Betty McCollum introduces historic bill seeking to end US complicity for Israeli human rights abuses

Betty McCollum (D-MN)

Josh Ruebner

Mondoweiss  /  April 15, 2021

Rep. Betty McCollum’s latest bill is the boldest effort ever by Congress to ensure that the US is no longer complicit in Israel’s denial of freedom to five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced today her most comprehensive legislative initiative yet to promote Palestinian rights, H.R.2590, the Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act.

“U.S. assistance intended for Israel’s security must never be used to violate the human rights of Palestinian children, demolish the homes of Palestinian families, or to permanently annex Palestinian lands,” McCollum said. “Peace can only be achieved by respecting human rights, especially the rights of children, and this includes the U.S. taking responsibility for how taxpayer-funded aid is used by recipient countries, Israel included. Congress must stop ignoring the unjust and blatantly cruel mistreatment of Palestinian children and families living under Israeli military occupation.”

The legislation has 13 original sponsors: Reps. Bobby L. Rush (IL-01), Danny K. Davis (IL-07), Andre Carson (IN-07), Marie Newman (IL-03), Ilhan Omar (MN-05), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Cori Bush (MO-01), Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), and Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04)

It is also supported by over 75 organizations, including Palestinian human rights groups, US-based organizations led by Palestinian-Americans and Muslim-Americans, and US-based Palestine solidarity groups. 

Notably, the bill is also being supported by J Street, marking the first time this liberal Zionist organization has publicly backed a legislative initiative that seeks to condition weapons to Israel.

Even before the bill’s formal introduction, AIPAC vehemently opposed it, saying it would “undermine U.S. interests and make peace less likely.” This prompted McCollum to clap back on Twitter:

In the past two congressional sessions, McCollum introduced path-breaking legislation centering Palestinian rights. Her bills on Israel’s detention and ill-treatment of Palestinian children in Israel’s separate-and-unequal military judicial system sought to prevent US funding for this practice, and to establish a US fund for reporting on Israel’s abuses and providing rehabilitative services to Palestinian children subjected to abuse.

In the last Congress, McCollum also introduced a bill to ensure that US funds do not support Israel’s de jure annexation of additional Palestinian land, a prospect raised by the Trump administration’s green-lighting of Israel’s unilateral annexation of up to 30 percent of West Bank in its January 2020 so-called “deal of the century” plan.

McCollum’s latest bill both reiterates her opposition to Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinian children and the possibility of its formal annexation of additional West Bank land, and expands her critique of Israeli occupation policies, making it the most extensive legislative effort ever introduced in Congress to end US complicity in the human rights violations endemic to Israeli military occupation.

Ending US support for Israeli occupation

The bill notes that “Israel’s drive to perpetuate its control over the occupied West Bank results in other serious violations of international law, including the unlawful demolition of Palestinian homes and the forcible transfer of Palestinian civilians.” 

These policies “create oppressive conditions that leave Palestinians with no other choice than to leave their homes and lands.” 

“Israel’s drive to perpetuate its control over the occupied West Bank results in other serious violations of international law, including the unlawful demolition of Palestinian homes and the forcible transfer of Palestinian civilians.”

Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act.

While Members of Congress have protested Israeli home demolitions before–most notably in Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-CA) March 2020 letter to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, signed by more than 60 Democrats, opposing Israeli home demolitions in the Wadi Hummus neighborhood of Jerusalem and calling for an investigation into Israel’s potential violation of the Arms Export Control Act in demolishing homes with US weapons–McCollum’s new initiative is the first bill to address the issue.

This renewed congressional focus on Israel’s forcible displacement of Palestinians is well-timed, as Israel imminently plans to forcibly displace nearly 2,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem through the demolition of homes in Silwan and forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.             

Opposition to Israel’s forced displacement of Palestinians is operationalized in McCollum’s bill by prohibiting US funding for “the seizure, appropriation, or destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the Israeli-controlled and occupied West Bank in violation of international humanitarian law.”

