U.S. seeks Israeli commitment that assault rifles won’t go to settlers

The Biden administration is seeking firmer commitments from Israel that U.S.-made weapons will not get into the hands of Israeli settlers before approving licenses to sell more than 20,000 assault rifles to Israel, said three people familiar with the matter.

Washington’s concern about the potential sale, worth about $34 million in total, comes amid a rise in violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank and growing Biden administration frustration about how Israel is conducting the war in southern Gaza.

“It’s an ongoing discussion,” said a U.S. official, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a proposed military sale.

While global attention has centered on Israel’s military operation in Gaza, the United Nations has reported that hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Oct. 7. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has recorded 320 settler attacks on Palestinians during that time.

Israeli officials have told their U.S. counterparts that the rifles would be used by the national police force, but concerns remain that the country’s ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, may give out the rifles to extremist settlers anyway.

Settlers are Israeli citizens who have established homes in territories that Israel occupied after the 1967 Six-Day War. The settlements are banned under international law and viewed by the Biden administration as a key impediment to a two-state solution. Some settlers have moved to the territories for religious reasons, others for the lower cost of living.

In recent weeks, congressional Democrats pushed the administration to obtain more commitments from Israel on how the rifles would be used but have not received responses they view as satisfactory.

Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, Ben Gvir has pushed to loosen strict firearm-licensing requirements and create more civilian “standby teams” to harden communities.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The holdup over the assault rifles represents a rare instance of reluctance by the Biden administration to provide weapons to Israel, after having expedited a substantial delivery of bombs and artillery to the country in the last two months.

In the first month and a half of the war, Israel dropped more than 22,000 guided and unguided bombs on Gaza that were supplied by Washington, according to intelligence figures provided to Congress. During that time, the United States has transferred at least 15,000 bombs, including 2,000-pound bunker busters, and more than 50,000 155mm artillery shells.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has raised U.S. concerns about settler violence with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to the State Department. U.S. officials have not seen “sufficient level of actions by the government of Israel that we think hold people properly accountable,” State Department spokesman Matt Miller said earlier this month.

The State Department announced Dec. 6 that it would impose visa restrictions on people believed to have attacked Palestinians in the West Bank.

On Monday, the European Union’s top diplomat said the bloc was preparing sanctions on Israeli settlers carrying out violence against Palestinians, in line with Washington’s moves.

“I believe the time has come to swap words for action … to take the measures that we can take with regard to acts of violence against Palestinian people in the West Bank,” the E.U.’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, told reporters in Brussels.

Hamas killed more than 1,200 people in Israel in its Oct. 7 assault and took more than 240 people hostage, 110 of whom have since been released. In retaliation, Israel has waged a fierce ground and aerial offensive in Gaza, killing more than 18,000 people, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Asked about the status of the pending assault rifle sale, a State Department official said: “We are restricted from publicly confirming or commenting on the status of licensed direct commercial defense sales activities.”

The person added that the Biden administration condemns “extremist violence and harassment against Palestinians and call[s] on Israel to protect all people in areas in which they provide security. We continue to engage Israeli leadership at the highest levels on this issue.”

“Accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of extremist violence, and equal resources dedicated to preventing such attacks and bringing those responsible for them to justice, including members of its security forces who stand by or fail to intervene,” the official said.

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1: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/12/13/us-israel-settler-assault-rifle/

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