Nov 6, 2023 - World

Scoop: Israel assures U.S. new M16s won't go to West Bank settlers

A picture shows a general view of the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, in February. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

A picture shows a general view of the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, in February. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration allowed Israel to buy thousands of M16 rifles from U.S. defense companies only after being assured the weapons wouldn't go to civilian teams in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, according to four U.S. and Israeli officials with direct knowledge of the deal.

Why it matters: The Israeli commitment was a key condition the administration and members of Congress demanded before approving the sale of the rifles, which the Israeli government urgently requested after the Oct.7 Hamas terrorist attack, the officials said.

  • Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is one of the lawmakers who raised concerns about the potential diversion of arms to West Bank settlers, and asked that any sales not be used to fuel extremist violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, a source with direct knowledge said.
  • It's unusual for the U.S. to attach such a condition on weapon sales to Israel, and reflects the sensitive nature of the deal at a time of rising concerns about violence against Palestinian citizens during Israel's military mission against Hamas in Gaza.
  • President Biden raised concerns about attacks on West Bank Palestinians during a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 10 days ago. A day later, Biden said publicly the attacks by extremist Jewish settlers were "pouring gasoline on the fire."

Catch up quick: Israeli villages close to the borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria and in Israeli settlements in the West Bank have civilian initial response teams, made up of local residents who receive weapons and training from the Police or the IDF in order to be first responders in case of a terror attack.

  • Hamas' attack caught the Israeli military by surprise, leaving civilian initial response teams in Israeli villages on the border with Gaza to fight against large groups of militants.
  • The civilian teams were outgunned compared to the Hamas militants.
  • Many of these first responders were among the 1,400 people killed in the Hamas attacks.

Driving the news: After Oct. 7, the Israeli Ministry of National Security, which is in charge of police, wanted to purchase M16 rifles to arm civilian response teams across the country to prepare for any future attacks.

  • But Biden administration officials and senators expressed concerns that Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist minister of national security, would give the rifles to civilian response teams in West Bank settlements, where violence by extremist settlers against Palestinians has escalated, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.
  • Because the rifles were needed for the Israeli police, they weren't purchased in the usual channel between the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the Department of Defense.
  • Instead, the purchases were done through tenders to private defense companies in the U.S. who had to get commercial defense export licenses from the State Department.

Behind the scenes: U.S. officials said Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Herzog and other Israeli officials gave the Biden administration assurances that the weapons would be given only to civilian initial response units within the territorial jurisdiction of Israeli national police.

  • Israeli police oversee civilian units that operate within Israel, not the West Bank. Such units in West Bank settlements are under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Defense Forces.
  • After the assurances were given, the sale of M16 rifles was approved by the Biden administration and signed off by the Senate Foreign Relations and the House Foreign Affairs Committees.

What they're saying: The State Department is restricted from publicly commenting or confirming details of license approves for commercial weapons sales, but it did confirm that diplomatic consultations took place to address potential concerns on this deal.

  • "We received assurances from the Israelis that these rifles will only go to Israeli national police-controlled units," Jessica Lewis, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told Axios.
  • The Israeli Embassy in Washington said in a statement that "receiving the approval for transferring the U.S.-made rifles to Israel happened after an orderly process with the Biden administration during which Israel responded to issues that had to do with U.S. government policy and the limitation set in U.S. law."

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