The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Thursday in favour of legislation to provide $1bn of additional military aid to Israel. The bill passed 420 to nine and is now expected to get through the Senate with ease.
Support for Israel has historically been bilateral in the US. The funds are aimed at replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, as pledged by President Joe Biden after the last Gaza offensive in May, which killed 248 Palestinians including 66 children, destroying homes and public infrastructure while Gaza already reeled under a 15-year blockade and three previous offensives. Projectiles fired into Israel from Gaza by Palestinian groups killed an Israeli soldier and twelve civilians, including two children.
“Prime Minister [Benyamin Netanyahu]… shared with me his appreciation for the Iron Dome system, which our nations developed together and which has saved lives of countless Israeli citizens, both Arabs and Jews,” Biden said, promising to provide aid to help reconstruction in Gaza.
“We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian authority, not Hamas, the authority, in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal,” the President said.
For regional analysts, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has an enormous human cost, once again turned into a bipartisan issue in the US Congress.
“What's going on here is the fact that this Congress is trying to get to a budget that the parties can agree on. And Israel has been thrown into the mix,” Zaha Hassan, a Middle East fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank told TRT World.
“The Israel Palestine issue was sublimated in favour of passing these other bills and achieving consensus,” Hassan added.
Israel receives $3.8bn in US military aid each year as part of a 10-year commitment made by President Barack Obama in a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in 2016. The deal marked an increase of $700m annually from a previous bilateral agreement.
“A missile defence system (i.e. Iron Dome) defends civilians from missiles. Hence the name. Only in a morally inverted universe would this be considered a ‘controversy’,” Congressman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from the South Bronx in New York, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
Rashida Tlaib, Congress’s only Palestinian-American member, was one of only eight Democrats who voted no on Thursday.
“We cannot be talking only about Israelis’ need for safety at a time when Palestinians are living under a violent apartheid system and are dying from what Human Rights Watch has said are war crimes,” the Michigan Representative said in a speech. “We should also be talking about Palestinians’ need for security from Israeli attacks.”
Earlier in the week, the extra funds had appeared in another bill aimed at providing emergency funding for the US government to avoid a shutdown. It was removed after an uproar, pending an explanation.
A landmark report by Human Rights Watch earlier this year said Israel is guilty of the crimes of apartheid and persecution based on its overarching “policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians” in a context of systematic oppression. It renewed calls to make any arms sales and military and security assistance to Israel conditional on Israeli authorities taking concrete steps towards ending their commission of those crimes.
Last April, US Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced a bill aimed at ensuring that the US’ $3.8bn annual contribution to Israel’s military budget would not be used to perpetuate rights abuses. The bill, which was supported by more than a dozen Congress members as well as several human rights organisations, did not pass.
Meanwhile, in July, the US President and the United Nations' