US paused Israel weapons shipment due to Rafah, US defense secretary says

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden decided to hold back delivery of high payload munitions to Israel because Washington believes a possible Israeli offensive in the Gaza city of Rafah could put civilians at risk, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday.

Austin added that the administration was also reviewing some “near-term security assistance shipments” to Israel.

Austin was the first senior Biden administration official to publicly explain a possible shift in U.S. policy on arming Israel. The U.S. is Israel’s biggest arms supplier.

Biden had pledged his complete support for Israel following Palestinian militant group Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on the country, and he sent Washington’s closest Middle East ally weaponry worth billions of dollars.

Austin stressed that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s defense remained “ironclad” and the decision on suspending the munitions shipment was not final.

Still, he said the U.S. prefers that “no major combat take place in Rafah” and that at a minimum any Israeli operation must safeguard civilian lives.

“We’ve been very clear… from the very beginning that Israel shouldn’t launch a major attack into Rafah without accounting for and protecting the civilians that are in that battlespace,” Austin told a Senate hearing.

“And again, as we have assessed the situation, we have paused one shipment of high payload munitions,” he told a Senate hearing. “We’ve not made a final determination on how to proceed with that shipment.”

Israel has threatened a major assault on Rafah to defeat thousands of Hamas fighters it says are there, but Western nations and the United Nations say a full-scale attack on the city would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack killed about 1,200 people with about 250 others abducted, of whom 133 are believed to remain in captivity in Gaza, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas has led to a seven-month-long military campaign that has so far killed 34,789 Palestinians, mostly civilians, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

Austin said that Israel had to be more precise and the type of weapons used in a heavily populated area mattered.

A “small-diameter bomb, which is a precision weapon, it’s very useful in a dense, built-up environment… but maybe not so much a 2,000-pound bomb that could create a lot of collateral damage,” Austin said.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters there were serious concerns about an Israeli operation in Rafah given the way Israel has acted in Gaza previously “and what the impact on civilian population has been.”

Miller said the U.S. was reviewing the status of other near-term arms shipments to Israel.


The conflict has left many of Gaza’s 2.3 million people on the brink of starvation and sparked U.S. protests calling for universities and Biden to withdraw support from Israel – including weapons. Democrats, including some lawmakers in his party, are also demanding Biden put more pressure on Israel.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said Washington had paused a shipment consisting of 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs. Austin did not detail the size or number of munitions involved.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was among the Republicans who rebuked the Biden administration over the decision.

“This is obscene. It is absurd. Give Israel what they need,” Graham told Austin, adding Washington should not second-guess how Israel fights Hamas militants bent on Israel’s destruction.

Republican Senator Deb Fischer, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged Biden to drop “his politically-motivated hold.”

“American support for Israel cannot be in doubt, especially now,” she said.

For its part, the Israeli military appeared on Wednesday to play down the arms shipment hold-up, saying the allies resolve any disagreements “behind closed doors”.

Speaking at a conference, chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari described coordination between Israel and the United States as reaching “a scope without precedent, I think, in history.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali, additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones and Cynthia Osterman)