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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 9 MAY 2024

US pauses on Israel arms shipment over Rafah offensive; Israeli drone startup raises $40m

US pauses on Israel arms shipment over Rafah offensive; Israeli drone startup raises $40m
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that the US had paused a shipment of ‘high-payload’ munitions to Israel for review over concerns about a potential military offensive on the Gazan city of Rafah.

A Tel Aviv-based startup that supplies a drone operating system to the US Defense Department and the Israeli army has raised $40-million to expand its civilian business after its technology was deployed on the battlefield in the Gaza Strip.

Iran has just weeks to comply with monitoring demands issued by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog or risk being slapped with a new round of diplomatic censure.  

US pauses arms shipment to Israel on Rafah invasion concerns

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that the US had paused a shipment of “high-payload” munitions to Israel for review over concerns about a potential military offensive on the Gazan city of Rafah.

The paused delivery was supposed to contain 3,500 bombs, split roughly evenly between 2,000-pound (907kg) and 500-pound explosives, according to a senior administration official. Austin said no final decision had been made on the shipment.

Israel needed to account for the protection of civilians in Rafah, where the US would like to see “no major conflict take place”, Austin told a Senate Appropriations panel. The US is worried about the damage the large bombs could inflict on dense urban areas like Rafah, where about 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering from Israel’s war with Hamas. Austin said a 2,000-pound bomb could do a lot of “collateral damage”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the weapons delay, and it’s unclear if it will have much impact on the military’s operations in Gaza. Still, this indicates growing tensions between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden, who’s voiced opposition to an attack on Rafah and reaffirmed that message in a call between the leaders on Monday.

Privately, Israeli officials have expressed deep frustration at the weapons shipment delay and warned their US counterparts recently that it could jeopardise ceasefire and hostage negotiations at a crucial moment, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

Biden’s decision on the arms delay marks one of the most significant moments of discord between Israel and its most important ally since Hamas’s 7 October assault, which started the war. Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the US, killed 1,200 people and abducted roughly 250 when its fighters stormed into southern Israel from Gaza.

Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and ground offensive on the Mediterranean enclave have killed almost 35,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The US has urged Israel not to attack Rafah unless it can move out civilians first. US officials have serious doubts that can be done quickly and safely.

This week, Israel told residents in some parts of eastern Rafah to move out immediately in a possible prelude to an assault. It urged them to travel north to a “humanitarian area” near the Gazan city of Khan Younis, much of which has been destroyed. Israel said it was working to ensure there would be enough tents, food and medicine for the civilians.

Israel’s military also took control of and closed the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Tuesday. It’s the main entry point for aid going into Gaza and the United Nations said it should be reopened quickly.

On Wednesday, Israeli officials did reopen the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing and said trucks with humanitarian supplies were moving into Gaza. It was shut on Sunday after rocket fire from Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers. 

For now, Israeli officials are saying their operations in Rafah are limited and are downplaying the notion that a full-on offensive has begun. 

Since the war started in October, the US has shipped more than 200 planeloads of weapons and ammunition to help Israel. The US is the biggest supplier of arms to Israel, and Biden has said there are no circumstances under which he would stop sending ammunition for Israel’s defence, including those used for the Iron Dome system, which intercepts rockets and missiles fired at the Jewish state.

As Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza has grown increasingly controversial, arms suppliers including Italy, Spain and Canada have all halted sales. Yet that mattered little while the US persisted with shipments.

About 70% of Israel’s military imports come from the US, which has made more than 200 deliveries since the conflict started in October. 

Netanyahu has refrained from public comment on the US shipment delay. Yet the leader has been warning for some time of the inherent risk of relying too much on others for its growing military needs.  

Three months ago, he instructed the country’s defence and finance ministers to produce a plan to “strengthen Israel’s defence industries for decades to come”. That would require “huge investment to ensure our security independence and freedom of action”, he said.

Developing an arms industry that includes local production lines for aerial munitions now supplied by the US is likely to be a big task, especially in the short term. So far, little has happened, with Finance Ministry officials saying teams had been set up but with no framework or deadline.  

