An Israeli government request for 24,000 assault rifles from the United States is drawing scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers and some State Department officials who fear the weapons could end up in the hands of settlers and civilian militias trying to expel Palestinians from lands in West Bank, where violence has increased, US officials say.
The three proposed lots of semi-automatic and automatic rifles are valued at $34 million and are ordered directly from U.S. gun manufacturers, but require State Department approval and congressional notification. Israel says the rifles would be used by the national police, but has also indicated they could be given to civilians, people familiar with the weapons orders told the News21USA.
The State Department informally notified congressional committees of the sale last week, raising concerns and prompting calls for the department to ask tougher questions of Israel about how it plans to use the weapons. Within the department, officials working on human rights issues have expressed reservations, while those who oversee arms sales intend to approve the orders and announce them in the coming days, U.S. officials say.
Israeli police are seeking to bolster their weapons arsenal after officials pledged to supply thousands of weapons to Israeli civilians in at least 1,000 towns and cities, including Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. About 500,000 Israelis have moved into settlements there over many years, which, along with military checkpoints, fences and other Israeli government occupation measures, keep the area’s 2.7 million Palestinians living in small separate enclaves.
Although much of the global criticism of Israel’s recent actions has focused on its airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, which Health Ministry officials say have killed nearly 10,000 people, President Biden and his top advisers are increasingly more concerned about the increase in violence in the West Bank.
Even before the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7 sparked the current war in Gaza, violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, who seek to expel Palestinians from strategic areas of land, had risen well above the level of the last years.
US officials attributed this to encouragement of settlers by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and statements by some Israeli officials supporting annexation of the West Bank. Since October 7, more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, almost the same number as in all of 2022, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Most of the killings have taken place during clashes with the Israeli army, but some have been at the hands of armed civilians. Biden said on Oct. 25 that “extremist settler” violence was “pouring gasoline on the fire.” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken raised concerns with Israeli leaders during his trip to Tel Aviv on Friday and discussed the issue with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, at a meeting in Ramallah on Sunday.
The two discussed “efforts to restore calm and stability in the West Bank, including the need to stop extremist violence against Palestinians and hold those responsible accountable,” the State Department said in a statement.
Both Biden and Blinken have emphasized in recent days that a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel is the best long-term solution to the decades-long conflict. Settler intimidation of Palestinians, leading to their displacement from strategic areas of the West Bank, makes any prospect of that much more difficult.
State Department officials who oversee arms sales have discussed potential concerns with their Israeli counterparts. «We received assurances from the Israelis that these will only go to INP-controlled units,» Jessica Lewis, undersecretary of the office of political-military affairs, said in a statement to the Times, referring to the Israel National Police.