Israel's insistence on full steam ahead in Rafah could spell a weapons embargo from the West

Analysis: Israel can manage the practical military consequences of Biden's withholding of weapons because the munition stockpiles are currently full, but this helps Hamas bide its time when it comes to the hostages, especially with the US doing the heavy lifting for them

Ron Ben-Yishai|
Recent warnings from President Joe Biden about delaying arms shipments to Israel if the IDF expands operations in Rafah didn't catch Jerusalem off guard. For weeks, conversations with senior U.S. officials felt like talking to a wall, as Israel laid out various strategies aimed at minimizing harm to the displaced Palestinian refugees in Rafah. This cautious approach was evident yesterday when the IDF opted for an intensive, pinpointed operation further from Rafah, rather than a full takeover.

Chocolates on their pillows

The primary objective remains to shield civilians from harm while keeping up military pressure on Hamas to push forward hostage negotiations. To assure the U.S. that a humanitarian crisis in Rafah could be averted, Israel increased aid into the strip and opened the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings, essentially helping to establish a U.S.-backed humanitarian port. The military's plan involves phased evacuations, moving populations from north Rafah to new shelters in Khan Younis and north Mawasi, which is already a refugee haven.
Last month, the 98th Division halted operations in Khan Younis to allow refugees from Rafah to move north, a plan that succeeded. Israel also engaged Egypt and the UAE to set up new refugee camps, and global aid organizations have stepped in to provide water, field hospitals, and other necessities. However, a senior security official lamented in a private meeting: "The Americans want us to create perfect living conditions, even expecting us to put chocolate on their pillows."
Despite detailed presentations by Cabinet member Ron Dermer, National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi, and other officials through Zoom calls and Washington visits, the U.S. dismissed these plans as unrealistic. The Rafah operation is now a hot-button issue, sparking dissent not just in the U.S. government and among progressives, but also in Europe, Arab nations and the UN, with the secretary-general calling it a "catastrophe." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on proceeding into Rafah has intensified this controversy, making it a focal point of discord between Israel and Western democracies.

Not an embargo... yet

On the other hand, the Pentagon understands the necessity for the Rafah operation to dismantle Hamas and Islamic Jihad's military clout and cut off their arms and cash flows via the Rafah crossing and Philadelphi Corridor. Yet, the U.S. State Department, especially Secretary Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, remains strongly opposed.
This led to the Biden administration's ultimatum to Israel in private discussions going from a mere warning to a palpable risk. It's important to clarify that we're not discussing a total arms embargo, but a halt on specific aerial munitions like one-and-a-quarter-ton bombs, and only if Israel extends its operations beyond the agreed-upon areas.
Should the IDF disregard this and intensify its operations, Israel could face an embargo on all necessary aerial munitions, including "HellFire" missiles vital for precise strikes by combat helicopters.
Presently, Israel can manage the practical military consequences of such an embargo. The IDF's stockpiles are ample due to recent supplies, sufficient even for a broader conflict in the north. Yet, this would require a shift in how munitions are used. The IDF, known for its liberal use of precise munitions to ensure troop safety and minimize confrontations, might have to rely on less precise ground and aerial munitions. This shift could also lead to increased reliance on domestically supplied missiles from Israeli defense industries for armed UAVs.
Ironically, limiting precision munitions might lead to increased civilian casualties, contrary to U.S. intentions. This would force the IDF to use a larger stockpile of less precise bombs and missiles. Without Hellfire missiles, combat helicopters would lose a degree of accuracy in operations.
Historically, this isn't the first time the U.S. has restricted arms to Israel. Similar situations occurred during the War of Independence and later conflicts, influenced by international pressures and internal U.S. politics. However, public and legislative support in the U.S. has previously countered such embargoes. This historical pattern underscores the complex interplay of military strategy and international diplomacy in U.S.-Israel relations.
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