The United States has reportedly delayed a shipment of 4,500 M-16 rifles amid fears that the National Security Ministry led by far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir is using them to arm settlers in the West Bank and is inappropriately distributing the weapons at political events.
The $13 million purchase from American suppliers was supposed to arm civilian security squads in towns throughout the country, The Marker business daily reported Tuesday. Ben Gvir has been arming the squads since the October 7 massacre, during which many of the towns targeted were not properly equipped to defend themselves from Hamas terrorists.
But Ben Gvir has made a point of turning the distribution of American-made weapons into political events, publishing photographs of himself with the newly armed security squads, and angering the US State Department in the process.
Last month, The Marker reported that the US had warned Israel that it would halt the weapon supplies if Ben Gvir did not cease politicizing their distribution.
Quiet negotiations were held between the countries, culminating in an agreement stipulating that the weapons would only be distributed by the IDF or the police and that they would not be given to Israelis beyond the Green Line amid an uptick in settler violence targeting Palestinians, the report said.
Israel also agreed that the civilian security squads would be designated as auxiliary forces of the police and would be required to don yellow vests so that they are clearly differentiated from the rest of the public.
השר לביטחון לאומי איתמר בן גביר בחלוקת עשרות נשקים למתנדבים חרדים בכיתת הכוננות בעיר אלעד. pic.twitter.com/1Skmb64JBA
— ישי כהן (@ishaycoen) October 16, 2023
But last week, Hebrew media reported that police were still conditioning the distribution of weapons to security squads on recipients agreeing to take part in a ceremony with Ben Gvir while the rifles were handed out.
Responding to The Marker’s report, Ben Gvir insisted in a statement that there was no delay in the shipment of M-16s from the US. “These are bureaucratic procedures that take a long time, often more than a year,” he said.
“The National Security Ministry has been working since the outbreak of the war to speed up the procedures and shorten the delivery time [for such weapons]. The shipment is expected to be sent to Israel in the coming weeks,” he claimed.
However, The Marker reported that Ben Gvir’s office had actually instructed authorities to begin prioritizing local arms suppliers, including at the expense of existing contracts with suppliers abroad.
Accordingly, a shipment of rifles that was supposed to be sent to the Philippines was canceled and is being re-purposed for use by the defense establishment, the report said.
The delayed shipment of 4,500 M-16s also raises concern that an even larger shipment of 15,000 rifles from the US ordered by the National Security Ministry will also be placed on hold.
חוזר כעת מחלוקת נשק ברמלה, בשבוע האחרון חילקנו אלפי נשקים בדרום ובצפון. מכאן אני ממשיך לחלוקת נשק בערים נוספות, וזה בנוסף לעשרות הקלות משמעותיות וכניסת מאות אלפי אזרחי ישראל למעגל הזכאים לנשק. אני קורא לכל מי שזכאי – נשק מציל חיים. לכו ת ת ח מ ש ו! pic.twitter.com/IBszPZGjQF
— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) October 16, 2023
Since the war, roughly 7,000 long rifles have been distributed to civilian security squads across the country, according to the report.
Ben Gvir’s policy has faced pushback from some civil society groups that argue that further arming the public will not contribute to security and risks an increase in domestic violence incidents.
The Tuesday report came days after US President Joe Biden threatened for the first time to issue visa bans against the perpetrators of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, which has spiked since the beginning of the war.
As many as seven Palestinians have been killed by extremist settlers, although the circumstances of some of those incidents are not clear and an exact determination as to whether these individuals were killed by gunfire from settlers or Israeli security forces has not been possible.
According to the left-wing Yesh Din rights group, there have been more than 185 settler attacks against Palestinians in over 84 towns and villages around the territory since October 7.
“I have been emphatic with Israel’s leaders that extremist violence against Palestinians in the West Bank must stop and that those committing the violence must be held accountable,” Biden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “The United States is prepared to take our own steps, including issuing visa bans against extremists attacking civilians in the West Bank.”
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Monday that the Biden administration is considering additional steps to address the ongoing phenomenon, which has seen a major increase since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.
Miller said during a press briefing that if the Israeli government starts taking steps to hold violent settlers who have been targeting Palestinians accountable, “that’s certainly something we would welcome… and [take] into account [as we consider] what kind of [further] actions we might take.”