DeSantis administration claims it helped send weapons to Israel — but provides few details

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ response to the war in Israel may have gone way beyond just flying medical supplies to the country and ferrying out Americans, including trying to aid the shipment of weapons and ammunition — though his administration provided few details.

The governor’s administration said on Thursday for the first time that Florida taxpayers picked up the bill to transport drones, body armor and helmets for first responders to Israel. In addition, the state also worked to “help get clearance on flights sending weapons and ammunition to Israel through private parties.”

“The weapons and ammunition, which were not purchased by the state, were transported separately,” Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in a text message. He added that the Israeli authorities reached out to Florida “for assistance to clear federal bureaucratic hurdles associated with getting those items to Israel.”

Redfern also said that the helmets and body armor shipped on the cargo planes were not purchased by the state.

The new details to Florida’s Israel operations were first reported by CNN and the Associated Press on Thursday and drew an immediate rebuke from Democrats in the Sunshine State. But a White House official downplayed the reports when asked about it.

“I would certainly let the governor speak to what Florida’s doing,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in Washington, D.C., when asked about it. “It is not illegal for the governor of a state to offer a measure of foreign assistance to another country. There are laws and regulations which govern how the export process is handled and that’s all done through Commerce.”

The governor’s office has not provided information on what kind of weapons or ammunition were sent, more specifics on how the state helped, or who are the private parties involved.

There also appeared initially to be conflicting accounts about how the effort was put together.

Redfern, in a statement, said the cargo plane shipments were arranged in “consultation” with the Israel consul general in Miami. Redfern said the administration also worked with the consul general to get clearance on the flights transporting weapons and ammunition.

But Maor Elbaz-Starinsky, the consul general, initially told the Associated Press he did not request drones, body armor or helmets, nor had he talked to the governor about help getting weapons or ammunition through private parties. But Elbaz-Starinsky later told McClatchy that he had, in fact, spoken to the DeSantis administration and asked it and others to help get final approval for a private shipment of weapons parts during the first week of the war in the Middle East.

“They asked me to help. I approached a few contacts, including the governor’s office, to get the final approval,” he told McClatchy. “It went through all the process. I’m not even sure, at the end of the day, which one untangled this thing and made the shipment be approved.”

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ attack on Israel, DeSantis, who has long touted his support of Israel, called for increased sanctions on Iran, which is aligned with groups opposed to Israel, and declared a state of emergency that allowed him to tap into a special state disaster fund without legislative approval to help pay for flights that have brought back roughly 700 Americans.

The moves come as DeSantis, who has been campaigning for president, has slammed the Biden administration — as well as former President Donald Trump — over Israel. DeSantis hit Trump, his one-time political ally-turned chief rival for the GOP nomination, over the former president’s criticism of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But DeSantis this week also had a top Jewish Republican in Florida withdraw his endorsement of the governor after saying DeSantis had not done enough to counter antisemitism.

So far, the state has issued purchase orders for transportation worth up to $32 million for three different companies, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, including $19 million to a company that was previously hired to helped with DeSantis’ controversial migrant transport program.

The state paid ARS Worldwide for charters to transport Americans back from Israel as well as to fly cargo planes to the country.

On Tuesday, the DeSantis administration drew attention to the cargo planes and in a release saying they were carrying 85 pallets that included “medical supplies, clothing items, hygiene products and children’s toys.” Some of the medical supplies listed were hospital gowns, needles and syringes.

The release, which included a brief video showing the loading of the planes, said that Elbaz-Starinsky observed the loading and departure of the planes.

Florida Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried, who is Jewish, slammed DeSantis for his assistance in trying to help get ammunition and weapons to Israel, saying Biden is the “commander-in-chief.”

“The Florida Democratic Party unequivocally supports Israel’s right to self-defense, and American military support for those efforts must come from the U.S. Government — not a handshake deal between a wannabe president and undefined ‘private parties,’” Fried said in a statement. “Instead of meddling with military operations to score political points for his failing presidential campaign, Ron needs to stand down and let President Biden do his job.”

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