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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Mohamad Bazzi

Biden wants progressives to believe he’s reining in Israel. He isn’t

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu on stage in front of Israeli and American flags
‘A day after Biden announced that he might withhold other arms from Israel over its actions in Rafah, his aides rushed to make clear it was business as usual.’ Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

With great fanfare, Joe Biden confirmed on 8 May that his administration had suspended one weapons shipment to Israel, delaying the delivery of 3,500 bombs that can cause devastating casualties when dropped on population centers. Biden said he warned Israeli leaders that he would also block artillery shells and other munitions if Israel went ahead with a ground invasion of Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, where 1.4 million Palestinians have taken shelter.

It seemed Biden had finally decided to use the most effective leverage he has over Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and his extremist government to force an end to Israel’s devastating war in Gaza. But less than a week later, it became clear that Biden had backtracked and he will continue sending Israel far more weapons than the one shipment he held back. Last Tuesday, the Biden administration notified Congress that it would move ahead with more than $1bn in new arms deals for Israel.

With that decision, Biden undermined his own strategy of trying to pressure Netanyahu and his government, who are intent on launching a ground invasion of Rafah despite months of warnings from the US about the fate of the many Palestinians driven out of their homes in other parts of Gaza by the Israeli military. If Israel was worried about replenishing its stockpile – a real concern since some Israeli officials warned in January that they could have run out of bombs to drop on Gaza without a steady supply of US weapons – Biden just reassured Netanyahu that Israeli munitions would be restocked no matter how much death and destruction Israel rains on Rafah.

For months, it has been clear that Israel’s bloodshed in Gaza would not be sustainable without deep US complicity and assistance. This has been Biden’s pattern since he pledged unwavering support for Netanyahu’s government after Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October: whatever concern Biden might express for Palestinian civilians, his actions tell a different story. The latest weapons package that the administration approved is significantly larger than the single shipment that Biden stopped earlier this month: Washington plans to provide Israel with $700m in tank ammunition, $500m in tactical vehicles and $60m in mortar rounds.

Top Biden administration officials were spooked by criticism from Republicans in Congress and some pro-Israel Democratic party donors. Haim Saban, a media mogul and Democratic mega-donor, sent an email to senior Biden aides criticizing the president’s decision to withhold the recent shipment of bombs. “Let’s not forget there are more Jewish voters who care about Israel than Muslim voters who care about Hamas,” Saban wrote.

In fact, a day after Biden announced that he might withhold other arms from Israel over its actions in Rafah, his aides rushed to make clear that it would be business as usual. “Weapons shipments are still going to Israel. They’re still getting the vast, vast majority of everything that they need to defend themselves,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters on 9 May. “There is no weapons shipment cut-off here.”

The US is, by far, the biggest supplier of arms to Israel, providing $3.8bn in military aid per year – and it’s all paid for by American taxpayers. (Israel is also the largest aggregate recipient of US foreign aid in the world, having received about $300bn since the Jewish state was founded in 1948.) Last month, after intense lobbying by Biden, Congress approved $26bn in additional support to Israel, which includes $14bn in unconditional military aid.

Biden and his top aides passed up another opportunity this month to restrict most arms shipments and end US complicity in Israel’s war. On 10 May, the state department sent a long-awaited report to Congress in which the administration must certify that recipients of US weapons are abiding by international law and allowing the transport of humanitarian aid during active conflicts. The administration said it found written assurances from Israeli officials that they would use US arms in accordance with international humanitarian law to be “credible and reliable”.

The 46-page report was an exercise in bureaucratic double-speak, and it showed how far the Biden administration is willing to contort itself to avoid concluding that Israel violated any international laws, or had intentionally obstructed humanitarian aid into Gaza. Either of those findings would have shown that Israel had violated a new national security memo that Biden issued in February, and required the administration to suspend or restrict most arms shipments to Israel under existing US laws.

The state department report, which contradicted itself in numerous places, argued that the US could not find hard proof that Israel had used US weapons in specific incidents that might have involved human rights violations. But for months, numerous rights groups and independent monitors have documented Israel’s violations of international law, including its use of starvation as a weapon of war and methodical campaign to obstruct the delivery of food and other aid into Gaza.

An independent taskforce of legal experts, which was created after Biden issued his national security memo, released a detailed report last month citing dozens of examples of Israeli violations of human rights law during its assault on Gaza. The report documented Israel’s “systematic disregard for fundamental principles of international law, including recurrent attacks launched despite foreseeably disproportionate harm to civilians” in some of the world’s most densely populated areas. The taskforce includes Josh Paul, a former state department official who was one of the first US officials to resign in protest over Biden’s unconditional support for Israel.

In perhaps its most embarrassing conclusion, the Biden administration’s report also did not find that Israel had intentionally blocked humanitarian aid from reaching Palestinians who are facing a full-blown famine in northern Gaza. That conclusion contradicts a reality that most of the world can see, often in real time on social media. In fact, Israel has not only blocked aid from entering Gaza – violating international and US laws – it has made it exceedingly difficult for the UN and international relief groups to provide food and other support. To overcome Israel’s obstacles, the US has gone to extraordinary measures, including airdrops of supplies and building a floating pier off the coast of Gaza.

It’s clear that the Biden administration avoided holding Israel responsible for blocking aid because that conclusion would have triggered a section of the Foreign Assistance Act, passed in 1961, which forbids the US from providing weapons to a country that is obstructing American humanitarian aid. As Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland who has been a leading critic of the Biden’s administration policy toward Israel, said after the report’s release: “They don’t want to have to take any action to hold the Netanyahu government accountable for what’s happening.”

After seven months of enabling Israel’s large-scale destruction of Gaza, which caused enormous Palestinian suffering, Biden finally took a step toward accountability by suspending one shipment of bombs. But within days, it became clear he would allow Israel to receive a far larger flow of weapons.

Biden will go down in history as a president who had the power to restrain Israel, but refused to use his influence effectively – and allowed the US to be complicit in a ruthless war.

  • Mohamad Bazzi is director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, and a journalism professor at New York University

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