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U.S. pauses Israel arms shipment over Rafah assault fears as Biden pushes for a cease-fire

An Israeli official told NBC News there is deep frustration in the government over the decision, which comes as the U.S. presses for a deal to head off a large-scale assault on the Gaza city where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering.
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The United States halted a large shipment of offensive weapons to Israel last week in a sign of its growing concern over a possible military offensive on Rafah, senior administration officials told NBC News.

The decision comes as President Joe Biden pushes for Israel and Hamas to compromise and reach a cease-fire deal that would head off a large-scale assault on the city in southern Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering in dire conditions.

The Israeli military said it had reopened a key border crossing Wednesday following pressure from Washington, a day after its ground forces seized control of the Gaza side of another crossing — a move that fueled fears aid supplies would be delayed coming into the enclave, but which U.S. officials said was a limited operation and not the full-scale assault Biden has warned against.

The Israeli military appeared to play down the dispute, with a spokesman saying Wednesday that the two allies would resolve any disagreements "behind closed doors."

But an Israeli official told NBC News there is deep frustration in the Israeli government over the decision. The official added that tensions had already been running high after Israel felt the U.S. allowed it to be blindsided by Hamas’ announcement this week that it was accepting a version of a cease-fire proposal.

People and first responders carry away a rescued victim from the site of a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
People and first responders carry away a rescued victim from a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah on Tuesday. AFP - Getty Images

Bombs on hold

The White House halted the shipment of weaponry last week because of concern that it would be used in Rafah, a senior administration official said Tuesday night. The shipment included 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs, the official said.

The Biden administration had been "especially focused" on ending Israel's use of 2,000-pound bombs in its offensive in Gaza, the official said, given the impact they have on dense urban areas.

Israel already has a large arsenal, making the halt unlikely to stop an offensive.  

The U.S. began reviewing future transfers of military assistance to Israel in April, as the government appeared to move closer to a Rafah operation despite the urging of Biden, other world leaders and humanitarian officials, the official said.

No final decision had been made on whether to proceed with the weapons delivery at a later date, the official said, adding that the State Department is separately considering whether to approve future weapons transfers, including Joint Direct Attack Munition kits, which place precision guidance systems onto bombs.

The Israeli army said it took "operational control" of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on May 7 and that troops were scanning the area.
A child peers over the destruction as Israel continued its bombardment of Rafah this week even as negotiators gather in Egypt to try to reach a deal.AFP via Getty Images

Pressure mounts on Netanyahu

While the U.S. officials stressed that the pause does not indicate a larger shift in policy about providing weapons to Israel, it is a rare step that hints at the growing friction between the U.S. and its ally over the war.

CIA Director William Burns met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a trip to the country on Wednesday to consult with officials there on the latest round of cease-fire talks in Cairo, an Israeli official said.

Hamas on Monday said it had accepted the terms of a proposal brokered by Egypt and Qatar, but Israel said it was “far from” meeting its demands. Negotiators have been trying to resolve disagreements over phasing, among other differences over a truce deal that would secure the release of hostages, according to another senior administration official.

“It’s positive that they’re still meeting, but it’s too soon to be optimistic,” the official said. "We need them to close their differences, but the differences are minor."

The decision to pause last week's arms delivery, which was first reported by Axios, came to light as the Biden administration appeared set to miss a Wednesday deadline to submit a highly anticipated report to Congress on whether Israel is using U.S. weapons in accordance with international law.

Multiple administration officials told NBC News the Biden administration would miss the deadline, with State Department spokesperson Matt Miller confirming to reporters Tuesday afternoon that a delay was possible.

“We are trying very hard to meet that deadline,” he said. “It’s possible it slips just a little bit, but we’re still at this point trying to get it done by tomorrow.”

The report is mandated under a National Security Memo signed by Biden in February requiring the secretary of state or the defense secretary to assess whether recipients of U.S. military assistance involved in active conflict are using those weapons in line with international law.

Hostage protesters demonstrate on a highway in Tel Aviv
Families of hostages and other protesters blocked a highway in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, stepping up their campaign for Netanyahu to agree to a deal. Oded Balilty / AP

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

As of early Wednesday, there was no indication whether the report would be forthcoming.

Facing mounting criticism at home and abroad, Biden has increasingly clashed with Netanyahu over his military's conduct in Gaza and his insistence on an operation in Rafah that Israel says is necessary to eliminate Hamas but which aid groups fear would be catastrophic for civilians in southern Gaza.

"The U.S. position has been that Israel should not launch a major ground operation in Rafah, where more than a million people are sheltering with nowhere else to go," said the senior administration official, explaining the U.S. decision to pause the weapons shipment.

The Israeli military's ground and air operation in eastern Rafah came after it warned roughly 100,000 people to evacuate the area, once deemed a safe zone for Palestinians fleeing Israel's assault elsewhere in the enclave.

Biden had urged the reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing, while the United Nations said its closure and seizure of the Rafah crossing had “choked off” aid to the enclave, with food, fuel and other supplies dwindling.

Israeli strikes in southern Gaza
Crowds of civilians lined the streets of Rafah on Tuesday as many rushed to flee parts of the city following the IDF's evacuation order.AFP - Getty Images

The Israel Defense Forces said troops were acting on intelligence indicating the Rafah crossing was being used for “terrorist purposes” after alleging 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 crossing had reopened Wednesday, but the Palestinian Crossing Authority said it remained closed to aid, with spokesman Hisham Adwan denying Israel's claim.

Juliette Touma, director of communications for the UNRWA, the U.N. agency helping Palestinian refugees, said that as of midday local time (5 a.m. ET), no aid had entered and that the U.N. agency had no choice but to ration fuel.

The U.S. 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 are continuing the precise counterterrorism operation” in “specific areas of eastern Rafah” against Hamas.

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

More than 130 hostages remain held in Gaza, with at least a quarter of them believed to be dead, according to Israeli officials.