The Biden administration has admitted to pausing a major shipment of bombs to Israel, in response to the country’s plan to invade Gaza’s southern city of Rafah.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress that the U.S. paused a munitions shipment last week to Israel, publicly confirming for the first time earlier reports by Axios and other outlets about the U.S. witholding arms.

“We are currently reviewing some near-term security assistance shipments in the context of unfolding events in Rafah,” the Pentagon chief said during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing. He added that a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah — where roughly 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have taken refuge — could influence how the U.S. provides security assistance to Israel going forward.

“We have been very clear from the very beginning that Israel shouldn’t launch a major attack on Rafah without accounting for and protecting those civilians that are hitting that battlespace,” Austin continued. “And again, as we have assessed the situation, we paused one shipment of high payload munitions.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Washington.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Washington.

Mark Schiefelbein via Associated Press

More than half of the bombs in the delayed munitions shipment consist of 2,000-pound bombs, while the remaining 1,700 are 500-pound explosives, a senior administration official told media outlets. The State Department is separately reviewing whether to approve the continued transfer of Joint Direct Attack Munition kits (JDAMs), which place precision guidance systems onto bombs.

“We are especially focused on the end-use of the 2,000-pound bombs and the impact they could have in dense urban settings as we have seen in other parts of Gaza,” a senior official told the outlets. “We have not made a final determination on how to proceed with this shipment.”

Axios said Wednesday that the bombs were part of a weapons shipment it first reported on earlier this week. At that time, the shipment was reported to have contained U.S.-made ammunition. HuffPost has not independently confirmed that the bombs Austin spoke of on Wednesday were part of the same shipment Axios reported on.

Austin told lawmakers that the shipments are not imminent transfers but future transfers, and are not sourced from the supplemental funding Congress just passed. But the administration’s choice to halt the shipment still upset Republicans like Sen. Lindsay Graham (S.C.), who accused the Biden administration of not supporting Israel enough.

“If we stop weapons necessary to destroy the enemies of the state of Israel at a time of great peril, we will pay a price,” Graham said on Wednesday. “This is obscene. It is absurd. Give Israel what they need to fight the war they can’t afford to lose. This is Hiroshima and Nagasaki on steroids.”

The Biden administration started reviewing future transfers of military aid in April, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began ramping up a planned ground invasion of Rafah. The U.S. has vocally been opposed to a Rafah invasion due to the city’s large civilian population, but until last week, had not taken firm steps to stop it.

That lack of action on Biden’s part has faced growing criticism, both domestically and internationally, from those who accuse Israel of trying to wipe out Palestinians from Gaza. Despite Israeli forces seizing the vital Rafah crossing on Tuesday, the White House avoided calling the military action a full-fledged invasion, describing it only as a limited operation. The administration also maintained this week that its support for Israel is “ironclad.”

Josh Paul, the State Department official who publicly resigned over the Biden administration’s increased weapons deliveries to Israel, told HuffPost that the pause last week in bomb shipments is “noteworthy, but it is not a moment to celebrate.”

“We have seen … that Israel has executed a campaign of systematic destruction conducted with willful disregard for international law, and today the bombs continue to rain down on the tents of Rafah, while the famine in the north expands,” Paul said.

Austin’s comments come as Congress prepares to receive a report from the Biden administration on whether countries that receive U.S. military aid — specifically Israel —are abiding by international and U.S. law, which prohibits the use of U.S. weapons to kill civilians and or block humanitarian aid. The State Department missed the report’s initial deadline of Wednesday, but reportedly plans to present its findings in less than a week.

Earlier this week, Israel dropped flyers onto eastern Rafah ordering residents to evacuate to either Khan Younis or Al-Mawasi — cities that humanitarians and journalists on the ground say do not have the infrastructure to handle a massive number of refugees. Many civilians in Rafah also don’t have the ability, or the energy, to once again pack up their tents and find shelter.

“Rather than a one-off pause of a shipment as a means of exerting momentary and overdue leverage, this needs to be the start of a sea-change in American policy towards the provision of security assistance to Israel,” Paul told HuffPost. “We must enforce our own laws on arms exports and grant military assistance. And we must ask whether our lethal military assistance to Israel brings security, or disincentivizes true road to peace.”


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