Biden administration bypasses Congress on weapons sales to Israel

For the second time in a month, the US approves munitions for Israel while calling for an end to mass civilian deaths.

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving in Israel on October 18 [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]
President Joe Biden's administration has continued weapons sales to Israel despite international criticism of the continuing carnage in Gaza [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

The administration of United States President Joe Biden has once again bypassed Congress to greenlight an emergency weapons sale to Israel, which has only intensified and broadened its attacks on the Gaza Strip despite growing international outrage.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress that he had made a second emergency determination in less than a month, covering a $147.5m sale of equipment to Israel, the State Department said on Friday.

“Given the urgency of Israel’s defensive needs, the secretary notified Congress that he had exercised his delegated authority to determine an emergency existed necessitating the immediate approval of the transfer,” it said.

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital to US national interests to ensure Israel is able to defend itself against the threats it faces.”

The package includes ancillary items, including fuses, charges and primers that Israel would require to make the 155mm shells that it had previously purchased, function.

Friday’s emergency determination, which is rare but has been used by at least four previous US administrations, means that a requirement for a potentially lengthy congressional review for foreign military sales will be bypassed.

Reporting from Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane said it was important to point out the broader context of the messaging.

“We’ve been hearing from all the top Biden administration officials for weeks that it is time for Israel to move to a lower-intensity conflict. In essence, stop the mass bombing. Stop the mass deaths of civilians,” she said.

“So, in that context – knowing that is what they say they want – they are now selling to Israel the exaction munitions they need to continue a high-intensity campaign.”

‘Morally scandalous’

Israel will also be purchasing 155mm M107 projectiles, which are artillery shells that will cause widespread destruction in a densely populated area such as Gaza, Culhane reported.

“They didn’t say exactly how many [shells] were going to be in this $147.5m package. But, in previous packages, it really does mean that thousands and thousands of bombs will be going to Israel.”

Ensuring Israel gets weapons to continue its intense phase of the war, while also urging it to lower the intensity of fighting, is “strategically self-defeating” for Washington, according to Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara, who called Friday’s decision “astounding”.

“One really has to look deep to see if there is any meaningful explanation for why the Biden administration wants to bypass Congress in order to expedite weapons to a country that is involved in war crimes,” he said on Saturday.

The move was “morally scandalous” given that the war has caused record damage and killed tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, Bishara said, but it is also “politically suspect in the sense that why would you want to bypass Congress twice in the same month? What is the urgency to bypass your own guidelines?”

On December 9, the Biden administration made another emergency determination to approve the sale to Israel of nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition worth more than $106m.

Basem Naim, a senior Hamas official, criticised the US’s role in the war, saying: “While these crimes have been committed with Israeli hands, they were sponsored and backed up by the US administration.”

In a televised statement on Saturday, he added that the group holds the Biden administration “accountable for their direct role in sponsoring and orchestrating this ongoing genocide against our people”.

‘Record’ devastation

The move to expedite more weapons comes as Biden’s request for an enormous $106bn package that includes aid for Ukraine, Israel and other perceived national security needs has yet to pass Congress, as it is entangled in a debate over US immigration and border security policies.

The Biden administration has tried to counter criticism over the mounting death toll in Gaza and continued US arms sales to Israel by saying it constantly maintains contact with Israel to stress the importance of minimising civilian casualties.

However, Luciana Zaccara, an associate professor in Gulf politics at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera it was pursuing a “dual-track” approach when it comes to the war.

“On the one hand they are trying to convince the public opinion that the US is really concerned about civilian casualties but also they keep sustaining Israel (militarily),” he said. “It is totally contradicting … it is hard to understand how this is in the national interest.”

The policy was especially perplexing in light of “mounting pressure” in the US, including among Democrats, against the war as civilian casualties in Gaza continue to rise, Zaccara said.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that the war “is generating destruction comparable in scale to the most devastating warfare in the modern record”.

By mid-December, Israel had dropped 29,000 bombs, munitions and shells on Gaza, destroying or damaging nearly 70 percent of homes, the report said.

Some Democratic lawmakers have suggested further significant aid to Israel should be contingent on concrete promises by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to curb civilian casualties in Gaza.

More than 21,000 Palestinians have now been killed in the besieged enclave since October 7, most of them children and women, in what has been widely described as collective punishment. Thousands more are missing.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), said on Saturday that Israeli authorities continue to impose “severe restrictions” on humanitarian access despite deliveries of aid from Egypt and through the Rafah crossing.

He also said they are “creating a stream of baseless misinformation” to accuse aid agencies over gaps in deliveries.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned again that the conflict could spread to the wider region if not halted immediately.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies