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Biden says US will stop some weapons shipments to Israel if it invades Rafah

US president draws public red line against Israel and says civilians have been killed by US-supplied bombs
US President Joe Biden speaks in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, on 8 May 2024 (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday he would suspend offensive weapons transfers to Israel if it launches a full-scale invasion of Rafah in Gaza.

"I made it clear that if they go into Rafah…I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities - that deal with that problem," Biden said in an interview with CNN's Erin Burnett, set to air at 7pm EST on Wednesday.

Biden’s unprecedented remarks are the most powerful to date, saying that he is ready to leverage billions of dollars in US weapons transfers to Israel to shape the conduct of its war on Gaza.

Biden also publicly acknowledged that US weapons systems have killed civilians in Gaza, saying, "It's just wrong," to continue supplying those weapons systems, according to a preview of the interview published by CNN.

"Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centres," Biden said.

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"We're going to continue to make sure Israel is secure in terms of Iron Dome and their ability to respond to attacks that came out of the Middle East recently,” he added.

Biden’s comments mark a historic public rebuke of Israel by a sitting US president, and cap months of simmering tensions between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“But it’s, it’s just wrong. We’re not going to – we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells,” he said.

Israel’s offensive on Gaza has caused more than 34,900 Palestinian deaths, mainly women and children, according to Palestinian health officials.

The death toll has sparked domestic outrage against Biden among progressives and Arab Americans ahead of the 2024 US presidential elections.

Bomb shipment delayed

Israel has refused to agree to a ceasefire proposal introduced by Qatar and Egypt that Hamas said on Monday it had agreed to.

On Monday, Israel began an offensive against Rafah, the southern Gaza border town where around 1.5 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering. Israeli troops have been pummelling Rafah and seized control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that the Biden administration decided to delay the shipment of thousand-pound bombs to Israel out of concern about its plans to attack Rafah.

The same day, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the White House was reviewing further arms packages to Israel over concerns with the Rafah offensive.

But Biden’s statement to CNN goes well beyond a delay and any potential review. The US president issued a public red line, tangibly linked to offensive weapons, against America's closest Middle East ally. 

Biden appeared to say that Israel's current assault on Rafah was not a full-scale attack of the type that would trigger his red line on arms shipments, saying, “They haven’t gone into the population centres. What they did is right on the border.”

But he expressed frustration with Israel’s attack, noting that it has caused deep issues with Egypt.

“It’s causing problems with, right now, in terms of – with Egypt, which I’ve worked very hard to make sure we have a relationship and help,” Biden told CNN.

"I've made it clear to Bibi and the war cabinet: they’re not going to get our support, if in fact they go on these population centres,” he said.

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