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Biden says he'll stop sending offensive weapons to Israel if it invades Rafah


President Biden sent a stark message to Israel over its handling of the war in Gaza. He told CNN the U.S. will stop the shipment of bombs and artillery shells if Israel launches a major offensive on a city crammed with displaced people.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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.


Now, in recent months, Biden has sometimes expressed concern about Israel being over-the-top in its offensive in Gaza, but this is a shift. He's publicly shown unwavering support for supplying Israel up to now.

FADEL: NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is with us now from Tel Aviv. Good morning, Jackie.


FADEL: So let's start with the reaction to Biden's comments where you are in Israel this morning.

NORTHAM: Well, it runs, you know, from anger all the way to a sense that Israel has been abandoned at a time when it needs U.S. support. For example, Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, said this shouldn't be played out in public. Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., says the government should've ignored U.S. pressure earlier and just finished off the war as quickly as possible. There was a member of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, who said if the U.S. doesn't give us smart bombs, we'll use dumb bombs and kill more people in Gaza. You know, and then there's national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who tweeted that Hamas loves Biden.

So I spoke with Eldad Shavit, and he's a former intelligence official in the military and now with the Institute for National Security Studies. And he said a lot of the criticism isn't fair. Here he is.

ELDAD SHAVIT: The United States was and still committed to the security and the welfare of Israel, and they invest a lot of - put a lot of efforts to help Israel to conduct this ongoing war.

SHAVIT: The United States was and still committed to the security and the welfare of Israel, and they invest a lot of - put a lot of efforts to help Israel to conduct this ongoing war.

NORTHAM: You know, still, the Biden administration has been warning warning Prime Minister Netanyahu not to launch a major operation in Rafah.

FADEL: Right.

NORTHAM: But the military already has made smaller incursions. There's been air strikes and Israeli troops seized control of the Gazan side of the border crossing with Egypt. The U.S. doesn't view this as a major offensive yet, but Biden indicated yesterday it's getting mighty close. And meanwhile, there are cease-fire talks taking place, and the U.S. is involved with that. CIA chief William Burns is part of those discussions.

FADEL: Is there a sense that Biden's comments will affect these talks at all?

NORTHAM: It's hard to say. There are commentaries in the newspaper here predicting that Hamas will be less likely to compromise now on these talks because it feels that Israel is more vulnerable, in a more vulnerable position now that, you know, the U.S. is withholding weapons. So it's hard to say.

FADEL: Now, Biden has shown pretty, at least publicly, unwavering support for the prime minister, even when the prime minister has rejected U.S. calls for, for example, a two-state solution. Will this threat Biden's now making change anything?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, Netanyahu has come under enormous pressure from the U.S. and other allies to curtail the military campaign...

FADEL: Right.

NORTHAM: ...In Gaza. But despite that, he said more than once that it will go ahead with or without help. Here he is.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.

NORTHAM: Israel wants to take out what it says. It is the final stronghold of Hamas in Gaza and, you know, some militants, the infrastructure, tunnels and the like. But, you know, there are more than a million Palestinians squeezed into Rafah. And dropping 2,000-pound bombs on the area could have a devastating effect and cause extensive civilian casualties. And Biden mentioned in that CNN interview that civilians have been killed by these bombs.

FADEL: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.