WASHINGTON — An Israeli government request for 24,000 assault rifles from the United States is drawing scrutiny from American lawmakers and some State Department officials who fear the weapons might end up in the hands of settlers and civilian militias trying to force Palestinians from land in the West Bank, where violence has been surging, U.S. officials say.
The three proposed tranches of semi-automatic and automatic rifles are valued at $34 million and are being ordered directly from U.S. gunmakers, but they require State Department approval and congressional notification. Israel says the rifles would be used by the national police force, but has also indicated that they could be given to civilians, people familiar with the weapons orders told The New York Times.
The State Department gave informal notification of the sale last week to congressional committees, which ignited concerns and prompted requests for the department to ask Israel tougher questions about how it intends to use the arms. Within the department, officials working on human rights issues have expressed reservations, while those overseeing weapons sales intend to approve the orders and announce them in the coming days, U.S. officials say.
The 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 to settlements there over many years, which, along with military checkpoints, fences and other measures of the Israeli government occupation, keep the area’s 2.7 million Palestinians living in separate small enclaves.
Although much of the global criticism of Israel’s recent actions has centered on its airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, which Health Ministry officials there say have killed nearly 10,000 people, President Joe Biden and his top aides are increasingly worried about rising violence in the West Bank.
Even before the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks set off the current war in Gaza, violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank who aim to force Palestinians from strategic tracts of land had risen well above the level of recent years.
U.S. officials attributed that to the encouragement of settlers by the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and statements by some Israeli officials supporting the annexation of the West Bank. Since Oct. 7, more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank — nearly equal to the number in all of 2022, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Most of the killings have taken place during encounters with the Israeli military, but some have been at the hands of gun-bearing civilians. Biden said on Oct. 25 that violence by “extremist settlers” was “pouring gasoline on fire.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns with Israeli leaders during his trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday and spoke about the problem with Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, in a meeting in the West Bank city of 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 accountable responsible,” the State Department said in a statement.
Both Biden and Blinken have stressed in recent days that a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel is the best long-term solution to the decades-old 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 weapons sales have discussed potential concerns with Israeli counterparts. “We received assurances from the Israelis that these will only go to INP-controlled units,” Jessica Lewis, assistant secretary in the political-military affairs bureau, said in a statement to the Times, referring to the Israeli National Police.
Officials gave no details on what “INP-controlled units” means, though one said such units do not operate in the West Bank. And they said the agency does not provide specific comments on licensed commercial arms sales.
However, Israel’s minister for national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician who oversees the police, promised last month to provide guns to settlements.
U.S. officials looking at the orders say this request from Israel differed from previous ones in that Israeli officials made explicit reference to the idea that the rifles might be given to civilian groups. Israel placed at least one other large order of rifles this fall. Given the violence by settler extremists, that also prompted concerns from some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. The senator is among lawmakers pressing the Biden administration for assurances on the current orders.
The United States regularly sells a wide range of weapons to Israel, including the powerful munitions the Israeli military is now using to pummel Gaza. Biden has asked Congress for an additional $14 billion of military aid for Israel, even as criticism of his position is rising among Democrats.
Israel is buying more than three-quarters of the pending rifles from Colt’s Manufacturing. The orders include M4s and MK18s, and some are ready to be shipped out while others still need to be made.
Asked about the intentions for the rifles, the Israeli Embassy in Washington said, “These questions and others came up and were duly addressed in the process of obtaining the U.S. government’s approval for the licensing and procurement of the firearms.”
Israeli officials and settlers say the mass distribution of weapons to civilians is necessary to prevent a repeat of the Hamas-led attacks last month on southern Israeli towns, when unarmed civilians were forced to defend themselves for hours before security forces arrived. The National Security Ministry, which oversees the police and is run by Ben-Gvir, says newly armed civilians will be organized into what it describes as “security squads” in each city that are trained by police and placed under the control of the local police force.
“Guns in the right hands save lives! We saw that in the first days of the war,” said Ben-Gvir, who has criminal convictions for anti-Arab incitement and support for a terrorist group.
“Every place there were guns, the scope of the catastrophe was smaller,” he added in a social media post.
In parallel, the government has made it easier for citizens to obtain gun licenses, a move that Ben-Gvir has said will allow 400,000 more civilians, or roughly 4% of the population, to get a gun.
In late October, Ben-Gvir posted photographs showing him handing out assault rifles to civilians at a political event. The images alarmed officials in the Biden administration and in Congress.
Critics say the new measures will create civilian militias that could target members of Israel’s Palestinian minority, who form roughly one-fifth of Israel’s 9 million citizens, as well as the Palestinians living in the West Bank.
“It’s a very dangerous step,” said Rula Daood, a co-director of Standing Together, a grassroots movement that promotes equality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“They are using this war to give civilians what they call protection from danger,” Daood said. “But when they say danger, they mean the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. The people receiving these guns are extreme right-wing people who believe there should be first-class and second-class citizens.”
Those fears have heightened because the process has been overseen by Ben-Gvir, who was barred from serving in the Israeli military as a teenager in the 1990s because of concerns in the security services about his extremist views.
Until 2020, Ben-Gvir displayed a large photograph in his living room of a Jewish mass murderer who killed 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994.
Ben-Gvir’s ministry and Netanyahu’s office did not respond to queries about how many weapons would be provided to Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
In a statement on Oct. 10, Ben-Gvir’s political party, Jewish Power, said the minister would distribute 10,000 rifles to civilians, some of them in West Bank settlements. In a subsequent statement Wednesday, Ben-Gvir’s ministry identified 57 towns and cities that it said would be among 1,000 places to receive the guns; none of the 57 were in the West Bank.
In a separate initiative, a settler council in the northern West Bank said on Oct. 24 that it was independently issuing more than 300 guns to civilian settlers.
Just as settler-led violence against Palestinians is at a two-decade high, according to U.N. records, so are deadly Arab attacks against Israelis in the West Bank.
Naomi Kahn, a spokesperson for Regavim, an advocacy group that lobbies for settler interests, said that “the data regarding Arab violence against Jews — in Judea and Samaria and throughout sovereign Israel — explains why emergency security squads are necessary.”
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