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U.S. signs off on more bombs, warplanes for Israel

The Biden administration in recent days quietly authorized the transfer of billions of dollars in bombs and fighter jets to Israel despite Washington’s concerns about an anticipated military offensive in southern Gaza that could threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians.

The new arms packages include more than 1,800 MK84 2,000-pound bombs and 500 MK82 500-pound bombs, according to Pentagon and State Department officials familiar with the matter. The 2,000-pound bombs have been linked to previous mass-casualty events throughout Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. These officials, like some others, spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because recent authorizations have not been disclosed publicly.

The development underscores that while rifts have emerged between the United States and Israel over the war’s conduct, the Biden administration views weapons transfers as off-limits when considering how to influence the actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We have continued to support Israel’s right to defend itself,” said a White House official. “Conditioning aid has not been our policy.”

Some Democrats, including allies of President Biden, say the U.S. government has a responsibility to withhold weapons in the absence of an Israeli commitment to limit civilian casualties during a planned operation in Rafah, a final Hamas stronghold, and ease restrictions on humanitarian aid into the enclave, which is on the brink of famine.

“The Biden administration needs to use their leverage effectively and, in my view, they should receive these basic commitments before greenlighting more bombs for Gaza,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in an interview. “We need to back up what we say with what we do.”

The Israeli government declined to comment on the authorizations.

Four Hamas battalions remain in Rafah, say U.S. and Israeli officials. More than 1.2 million Palestinians have sought shelter there after being forced from their homes during Israel’s extensive bombing campaign over the past five months. Biden suggested that a scorched-earth invasion of the city along Gaza’s border with Egypt would cross a “red line” for him.

Biden requested that Netanyahu send a team of security officials to Washington this week to listen to U.S. proposals for limiting the bloodshed. Netanyahu canceled the visit after the United States refused to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for a temporary cease-fire in Gaza and the release of hostages, but which did not condemn Hamas.

Israeli officials have not allayed U.S. concerns about the impending operation in Rafah, but they agreed to reschedule the meeting in Washington, the White House said.

The increasingly public spat has not dissuaded Biden from rushing weapons and military equipment into the conflict. Last week, the State Department authorized the transfer of 25 F-35A fighter jets and engines worth roughly $2.5 billion, U.S. officials said. The case was approved by Congress in 2008, so the department was not required to provide a new notification to lawmakers.

The MK84 and MK82 bombs authorized this week for transfer also were approved by Congress years ago but had not yet been fulfilled.

Washington’s marginalization on the world stage over its support for Israel has rankled some Democrats in Congress, some of whom have called for more transparency in arms transfers and raised questions about whether the authorization of older unfilled cases is an effort to avoid new notifications to Congress, which could face scrutiny.

When asked about the transfers, a State Department official said that “fulfilling an authorization from one notification to Congress can result in dozens of individual Foreign Military Sales cases across the decades-long life-cycle of the congressional notification.”

“As a matter of practicality, major procurements, like Israel’s F-35 program for example, are often broken out into several cases over many years,” the official added.

The 2,000-pound bombs, capable of leveling city blocks and leaving craters in the earth 40 feet across and larger, are almost never used anymore by Western militaries in densely populated locations due to the risk of civilian casualties.

Israel has used them extensively in Gaza, according to several reports, most notably in the bombing of Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp Oct. 31. U.N. officials decried the strike, which killed more than 100 people, as a “disproportionate attack that could amount to war crimes.” Israel defended the bombing, saying it resulted in the death of a Hamas leader.

Israeli officials deny that their military campaign has been indiscriminate and say civilian casualties are the fault of Hamas for embedding its fighters among the population in Gaza.

Biden’s decision to continue the flow of weapons to Israel has been strongly supported by powerful pro-Israel interest groups in Washington, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is spending tens of millions of dollars this election cycle to unseat Democrats it views as insufficiently pro-Israel.

AIPAC, alongside congressional Republicans and several Democrats, oppose any conditions on U.S. military assistance to Israel. “The U.S. can protect civilians, on both sides of the conflict, by continuing to ensure Israel receives as much U.S. assistance as is needed, as expeditiously as possible, to keep its stockpiles full of lifesaving munitions,” Reps. August Pfluger (R-Tex.) and Don Davis (D-N.C.), and Michael Makovsky, president of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, wrote in a recent column. “Doing so is also morally right and in the U.S. interest.”

Biden’s recurring approvals of weapons transfers are an “abrogation of moral responsibility, and an assault on the rule of law as we know it, at both the domestic and international levels,” said Josh Paul, a former State Department official involved in arms transfers who resigned in protest of Biden’s Gaza policy.

“This is a policymaking process that is fundamentally broken, and which makes everyone from policymaking officials to defense manufacturers to the U.S. taxpayer complicit in Israel’s war crimes,” he said.

The Post’s reporting on the new weapons authorizations follows a visit to Washington by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant this week in which he requested that the Biden administration expedite a range of weaponry.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that Israeli officials have been asking for weapons they consider important “in pretty much every meeting” he has been in with them.

Israel has “not received everything they’ve asked for,” Brown said. The United States has withheld some, he said, either due to capacity limits or because U.S. officials were not willing at the time. Brown did not identify the weapons.

Hours later, the Pentagon clarified Brown’s remarks, highlighting the issue’s sensitivity. Navy Capt. Jereal Dorsey, a spokesman for the general, said there has been no change in policy and that the United States assesses its stockpiles as it provides aid to partners. “The United States continues to provide security assistance to our ally Israel as they defend themselves from Hamas,” Dorsey said.

Advocates of the policy inside the administration say behind-the-scenes discussions with the Israelis have succeeded in delaying the country’s Rafah operation, which they now don’t expect to happen until May. But at least part of that delay is due to Israel’s military operations in Khan Younis taking longer than anticipated.

More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, since the war began in response to the Oct. 7 cross-border attack in which Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in Israel and took at least 250 hostage.

Any increase in fighting in Rafah, a key transit point for humanitarian aid, risks exacerbating conditions across the enclave that the United Nations and aid groups say is suffering from chronic shortages of food, water and medicine. A massive influx of aid trucks is required to remedy the situation, but U.S. officials say Israel has imposed onerous restrictions on deliveries, which are deeply unpopular inside Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government.

The Biden administration does not see that its words and actions are in conflict with respect to weapons transfers, Van Hollen said.

“They do not see the contradiction between sending more bombs to the Netanyahu government even as it is ignoring their demands with respect to Rafah and getting more humanitarian assistance to starving people,” he said. “If this is a partnership it needs to be a two-way street.”

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified Michael Makovsky as a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank. He is the president of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. The article has been corrected.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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