Israeli drone startup used by military in Hamas war raises $40m

A Tel Aviv-based startup that supplies a drone operating system to the US Defense Department and the Israeli army has raised $40-million to expand its civilian business after its technology was deployed on the battlefield in the Gaza Strip.

The funding round for Xtend was led by Chartered Group and included existing investors NFX, TAU Ventures and strategic investors like Clal-Tech, according to the company. 

Israel’s larger defence contractors have benefited from increased spending since the beginning of the war with Hamas, and Xtend’s fundraising signals opportunities during the conflict for smaller, dual-use players. The company’s platform — which has human operators control small drones with a portable virtual reality headset and handheld controller — has been used by the Israel Defense Forces in the war with Hamas to scout buildings for enemy fighters or explosives. 

The company said it had released new products since the war began and improved drones’ abilities to fly without access to Global Positioning System satellites, a feature it said would be adapted for its civilian applications.

Gaza is China’s new wedge issue to split US from Global South

Last week, a top Chinese diplomat took to the microphones at the United Nations to harangue the US for blocking a resolution that would have backed Palestinians’ bid for membership, saying it had “shattered the decades-long dream of the Palestinian people”.

The broadside by Ambassador Fu Cong may have just looked like more anti-US rhetoric. But US officials and experts say it fits into a pattern with greater significance — an increasingly active Chinese effort to turn opinion in developing countries against the US since Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel, using the Gaza war as a wedge.

US officials and experts argue that China is seizing on global outrage over the rising death toll in the Gaza Strip and the dire humanitarian situation as a new tactic in its longtime push to score points against Washington at the UN and online.

One senior US official, who asked not to be identified discussing the US assessment, said China had used Gaza as a means to try to paint the US as a major contributor to global insecurity, while simultaneously promoting itself as a force for peace.

The effort extends to stoking dissent at home. In April, the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue said a network of pro-Chinese Communist Party operators known as Spamouflage was using accounts posing as right-wing Americans and targeting the Gaza war to flame internal US divisions. 

The institute’s assessment was, “Chinese and Russian actors are capitalising on the perceived unpopularity of Western policy towards Gaza”, said Melanie Smith, director of research for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Their aim was “to push the idea of an alternate global power structure with themselves at the helm.”

That conflict has also become a point of tension between Washington and some Global South nations. Countries including Brazil, Indonesia, India and Turkey have rebuffed US efforts to enlist their help to back Ukraine, a position now echoed in their unwillingness to side with Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack. 

China also has peppered its state media with messaging on how officials are facilitating countries’ efforts to break into the Western-led international system. Two such China Daily headlines in March read “China a true diplomatic power for Global South” and “Multipolarisation gaining traction across globe”. 

In a report last October, the Atlantic Council argued there was “clear evidence that Beijing’s tireless efforts” to portray itself as a defender of the Global South were paying off. It cited support at the UN to defend its human rights record and a growing influence in the Middle East, as well as China becoming a “major source of emergency funds” for Argentina.  

UN nuclear watchdog puts Iran on notice ahead of key report

Iran has just weeks to comply with monitoring demands issued by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, or risk being slapped with a new round of diplomatic censure. 

During a two-day visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) top official, Iran was told to improve monitoring measures and resolve a years-old probe into the provenance of uranium traces discovered at undeclared locations.

“There is a need to deliver very soon,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said late Tuesday at a press briefing in Vienna. “For the international community, there is a sense of needing to move and having results sooner rather than later.”

IAEA inspectors are preparing to draft their quarterly safeguards report, informing diplomats on the state of their investigation and updating data on Iran’s growing nuclear stockpile. Their assessment will be circulated before the agency’s board of governors convenes on 3 June. 

The US issued an ultimatum to Iran at the IAEA’s last meeting: cooperate or face censure which could lead to a referral to the UN Security Council, where sanctions on the Islamic Republic may be renewed. Some European countries already wanted to dial up the pressure in March.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian assured the IAEA delegation that “concrete measures” would now be taken to address those international concerns, Grossi said. His visit came just weeks after an Israeli air attack struck not far from one of Iran’s largest nuclear facilities in Isfahan. DM

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