the dispute, with a spokesperson saying Wednesday that the two allies resolved any disagreements “behind closed doors.”

But an Israeli official told NBC News that there was deep frustration within the Israeli government over the decision. The official added that tensions were already high after Israel felt the United States had left it blindsided by Hamas’ announcement earlier this week that it was accepting a version of a ceasefire proposal. -fire.

People and first responders carry a victim rescued from a building that was hit by Israeli bombing in Rafah on Tuesday. AFP-Getty Images

Bombs waiting

The White House halted shipments of weapons last week over concerns they could be used in Rafah, a senior administration official said Tuesday evening. The shipment included 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs, the official said.

The Biden administration has been “particularly focused” on ending Israel’s use of 2,000-pound bombs in its Gaza offensive, the official said, given their impact on dense urban areas.

Israel already has a large arsenal, making stopping an offensive unlikely.

The United States began reviewing future military assistance transfers to Israel in April, as the government appeared to move closer to an operation in Rafah despite pressure from Biden, other world leaders and humanitarian officials, a declared the manager.

No final decision has been made on whether to proceed with the arms delivery at a later date, the official said, adding that the State Department was separately considering approving future arms transfers, including Joint Direct Attack Munitions kits, which place precision guidance systems. on bombs.

A child gazes at the destruction as Israel continues its bombing of Rafah this week, even as negotiators meet in Egypt to try to reach a deal.AFP via Getty Images

Pressure mounts on Netanyahu

Although U.S. officials have stressed that the pause does not indicate a broader change in the policy of supplying arms to Israel, it is a rare move that hints at growing frictions between the United States and their ally regarding the war.

CIA Director William Burns met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday during a trip to the country to speak with officials about the latest round of ceasefire negotiations in Cairo, said an Israeli official.

Hamas said Monday it had accepted the terms of a proposal negotiated by Egypt and Qatar, but Israel said it was “far” from meeting its demands. Negotiators tried to resolve disagreements over timing, including over a truce agreement that would guarantee the release of the hostages, according to another senior administration official.

“It is positive that they are still meeting, but it is too early to be optimistic,” the official said. “We need them to resolve their differences, but the differences are minor.”

The decision to suspend arms deliveries last week, which was first reported by Axios, emerged as the Biden administration appeared poised to miss a Wednesday deadline to submit a highly anticipated report to Congress on whether Israel is using American weapons in accordance with international agreements. law.

Multiple administration officials told NBC News that the Biden administration would not meet the deadline, with State Department spokesperson Matt Miller confirming to reporters Tuesday afternoon that a delay was possible.

“We are doing our best to meet this deadline,” he said. “It might slide a little bit, but we’re still trying to get it done by tomorrow.”

The report is mandated under a national security memo signed by Biden in February that requires the secretary of state or secretary of defense to evaluate whether recipients of U.S. military assistance involved in an active conflict are using these weapons in accordance with international law.

The families of the hostages and other protesters blocked a highway in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, intensifying their campaign for Netanyahu to accept a deal. Oded Balilty / AP

If it is determined that these countries are not acting in accordance with international law, the Biden administration has 45 days to recommend appropriate next steps to “remedy the situation,” including suspending any further transfer of assistance American military.

As of Wednesday morning, there was no indication whether the report would be available.

Facing growing criticism at home and abroad, Biden has increasingly clashed with Netanyahu over his army’s conduct in Gaza and his insistence on an operation in Rafah that Israel says is necessary to eliminate the Hamas but which humanitarian groups fear will be catastrophic for civilians in southern Gaza.

“The U.S. position is that Israel should not launch a major ground operation in Rafah, where more than a million people are sheltering with nowhere to go,” the senior administration official said, explaining the U.S. decision to suspend the shipment of arms.

The Israeli army’s ground and air operation in eastern Rafah came after warning about 100,000 people to evacuate the area, once considered a safe zone for Palestinians fleeing the Israeli assault elsewhere in the enclave.

Biden had called for the reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing, while the United Nations said the closure and seizure of the Rafah crossing had “choked” aid to the enclave, with a decline in food, fuel and other supplies.

Crowds of civilians filled the streets of Rafah on Tuesday as many rushed to flee parts of the city following the IDF evacuation order.AFP-Getty Images

The Israeli military said its troops were acting on intelligence that the Rafah crossing was being used for “terrorist purposes” after claiming an area near the site was used to launch a mortar attack that killed four Israeli soldiers near the Kerem Shalom border crossing over the weekend. .

Israeli authorities said the Kerem Shalom crossing had reopened on Wednesday, but the Palestinian Authority at the crossing said it remained closed to aid entry, with spokesman Hisham Adwan denying claims. Israel.

Juliette Touma, UNRWA’s communications director, said that as of midday local time (5 a.m. ET), no aid had come in and the U.N. agency had no choice but to ration fuel.

The United States also expects Israel to reopen the Rafah crossing, a senior official said.

But that crossing remained closed Wednesday and the IDF said its “ground troops were continuing the specific counterterrorism operation” in “specific areas of eastern Rafah” against Hamas.

More than 34,800 people have been killed in Gaza during seven months of war, according to local health authorities. Israel launched its offensive in the enclave following Hamas attacks on October 7, in which some 1,200 people were killed and around 250 others taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.

More than 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, at least a quarter of whom are believed to have died, according to Israeli authorities.

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