Israel's Netanyahu denies report of weapons for Palestinians

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced on Wednesday to deny a report his government had approved a shipment of weapons to Palestinian security forces after hard-right ministers in his coalition expressed outrage.

Israel's Army Radio reported that the United States had supplied 1,500 assault rifles to Palestinian security services in the occupied West Bank with Israel approving the deal on condition the weapons be used against the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.

Hardline Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose party backs policies favouring nationalist settler groups, reacted angrily, demanding that Netanyahu issue a public denial, while his coalition ally, Finance Minister Bezalel Smothrich, was reported by Israeli media to be "seething".

"Mr Prime Minister, if you do not assure (us), in your own voice, that the reports about handing over weapons to the Palestinian Authority's terrorists are wrong - it will have consequences," Ben-Gvir said in a statement.

In a video he sent out on his social media accounts, Netanyahu dismissed the report as "fake news" but said the government had approved the transfer of a number of armoured vehicles, which had been agreed by the previous government.

"That is what was done. Not military armoured vehicles, not tanks, not AK-47s, nothing," he said.

A spokesperson for the Palestinian security services, Talal Dweikat, denied the report on WAFA official news agency, saying that the Palestinian Authority received no equipment through Israel.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson also denied the report, saying "U.S. security assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not include provision of weapons or ammunition to the PA security forces".

The incident, 30 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority (PA), underlined the tensions that have appeared in Netanyahu's religious-nationalist coalition amid spiralling violence across the West Bank.

Israel has demanded sweeping crackdowns by the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited governance in some of the main centres of militant activity such as the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus. In turn, the PA accuses Israel of undermining its credibility and making it impossible to act against heavily armed militant groups, many supported by Iran.

The Islamist group Hamas condemned the reports of military aid to the Palestinian security services, saying the move aimed to "strengthen these apparatuses to confront the escalating resistance in the West Bank."

(Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by William Maclean)