US delays sale of assault rifles to Israel over settler violence -sources

Israeli soldiers take position during the ongoing ground operation of the Israeli army against Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration is delaying the sale of more than 20,000 U.S.-made rifles to Israel over concerns about attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, two sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The State Department sent an informal notification for the sale to Congress several weeks ago. But the sale has not gone ahead, despite being cleared by the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees in early November.

"Other members of Congress became aware of this case, and reached out to the administration to demand they obtain assurances from Israel that the firearms will not go to settlers," a former U.S. official familiar with the sale said.

"The administration has been engaged with Israel in trying to get satisfactory assurances in that regard prior to formally notifying it. Under the license as drafted, these firearms can also go to Israeli police units about which the Department has significant human rights concerns," the former official said.

The State Department did not have a comment on the sale.

Since a 1967 Middle East war, Israel has occupied the West Bank, which Palestinians want as the core of an independent state. It has built Jewish settlements there that most countries deem illegal. Israel disputes this and cites historical and biblical ties to the land.

The Biden administration is specifically worried that some of these weapons could end up in the hands of Israeli settlers, two sources familiar with the sale said.

President Joe Biden and other senior U.S. officials have warned repeatedly that Israel must act to stop violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.

The violence, at a more-than-15-year high this year, increased after Israel began its war in Gaza in response to a cross-border rampage by Palestinian militant group Hamas on Oct. 7, the deadliest day in Israel's history.

The administration last week began imposing visa bans on people it said were involved in the violence.

Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, oversees the Israeli police force. Times of Israel newspaper in November reported that his ministry has put "a heavy emphasis on arming civilian security squads" in the aftermath of Oct.7.

In a speech on Wednesday Biden, naming Ben-Gvir, said he and his allies want to have "retribution" against all Palestinians.

Israel has sharply increased strikes on the Gaza Strip since a seven-day-long truce ended on Dec. 1, pounding the length of the Palestinian enclave and killing hundreds in a new, expanded phase of the war that Washington said veered from Israeli promises to do more to protect civilians.

As the war intensified, how and where exactly the U.S. weapons are used in the conflict has come under more scrutiny, even though U.S. officials say there are no plans to put conditions on military aid to Israel or to consider withholding some of it.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Patricia Zengerle and Mike Stone; Editing by Don Durfee and Grant McCool)