WASHINGTON: 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 a US official and a former US official.
The request is being made even as concerns grow about the use of US 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.
The potential sale, worth more than US$500 million, is not part of President Joe Biden’s US$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.
But the US state department is pushing the congressional committees to quickly approve the transaction, said a US official and Josh Paul, a former state department spokesman, amid objections from rights advocates over the use of US-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,” Paul told Reuters.
A state department spokesman said as a matter of policy, “we do not confirm or comment on proposed defence transfers or sales until they have been formally notified to Congress.”
Reuters could not establish why the state department would be pushing to clear the sale quickly.
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.
As the war intensified, how and where exactly the US weapons are used in the conflict has come under more scrutiny, even though US officials say there are no plans to put conditions on military aid to Israel or to consider withholding some of it.
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 US 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.
Gaza’s health ministry on Friday said the death toll from Israel’s campaign in Gaza had risen to 17,487, with thousands more missing and presumed buried under rubble.
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.