Progressive lawmaker to introduce bill seeking more oversight of Israel assistance

Bonnie Cash

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) is expected to introduce legislation to exercise increased oversight of American assistance to Israel, as part of efforts to ensure no U.S. tax dollars contribute to alleged civil and human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The congresswoman is seeking original co-sponsors for the bill, with the deadline to join the legislation identified as Thursday.

The legislation is unlikely to gain wide backing in Congress amid robust Democratic, and universal Republican, support for Israel. The majority of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle oppose any efforts that would appear to condition military assistance to Israel.

President Biden has been vocal that he vehemently opposes conditioning military aid to Israel.

But the effort represents an ongoing divide among Democrats in how the party approaches the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, with the progressive wing pushing for the U.S. to exercise stronger concessions from Israel in an effort to support Palestinians.

McCollum’s draft text, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill, is a reworking of legislation she has introduced in previous congressional sessions that largely focuses on accountability for Israel’s detention of Palestinian children in the West Bank.

The State Department’s 2020 Country report on Human Rights did not cite detainment of Palestinian children by Israeli security forces, but the Israeli NGO B’tselem said that at least at least 157 Palestinian minors (age 18 and below) were detained or held in Israeli prisons in 2020. The group estimated 186 Palestinians aged 18 and younger were held as security detainees or in prison in 2019.

U.S. assistance to Israel is not provided without oversight; it is limited under federal law to defensive purposes for specific uses. Congress can also request the State and Defense departments to review whether U.S. assistance was involved in human rights abuses. 

Some lawmakers, like McCollum, are working to expand oversight requirements.

The draft legislation is expected to gain the backing of J Street, the left-leaning progressive pro-Israel group, which has long called for more oversight of such U.S. assistance but had withheld support of McCollum’s earlier bill proposals.

McCollum’s text calls for more oversight of the $3.8 billion the U.S. provides Israel annually, to ensure that none of the funds are used for Israel’s activities in the West Bank, including the detention of Palestinian children, the demolition or destruction of Palestinian property in the West Bank and “further annexation” of Palestinian land.

In November, 40 Democrats wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for him to condemn Israel’s demolition of a Palestinian-Beduin village on an Israeli military firing range in the Jordan Valley, that displaced an estimated 74 people, including 41 children. Lawmakers described the Israeli demolition as an attempt at “creeping annexation.”

The draft text of the Minnesota lawmaker’s bill further calls for increased reporting requirements from the State Department, to submit annually to Congress an assessment that none of the funds provided by the U.S. supports the Israeli government’s “personnel, training, lethal materials, equipment, facilities, logistics, transportation, or any other activity that supports or is associated” with activities defined as prohibited in the bill.

The draft text is a reworking of legislation McCollum introduced in the previous Congress, the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act.

That legislation, which failed to advance out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, garnered 24 co-sponsors, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), now the chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department and foreign operations.

Yet two lawmakers removed their co-sponsorship of the bill at the time, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), signaling its controversy.

President Biden has repeatedly said, as a candidate and nominee for president, that he opposes conditioning military aid to Israel. Since taking office, the president and his officials have reiterated “ironclad” commitments to Israel’s security and vowed to keep the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem that Trump moved from Tel Aviv in 2018.

At the same time, the president has taken steps to reverse Trump’s policies of stonewalling the Palestinians.

Biden restarted an estimated $235 million in funding to the Palestinians that was cut by the administration, including to the main Palestinian refugee agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Biden officials have acknowledged they view Israel’s presence in the West Bank as an occupation, a rejection of the former administration’s decision to recognize Israeli settlements as not inconsistent with international law. 

Tags Barbara Lee Betty McCollum Debbie Dingell Israel Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Rosa DeLauro

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