EXCLUSIVE-Biden Administration Presses Congress to Approve Tank Shells for Israel’s War in Gaza -Sources

REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., December 8, 2023.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration has asked Congress to approve the sale of 45,000 shells for Israel’s Merkava tanks for use in its offensive against Hamas in Gaza, according to four sources familiar with the matter, including a U.S. official and a former U.S. official.

The request is being made even as concerns grow about the use of U.S. weapons in a war that has killed thousands of civilians in the Palestinian enclave since Israel responded to an attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas militants.

The potential sale, worth more than $500 million, is not part of President Joe Biden’s $110.5 billion supplemental request that includes funding for Ukraine and Israel. It is under informal review by the Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees, which allows members the privilege to stall the sale, or have informal discussions with the administration about concerns.

The U.S. State Department is pushing the congressional committees to quickly approve the transaction, said a U.S. official and Josh Paul, a former State Department official, amid objections from rights advocates over the use of U.S.-made weapons in the conflict.

“This went to committees earlier this week and they are supposed to have 20 days to review Israel cases. State (Department) is pushing them to clear now,” said Paul, who in October resigned from the State Department in protest over what he called the administration’s “blind support” for Israel.

The administration is also weighing using Arms Export Control Act emergency authorities to allow a portion of the ammunition, 13,000 of the 45,000 shells, to bypass the committee and review period, two U.S. officials said, although a final decision was yet to be made. The move would allow Israel to prepare for contingencies given the high tensions in the region, one of the U.S. officials said.

A State Department spokesperson said as a matter of policy, “we do not confirm or comment on proposed defense transfers or sales until they have been formally notified to Congress.”

Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat on the chamber’s foreign relations committee, said congressional view was a critical step for large weapons sales.

“The administration should not consider short-circuiting the already short time frame for congressional review of this or any other arms transfer,” he said.

Online images of the war show that Israel regularly deploys Merkava tanks in its Gaza offensive and on its southern border with Lebanon, where skirmishes have erupted since Oct. 7.


The tanks are also linked to incidents that involved the death of journalists.

On Thursday, a Reuters investigation revealed that an Israeli tank crew killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and wounded six reporters by firing two shells in quick succession from Israel while the journalists were filming cross-border shelling.

Israel has sharply increased strikes on the Gaza Strip since a seven-day-long truce ended a week ago, 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.

Gaza’s health ministry said the death toll from Israel’s campaign in Gaza had risen to 17,487.

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.

Rights advocates expressed concern over the sale, saying it doesn’t align with Washington’s effort to press Israel to minimize civilian casualties.

“By continuing to provide Israel with weapons and diplomatic cover as it commits atrocities, including collectively punishing the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza, the U.S. risks complicity in war crimes,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch.

The United States on Friday also vetoed a proposed United Nations Security Council demand for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, a move that diplomatically isolated Washington as it shields its ally.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International said US-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) were used by the Israeli military in two air strikes on homes full of civilians, the first time a rights group has directly linked U.S. weapons to an attack that killed civilians.

Israel says it is providing detail about which areas are safe for civilians and how to reach them, and says Hamas is to blame for harm that befalls civilians because it operates among them, an accusation the Islamist group denies.

Israel launched what it says is a campaign to destroy Hamas after the Islamist militant group attacked Israeli towns in a surprise cross-border incursion on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages.