In 2023, the United States exported a record number of handguns to Israel.  

A review of U.S. International Trade Commission data by The Trace found that in the first 11 months of last year, the number of handguns exported to Israel by U.S. manufacturers increased more than 300 percent compared to 2022, from about 10,000 to 43,000. In October and November alone, the U.S. exported more than 27,500 handguns to Israel — more than in any full year over the past two decades.

After the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and set off a widening conflict in the Middle East, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relaxed the licensing requirements for civilians to own firearms. Israel’s far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, called the move an “emergency operation to enable as many civilians as possible to arm themselves.”

Israelis have filed more than 300,000 applications for gun licenses over the last few months, more than the total submitted in the two decades prior to October’s massacre, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. More than 64,000 of the recent applications have already been approved. 

Recent months have also seen a massive increase in U.S. exports of other types of weapons, according to U.S. International Trade Commission data. The U.S. exported more than 8,000 military rifles to Israel between January and November of last year, up from just 35 during the same period in 2022 and 516 in 2021. Exports of ammunition and weapon parts have also increased. 

Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy who also directs the Forum on the Arms Trade, said the surge in U.S. gun exports reflects President Joe Biden’s support for arming Israel during its ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza.

“The Biden administration has been pretty clear that they are all in in terms of supplying Israel,” Abramson said. “So while alarming, it’s not surprising to see these numbers.” 

The surge comes as lawmakers and activists are voicing alarm about increasing violence against Palestinians by radical Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Such violence has increased since October 7. In December, the Biden administration delayed the sale of 20,000 U.S.-made M16 rifles to Israel over fears that they could be distributed to settlers in the West Bank. 

John Lindsay-Poland, a researcher and activist focused on human rights and demilitarization, pointed to reports that the Israeli government was providing military rifles to settlers and expressed concern that new imports from the U.S. could fuel attacks on West Bank Palestinians. There’s “a potential for rifles that are authorized for military use going to people who are not in the military,” Lindsay-Poland said.

West Bank settlements also have some of the highest rates of private handgun licenses, and settlers are able to purchase U.S. handguns inside Israel and return to the West Bank with little oversight

“So much of the attention when wars occur gets focused on the larger weapons, and often lost is the transfer of small arms and light weapons that really are essential in the perpetration of violence,” Abramson said.   

According to the United Nations, firearms have been used in the West Bank to kill more than 290 Palestinians and injure more than 1,400 others since October 7, though violence in the territory has been a growing concern for years

The U.S. State Department has urged Israel to do more to prevent violence by settlers in the West Bank. 

In 2020, the Trump administration shifted oversight of most gun exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department, making it easier for gun companies to send their products internationally. Critics warned that the Commerce Department lacked the ability to properly vet transfers and would prioritize sales and business over U.S. political and human rights interests abroad.

The Commerce Department subsequently oversaw a significant increase in gun exports, including to countries with problematic human rights records

In October, the Commerce Department announced that it was imposing a 90-day pause on export licenses for most civilian firearms to assess whether its policies aligned with U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives. But the pause, which was scheduled to expire on January 25, exempted gun exports to Israel. 

“The U.S. government will continue to support Israel’s ability to defend itself,” a Commerce Department spokesperson said in a statement to The Trace, adding that all necessary measures were being taken to “prevent weapons from being used in commission of violence in the West Bank.”

On January 24, four Democratic lawmakers, including senators Dick Durbin and Elizabeth Warren, sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo saying there was evidence to suggest that Israeli civilian militias were using U.S. weapons to “perpetrate shocking violence against Palestinian civilians.”

The lawmakers urged the Commerce Department to extend the pause and cap exports of firearms for civilian buyers. The department is reportedly crafting a new policy to tighten controls, but it’s unclear if any of the changes would curtail exports to Israel.