Progressives ramp up scrutiny of US funding for Israel
U.S. security assistance to Israel is coming under increasing scrutiny from progressive lawmakers in Congress after this month’s bloody conflict in Gaza.
A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, appears to be holding after more than 10 days of fighting that killed more than 240 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis.
But progressives are expected to keep pressing the concerns they voiced during the conflict, including questioning the once sacred cow of U.S. funding for Israel.
“A ceasefire is necessary, but will not alone achieve freedom, justice, and equality for all who live under Israel’s apartheid government,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the first Palestinian American woman in Congress, tweeted after the cease-fire was announced Thursday evening. “The U.S. must condition funding to uphold human rights, and end the funding entirely if those conditions are not met.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) similarly tweeted that “a ceasefire temporarily halts Hamas rockets and Israeli missile strikes, but this isn’t peace.”
“@POTUS: The Palestinian people deserve rights and freedom, not the daily repression of Israel’s ongoing military occupation,” she added.
In her tweet, McCollum included a hashtag promoting a bill she is sponsoring that would bar U.S. funding to Israel from being used to support “military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment” of Palestinian children, property seizures and forcible evictions in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the deployment of personnel or equipment to annex territory in the West Bank.
The legislation has just 22 co-sponsors, but McCollum chairs the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, giving her a powerful lever to pull as she and progressives seek conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel.
Those efforts, however, are likely to clash with influential Democratic leaders who continue to support U.S. aid to Israel. And Republicans are likely to use any effort to curtail or condition funding as an attack line, making the push by progressives unlikely to succeed.
President Biden even took a moment during remarks touting the cease-fire to note his support for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, which receives U.S. funding. The system intercepted most of the rockets Hamas fired during the recent conflict, keeping Israel’s death toll relatively low despite the thousands of incoming rockets.
“The prime minister also shared with me his appreciation for the Iron Dome system, which our nations developed together and which has saved lives of countless Israeli citizens, both Arab and Jew,” Biden said Thursday about a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I assured him of my full support to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system to ensure its defenses and security in the future.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that Biden believes the Iron Dome “saved hundreds of lives, maybe more than that.”
“We have no plans to change our security assistance that we’re providing to Israel,” she said at a press briefing Friday. “But I will say that the president’s view is that we need to move forward on a couple of fronts. Certainly, supporting the security of Israel is one of them. But another front is rebuilding, playing a constructive role in rebuilding Gaza, providing assistance and funding through the U.N. efforts to do exactly that, ensuring that it is not Hamas but it is the Palestinian people who benefit from that assistance.”
Israeli-Palestinian tensions first boiled over earlier this month when Israeli police raided Al-Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam, leaving hundreds of Palestinians wounded.
Over the course of 11 days, Hamas then fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel, at times overwhelming the Iron Dome. Israel responded with airstrikes it said were targeting Hamas fighters and their infrastructure that destroyed roads and buildings, including one that housed The Associated Press, other media outlets and several floors of apartments.
Throughout the conflict, progressives urged Biden to take a firmer hand with Netanyahu, frequently calling out the security assistance the United States provides Israel.
“We continue to provide the Israeli government with over $3 billion in military aid every year—with no conditions or accountability for wanton human rights abuses and continuing illegal seizures of Palestinian land,” Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), André Carson (D-Ind.) and Tlaib said in a joint statement on the day the tensions spiraled into a shooting war.
U.S. security assistance to Israel is set in a 10-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was signed by the Obama administration in 2016 and entered into force in 2018. Under the agreement, the United States is supposed to provide $3.8 billion in security assistance annually, though the funding is still subject to the congressional appropriations process.
The funding includes $3.3 billion in foreign military financing funds, which are essentially grants to buy U.S.-made weapons, and $500 million in missile defense assistance, including for the Iron Dome.
Since 2001, Israel has received $63 billion in U.S. security assistance, most of which was foreign military financing, according to the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor.
Supporters of U.S. funding for Israel are likely to use the MOU to bolster their case as they push back on progressive efforts to curtail the aid.
In an April letter, more than 300 House members urged the Appropriations Committee to “fulfill our commitments as agreed to in the 2016 MOU,” arguing that “security aid to Israel is a specific investment in the peace and prosperity of the entire Middle East.”
More than 100 House Republicans also pointed to the MOU in a letter to Biden on Wednesday.
Rocket attacks from Hamas “clearly demonstrate the critical importance of our security assistance to Israel, as agreed to in the 2016 U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding,” said the letter, organized by House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas).
“You previously stated, ‘I’m not going to place conditions for the security assistance given the serious threats that Israel is facing, and this would be, I think, irresponsible,’” the Wednesday letter continued, referring to comments Biden made during the 2020 presidential campaign.
“We urge you to uphold this commitment, and we continue to oppose any reductions in funding or added conditions on security assistance, which would be detrimental to Israel’s ability to defend itself against all threats, including the current assault,” the GOP lawmakers wrote.
The first test in progressives’ push to reexamine U.S. military aid to Israel could be a $735 million precision-guided munitions sale. The Biden administration notified Congress it approved the sale before the Gaza conflict started, but it became a flashpoint over the past week after news reports publicly revealed the sale.
A group of progressives led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced a resolution in the House to block the sale, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the Senate version.
Sanders insists he will be able to force a Senate vote, but it’s unclear whether he will since the congressional review period for the sale has ended. But even if the resolutions get floor votes, they are not expected to muster the support needed to pass.
Still, progressives see the effort as a tool to pressure Biden to shift policies on Israel, crediting their push with the president’s sharper messages to Netanyahu as the Gaza conflict escalated. And it could prove to be a microcosm of fights to come over U.S. military aid to Israel more generally.
“Our government is directly complicit in the human rights atrocities being inflicted by the Israeli military on Palestinians, and it is our job as members of Congress to make sure that we stop funding these abuses,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a co-sponsor of Ocasio-Cortez’s arms sale resolution, said in a statement on the measure.
“These atrocities are being funded by billions of our own American tax dollars while communities like mine in St. Louis are hurting and are in need of life-affirming investment here at home. As a country, we must stand up for the human rights of all people while insisting that our country prioritizes funding life, not destruction,” she added.
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