state department bypasses congress to approve israels order for tank ammunition

It is the first time the Biden administration has declared an emergency to expedite arms shipments to the Middle East, which are controversial because of the civilian death toll from Israeli airstrikes.

The State Department is pushing through a government sale to Israel of 13,000 rounds of tank ammunition, bypassing a congressional review process that is generally required for arms sales to foreign nations, according to a State Department official and an online post by the Defense Department on Saturday.

The State Department notified congressional committees at 11 p.m. on Friday that it was moving ahead with the sale, valued at more than $106 million, even though Congress had not finished an informal review of a larger order from Israel for tank rounds.

The department invoked an emergency provision in the Arms Export Control Act, the State Department official and a congressional official told The New York Times. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities over the sales. The arms shipment has been put on an expedited track, and Congress has no power to stop it.

The Defense Department posted a notification of the sale before noon on Saturday. It said Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had informed Congress on Friday that “an emergency exists that requires the immediate sale.”

It is the first time that the State Department had invoked the emergency provision for an arms shipment to the Middle East since May 2019, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a move that was criticized by lawmakers and some career officials inside the State Department.

The State Department has used the emergency provision at least two times since 2022 to rush arms to Ukraine for its defense against Russia’s invasion.

But in the case of the Israel-Gaza war, there has been growing condemnation in the United States and abroad of the way Israel is carrying out its offensive. The State Department’s decision to bypass Congress appeared to reflect an awareness of some Democratic lawmakers’ criticism of the Biden administration for supplying arms to Israel with no conditions or scrutiny.

Israeli airstrikes and ground operations have killed more than 15,000 Palestinians in Gaza, and about 40 percent of those fatalities have been children, according to the health ministry in Gaza. The war started on Oct. 7 when Hamas launched cross-border attacks in Israel, killing at least 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and abducting about 240 others, according to Israeli authorities.

Thirteen Democratic senators announced Thursday that they were working on legislation to require greater evidence from nations receiving U.S. weapons that their militaries are not committing war crimes.

The sale is certain to infuriate Arab leaders, who have sharply criticized the Biden administration’s efforts to block international attempts, including in the United Nations, to pressure Israel for an immediate long-term cease-fire.

“The combination of the United States’ veto of a cease-fire resolution in the U.N., and this expedited provision of lethal arms to Israel, should cause some serious consideration of whether the secretary’s repeated assertions that the U.S. seeks to minimize civilian casualties in Israel’s operation in Gaza are sincere,” said Josh Paul, a former State Department official who worked on arms sales, referring to Mr. Blinken. (Mr. Paul resigned from the agency in October over U.S. weapons aid to Israel for its use in the Gaza war.)

The 13,000 rounds are one tranche of a larger order from Israel of 45,000 rounds of ammunition for Merkava tanks that the State Department aims to approve, but that is under informal review by two congressional committees that have oversight of arms sales, congressional officials said. The total order is valued at more than $500 million. The New York Times and Reuters reported Friday on the order from Israel.

During the informal review process, committee members can ask the State Department questions about the weapons sale, in particular how the arms will be used and whether the purchaser will work to lessen civilian casualties. Once the relevant committees sign off, the State Department issues a formal notification to Congress of the sales.

“Congressional review is a critical step for examining any large arms sale,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, said in a statement to The Times on Saturday, after being asked about the State Department’s expedited approval. “The administration’s decision to short-circuit what is already a quick time frame for congressional review undermines transparency and weakens accountability. The public deserves better.”

Although most of the civilian casualties in Gaza are caused by heavy Israeli airstrikes, some Palestinian journalists have taken video footage or photographs of what they say are Israeli armored vehicles firing on civilians.

And on Thursday, the Reuters news agency published an investigation that concluded a strike by an Israeli tank crew had killed one of its video journalists, Issam Abdallah, in South Lebanon on Oct. 13. The strike severely injured an Agence France-Presse photographer, Christina Assi, and wounded five other journalists.

“Issam was not in an active combat zone when he was struck,” Reuters said in a statement. “He and his colleagues were alongside journalists from other news outlets, in an area far from active conflict.”

Human Rights Watch, which did its own investigation, and Amnesty International both called the attack a war crime.

The Israeli military says it does not target civilians. In the case of the tank strike that killed Mr. Abdallah and injured the others, it has argued they were in a conflict area, despite there being no evidence of combatants or fighting around the journalists at the time.

On Thursday, Mr. Blinken said at a news conference that “it is imperative — it remains imperative — that Israel put a premium on civilian protection, and there does remain a gap between exactly what I said when I was there, the intent to protect civilians, and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground.”

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