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At the end of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was continuing to ravage the populations of many nations, Israel stood out as a success story, administering more doses of vaccines to its modest-sized 9-million-strong population than any other country after China, the U.S., and the UK. Today, more than 60 percent of Israelis are vaccinated, which is 20 percentage points higher than the United States—a nation that happens to give more foreign aid to Israel than to any other country in the world.
This largest beneficiary of foreign U.S. aid also experiences lower infant mortality and maternal mortality rates than the U.S., likely as a result of the universal health coverage its citizens enjoy. In fact, in 1995, Israel became the second-to-last developed nation in the world to ensure that all its citizens were fully insured, leaving the United States as the last wealthy nation on the planet to leave its people to fend for their own health care. One analyst, C.J. Werleman, has argued that “Israel can afford to give its citizens universal healthcare because US taxpayers pay for its military.”
Today Israel is back in the news, not so much for its achievements in combating COVID-19, but for its stunning success in increasing the mortality rate of Palestinians, especially children via sophisticated weaponry. Israel has launched a relentless barrage of airstrikes on Palestinians imprisoned inside a territory whose borders Israel controls, with the sort of military ferocity not seen since… well, Israel’s previous attacks on Palestinians in 2018, and before that in 2014. The fact that it has done so during a global pandemic when most people the world over are worried about dying from an invisible virus showcases a level of impunity that ought to give U.S. taxpayers serious pause. The American largesse that the Israeli military taps into is being used to crush the dreams and the lives of a helplessly trapped population whose only defense is in the form of homemade inaccurate rockets controlled by one militant faction.
The United States in 2016 signed a 10-year agreement with Israel promising to give $38 billion in taxpayer funds as military aid to a nation that already possesses one of the most sophisticated and well-armed militaries in the world. That’s roughly equivalent to “two tuition-free years for low- and middle-income students at historically Black, tribal and other minority-serving colleges” in the U.S., and more than one-third of the cost of making community college entirely free for Americans. But instead of buying Americans a free college education, those tax dollars are fueling mass killings of Palestinians.
Saree Makdisi, a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, and author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, explained to me in an interview that “the Israelis literally, materially, couldn’t do what they’re doing without the supply of weapons that comes from the U.S.” One estimate for the amount of aid that the U.S. has cumulatively given Israel is nearly $150 billion. That’s enough to wipe out all of California’s student loan debts, freeing up nearly 4 million Californians from a financial chokehold.
Although corporate media outlets like to describe Israel’s assaults on Palestinians through euphemisms like “dispute,” “conflict,” or “clashes,” the lens we really ought to use is how our tax dollars are being weaponized. More specifically, do we want our tax dollars to be used to kill hundreds of Palestinians or to wipe out college debt for millions of Americans? It really is that simple. “Why are we spending money on somebody else’s war of aggression when we have desperate needs here at home in the U.S.?” asked Makdisi.
One seemingly well-meaning analyst wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the best thing Americans could do about the “conflict” is to “stay out of it.” Rob Eshman, the national editor of the Forward, made absolutely no mention in his op-ed of U.S. military aid to Israel while he exhorted readers to question “whether taking sides alone, in the long run, helps achieve an end to the violence.” Eshman’s principle is sound even as his avoidance of relevant facts reveals his own bias. The United States as a whole could literally “stay out of it” by ending military aid to Israel, and potentially staunch the relentless killing of Palestinians.
U.S. military aid to Israel is considered so sacrosanct that most commentators and media pundits choose to ignore it, accepting it as a natural aspect of American foreign relations. But given the terror that Israel wields against Palestinians—so much so that even Human Rights Watch now labels it “apartheid”—U.S. funding ought to be central to any and all questions of how we are aiding and abetting mass violence in Gaza.
Yet, American government officials remain inexplicably subservient to Israeli decisions on how that military aid is used. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when asked about why Israel bombed a building in Gaza that housed the offices of media agencies like the Associated Press, said, “Shortly after the strike we did request additional details regarding the justification for it… I have not seen any information provided.” An Israeli spokesperson brushed off the request for justification, saying with cold impunity, “We’re in the middle of fighting. That’s in process and I’m sure in due time that information will be presented.” There is no incentive for Israel to explain itself to its dominant funder, because the U.S. has rarely, if ever, demanded accountability from its largest beneficiary.
According to Makdisi, while U.S. aid to Israel is unconditional in practical terms, by law there are conditions. “There are stipulations in American law governing the export of weapons,” he said. “They’re not to be used against civilian targets, obviously they’re not supposed to be used for war crimes, and yet they are, consistently.”
Only in recent years have American lawmakers been demanding accountability from Israel. In 2019, then-presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said, “My solution is to say to Israel: ‘You get $3.8 billion every year. If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza.’” His then-rival Joe Biden dismissed the notion as “bizarre.” More recently Sanders wrote in an op-ed, “we provide nearly $4 billion a year in aid to Israel,” and therefore, “we can no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior.”
As president, Biden also faces pressure from progressive House Democrats, with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) demanding in a personal encounter with him that the U.S. must stop enabling violence against Palestinians. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is leading an effort to stop a $735 million arms sale to Israel, and Representative Betty McCollum (D-FL) introduced a historic bill in April prohibiting the use of U.S. aid in violating Palestinian rights.
As Israeli warplanes have pounded densely populated neighborhoods in Gaza, wiping out whole families, the contradictions between Biden’s position on Israel and his stated commitment to human rights are on stark display. His administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance document published in March claimed that under Biden’s leadership, the U.S. “will defend and protect human rights and address discrimination, inequity, and marginalization in all its forms.” But in that same document, Biden reiterated the U.S.’s “ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” with no mention of how Israel routinely violates Palestinian human rights.