Biden Announces a Pause on Offensive Weapons as Israel Intensifies Its Attack on Rafah

President Joe Biden made news last week in an interview with CNN when he announced that his administration will pause the delivery of some offensive weapons to Israel amid its looming invasion of Rafah. According to the Department of Defense, the pause is limited to one shipment of 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs as Biden weighs how the weapons may be used in an urban setting as densely populated as Rafah. Biden told CNN that “civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which [Israel] go[es] after population centers.” Despite Israel’s stated plans for a full Rafah invasion (and the fact that a “limited operation,” in the words of the Department of State, already began), US officials have maintained that they have not yet seen “a credible humanitarian plan that would account for both the potential harm to civilian life of an operation in such a crowded area” and asserted that United States is “not going to provide [Israel] certain weapons that they could use in such an operation.”

The decision to pause the supply of some offensive weapons prompted strong criticism from Congress. Statements from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), a letter from Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Republican-led House and Senate legislation, among other letters and statements, all pressured Biden to reverse his decision, with additional criticism from Democrats culminating in a letter to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Lawmakers also voiced their displeasure during a May 8 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to review the Fiscal Year 2025 defense budget in which Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was asked whether the delay of “precision weapons” may affect Israel’s war and invite attacks from hostile actors. Austin reiterated the Administration’s official line, answering that while the President’s commitment to Israel is unwavering, it is in the process of “reviewing some near-term security shipments in the context of unfolding events in Rafah.”

The pause on certain offensive weapons also garnered attention in the context of last week’s release of the Department of State’s report on the National Security Memorandum on Safeguards and Accountability With Respect to Transferred Defense Articles and Defense Services (NSM-20). The highly anticipated NSM-20 report reviews whether US military sales to a foreign country have been used in violation of international and US law.

In spite of a media buzz around the report’s release, its weak findings raised questions regarding US complicity in the violation of international law. The report assessed that the administration did not have enough information on Israel’s procedures and rules to “verify whether US defense articles covered under NSM-20 were specifically used in alleged violations of [international humanitarian law or international human rights law] in Gaza.” The report acknowledged, however, that certain Israeli-operated military systems are entirely of US-origin and that likely are “incidents that raise concerns about Israel’s [international humanitarian law] compliance.” The report found that Israel has not been fully cooperative with US efforts to maximize humanitarian assistance into Gaza since October 7, but concludes that the Israeli government is not currently restricting the delivery of US humanitarian assistance according to US law. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered his take on May 12. “We think it’s reasonable to assess, based on what’s happened, that there have been acts that have been inconsistent with Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law,” Blinken stated. “But we haven’t drawn definitive conclusions. We need to pursue these investigations, just as Israel is doing itself.”

Like the pause on offensive weaponry, the release of the NSM-20 report elicited disappointment from both Democrats and Republicans, though for different reasons. Building on a letter by Democratic lawmakers to Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III on the need for consistent application of the Leahy Law to the Israeli military, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) argued that the report “indicates a continuation of a disturbing pattern where the expertise and analyses of those working most closely on these issues at the State Department and at USAID have been swept aside to facilitate a predetermined policy outcome based on political convenience.” By contrast, Republican foreign policy leads Sen. Risch (R-ID) and Rep. McCaul (R-TX) quickly denounced the report as an attack on a key US ally.

Ahead of Israel’s looming full invasion of Rafah, the administration’s pause on offensive weapons and release of the NSM-20 report give the semblance of accountability and a shift in Biden’s handling of the war on Gaza. Any such optimism should be tempered, though. While Secretary Blinken has asserted that “it’s reasonable to assess that in a number of instances, Israel has not acted in a manner that’s consistent with international humanitarian law,” senior US officials also have maintained that the American public should not expect US support for Israel’s war on Gaza to wane in any significant way. Department of State Spokesperson Matthew Miller has emphasized that the United States is “committed to spending every dime that was in the recently passed supplemental by Congress,” including the most recent tranche ($827 million worth of weapons and equipment). Israel will receive “every dollar of the appropriations that is coming out of the national security supplemental,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre last week—“that is our commitment.”

