Washington — As Congress resumes discussions about spending on defense and foreign assistance, vocal disagreement over aid to Israel continues. Growing concern about Israel’s human rights violations is gaining considerable traction in Washington.
Critically important to these debates is the Leahy Law, introduced in 1997 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which forbids the State and Defense Departments from providing aid to foreign military units that commit human rights violations.
While the government does not publish the names of countries that have been denied assistance, human rights advocates have reported that aid has been cut off to security force units in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
Citing the Leahy Law, a group of Democratic senators, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), has called for a moratorium on aid to Israel, pending further discussion. Among those supporting her is a House group led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and member of the House Appropriations Committee. While there is some support among Republicans, most senior Republicans resist the moratorium, saying it will hurt an important ally.
Adding fuel to the debate is the amount of aid this country has given to Israel since soon after that country’s 1948 creation. To date, the United States has provided Israel with more than $121 billion in bilateral assistance, making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of American foreign assistance since World War II.
Almost all aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance. In 2007, President George W. Bush entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel, which provided approximately $30 billion in foreign military assistance over a 10-year period. The actual total amount of aid is much higher, because Israel receives other sources of financing from this country.
In addition to $3.1 billion per year in foreign military assistance from the State Department, Israel receives funds from Defense Department appropriation bills for joint missile defense programs. In August 2014, for example, the United States approved an emergency measure to grant $225 million in additional revenue to Israel for the country’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
As a result of all of these various aid grants Israel is, by far, the largest recipient of United States military assistance, with annual grants greater than such assistance received by all other countries in the world combined.
Questions about American military aid to Israel come at a time when increased Israeli government violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the occupied territories is intensifying daily.
During recent clashes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, more than 150 Palestinians were shot by Israeli forces, as reported by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. A yet unknown number of Palestinians, perhaps as many as 30, have been shot with rubber-coated steel bullets by the Israeli military. At least one Palestinian was badly beaten. Several children are included in the casualties.
However, the call to implement the Leahy Law at this time relates specifically to the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014. In a recent speech to the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, Senator Warren cited a report by a commission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which found that, from July 7 through July 29, 2014, the Israeli Defense Forces committed gross human rights violations, killing more than 2,100 Palestinians, of whom at least 1,400 were civilians and some 500 were children.
Approximately 108,000 Palestinians were left homeless, and 133 schools and 23 health facilities were also damaged. Israel struck the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant and its water supply system, limiting the access of hundreds of thousands of residents to electricity and clean water.
One operation, in particular, drew international attention in 2014. On July 20, Israeli military units attacked the residential neighborhood of Shejaiya in Gaza City, killing at least 17 children. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Israel’s attack on Shejaiya “atrocious.” Ten Israeli human rights organizations expressed “serious concern” about “the potential violation of the fundamental principles of the laws of war, specifically the principle of distinguishing between combatants and civilians.”
This week, Congress continues debating whether this funding should be discontinued unless Israel adheres to basic principles of human rights and international law. Senator Warren has pointed out that, “while our government looks the other way, Israel continues to use our foreign aid to engage in human rights abuses in violation of international law.”
Senator Warren hopes to convene hearings in which testimony about Israeli human rights violations will be presented by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch in the United States, Amnesty International, and B’tselem and Gisha in Israel.