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Why the US is stopping some bomb shipments to Israel

May 9, 2024 at 11:54 am

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before the Department of Defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on budget issues for the 2025 fiscal year, Washington, DC, May 8, 2024 [ALLISON BAILEY/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images]

The United States has suspended a shipment of weapons to Israel, including heavy bombs that America’s ally has used in its military campaign in Gaza which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians.

The suspension comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues a military assault on the Palestinian city of Rafah, over the objections of US President Joe Biden.

What bombs were blocked?

Washington paused one shipment consisting of 1,800 “Bunker Buster”, 2,000-pound (907-kg) bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs, according to US officials.

Four sources said that the shipments, which have been delayed for at least two weeks, involved Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which convert dumb bombs into precision-guided ones, as well as Small Diameter Bombs (SDB-1). The SDB-1 is a precision guided glide bomb that packs 250 pounds of explosive.

They were part of an earlier approved shipment to Israel, not the recent $95 billion supplemental aid package passed by the US Congress in April.

Why is the US blocking these bombs?

The US is reviewing “near term security assistance,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate hearing on Wednesday, “in the context of unfolding events in Rafah.”

More than one million Palestinian civilians have sought shelter in Rafah, many previously displaced from other parts of Gaza following Israel’s orders to evacuate from there.

“We’ve been very clear… from the very beginning that Israel shouldn’t launch a major attack into Rafah without accounting for and protecting the civilians that are in that battlespace,” said Austin.

The US decision was taken due to concerns about the “end-use of the 2,000-pound bombs and the impact they could have in dense urban settings as we have seen in other parts of Gaza,” explained a US official speaking on condition of anonymity. The US had carefully reviewed the delivery of weapons that might be used in Rafah, the official added.

When was the decision made? Was Biden involved?

The decision was made last week, said US officials. President Joe Biden was directly involved. He confirmed the pause personally in a CNN interview on Wednesday.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centres,” he said when asked about 2,000-pound bombs sent to Israel.

What kind of damage can 2000-pound bombs cause?

Large bombs like these have an impact over a wide area. According to the UN, “The pressure from the explosion can rupture lungs, burst sinus cavities and tear off limbs hundreds of metres from the blast site.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a 2022 report that the use of wide area explosives in a densely populated area “is very likely to have indiscriminate effects or violate the principle of proportionality.”

What was Israel’s response to the US move?

Israel denies targeting Palestinian civilians, saying its sole interest is to annihilate Hamas, and that it takes all precautions to avoid unnecessary deaths.

After the news broke in Washington on Tuesday, a senior Israeli official declined to confirm the report. “If we have to fight with our fingernails, then we’ll do what we have to do,” the official said. A military spokesperson said any disagreements were resolved in private.

Were these bombs legal for Israel to use in Gaza?

This is a matter of heated debate. International humanitarian law does not explicitly ban aerial bombing in densely populated areas, but civilians cannot be targets and a specific military aim must be proportionate to possible civilian casualties or damage.

However, America’s own human rights laws — known as the Leahy Laws or Leahy amendments — prohibit the State Department and Department of Defence from sending military aid to foreign security forces violating human rights with impunity. Critics of the occupation state would argue that this applies to Israel.

What does the International Criminal Court say?

The statute of the International Criminal Court, which is investigating the Israel-Gaza war, lists as a war crime intentionally launching an attack when it is known that civilian death or damage will be “clearly excessive” compared with any direct military advantage.

Has the US withheld military aid from Israel before?

Yes, in 1982. President Ronald Reagan imposed a six-year ban on cluster weapons sales to Israel after a Congressional investigation found that Israel had used them in populated areas during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Israel’s use of US-made cluster bombs was reviewed under President George W. Bush, over concerns that they were used during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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