Biden says US will cut off offensive weapons to Israel ‘if they go into Rafah’

Israel’s military plans have been the source of tension with the U.S.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he would halt shipments of bombs and other munitions to Israel if it launched a major military invasion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The warning comes as Israeli forces appeared poised to conduct more operations in the densely packed city of 1.7 million despite repeated warnings not to do so by the U.S. government.

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“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah — they haven’t gone in Rafah yet — if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem,” Biden said in an interview on CNN.

The statement was the clearest conditioning of aid that the administration has made since the start of Israel’s war in Gaza. And it sent immediate ripples through national politics, with conservatives accusing the president of abandoning a long-held ally and some liberals hailing the pronouncement.

Biden has been steadfastly supportive of Israel since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 and in a speech this week affirmed U.S. support while warning of a ferocious rise in antisemitism.

But the administration has also gradually soured on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war. And in his interview with CNN, Biden for the first time also acknowledged that American-made weapons have killed civilians in Gaza.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden said, referring to 2,000-pound bombs, which have been put on hold by the administration.

The remarks from Biden came just days after the U.S. delayed a shipment of bombs to Jerusalem, marking a new phase in the United States’ involvement with the war, one which progressives in the president’s party have been pining for.

Biden has been under growing pressure from many Democrats — as well as from a series of demonstrations on college campuses from coast to coast — to limit support of Israel amid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Until now, the president had resisted those calls and strongly supported Israel’s efforts to go after Hamas. But his administration has been pushing Netanyahu to not order a full-scale invasion of Rafah, where refugees from northern Gaza have fled and are living in what aid groups say are increasingly dire conditions. U.S. negotiators, including CIA director Bill Burns, are currently in the Middle East trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas that would create a lengthy cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages.

Progressive Democrats showed support for Biden’s remarks. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said it “makes clear that the United States will not be complicit in this suffering and follows through on his repeated warnings to the Netanyahu government.” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) posted on the social media site X, “No offensive weapons in Rafah. Good!”

But Republicans chastised Biden for breaking his “ironclad” commitment to support the U.S. ally.

“We stand by allies, we don’t second guess them,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “Biden’s dithering on Israel weapons is bad policy and a terrible message to Israel, our allies, and the world.”

Democratic groups that advocate on behalf of Israel — and who, to this point, have been largely supportive of the president’s handling of the Gaza war — were forced to register their disappointments.

“We are deeply grateful for President Biden’s unprecedented support for Israel and its security,” said Mark Mellman, president of the advocacy group Democratic Majority for Israel. “At the same time we are deeply concerned about the Administration’s decision to withhold weapons now and potentially impose further restrictions. A strong U.S.-Israel alliance like the one President Biden has created, plays a central role in preventing more war and making the path to eventual peace possible. Calling the strength of that alliance into question is dangerous.”

While Biden said the U.S. would stop sending offensive weapons to Israel were it to launch an invasion, it would continue to provide protective weapons, including for its Iron Dome air defense system, which helped repel recent rocket and drone attacks from Iran and its allies.

“We’re going to continue to make sure Israel is secure in terms of Iron Dome and their ability to respond to attacks that came out of the Middle East recently,” Biden said. “But it’s, it’s just wrong. We’re not going to — we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells.”

Israel has conducted limited operations in Rafah, but Biden said it had not yet crossed a red line of entering heavily populated zones — even though it has led to a surge of tensions in the area.

“They haven’t gone into the population centers. What they did is right on the border. And it’s causing problems with, right now, in terms of — with Egypt, which I’ve worked very hard to make sure we have a relationship and help,” Biden said. “I’ve made it clear to Bibi and the war cabinet: They’re not going to get our support, if in fact they go on these population centers.”

The president also expressed sympathy with the pro-Palestinian protesters who shadow many of his events, sometimes shouting “Genocide Joe.”

“Absolutely, I hear you,” Biden said to those angry about the Gaza humanitarian crisis.

Biden spoke to CNN while in Wisconsin, a key battleground state where, earlier in the day, he cast a major new investment as emblematic of the nation’s economic comeback — while mocking the failures there of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

“He’s never succeeded in creating jobs, and I’ve never failed,” Biden said in the interview, adding later: “When has he even done anything he said? I’m not being facetious. Think about it.”

Biden also dismissed polls that show him slightly trailing his Republican rival and expressed optimism about November.

“I think I’m feeling good about the trajectory of the campaign,” he said. “And you know as well I do, most people don’t really focus and make up their minds until the fall. There’s a lot going on, and we’ll see what happens.”

And he warned that Trump will, once again, not accept defeat if he loses.

“I promise you he won’t,” Biden said, “which is dangerous.”

Elena Schneider contributed reporting.