[you shoot, we pay] US House approves $1bn for Israel’s Iron Dome after uproar

The $1bn in the Iron Dome funding bill is intended to replace missile interceptors Israel used during its offensive on Gaza in May (Reuters)

Ali Harb

Al-Jazeera  /  September 23, 2021

US House lawmakers overwhelmingly approve bill that would provide additional funding for Israeli missile defence system.

Washington, DC – The US House of Representatives has approved $1bn in additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system after days of controversy around the push.

Legislators passed the bill in a 420 to nine vote on Thursday, paving the way for a significant increase in US support for the system.

The bill will now go to the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily before being signed into law by President Joe Biden, who already has signalled support for the additional aid.

The move came amid an intensifying debate about US support for Israel and as a growing number of progressive voices in Congress are calling on Biden to condition US assistance to Israel on the country’s human rights record.

Earlier this week, the inclusion – and subsequent exclusion – of the Iron Dome funding from a different bill created an uproar in Washington.

The $1bn provision first appeared on Tuesday morning in proposed House of Representatives legislation aimed at providing short-term emergency funding for the US government to avoid a shutdown. But by the afternoon, it had been removed without explanation.

While various US media outlets have reported that progressive lawmakers were responsible for excluding the funding for Israel from Tuesday’s bill, no legislator has taken credit for the move.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), said it was “strange” to include $1bn in aid for Israel in a generic bill designed to fund the US government to “keep the lights on”.

Democratic leaders, she said, wanted to “circumvent” discussions and debates that come with that typical legislative process by including the aid for Israel in the short-term funding bill.

“It strikes me as a remarkable own-goal by leadership because if they somehow thought that this would prevent members from speaking up and allow them to get this through without controversy, they were mistaken,” Friedman told Al Jazeera earlier this week.

Although the $1bn is in addition to the usual US funding for the Iron Dome, Republicans and pro-Israel Democrats expressed anger at the eventual dropping of the provision.

Significant increase

Supporters of the added funding say it aims to “replenish” the Iron Dome batteries after the recent fighting in Gaza, but the $1bn approved by the House on Thursday represents a significant increase of US funding for the program.

Israel receives $3.8bn in US military assistance annually, codified through a 10-year memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by President Barack Obama in 2016. Of that, 500 million goes to missile defence annually.

Last year, Congress granted $73m for the Iron Dome specifically, one of several missile defence programs.

“A missile defense system (i.e. Iron Dome) defends civilians from missiles. Hence the name. Only in a morally inverted universe would this be considered a ‘controversy’,” Ritchie Torres, a first-term Democrat from New York, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the initial move to remove the Israel funding from the broader House bill “despicable”.

“I hope the American people are watching and understand that funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system is essential to the survival of the State of Israel, America’s most reliable ally in a troubled and dangerous region,” Graham tweeted on Tuesday.

There appeared to be a lot of confusion around the nature of the aid. Many lawmakers presented the removal of the provision on the Iron Dome funding on Tuesday as an end to US assistance to the missile defence program.

In reality, the regular Iron Dome assistance of $108m this year, part of the MoU-mandated annual aid, is included in the defence appropriations bill that was being debated almost simultaneously with Tuesday’s resolution.

The MoU says that Israel may not seek additional funding for missile defence from the US beyond the $500m allocation “except in exceptional circumstances”.

The House-approved bill on Thursday said the “funds shall be provided to address emergent requirements in support of Operation Guardian of the Walls”, referring to Israel’s offensive on Gaza that ended months ago.

‘More aid’

Pro-Israel legislators have been pushing for extra funding for Israel since the end of the fighting between the Israeli military and Palestinian groups in Gaza in May. The war killed at least 253 Palestinians, including 66 children, in Gaza and 12 people in Israel.

“There will be a $1bn request coming to the Pentagon this week from the [Israeli] defence minister to replenish the Iron Dome and a few other things, to upgrade the system,” Senator Graham told reporters in Jerusalem during a visit shortly after the ceasefire.

He told Fox News during the same trip: “Every time somebody tries to destroy Israel, our response is going to be more aid.” Graham’s office did not return Al Jazeera’s request for comment on Thursday by time of publication.

The Biden administration had signalled support for the Israeli request for more Iron Dome funding.

The looming increase in US military assistance to Israel comes as Palestine solidarity activists and some progressive members of the Democratic Party are calling for restricting or conditioning the aid to pressure Israel to respect Palestinians’ human rights.

Some Palestinian rights groups rejoiced in the exclusion of the Iron Dome aid from the government funding resolution earlier this week, arguing that it signals a shift from the traditionally staunch support that Israel enjoys in Congress, especially around security assistance.

Beth Miller, senior government affairs manager at Jewish Voice for Peace Action, an advocacy group that supports Palestinian rights, accused House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of attempting to “sneak” the extra aid for Israel through the funding bill.

“There was a time when no one in DC blinked an eye at more military funding to Israel, but progressives in Congress just showed that the time of rubber stamping unconditional support for Israel is over,” Miller said in a statement on Tuesday. “This is an unprecedented win for the fight for Palestinian rights.”

But if there were a victory for Palestinian rights advocates through this brouhaha, it appears to have been short-lived with the House approving the funding on Thursday.

Congresswoman Rashid Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat of Palestinian descent who was one of the few members to vote against the bill, criticized her colleagues for neglecting the safety needs of Palestinians, whom she said are living under a “violent apartheid system”.

“We should also be talking about Palestinian need for security from Israeli attacks, we must be consistent in our commitment to human life, period. Everyone deserves to be safe there,” she said in an impassioned speech before the vote.

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC