Most of Israel’s weapons imports come from the US. Now Biden is rushing even more arms.

Activists protest against war in Gaza as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testify during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing about the United States sending aid to Israel and Ukraine on Capitol Hill on October 31, 2023, in Washington, DC. | Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images

What the US sending Israel weapons “at the speed of war” looks like.

One area where the Biden administration has set itself apart is in sending weapons to partner countries, and now we’re getting a more complete picture of what the US is sending Israel in the weeks since October 7.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the US has ramped up its previously minimal military aid to the country to an unparalleled $46.7 billion. Ukraine towers over the other major recipients in bar charts of US security assistance for 2022 and ’23. The US is sending so many munitions there that it has apparently strained American factories and led to a whole-of-government effort to revive military supply chains.

The US is also accelerating arms transfers to Israel in response to Hamas’s October 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people and resulted in the kidnapping of more than 200. Last month, President Joe Biden announced from the Oval Office that he would seek “an unprecedented support package for Israel’s defense” of $14.3 billion. “We’re surging additional military assistance,” he added.

But while Ukraine has never been a traditional recipient of heavy military aid, the US’s most recent support of the Israeli military builds on a long bipartisan American practice. Israel has received about $3 billion annually, adjusted for inflation, for the last 50 years, and is the largest historical recipient of US security aid. The Obama administration in 2016 announced the biggest security assistance package to the country ever, pledging $38 billion for Israel over the next decade. US support has ensured that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge over neighboring Arab countries by having more advanced weapons systems, something Congress wrote into law in 2008.

Israel would not be able to conduct this war without the US, which over time has provided Israel with about 80 percent of the country’s weapons imports. Israel is using them as part of its large-scale military operation that has so far killed over 11,000 Palestinians and destroyed hospitals and civilian infrastructure. While it is the Israeli Defense Forces doing the killing, the extent of US aid has raised serious questions about American culpability. “Providing weapons that knowingly and significantly would contribute to unlawful attacks can make those providing them complicit in war crimes,” Human Rights Watch said.

Which weapons, exactly, the US is sending to fill Israel’s requests since October 7 has been hitherto kept secret — in contrast to how the US publicizes the weapons it delivers to Ukraine. But Bloomberg this week published a leaked Pentagon document that showed the US has delivered 2,000 Hellfire missiles that can be launched from Apache helicopters, as well as an array of other mortars and ammo, including “36,000 rounds of 30mm cannon ammunition, 1,800 of the requested M141 bunker-buster munitions and at least 3,500 night-vision devices.”

This year, military budgets around the world hit all-time highs. Israel in recent years has been growing its arms export business. It also imports significant weapons from the UK, Italy, Canada, and Germany, but 92 percent of what Israel gets comes from the United States. As researcher William Hartung wrote recently in The Nation, “Israel’s arsenal, and its arms industry, are by and large made in, and financed by, the USA.”

Why Biden’s team is so effective at getting weapons to Israel

The Biden administration has a robust understanding of weapons systems and the business behind them. While any mainstream US administration, Republican or Democrat, would likely be rushing weapons orders to Israel, this administration is uniquely qualified to do so, bringing to bear their successes on Ukraine arms transfer and experience advising weapons-makers. In the second year of his presidency, Biden’s arms sales overtook President Donald Trump’s, who himself had already overseen a big increase.

The House voted in favor of new military assistance to Israel but cut out the Ukraine aid component, so the Senate will likely not pass it. In the meantime, the Biden administration has been efficient and quiet about transfers, using creative tools to jump-start deliveries to Israel that include direct commercial sales from arms-makers (meaning the US isn’t financing the purchases but does allow American weapons manufacturers to sell to Israel), governmental financing vehicles that don’t require congressional approval, and hurrying up orders that were placed before October. Stockpiles meant for US use are also being diverted to Israel. As a senior Pentagon official put it, “expediting security assistance” to Israel has been task number one.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is a former board member of Raytheon, the major military contractor that co-produces Iron Dome receptors with the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. RTX, as Raytheon has been renamed, is one of the most significant providers to Israel. Austin and many other senior appointees to the Pentagon bring a depth of experience working for the arms industry. Even if they aren’t directly involved in the day-to-day — Austin has had to recuse himself from the Department of Defense’s dealings with Raytheon — the heft these appointments bring shows the seriousness with which the Biden administration takes the defense industrial base.

As Austin told the Senate, “We are flowing security assistance to Israel at the speed of war.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken co-founded WestExec Advisors in 2017, which has worked for military contractors, new military-tech startups, and Israeli companies. Blinken, for his part, advised the defense contractor Boeing, according to his financial disclosure. Last month, Boeing rushed the transfer of 1,000 smart bombs and 1,800 GPS-guidance bomb kits to Israel.

Shiny silver artillery shells stand in racks waiting to be painted.
Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Unfinished shells wait to be prepared for painting. The Scranton Army Ammunition Plant held a media day to show what they make. The plant makes a 155mm artillery shell.

Much of the team that worked to get Israel the $38 billion Obama package over 10 years is leading the way. Other key State Department officials include Daniel Shapiro, who also worked for the Israel spyware maker NSO Group when he was out of government. Intelligence leaders, too, bring vast experience. Avril Haines, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, has worked as an adviser to the data-processing powerhouse Palantir, which has been a staunch supporter of Israel and apparently provides advanced tech to the Israeli military.

The foundation of relationships between the defense industries in the US, Israel, and its other partners in the region also helps. When the world’s biggest aerospace and defense companies gathered at the Dubai Airshow this week, for example, Israeli defense firms and officials kept a low profile — but the big deals continued. Take the US-Israel-UAE triangle, which benefits each country. Boeing, an American company, signed a $52 billion airliner contract with a UAE carrier. On the sidelines of the fair, business people discussed “the impact of the demand for equipment stemming from the conflicts in Gaza” and “Close U.S.-U.A.E. alignment on the Israel-Gaza conflict,” according to the US-UAE Business Council. At the same time, Elbit Systems’ Emirati subsidiary is selling $53 million of military tech to the UAE.

The US has promoted the long lists of weapons it is sending to Ukraine, publishing one-pagers and tallies that go into great detail. But as the Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein noted, the Biden administration has kept the list of weapons it’s sending to Israel secret. The administration has also “sought permission to unilaterally blanket-approve the future sale of military equipment and weapons — like ballistic missiles and artillery ammunition  —  to Israel without notifying Congress,” according to the watchdog group Women for Weapons Trade Transparency. That would remove a key mechanism for oversight from lawmakers — and scrutiny from the public.

Who’s concerned about arms to Israel?

Many of these weapons are now being used in Gaza, with catastrophic humanitarian results. That has led the United Nations, French President Emmanuel Macron, and a number of international organizations to urge an immediate ceasefire. Human Rights Watch has called for war crimes investigations into the Israeli bombardment of the health care system.

“The emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy,” Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said last month. That heavy bombardment and death toll prompted the UN’s high commissioner for human rights to say Thursday that “the killing of so many civilians cannot be dismissed as collateral damage.”

Given this, some activists are protesting US military aid to Israel and are calling for a ceasefire. One group called Palestine Action has been staging actions in the US and the United Kingdom at the facilities of Elbit Systems, an Israeli military contractor. About 150 protesters picketed Raytheon Technologies in El Segundo, California, for its arms trade with Israel.

Josh Paul, a former senior State Department official overseeing arms sales who resigned in protest last month, has been straightforward in saying that Israel is in violation of international law. “It is my opinion that Israel is committing war crimes in its actions in Gaza right now,” he said. “And it’s not just my opinion. I’ve actually heard from officials across government, including elected officials at a very senior level, who share that opinion but aren’t willing to say it in public.”

Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images
A shipment of 155mm artillery shells used by the Israeli army is transported on a truck along a highway between Jerusalem and Beersheba in southern Israel on October 14, 2023.

This may be setting up Israel for a collision with the Biden administration.

In February 2022, Biden strengthened the human rights component of US arms transfers. The administration put a new emphasis on human rights in the Conventional Arms Transfer policy that added safeguards for “elevating the importance of protecting civilians.” The policy specifically restricted the transfer of weapons that are “more likely than not” to be used in atrocities, including violations of the Geneva Convention or of international humanitarian law.

The Biden administration may be “violating its own conventional arms transfer policy” by sending arms to Israel, as Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy recently told Jacobin.

But senior Biden officials insist the administration is upholding its commitments. “All of our arms transfers, including arms transfers to Israel, are rooted in the basic proposition that they will be used consistent with [the] law of armed conflict,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said last month. “There is no exception here and no difference here from any of our other arms transfers.” The administration regularly conveys to Israel the importance of humanitarian laws, that “innocent civilians must be taken [in]to account for any operation,” according to Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh.

Some of the concerns relate specifically to the kinds of weapons the US delivers. The document that Bloomberg obtained showed that the US is sending Israel 57,000 of the 155mm shells that are used in artillery guns. A group of humanitarian aid groups and security experts had sent a letter to the secretary of defense earlier in the week urging the Biden administration not to send these shells to Israel, saying they are “inherently indiscriminate” and “have a high error radius, often landing 25 meters away from the intended target,” which would be particularly destructive in a place as densely populated as Gaza.

As arms trade accelerates and scrutiny on Israel’s operations heightens, the reason for the strengthening of the arms transfer policy’s human rights component seems more relevant than ever. “It is not in the US national interest to engage in arms transfers where we assess that they are likely to be used in human rights violations,” Christopher Le Mon, a senior State Department official, said in March. “It does not advance our national interests, it does not advance our national security.”

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