Rafah, US arms, UNRWA: How Biden defends supporting Israel amid Gaza war

Al Jazeera looks at the Biden administration’s rhetoric and policies on various issues related to Israel and Palestine.

US President Joe Biden, a self-proclaimed Zionist, has been a staunch supporter of Israel [File: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]

Washington, DC – “It’s wrong,” United States President Joe Biden said last week of the ongoing Israeli offensive against the southern Gaza city of Rafah, pledging to stop supplying offensive weapons if the assault proceeds.

One week later, however, Israeli forces have seized the Rafah border crossing and pushed into the city, where more than 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering. Still, US media reported on Tuesday that Biden plans to advance a $1bn arms transfer to Israel, including tank shells.

Advocates say the apparent contradiction — between pressuring Israel to stop its offensive, then offering further weaponry — is part of a broader pattern whereby the US says one thing but does another.

“We’ve got a situation where the rhetoric is not matching the action,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the advocacy group Friends Committee on National Legislation. “It’s obviously distressing seeing the US complicity in these horrific war crimes.”

Biden’s statements one week prior signalled to some advocates that Washington may finally use its leverage to pressure Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians.

In a CNN interview, the president said he would stop the transfer of artillery shells to Israel in the case of a Rafah invasion, and his administration ultimately withheld one shipment of heavy bombs over the assault.

But advocates say the media reports of the $1bn transfer raises questions about Biden’s commitment to protecting civilians in Rafah — and standing up to Israel, its longtime ally.

Here, Al Jazeera looks at how the Biden administration presents its policies to overcome legal and political questions about its unconditional support for Israel.

Rafah invasion

Claim: The US government says Israel has not launched a major invasion of Rafah.

“We believe that what we’re seeing right now is a targeted operation. That’s what Israel has told us. We have not seen a major operation moving forward,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

Fact: The Israeli offensive in Rafah has so far displaced 450,000 Palestinians from the city and further strained the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, raising fears of catastrophic consequences.

While Israeli troops have not entered the dense urban centre of Rafah, Israel’s tanks have been pushing deeper into the city. Last week, the State Department acknowledged that theoretically “a series of limited operations” can constitute “one large one”.

“It’s not credible to say that the Rafah offensive has not started. From everything we’re seeing, the Rafah invasion is happening. And it should have already crossed that red line,” El-Tayyab told Al Jazeera.


Claim: The Biden administration says it is pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza, often blaming Hamas for rejecting proposals to reach a deal to halt the fighting.

“Israel put a forward-leaning proposal on the table for a ceasefire and hostage deal,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday. “The world should be calling on Hamas to come back to the table and accept a deal.”

Fact: The US has vetoed three separate ceasefire draft resolutions at the United Nations Security Council and voted against two at the General Assembly.

Hamas has accepted a deal put forward by Qatar and Egypt that would lead to a lasting ceasefire and the release of Israeli captives in Gaza and a number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The Israeli government rejected it.

“What we need is a permanent ceasefire now to end this mass killing, and we need to move towards a resolution of the deeper issues of this horrible conflict,” El-Tayyab said.

International humanitarian law violations

Claim: The US says it cannot definitively determine whether Israel is using American weapons to violate international law.

The Biden administration issued a report last week saying that Israel offered “credible and reliable” assurances that US arms are not being deployed to commit abuses.

Fact: Rights groups have documented numerous violations of international humanitarian law by the Israeli military, which extensively uses US weapons. Those reports include evidence of indiscriminate bombing, torture and targeting civilians.

“There’s a version of reality that this administration would like people to believe in. And then there is a version of reality that people have been actually watching for months now in Gaza, with horrific images of the killing of civilians, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, the starvation of an entire population,” Palestinian American analyst Yousef Munayyer told Al Jazeera.

“And these two realities don’t line up at all. And so, I don’t know what audience this theatre is intended for. But I can’t imagine it being persuasive to anybody really.”

Leahy Law

Claim: The Biden administration says it applies the “same standards” to Israel in enforcing the Leahy Law, which prohibits assistance to foreign military units that commit abuses.

Last month, the US State Department said it would not suspend aid to any Israeli battalions despite acknowledging that five units had engaged in gross violations of human rights.

Washington said four of the battalions had taken remedial steps to address the abuses, and the US is engaging with Israel over the fifth unit.

Fact: Experts say the US has a special process in applying the Leahy Law to Israel, giving the country more time and leeway to address allegations of abuse.

“They have made the determination that the unit has been engaged in gross violations and that the host country has failed to remediate,” Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told Al Jazeera last week.

“And they still have not cut off that unit. That is an admission that the secretary of state is violating US law.”

De-funding UNRWA

Claim: The Biden administration says it cut off funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) to “comply with the law”.

The law in question is a government funding bill that Congress passed in March, banning aid to UNRWA.

The UN agency provides vital services to millions of Palestinians across the Middle East and has played a leading role in aid delivery in Gaza.

Fact: Biden supported the funding legislation and signed it into law. Washington had also suspended its assistance to the agency weeks before the bill was approved, following Israeli allegations of links between UNRWA and Hamas.

Last month, an independent review of UNRWA, commissioned by the UN, found that Israel did not provide credible evidence to back its accusations.

“Our political process has chosen to cut US funding to literally the only entity that can address the level of suffering and scale of suffering that’s happening in Gaza right now,” Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), told Al Jazeera earlier this year.

Source: Al Jazeera