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US aid to Israel and the rights of Palestinian children

U.S. Congress representative Betty McCollum and her colleagues reintroduced the “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act” earlier this month in the 118th Congress.

This legislation aims to prevent the Israeli government from using U.S. taxpayer dollars in the occupied West Bank to engage in activities such as military detention, abuse or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention; the seizure and destruction of Palestinian property and homes, which violate international humanitarian law; or any assistance or support for the unilateral annexation of Palestinian lands also in violation of international humanitarian law.

“Not $1 of U.S. aid should be used to commit human rights violations, demolish families’ homes, or permanently annex Palestinian lands,” Congresswoman McCollum said.

“The United States provides billions in assistance for Israel’s government each year – and those dollars should go toward Israel’s security, not toward actions that violate international law and cause harm. Peace can only be achieved when everyone’s human rights are respected, and Congress has a responsibility to not ignore the well-documented mistreatment of Palestinian children and families living under Israeli military occupation,” she continued.

McCollum cited support from 16 Congressional colleagues and 75 Arab, Jewish and Christian organizations.

“Support is growing rapidly for the Palestinian people, who deserve justice, equality, human rights and the right to self-determination. Prominent civil society groups, as well as Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations, have signed on in support of this bill – because we all agree that no Palestinian child and no Jewish child should go to bed at night fearing ongoing violence. There is a path to a peaceful future, and it requires leading with our U.S. values of democracy and equal justice for all.”

Escalating Israeli military violence

The legislation comes in the wake of five months of violence by Israel’s military and Israeli settlers, which has taken more than 100 Palestinian lives.

The violence by Israelis against Palestinians began immediately after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu organized a new ruling coalition that partnered with some of the most extreme rightwing political parties.

During the first five months of 2023, Israeli military forces have been staging daily raids into occupied West Bank villages, towns and cities, demolishing homes, and arresting, injuring and killing Palestinians. At least 102 Palestinians, including at least 19 children, have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, including in occupied East Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health and human rights organizations.

As of May 1, 2023, 199 Palestinians have also been injured by Israeli forces. This marks a further intensification of attacks on Palestinians following 2022, in which Israeli forces killed more Palestinians in the West Bank than any year since the U.N. began recording data in 2005.

Even in Jerusalem, houses of worship were not spared. On April 5, an attack was committed by Israeli forces on Palestinian worshipers offering Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Israeli forces stormed the holy site, firing stun grenades and tear gas at Palestinian worshipers who were offering special Ramadan prayers. Hundreds of worshipers were arrested.

On the other hand, the influential Vatican-appointed Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa said that the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community has come under increasing attack, with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history emboldening extremists who have harassed clergy and vandalized religious property at a quickening pace.

The uptick in anti-Christian incidents came as the Israeli settler movement, galvanized by its allies in government, seized the moment to expand its enterprise in the capital and the frequency of these attacks. The aggression has become something new after the settlers felt they were protected by the government.

Massive U.S. aid

The U.S. massive financial aid for Israel’s defense is one of the few areas of relative bipartisan consensus in Washington. Israel has received a staggering $150 billion from the U.S. between 1946 and 2021, the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. assistance since World War II.

Under the terms of the 2016 U.S.-Israeli third 10-year memorandum of understanding on military aid, Israel has been receiving $3.3 billion in foreign military financing and $500 million in missile defense financing from the United States annually. In total, U.S. aid amounts to $3.8 billion of American taxpayer money transferred to Israel every year.

It alone receives around 60% of the Foreign Military Financing program’s yearly budget. There is a broad political agreement that this aid must continue, but recently some foreign policy experts have criticized this unwavering budgetary commitment as Israel now is wealthy enough to defend itself without bankrupting the American taxpayer. Israel’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) is among the 30 largest economies in the world and its per capita wealth places it among the most developed countries globally – wealthy enough to sustain its current military effort without U.S. aid.

