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Israel-Palestine war: US guns may already be arming West Bank settlers, former official warns

Concerns over a recent Israeli order of US rifles have made headlines. But even if American guns aren’t in settler hands, they have freed Israeli ones to be handed out, say experts

A group of settlers in the occupied West Bank village of Atuwani shout at residents while wielding guns in October 2023 (Courtesy of Mohammad al-Huraini)

When Israel’s National Security Minister Itamir Ben-Gvir started handing out assault rifles to civilians last month, there was a swift reaction from Washington.

Reportedly outraged, US officials were said to have threatened to halt arms shipments, including 24,000 new rifles that Ben-Gvir’s ministry had ordered from American companies.

The guns pictured at well-documented public events weren’t American or reportedly American-supplied. 

State Department officials and US lawmakers, however, were concerned that the new rifles could be given to settlers and used against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank where settler violence has jumped since 7 October from what were already record highs.

More than 200 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed in that time by Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Despite Israeli assurances that the guns would go to units under Israeli National Police control, inside the Green Line, the US has reportedly delayed the delivery of 4,500 M-16 rifles.

At least, this is what can be gleaned from Israeli and American media reports. The State Department on Thursday said it declined to comment on direct commercial sales and private diplomatic conversations.

But a former State Department official told Middle East Eye that it is “almost a certainty” that American guns are already being used by settlers in the West Bank.

And even if the weapons aren’t in settler hands, US guns exported to Israel, either financed with US military aid or bought commercially, will have freed Israeli guns to be handed to them, arms control experts say.

“Some of the guns that the US will have exported will have gone through license to the Israeli Defense Forces and, of course, most military age settlers are reservists,” said Josh Paul, who was a director in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs until he resigned last month.

“So they will have their guns from the IDF regardless of whether or not they are being handed out by Ben-Gvir in most cases.”

MEE asked the State Department if it shared Paul’s concern that US guns are likely already in the hands of settlers in the West Bank.

A spokesperson did not directly answer the question but said that governments that received US arms are responsible for complying with the conditions of the transfers and obligations under international law, including those related to human rights.

The spokesperson also said that equal resources should be dedicated to preventing extremist violence and bringing those responsible to justice, including members of the IDF and security forces, such as the Israeli National Police, who stand by or fail to intervene.

How many and what types of American guns have made their way to Israel over the years are questions that stump even seasoned arms control experts.  

The most detailed publicly available information shows that US exports to Israel of revolvers, pistols and certain kinds of rifles have jumped significantly in the first nine months of this year compared to the previous three.

But without full public data, it is impossible for US taxpayers and even lawmakers to gauge the scale of US gun exports to Israel and, critically, how much of that is underwritten by the US government.

“If all of these sales were completely transparent to Congress and to the public especially, I think there would be a lot more outrage,” Lillian Mauldin, a founding board member of Women for Weapons Trade Transparency and a research fellow at the Center for International Policy, told MEE.

“It’s in corporate interests for arms sales to be incredibly difficult to track down, even for people who have been in the arms control research field for decades.”

Meanwhile, experts say the US government programmes which monitor arms exports are not set up to track small arms after they are shipped. “Once they are gone, they are gone,” Paul said.

This leaves Palestinians in the West Bank like Mohammed al-Huraini with questions.

‘Made in the USA’?

Al-Huraini is from Atuwani, a 500 or so-person village tucked between mountains in the south Hebron Hills, among a dozen in Masafer Yatta

Here residents have faced expulsion threats and demolition orders since the Israeli army designated their land as a firing zone in 1981.

Now 19, Huraini has never known a time when he and his family weren’t under pressure to leave Atuwani. 

His grandmother, Fatemah, can’t see out of one eye after soldiers struck her during a protest in 2006. Last September, settlers broke both of his father Hafez’s arms. 

But since 7 October, Huraini says the situation in the village, captured in footage seen by MEE and described to him by friends and family who remain there while he attends university in Ramallah, has noticeably shifted. 

Settlers have stepped up attacks on residents, raiding homes and threatening to kill anyone who doesn’t leave. They are wearing military uniforms and all of them are armed. 

“It wasn’t like that before. The people now are afraid to confront [the settlers] because they don’t have anything in hand or anything to support them,” he said. 

His cousin, Zakaria al-Adra, was shot by settlers at close range on 12 October with exploding ammunition that ripped through his stomach. He has since had five operations. 

Fragments of bullets that hit Zakaria al-Adra when he was shot at close range by settlers in Atuwani on 12 October (Mohammad al-Huraini)
Fragments of bullets that hit Zakaria al-Adra when he was shot at close range by settlers in Atuwani on 12 October (Courtesy Mohammad al-Huraini)

The Huraini’s home was also raided and the family’s vegetable garden, which they had been growing for six years, was bulldozed and replaced with a tent. They are unable to move around on their property or travel to get groceries without being targeted, he said.

“If you step 20 meters from my house, they will immediately start to shoot,” he said. 

“Before at least you didn’t feel that you will be killed in cold blood. It’s easier now.”

Last year, after a weeks-long attack by the Israeli military and settlers on his village, Huraini found a tear gas canister outside his house that said “Made in USA” on it.

It wasn’t the first time he had seen a canister like that, but it was the first time he’d clocked the writing on it.

“We are being crushed under the power of US money and weapons,” he wrote at the time. “American citizens should know where their taxes go and what they fund.”

Now he wonders if any of the guns that have proliferated in recent weeks are American too.

Leahy shortcomings

Any US guns financed with or given as US military aid should be subject to the Leahy Law, named for Patrick Leahy, the former Democratic senator from Vermont, who sponsored the legislation in 1997.

Under the law, the US defence and state departments are prohibited from giving security assistance to foreign governments facing credible accusations of rights abuses.

But both Paul, the former State Department official in the bureau which oversees arms transfers, and Leahy himself have said the law has not been applied to Israel. 

“Over the years, I’ve complained to both Republican and Democratic administrations about the need to apply the law in Israel,” Leahy told the News & Citizen, a weekly newspaper in Vermont, last week.

“These administrations have argued that Israel has an independent judiciary, so it doesn’t really need to. We’ve seen the efforts recently to make the judiciary even less independent than it had been.”

Paul told MEE that inside the State Department, Israel is treated differently than “almost any other country in the world” when it comes to the Leahy Law.

“Rather than pre-vetting units before they get this stuff, we send the stuff and then we look out for human rights violations,” Paul said.

He has previously said that the department has found “many” examples of Israeli units suspected of gross violations of human rights, but has never been able to come to any conclusions which require senior officials to sign off. 

A State Department spokesperson did not comment directly on Paul and Leahy’s observations but told MEE that any country that receives US security assistance is expected to use it consistent with international humanitarian law and human rights law, and consistent with the agreements that govern its use. Israel, they said, is no exception.

Opaque details 

The American public, meanwhile, has limited information about the types and volume of guns that are exported to Israel, either through military aid or commercial sales.

The lack of transparency around US arms sales and military aid to Israel – the biggest recipient of US military aid worldwide – is well-documented.

The contrast between US government fact sheets on weapons it has given Ukraine, down to first aid kits and bandages, and the dearth of information about what is sent to Israel is stark.

This opaqueness is also true about guns sent to Israel: US firearm export data, whatever country is at the receiving end, is notoriously hard to come by.

This is, in part, because there are legal restrictions, written by fee-funded regulators, on what information can be provided about certain sales.

Congress, for example, is only told about arms sales valued above monetary thresholds which vary depending on sale type, but are higher for Nato countries and five others, including Israel.

This means that sales of small arms, which are less expensive relative to other weaponry, are particularly prone to flying under threshold and has left billions of dollars worth of sales “unreported to Congress and the American public”, Mauldin has said.

Details are also regularly withheld by US government departments overseeing arms export licensing because they argue that it is proprietary information that could undermine US companies. 

The most detailed information MEE was able to find were figures from the US Census Bureau which show that the total value of guns and related parts exported from the US to Israel have jumped in five different categories in the first nine months of this year alone compared to totals of the previous three.

The value of exported items that have increased significantly include revolvers and pistols, certain kinds of rifles, shotgun and rifle accessories and parts, and cartridges. 

Seth Binder, director of advocacy with the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, DC, said the spike suggested by the data isn’t a huge surprise given the intensity of settler attacks in the West Bank and the loosening of laws in Israel in recent years to allow more gun licences to be granted. 

“How much of that is coming from foreign military financing? It would be pretty interesting to know, but that information isn’t available,” Binder said. 

He’s right: US Census Bureau data doesn’t tell you whether US financing was provided to assist the Israeli government or companies with these purchases or if any were transferred without charge. 

So while the figures show that there has been a steep increase in military weapon parts and ammunition this year, how much of that has been underwritten by the US government – or taxpayer –  is unclear. But from bombs to guns, knowing the details matters, said Paul.

“There is an inherent US taxpayer interest here, first of all in how taxpayer dollars are being spent and whether the way they are being spent provides a net positive for US foreign policy,” he said.

In Israel, where American weapons tip the balance of the conflict, this is especially true.

“Small arms and light weapons can cause more harm than people give them credit for, in a more under the radar way,” said Mauldin.

“But the larger issue is that of course US funding will disproportionately affect the conflict when we give billions of dollars – basically a grant for Israel to buy whatever they would like from the US, including those small arms and light weapons.”

Limitations on monitoring

And there is another mystery: where are the US guns and parts already in Israel? Neither the State Department, which monitors commercial sales, nor the Defense Department, which monitors military sales, are geared to track small arms. 

The State Department’s Blue Lantern programme does end checks on about 2 percent of arms export licenses annually, usually focusing on new entities that pop up in license requests or areas where there are specific intelligence-driven concerns. 

“So for firearms to Israel, they would be very unlikely to do any kind of end-use checks assuming it is to the Israeli government and via known logistics entities,” Paul said.

The Defense Department’s Golden Sentry programme typically focuses on much larger weapons and is more of a check that weapons are in the arsenal where a foreign military says they are located.

Arm experts MEE spoke with in recent weeks have said the most straightforward way to trace US guns to the West Bank at this point would be through photo analysis.

But there’s also another way of looking at all of this: even if you can’t trace exactly where US firearms have ended up or that they are being used by settlers in the West Bank, the US is still implicated. 

“We are providing $3.8bn in military aid. That’s $3.8bn that the Israeli government doesn’t need to use on military equipment because we are providing it,” Binder said. 

Giving American guns to Israel – through military aid or commercial sales approved by the US government – operates the same way. 

“Israel has its own domestic industry and so, as they are making guarantees that they are not going to provide US guns to Israeli settlers, it does, in fact, free up Israeli guns to go to settlers,” he said.

It would be important and troubling if US-made weapons were being used by settlers right now, he said. 

“Nonetheless, if the Israeli military or whoever inside Green Line Israel is using US weapons and suddenly settlers are using Israeli ones, does that really matter?”

Huraini, who is preparing to return home to visit his family in Atuwani, said he is no gun expert and can’t be sure whether settlers are using American firearms in the footage he has collected over recent weeks.

But he finds it hard to understand how Americans would tolerate any spending. 

“The people are, in reality, supporting genocide, war crimes and violations of human rights by spending their money,” he said.

“I don’t know where it went exactly, for what help. But in the end, it is supporting this apartheid regime that committed everything against the people.”