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 semiautomatic and automatic rifles are valued at $34 million and are being ordered directly from American 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 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. Mr. Biden said on Oct. 25 that violence by “extremist settlers” was “pouring gasoline on fire.” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken raised concerns with Israeli leaders during his trip to Tel Aviv on Friday and spoke about the problem with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, in 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 accountable responsible,” the State Department said in a statement.
Both Mr. Biden and Mr. 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 I.N.P.-controlled units,” Jessica Lewis, the assistant secretary in the political-military affairs bureau, said in a statement to The Times, referring to the Israeli National Police.