Also Happening in Washington Last Week…

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Congress Sees Additional Legislation Targeting Campus Protests. The House last week saw the introduction of several pieces of legislation targeting university students participating in pro-Palestine demonstrations on campus. On May 8, Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-TN) introduced H.R.8321, which would require any person convicted of unlawful activity at a campus protest to provide community service in Gaza, and H.R.8322, seeking to revoke visas from foreign nationals participating in “rioting or unlawful protest.” The revocation of visas was also the subject of a letter led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging them to revoke the visas of “pro-Hamas” protesters. Additionally, Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) introduced H.R.8332, which would bar any student who is arrested for their participation in campus protests from receiving student loan forgiveness through federal income-driven repayment programs. (S.4302 is the companion legislation in the Senate.)

House resolutions H.Res.1211 to condemn “the violent, anti-American and anti-Israeli protests” and H.Res.1212, which calls for an end to campus protest encampments, were also introduced. On the Senate side, on May 9 Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) introduced S.4295, which would deny federal financial aid to higher education institutions that do not remove pro-Palestine encampments. On May 7, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) introduced S.4274, requiring that the FBI place on the “no-fly list” any individual who has “supported foreign terrorist organizations, encouraged crimes of violence against Jewish persons, or been disciplined by an institution of higher education in relation to such conduct.” Furthermore, Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-SC) S.Res.670 and Sen. Ted Budd’s (R-NC) S.Res.680 condemned the protest movement growing around the country.

House Resolution Marks Anniversary of Turkish Invasion and Occupation of Northern Cyprus. On May 6, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) introduced H.Res.1199 mark the 50th anniversary of the “Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus.” It calls for the withdrawal of troops and settlers from the island, for respect for constitutional democratic norms and international principles, for cooperation in determining the fate of all remaining missing persons including four US citizens, and for respect for the Republic of Cyprus’ maritime zones.

House Bill Seeks Sanctions on ICC. On May 6, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) introduced H.R.8282. The bill would impose sanctions on the International Criminal Court (ICC) if it carries out “any effort to investigate, arrest, detain, or prosecute any protected person of the United States and its allies.” The proposed legislation follows a recent letter from Republican lawmakers to the ICC stating that if the body issues arrest warrants of Israeli officials, the United States will implement “severe sanctions” against ICC officials. The bill was followed by May 8 and May 10 Republican-led letters to President Biden urging him to intervene in any effort to prosecute Israeli officials.

Rep. Ilhan Omar Faces Censure. On May 7, Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) introduced H.Res.1207, which censures Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for “hateful comments and history of antisemitism.”

Bipartisan Senate Bill Seeks to Improve Israel’s Anti-Tunnel Defense. On May 8, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Ted Budd (R-NC) introduced S.4285, which would amend the Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act by providing $30 million to expand US and Israeli efforts to “detect, maneuver through, and destroy tunnels” constructed by Hamas near the Israeli border.

Sen. Risch Leads Bill to Limit UN Funding If It Recognizes Palestinian Membership. On May 9, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced S.4311, which seeks to limit US funds to the United Nations or other entity “that provide any status, rights, or privileges beyond observer status” to the Palestine Liberation Organization. The bill preceded a May 10 United Nations General Assembly vote in which 143 countries voted in favor of recognizing Palestine as qualified to join the United Nations, with nine votes in opposition, including by the United States. Rep. Jim Baird (R-IN) introduced H.R.8345, the House companion version of the Senate bill.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Republicans Ramp Up Pressure on Campus Protests. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) led Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee in a letter to Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), urging Durbin to hold a hearing on “the civil rights violations of Jewish students and the proliferation of terrorist ideology on college campuses.” In addition, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking for an investigation into “third-party funding behind the violent, coordinated antisemitic protests currently plaguing college campuses across the country.”

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Appropriations Holds Hearing on Development Finance Corporation. On May 7, the House Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the Fiscal Year 2024 funding request for the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). Chief Executive Officer Scott Nathan testified that in the West Bank, the DFC has “focused on finding ways to get financing to small business to keep people employed, to give them hope and opportunity.” He mentioned that the DFC is “looking for ways to also collaborate with Israeli businesses to make investments there.”

House Education Committee Holds Hearings on Pro-Palestine Rhetoric. On May 7, the House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on the Department of Education’s policies regarding anti-Semitism on college campuses. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testified. Cardona condemned campus protests around the country, stating that “dissent must never lead to disorder or to denying the right of others so students can finish their semester and their college education.” He also revealed that since October 7 the Department of Education has opened more than 100 investigations into alleged anti-Semitic incidents. On May 8, the committee held a hearing on anti-Semitism in K-12 schools, featuring testimony from school administrators around the country, who were queried about curricula that center Palestinian perspectives.

Senate Appropriations Holds Hearing on Defense Budget. On May 8, the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the Fiscal Year 2025 defense budget. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Charles Q. Brown Jr. testified about US military assistance to Israel, threats posed by Iran, and ongoing US military operations in the Middle East.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Speaks with Netanyahu. On May 6, President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to the White House readout, the two leaders discussed ceasefire negotiations, Israel’s operations in Rafah, and progress toward improving humanitarian aid access into Gaza, particularly through the Karam Abu Salem crossing.

Biden Meets with King of Jordan. On May 6, Biden met with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House. The two leaders discussed developments in Gaza, including the status of ceasefire negotiations, the need for additional humanitarian aid, pathways toward Palestinian statehood, and progress toward a more “integrated Middle East region.” The President and King Abdullah II also discussed issues in the West Bank and reforms to the Palestinian Authority. During his visit, King Abdullah also met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Secretary of Defense Austin.

White House Continues National Emergency with Respect to Syria. On May 8, the White House announced a one-year continuation of the national emergency declared with respect to the actions of the Government of Syria.  The US government originally issued a national emergency declaration for Syria in 2004. The White House statement “calls on the Assad regime, and its backers, to stop its violent war against its own people, enact a nationwide ceasefire, facilitate the unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance to all Syrians in need, and negotiate a political settlement in Syria in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.”

2) Department of State

Potential $144 Million Arms Sale to UAE Approved. On May 7, the Department of State approved a possible $44 million Foreign Military Sale to the United Arab Emirates of “High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile Control Section Modification Upgrade and related equipment.” The announcement states, “The proposed sale will improve the UAE’s capability to meet current and future threats by enhancing its capability to defend its national borders, bolster air-to-surface defensive capabilities, deter regional threats, and protect vital international commercial trading routes and critical infrastructure.”

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Jordanian Foreign Minister. On May 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone with Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ayman Safadi. Blinken thanked the Jordanian government for its role in facilitating humanitarian assistance into Gaza and reviewed progress toward securing a ceasefire/hostage release deal. Blinken criticized recent attacks by Israelis on humanitarian aid convoys, reiterating “that the United States expects the government of Israel to take full and appropriate measures to prevent those attacks and hold those responsible accountable.” The Secretary also condemned Hamas’s efforts to seize aid in Gaza.

Department Repatriates US Citizens from Northeast Syria. On May 7, the Department of State announced that it had repatriated 11 American citizens, including five minors, from displaced persons camps in northeast Syria, marking the largest single repatriation of US citizens from the area to date. The department noted that the United States “remains committed to helping those nations which seek to repatriate their nationals from northeast Syria, and to finding solutions, including resettlement, for those who are unable to return to their communities or countries of origin.”

Under Secretary Travels to Jordan, Iraq. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya traveled to Jordan and Iraq “to advance regional humanitarian, human rights, and civilian security priorities.” In Jordan, Zeya met with UN and Jordanian government officials to discuss the importance of increasing aid into Gaza through land and air routes. The Under Secretary also discussed progress on bilateral counternarcotics cooperation, countering human trafficking, and ensuring inclusive national elections in September. In Iraq, Zeya met with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein, Minister for Migration and Displacement Evan Faiq Jabro, and Minister of Interior Abdul Amir al-Shammari to discuss human rights, refugees, counternarcotics operations, and security. She also met with Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, and Minister of Interior Rebar Ahmed on “U.S. support for a democratic, stable, secure, and prosperous Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), including on protections for human rights; media freedom; and support to refugees and internally displaced persons.” Zeya urged Iraqi and IKR officials to “deliver progress for survivors of the ISIS genocide, including Yezidis and other religious and ethnic groups, as the ten-year anniversary of these atrocity crimes approaches.”

Department Stresses Need to Increase Gaza Aid. Department of State Spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters on May 8 that the past week saw a “fairly dramatic dip in the increase of humanitarian assistance” into Gaza. Miller added that the Biden administration is “making quite clear to the Government of Israel that we need to see those decreases reversed, we need to get back to where we were, and we need to see the levels continue to increase and see those sustained, and that is why we need to see Kerem Shalom and Rafah opened.”

Department of State Delays Release of National Security Memorandum. On May 8, Spokesperson Miller acknowledged that the administration was delaying “by a few days” the department’s submission to Congress of a report on Israel’s potential violations in its use of US-supplied weapons in Gaza. The administration had originally set May 8 as the submission date. Axios reported that the forthcoming report would not find that Israel has violated US legal restrictions in its use of American-supplied arms in its war on Gaza.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry. On May 9, Secretary of Blinken spoke with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry about Egypt’s role in Gaza ceasefire negotiations. The Secretary emphasized that the United States does not support a full-scale military operation in Rafah. The two officials discussed the need to reopen the crossing in Rafah to allow for humanitarian assistance to reach Gaza.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Israeli Defense Minister. On May 12, Secretary Blinken spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant about Israel’s war on Gaza. According to the US readout, the Secretary “reaffirmed the US opposition to a major military ground operation in Rafah.” Blinken also underscored the “need to protect civilians and aid workers in Gaza and urged the Minister to ensure assistance can move into Gaza and help address distribution challenges inside of Gaza as Israel pursues Hamas targets.”

3) Department of Defense

Department Addresses Progress on Gaza Pier Construction. On May 9, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder announced that both the floating pier and the causeway construction off the coast of Gaza are complete and that the Department expects “these temporary piers to be put into position in the very near future, pending suitable security and weather conditions.” Once the pier is operational, Ryder said, aid delivery will be led by USAID in tandem with the World Food Programme, the Republic of Cyprus, and the Israeli military.

CENTCOM Commander Visits Egypt. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla traveled to Egypt on May 6-7 to meet with Egyptian military leaders on regional security and humanitarian aid for Gaza and with the Saudi Royal Armed Forces to discuss “shared regional security concerns, the status of humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip, and further opportunities to partner on innovation of defensive technologies.”

4) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Announces Additional Assistance to Yemen. On May 7, USAID announced the provision of roughly $220 million in new humanitarian aid to Yemen. The funds will support nutrition, healthcare, gender-based violence care, and psychosocial support for crisis-affected populations.

Administrator Power Meets with UN Secretary-General. On May 7, USAID Administrator Samantha Power met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to discuss humanitarian crises around the world, including Sudan and Gaza. According to the USAID readout, Power expressed the need for greater humanitarian access in Sudan while emphasizing the importance of resuming political talks between the warring parties. On Gaza, Power and Guterres discussed the humanitarian impact of an Israeli invasion of Rafah, including the need for Israel to “implement their commitments to address dire humanitarian needs in Gaza.”

Administrator Power Speaks with Member of Sudan Transitional Sovereignty Council. On May 9, USAID Administrator Power spoke with Deputy Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) Commander Lieutenant General Shams El-Dein El Kabbashi. Power emphasized the need for SAF to guarantee humanitarian aid access throughout Sudan as the threat of famine grows. She also called for a halt to SAF obstruction of humanitarian corridors, such as the crossing in Adre, Chad, and emphasized the need for negotiations to end the broader conflict in Sudan.