As in her previous bills, McCollum’s latest bill would also prohibit US funding for Israel’s detention and ill-treatment of Palestinian children and the annexation of Palestinian land.

Transparency and accountability for U.S. support to Israel

The bill would also impose strict and detailed certification and reporting requirements on the Secretary of State. These requirements would verify whether the US funding prohibitions were being met, and provide details on the nature and extent of Israeli colonization, forced displacement of Palestinians, and ill-treatment of Palestinian children.

In addition, the bill would require an annual report from the General Accountability Office (GAO) to increase the transparency and accountability of US weapons flows to Israel. To date, the opacity of these transfers has made it difficult to track their use. As a result, holding Israel accountable for violations of the Arms Export Control Act and Leahy Laws has proved to be nearly impossible, even if the political will existed to enforce existing sanctions found in these laws.

Israel currently enjoys a unique exemption in US law that enables it to spend approximately one-quarter of US weapons funding on its own domestic weapons manufacturers. All other countries receiving funds from US taxpayers for weapons are required to spend this allocation exclusively on US weapons makers.   

Up until the Obama administration signed an agreement with Israel in 2016 to provide it with $38 billion in weapons over ten years, this portion of US weapons funding for Israel–known officially as Offshore Procurement–was completely impenetrable. 

The 2016 agreement phases out Offshore Procurement by 2028 and also requires Israel to report to the White House about these expenditures. However, these reports are not publicly available. McCollum’s bill mandating the GAO report would enable US taxpayers, for the first time, to know the Israeli weapons Israel is purchasing with US tax dollars.

The GAO report would also require details of end-use monitoring of US weapons by Israel. Currently, the United States does not track which Israeli units receive which weapons from the United States. This opacity makes it more difficult to hold Israel accountable for violations of the Leahy Laws, which provide for micro-targerted sanctions against specific military units and individuals committing grave violations of human rights with US weapons. This GAO report would better enable Israel to be held accountable for its actions under these laws.

By opposing and prohibiting funding to many of the Israeli policies of military occupation that violate the human rights of the Palestinian people, and by increasing the transparency around US weapons flows to Israel, McCollum’s latest bill is the boldest effort ever by Congress to ensure that the United States is no longer complicit in Israel’s denial of freedom to five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The legislation is supported by the following organizations: Adalah Justice Project, Al-Haq, Americans for Peace Now (APN), American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, American Friends Service Committee, American Muslims for Palestine, Arab American Institute, Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Center for Constitutional Rights, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Jewish Allies for a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace, Church of the Brethren – Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, Coalition of Palestinian American Organizations, CODEPINK, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), DAARNA, Dallas Palestine Coalition , Defense for Children International – Palestine, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Detention Watch Network, Disciples Israel Palestine Network, DSA BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group, The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Eyewitness Palestine, Freedom Forward, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), Friends of Sabeel – Colorado, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), Good Citizens Of DFW, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, IfNotNow, Institute for Policy Studies – New Internationalism Project, Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), J Street, The Jerusalem Fund, Jewish Voice for Peace Action, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, Justice Democrats, MADRE, Massachusetts Peace Action, Middle East Children’s Alliance, Movement for Black Lives, MPower Action Fund, National Council of Churches USA, National Lawyers Guild, National Union of Palestinian Youth, New Generation for Palestine, NGP Action, Norwegian Refugee Council, Palestine American League, Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace, Palestine Legal, Peace Action, Presbyterian Church (USA), Progressive Democrats of America, Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, Rebuilding Alliance, Reformed Church in America, ReThinking Foreign Policy, Sacramento Democrats for Justice in Palestine, Sacramento Regional Coalition for Palestinian Rights, Tree of Life Educational Fund, U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East, United Church of Christ, United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network, United Methodists for Kairos Response, United We Dream Network, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), US Palestinian Council, Veterans For Peace, Virginia Coalition for Human Rights, War Resisters League, Win Without War, and the Working Families Party.

Josh Ruebner is the Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting; former Policy Director at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Middle East Analyst at the Congressional Research Service; author of “Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State?” and “Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace”