Dec 13, 2023 - World

Scoop: U.S. delaying sale of M16 rifles to Israel over settler violence

A relative of late Palestinian Bilal Saleh shows a picture of an armed Israeli settler at the village of As-Sawiyah in the occupied West Bank on Nov. 29. Photo: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is again holding up the licenses for selling more than 20,000 U.S.-made rifles to Israel over concerns about attacks by extremist Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, two U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The decision to send the rifle deal for another review by the State Department signals the Biden administration remains concerned the Israeli government isn't doing enough to curb violence by extremist settlers.

Catch up quick: Israel in the first week of the war requested the rifles for civilian initial response teams in Israeli villages close to the borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Those teams of local residents receive weapons and training from the Israeli police in order to be first responders in case of a terror attack.

  • The Israeli request was treated with caution by the Biden administration because of concerns Itamar Ben Gvir, the ultra-nationalist minister of national security who oversees the police, would distribute the rifles to extremist settlers in the West Bank, according to U.S. officials.
  • The Biden administration and Congress approved the export licenses for U.S. defense companies only after being assured the weapons wouldn't go to civilian teams in Jewish settlements.

Behind the scenes: Several weeks after the deal was approved, the U.S. State Department decided to slow-walk the process and put the licenses under a new review, the U.S. officials said.

  • The U.S. officials said the reason for the new review was the feeling in the Biden administration that the Israeli government wasn't doing enough to tackle settler violence and claiming the U.S. is "inflating the issue."
  • The Biden administration was alarmed by a report in the Israeli press about a secret document written by the commander of the IDF central command that claimed Ben Gvir gave an order to the police not to arrest violent settlers in the West Bank.

What they're saying: "This deal isn't moving anywhere at the moment. We need more assurances from Israel about the steps it is going to take to curb attacks by violent settlers and to make sure no new U.S. weapons will reach settlers in the West Bank," a U.S. official said.

  • A State Department spokesperson said: "We are restricted from publicly confirming or commenting on details regarding direct commercial defense sales licensing activities."

The big picture: Last week the State Department announced it imposed sanctions on several dozen Israeli settlers believed to be involved in attacks against Palestinians, banning them from traveling to the U.S.

  • It was the first time the U.S. sanctioned extremist settlers since the Clinton administration.
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