Last month, a congressional letter led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Sen. Bernie Sanders, joined by 12 members of Congress, many of McCollum’s co-sponsors, urged U.S. President Joe Biden to better ensure the human rights of Palestinians and guarantee that U.S. military funding to the extreme right-wing apartheid Israeli government does not support human rights violations.

The letter notes the “ongoing illegal de facto and de jure annexation of the occupied West Bank” and warns that the “Israeli government’s anti-democratic mission to dismantle the rule of law is a threat to both Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

The letter also calls for U.S. taxpayer dollars to not support illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land and for the enforcement of all U.S. laws, including the Arms Export Control Act, the Foreign Assistance Act and U.S. “Leahy Laws” to prevent gross violations of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli government.

For its part, the policies of Biden’s administration reflect an uncomfortable paradox. The interim national security strategy calls for the United States to defend and protect human rights in its foreign policy and to lead in restoring multilateralism and rules in the international system, while the strategy also pledges to maintain an ironclad commitment to Israel’s military aid – despite the apparent contradiction with declared U.S. policy objectives, such as a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the continuing de facto annexation of the West Bank, settlement expansions, home demolitions, evictions, and destruction of entire Palestinian neighborhoods and communities.

Leading progressive Democrats are calling for the Biden administration to center values in its policy toward Israel and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and a growing number of them support initiatives to restrict U.S. aid to Israel due to its human rights violations.

Previous actions

Since 2015, McCollum has been the leading congressional critic of Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children, introducing multiple pieces of legislation that would bar Israel from using U.S. military aid to arrest Palestinian youth. This legislation follows previous legislation introduced in the 115th, 116th and 117th Congresses letters she led in 2015 and 2016 to the Obama administration about the human rights of Palestinian children subjected to Israeli military detention.

In 2015, McCollum led 18 colleagues in calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to “elevate the human rights of Palestinian children to a priority status in our bilateral relationship with the Government of Israel.”

In 2016, McCollum led 19 colleagues urging President Barack Obama to appoint a special envoy for Palestinian youth.

McCollum first presented a version of the bill in 2017 and reintroduced it in 2019 and 2021.

However, the measure has never been considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, currently chaired by Michael McCaul, a staunchly pro-Israel Republican.

“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,” the bill said.

It also noted that between 500 and 700 Palestinian children, aged 12 to 17, are detained by Israel every year and prosecuted before military courts.

“In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there are two separate and unequal legal systems, with Israeli military law imposed on Palestinians and Israeli civilian law applied to Israeli settlers,” the proposed legislation said.

The recent developments and military violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories have also pushed groups closer to the Democratic mainstream to advocate for restrictions on how U.S. aid can be used by Israel.

J Street, a liberal group that supports U.S. aid to Israel but opposes Israel’s military occupation, is backing McCollum’s bill — the first time the group backs one of her efforts to ensure that U.S. military aid to Israel comes with strings attached.

Positive impact

Although the bill, dubbed “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act,” has little chance of passing in Congress, where Israel enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. The bill remains a very significant effort by progressive Democrats to broach what was once an unthinkable red line in changing the nature of U.S. military aid to Israel and ban it from furthering Israeli human rights abuses.

The continued provision of billions of dollars in U.S. assistance to Israel – which helps entrench its military occupation of Palestinian land in violation of U.S. law – is becoming more difficult to justify, particularly given U.S. budgetary constraints and given that Israel, with a per capita GDP rivaling Western European countries, could (and already does) purchase weapons, equipment and fuel from the U.S.

Palestinian rights advocates point to public opinion polls showing that a growing number of Americans, especially Democrats, sympathize with Palestinians and support placing restrictions on the assistance. It’s a remarkable development in an institution long thought to be a permanent stronghold for the pro-Israel lobby.

The United States has obligations under both federal and international law to ensure that it is not furthering human rights abuses and its assistance to Israel should not take the form of a blank check that Israel can use to entrench its occupation and obstruct U.S. policy goals.

Source: Daily Sabah