US pauses weapons shipment to Israel: Is it a real shift in policy?

The US has offered unconditional military aid to Israel throughout the war in Gaza.

Several children stand in front of a collapsed concrete building, its structural supports sprawled across the ground.

Palestinians walk around the rubble of buildings destroyed after an Israeli attack on the As Salam neighborhood in Rafah, Gaza, on May 6, 2024. Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Israel’s operation in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza that houses more than a million displaced Palestinians, may have finally forced the Biden administration to do something it has been hesitant to do: pause a weapons shipment to Israel.

The administration has been reluctant to restrict military aid to Israel in any way despite federal law requiring that it do so when members of a foreign military to which the US is providing aid commit gross human rights violations — something international organizations and individual nations have accused Israel of. But this week, US officials announced that they paused a shipment of thousands of bombs to Israel — the first known instance of the US withholding military aid since the start of the war.

“We’re going to continue to do what’s necessary to ensure that Israel has the means to defend itself, but that said, we are currently reviewing some near-term security assistance shipments in the context of unfolding events in Rafah,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The decision comes as the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 34,000 and full-fledged famine has broken out in the north, with the rest of Gaza at famine risk in the coming months. A ceasefire agreement appeared within reach this week when Hamas announced that it had accepted a draft proposal negotiated by Egyptian and Qatari mediators that involved a release of all Israeli hostages taken during Hamas’s October 7 raid on Israel. Israel, however, refused that deal, saying the gaps in the negotiations remain wide.

The Biden administration’s decision to pause the bomb shipment is a big step.

“This action is welcome,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT), who has advocated against sending weapons to Israel for anything but defensive purposes, told Vox. “That sends a message I hope the Netanyahu government hears loud and clear.”

At the same time, the decision to pause a weapons shipment is so far only a one-time occurrence. However, if the US were to continue to withhold weapons from Israel, that could signal an actual shift in the US policy of offering unconditional support to Israel.

Some foreign affairs experts say existing US laws meant to safeguard human rights, including what is known as the “Leahy law” and the Foreign Assistance Act, should have long ago restricted the flow of military assistance to Israel, even predating the war in Gaza.

With Israel in mind, President Joe Biden also signed a new memorandum in February that requires countries receiving US security assistance to provide “credible and reliable written assurances” that they will use American military assistance in accordance with international law. Under that memorandum, the US government is expected to issue a formal decision as soon as this week as to whether Israel has committed human rights abuses through its airstrikes on Gaza and by curbing the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Reports have varied on what that decision may be. Depending on the outcome, that could lead to further restrictions on US military aid to Israel.

“Our weapons cannot be used in ways that violate international law or where the government is interfering with the ability of the US to provide humanitarian aid,” Welch said. “So if there’s a finding that there’s a violation, I would argue that means we’ve got to stop delivering those weapons.”

But despite a longstanding record of human rights abuses, Israel remains the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid, and Biden has been clear in his intent to maintain the US’s “special relationship” with Israel that goes back decades.

What we know about the bomb shipment

The shipment reportedly included 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs. The administration is also reportedly considering halting an upcoming shipment of 6,500 munitions that convert unguided bombs (“dumb bombs”) into precision-guided bombs.

The held shipment could still be released, depending on what Israel does next. US officials have expressed particular concern about how the 2,000-pound bombs could be used to inflict mass destruction in a dense urban area such as Rafah, as they already have in other parts of Gaza.

Biden had personally urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to undertake the operation in Rafah because of its vast refugee population, and because the city provides the only route for getting humanitarian aid into Gaza. Netanyahu appears to be proceeding anyway, further straining the two men’s already icy relationship. Overall, Biden has rarely directly criticized Israel, with his expression of outrage following the killings of humanitarian workers for World Central Kitchen being one of the few occasions on which he has done so publicly. (Biden has reportedly had some strong criticisms of Netanyahu in private.)

Israel has seized the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, meaning that the Israeli military now controls the flow of humanitarian aid at a time when hospitals in southern Gaza are days away from running out of fuel. About 50,000 Palestinians have evacuated from Rafah ahead of Israel’s operation there, but many more remain and there is no plan to ensure their safety.

Why withholding weapons from Israel matters

The decision to pause a weapons shipment is only a temporary administrative decision that isn’t tied to any law. But it is an indication that the US is attempting to exert its leverage over Israel — and perhaps enforce its laws protecting human rights — in a way it has not before.

The US was already providing Israel with $4 billion annually through 2028 before Congress approved another $14.1 billion in supplemental aid last month. Seven months into the war in Gaza, Israel is increasingly reliant on that aid, having run down its own munitions stores already.

Foreign military transfers like those sent to Israel go through numerous reviews and approval processes, involving the State Department, Pentagon, and Congress. They are also governed by a set of laws, including the Leahy law. First approved by Congress in 1997, that law’s purpose is to prevent the US from being implicated in serious crimes committed by foreign security forces that it supports, by cutting off aid to a specific unit if the US has credible information that the unit committed a gross violation of human rights. Such violations generally include torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, or rape, but can also be interpreted more broadly.

No security forces, not even American ones, are entirely immune to committing such violations. Aid can be later reinstated if the State Department determines that the country is taking effective steps to bring responsible units to justice.

Some former administration officials and congressional staff previously told Vox that the law has never had teeth against Israel, despite what human rights experts, both in and outside of the US government, have identified as substantive evidence that Israel has committed human rights violations both before and during the current war in Gaza.

In one 2022 case, for example, a UN investigation found that Israeli forces killed Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist who worked for Al Jazeera, while she was covering a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank and was wearing a blue vest that read “Press.” Immediately following her killing, Israeli officials argued that she had been “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians” and may have been killed by stray Palestinian fire, something that those on the scene rebutted. Israel later admitted that she was likely killed by Israeli fire, but ruled her death accidental and never charged the soldiers involved.

Some Senate Democrats, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), have recently asked the Department of Defense to address concerns that the Leahy law is not being consistently applied to Israel.

“Not a single incident resulted in the denial of assistance to any unit of the IDF,” the senators wrote in a letter. “In order for the United States to protect our own national security interests and maintain credibility as a global leader of human rights, we must apply the law equally.”

The weapons shipment pause could be a first step in ensuring that Leahy is equitably applied.


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *