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Enough Already

Stop Weapons Shipments to Israel

This is now beyond politics. Too many people are dying and starving.

An Israeli soldier carries a tank shell after returning from the Gaza Strip
Amir Levy/Getty Images
An Israeli soldier carries a tank shell after returning from the Gaza Strip on January 1.

President Joe Biden should stop immediately the shipment to Israel of weapons being used in its war in Gaza. He possesses not only the legal authority to do so, but a legal obligation, given the Israel Defense Forces’ indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians and its obstruction of relief efforts, culminating in its fatal April 1 attack on seven workers for José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen.

We support President Biden putting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on notice last week that “U.S. policy with respect to Gaza” will depend on Israel initiating “specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers,” according to a White House readout of their April 4 phone call. The president also reiterated his call for an immediate cease-fire. We’re mildly encouraged that in response, Israel promptly pledged to open the Erez crossing (which had been closed since October 7) and the Ashdod port in southern Israel, and to ramp up aid deliveries through Jordan at the Kerem Shalom crossing point. Aid shipments are now moving in faster.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The fighting in Gaza will continue. In January Biden said on MSNBC that if Israel invaded Rafah, a city of 1.4 million that borders Egypt, that would cross a “red line.” Netanyahu was unmoved. “We have a difference on this,” he told a U.S. congressional delegation in Jerusalem as recently as last week. “I said, look, we have no choice.” One day later Biden issued his soft ultimatum. Over the weekend the IDF withdrew its 98th Division from southern Gaza, but Netanyahu reiterated plans for “the elimination of Hamas in all of the Gaza Strip, including Rafah.” On Monday, Netanyahu said he has set an (undisclosed) date to to enter Rafah. If the United States wants to exercise maximum leverage to restrain Israel, Biden’s threat to withhold military assistance (implied rather than explicit) won’t cut it. Biden must say: The shipment of arms has now stopped. Let’s discuss the circumstances under which it may resume.

This magazine has long been a fervent supporter of Israel. In recent years we’ve acquired some reservations. We’ve become more critical of the occupation, and of Israel’s broader turn to the right. But we remain stoutly committed to Israel’s right to exist in peace. On October 7, Hamas violated that right by massacring 851 innocent Israeli civilians and seizing 253 hostages.* This horrific act of terrorism fully justified Israel invading Gaza in order to disarm its attackers. Hamas was and remains complicit in the deaths that followed because it provoked military retaliation and because it knew such retaliation couldn’t avoid killing many noncombatants. Situating itself in a network of underground tunnels—some of them under hospitals—guaranteed that many Palestinians with no appetite for martyrdom would perish.

But Hamas’s mass act of terror doesn’t absolve Israel for the path it’s chosen to take in response. We can argue about when, precisely, Gaza’s civilian death toll tipped the scales away from a just war of self-defense. But we’re well past that point today. We aren’t surprised that some read Netanyahu’s chilling indifference about whether individual Palestinians live or die as an affirmative desire for their wholesale elimination. The one can shade into the other.

The Gaza Health Ministry is the only source we have on casualties, and it’s generally accepted as decently credible; if anything, the casualty figures may be too low, given that many bodies have yet to be unearthed from the rubble. The Israeli press quotes them; so has Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, about 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza since October. Of these, about 70 percent were women and children. Five percent of Gaza’s total population has been killed or injured. That doesn’t include thousands more on the verge of death due to starvation and lack of potable water or access to health care. “First there was flour, until it ran out,” Yousef Tafesh, a 14-year-old boy living in Gaza City, told National Public Radio last month. “Then we could get wheat, and that ran out. Then corn kernels. Then we tried animal feed. Now my mom makes us a pudding with water and starch and we eat that.” Some Palestinian families are living on animal feed, NPR reported. Others are boiling weeds.

Israel has impeded international efforts to provide relief to such an extent that the U.S. Central Command had to resort to air drops to get food and water to northern Gaza—a rare necessity when dealing with an ostensibly friendly country. Matters came to a head last week when the IDF, believing, mistakenly, that a terrorist was on board, killed those seven World Central Kitchen aid workers—a reckless violation of the IDF’s rules of engagement. Two Israeli officers were dismissed and three others reprimanded. How often are the rules of engagement violated in less visible instances? About 200 aid workers have been killed in Gaza. Emily Tripp, director of Airwars, a nonprofit that tracks wartime casualties, told The Washington Post last week that the IDF appears to be accepting a higher rate of civilian casualties in this war than in previous Gaza conflicts.

Most of the weapons used in these attacks came from the United States. The process isn’t fully transparent, but during the first two months of the conflict, The New York Times reported, the U.S. transferred about 15,000 bombs and 57,000 artillery shells to Israel. In December Biden approved the sale of another 14,000 tank ammunition cartridges and $147.5 million in artillery shells and related equipment, according to The Washington Post. Since January 1, the Times reported, the pace of such transfers has quickened by about 15 percent. These weapons shipments came preapproved by Congress under a 10-year memorandum of understanding with the Israeli government, last renewed in 2019, that guarantees Israel nearly $4 billion in military aid annually. A separate plan to sell Israel a staggering $18 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets is pending in Congress.

Israeli’s new promises to speed distribution of humanitarian assistance are welcome. But until it can demonstrate substantial improvement, continued weapons shipments are not only unwise if the United States wants to maximize pressure on Israel; they’re against U.S. law. That’s because they violate Section 6201 of the Foreign Assistance Act, which forbids arms exports to any country that “prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.” Weapons shipments also very likely violate the “Leahy law,” which bars the Pentagon and the State Department from furnishing weapons or other assistance to a foreign security force deemed in gross violation of human rights. Human Rights Watch and Oxfam last month told the Biden administration that Israel violated human rights in at least seven instances during the war, and that doesn’t include the countless ways Israel was violating Palestinians’ human rights before the war began.

Like most laws governing the conduct of foreign policy, Section 6201 and the Leahy law are full of loopholes. A president can waive Section 6201 by alerting Congress that enforcing it would conflict with national security, and a secretary of defense or state can bypass the Leahy law by alerting Congress that the country in question is taking the necessary corrective steps. The Biden administration has yet to avail itself of either escape hatch, probably because it would draw unwelcome publicity.

Conceivably, Biden fears that cutting off Israeli weapons shipments would place him outside the mainstream of American politics. After all, no president has imposed conditions on aid to Israel for the past 30 years. The last was President George H.W. Bush, who in 1991 withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees because Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to pledge not to use the funds to locate settlers in the occupied territories of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or the Golan Heights. Shamir tried, and failed, to rally support in Congress to override Bush, and in the end the loan guarantee was reduced by the sum Israel planned to spend building settlements.

But as Peter Beinart, a former editor of this magazine, pointed out in a 2019 essay for The Forward, Bush’s imposition of limits on Israel was no departure. Throughout the Cold War, presidents we “think of as pro-Israel routinely used American aid to influence Israeli policy.” When Israel, during the Suez crisis, considered annexing Egyptian territory, President Dwight Eisenhower compelled its retreat by threatening to cut off all U.S. aid. Two decades later, President Gerald Ford compelled another retreat, this time from a portion of Sinai, by backing up Biden-like language (a “reassessment” of “our relations with Israel”) with a muscular holdup of aid. Jimmy Carter threatened a cutoff of arms shipments unless Israel stopped using American armored personnel carriers in Lebanon, and Ronald Reagan interrupted for six years the sale of cluster bombs because Israel was using them in Lebanon.

Since 1992, though, even presidents who’ve been very critical of Netanyahu, like Barack Obama, have been bullied by the Israeli lobby out of placing any limits on how Israel spends the nearly four billion American tax dollars it receives every year. But the bogeyman of the American Israel Political Action Committee, or AIPAC, has always been less fearsome than generally thought, and though it continues to be well funded, its influence over Congress has lately diminished. A Democratic letter circulating on Capitol Hill last week calling on Biden to halt weapons transfers was signed, yes, by Squad members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—but it was also signed by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Even Biden showed himself willing to impose limits of a sort in December when he blocked the sale of 20,000 assault rifles to Israel for fear they’d be used by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank; such attacks have doubled since October 7. The sky did not fall. And speaking of the sky, any suspension of weapons shipments would not affect the $500 million that the U.S. contributes annually to Israel’s Iron Dome and other defensive antimissile systems because that would require an act of Congress that Biden couldn’t swing even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t. Maintaining support for purely defensive systems is a necessary bulwark against violent attacks from Iran’s proxies in the region, including Hamas.

There’s some risk a cutoff would anger some Jewish voters, particularly older ones, whom Donald Trump is already courting with the demagogic claim that Jews who vote Democratic “hate Israel.” But Jews voted 3–1 for Biden in 2020, and the year before 40 percent of Jews polled by Pew said Trump favored Israel too much. Among the broader public, support for Israel’s Gaza invasion dropped from 50 percent to 36 percent between November and March, according to Gallup.

We’d be lying if we said the political risk of a weapons cutoff was zero. It would likely hurt Biden’s campaign fundraising, and whatever microscopic chance the Democrats had to recapture Florida would vanish. But given how desperate people are right now in Gaza, we shouldn’t take political considerations much into account. People are dying. Babies are starving. A weapons cutoff wouldn’t guarantee that would stop. But nothing else has a chance.

* An earlier version of this story included Israeli soldiers in the civilian death count.