Biden weighs more than $1 billion in new arms for Israel

Much of Gaza’s urban landscape has been flattened during the war. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Much of Gaza’s urban landscape has been flattened during the war. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

The Biden administration is considering supplying tank shells, mortars and vehicles in one of the largest transfers since the start of the war in Gaza.

The Biden administration is considering more than $1 billion dollars in new weapons deals for Israel including tank ammunition, military vehicles and mortar rounds, U.S. officials said, at a time of heightened scrutiny of the use of American-made weapons in the war in Gaza.

The proposed weapons transfers—which would be in addition to those in a military aid deal currently before the Congress—would be among the largest to Israel since it invaded Gaza in response to Hamas’s attack that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, on Oct. 7.

The sales would also be the first since Iran launched an unprecedented direct missile and drone attack on Israel last weekend in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general in Syria on April 1. Israel responded to that attack overnight in what appeared to be a limited strike, after it came under pressure from the U.S. not to further escalate the confrontation.

The deals under consideration include transfers of $700 million in 120 mm tank ammunition, $500 million in tactical vehicles and less than $100 million in 120 mm mortar rounds, U.S. officials said. The sales would need signoff from congressional leaders and could take months or years to be delivered.

The U.S. has said it delivers weapons to Israel, which are usually paid for with American government funding, in part to bolster Israel’s long-term defense. In this case, the new tank and mortar rounds could be used to replenish Israel’s stocks depleted during more than half a year of war in Gaza.

The proposal would likely face obstacles among some American lawmakers who oppose giving Israel more U.S. weapons, even if they are for threats outside of the current war.

The administration is under pressure from a growing number of Democrats in Congress to cut back weapons supplies to pressure Israel into doing more to prevent the killing of civilians in Gaza, where more than 33,000 people have died, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian health officials.

Food shipments have increased, but continued shortages and aid-distribution difficulties risk a looming famine in the enclave, the U.N. says.

The State Department and Pentagon declined to comment. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Israeli Ministry of Defense also declined to comment.

The U.S. has sent Israel tens of thousands of bombs, tank and artillery ammunition, precision weapons and air-defense equipment since the war began, often drawing on $23 billion dollars worth of weapons transfers that have been previously approved by Congress. The tank rounds, vehicles and mortars would be a rare example of new weapons deals with Israel during the war.

Israeli forces have used tanks extensively while battling Hamas in Gaza’s densely populated cities. Human-rights groups and some western officials have criticized the tactics for contributing to the extensive destruction of the urban landscape there.

“It’s a signal of unconditional military support," said Brian Finucane, a former attorney for the State Department and now a senior adviser at International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization. “The U.S. has yet to use the leverage it has with arms transfers to shape Israeli behavior."

Israel says the destruction has been the inevitable consequence of combating a guerrilla army that fights from civilian infrastructure.

Separately, the House is set to vote this weekend on a pair of bills that would unlock tens of billions of dollars in military assistance for both Ukraine and Israel. A monthslong standoff between the administration and Republicans in Congress, particularly over funding for Ukraine, has threatened supplies of weapons for both countries. The effort to arm both countries took on a new urgency following the Iranian attack.

Initially combined into one bill but now split into two, the legislation includes about $26 billion in funding for Israel, including $5.2 billion in spending on air defenses, $1 billion for the production of artillery, and billions of dollars for other weapons systems and U.S. military operations undertaken in the region in response to recent attacks. It also includes about $9 billion for humanitarian assistance, some of which would help Gaza residents.

The separate transfers of tank rounds and mortars are expected to face more opposition in Congress, because they are among the weapons used in the war in Gaza rather than anything Israel could use to defend itself against long-range missile and drone attacks from Iran. Israel could use tanks if it were to launch a ground incursion in Lebanon against Iran-backed Hezbollah militants.

More than 50 members of Congress including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed a letter earlier in April urging President Biden to halt new transfers of offensive weapons to Israel following the Israeli military’s killing of a group of foreign aid workers in Gaza. Israel apologized for the attack and dismissed officers it said had violated its rules of engagement.

Israel has said it could launch a military offensive in the city of Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, an area where more than a million Palestinian civilians are sheltering from the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the offensive is needed to eliminate Hamas’s fighters in the area. The Biden administration has urged restraint, arguing that any attack on the area would endanger civilian lives.

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com

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