Salih Booker & William D. Hartung
The Nation / May 21, 2021
US aid fuels the Israeli military. Could it also become a point of leverage for peace ?
Israel’s latest attack on Gaza—with a death toll of over 200 Palestinians so far, including more than 60 children—has once again raised the question of the US role in enabling Israeli killings of civilians. But while it is well-known that the United States is a major aid supplier to Israel, the degree to which the Israeli military relies on US planes, bombs, and missiles is not fully appreciated.
According to statistics compiled by the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor, the United States has provided Israel with $63 billion in security aid over the past two decades, over 90 percent of it from the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, a grant program that provides funds to buy US weaponry. But US support of the Israeli state goes back much further—total US military and economic aid to Israel exceeds $236 billion (in inflation-adjusted, 2018 dollars) since its founding—nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. Not only has US financial support helped Israel outfit its military, but it has been used to subsidize Israel’s development of its own military industry, which produces, among other things, armed drones that have been used for attacks on targets in Gaza.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) is a case in point. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Israel has 324 fighter and ground attack aircraft, all of US origin: 83 Boeing F-15s, 224 Lockheed Martin F-16s, and 16 Lockheed Martin F-35s. So, if someone asks whether US-supplied planes have been involved in bombing Gaza, it doesn’t require a research project to answer with an emphatic yes. Israel also possesses US attack helicopters, transport planes, precision-guided bombs, and air-to-surface missiles. And US aid powers the IAF, providing billions of dollars’ worth of fuel under the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.
Despite Israeli conduct, the aid spigot remains wide open. Israel is in the third year of a 10-year, $38 billion aid memorandum of understanding negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration. The United States does not make any comparable written agreement regarding a decade-long future financial commitment for foreign or domestic appropriations.
And earlier this month, on May 5, Congress was notified of a planned $735 million deal for precision-guided bombs destined for Israel.
Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) have introduced a resolution of disapproval to try to stop the sale, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has introduced a parallel measure in the Senate, the first time such a step has been taken with respect to an arms transfer to Israel.
From its bombing of Beirut during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon to December 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,383 Palestinians in Gaza, including 333 children, Israeli has largely escaped consequences for its misuse of US weaponry to harm and kill civilians on a large scale. That may be changing. The recent general strike by millions of Palestinians that was reinforced by large demonstrations across the United States is just the latest manifestation of years of organizing by Palestinians and their allies to change US policy towards Israel. Organizations like the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Adalah Justice Project, who have long been calling for a cutoff of US military aid to Israel, have been joined by allies throughout the broader US progressive movement, including the Movement for Black Lives, which has stated, “The fight for Palestinian rights and dignity is integral to the fight for human rights everywhere” and demanded that “the US divest the $3.8 billion of public dollars that goes to Israel in military funding each year.”
Human Rights Watch recently released a groundbreaking report that asserted that some of Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories led to “deprivations [that] are so severe that they amount to crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” And last month, the prominent centrist think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued a report calling for a “rights-based approach” to US policy on Israel/Palestine that “would prioritize protecting the rights and human security of Palestinians and Israelis.”
The political landscape in Congress is beginning to change as well. There’s still plenty of uncritical support for Israel on Capitol Hill, but the ground is shifting. One used to have to look far and wide for vocal support for Palestinian rights in the House or Senate, but on May 14 a group of House members—including Democratic Representatives Tlaib, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Pocan, Cori Bush, and Ayanna Pressley—took to the floor of the chamber to make a plea for the Biden administration to recognize the basic humanity of the Palestinians and to press harder for Israel to stop the killing. In a searing speech, Tlaib said, “We can’t have an honest conversation about American military support for the Israeli government without acknowledging that for Palestinians the catastrophe of displacement and dehumanization has been ongoing in their homeland since 1948.… We must condition aid to Israel on compliance with international human rights and end the apartheid.” And Senator Sanders took to the pages of The New York Times to call for “an evenhanded approach, one that upholds and strengthens international law regarding the protection of civilians, as well as existing U.S. law holding that the provision of U.S. military aid must not enable human rights abuses.” Even enforcing existing US human rights laws with respect to Israel’s use of US weaponry could go a long way toward ending impunity in the use of US armaments.
Perhaps the greatest sign of progress in Congress comes from the new bill by Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), which prohibits the use of US funds to enable violations of international and human rights law. The bill, which has 18 cosponsors, will face an uphill battle in Congress, but hills are made for climbing, and as public pressure for accountability over Israel’s use of military aid grows, so will support for the legislation.
In McCollum’s words, “Now is the time to send a clear message to the Israeli government: Not one dollar more of U.S. military aid can be used to demolish Palestinian homes, annex Palestinian lands, and torture or kill Palestinian children.”
As of late yesterday, the Israeli government and Hamas had announced a mutual cease-fire in Gaza, a goal the Biden administration had pressed in private conversations with Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials.
Hopefully the cease-fire will hold, but it is far from the only issue raised by the US arming of the Israeli military. On the whole, the Biden administration has been far too quiet in the face of ongoing Israeli atrocities. It should use the leverage provided by US aid to Israel to press forcefully for an end to the repression throughout Israel and the occupied territories, and to hold the Israeli government accountable for what Amnesty International has suggested may be war crimes committed in Gaza.
Salih Booker is the president and CEO of the Center for International Policy
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy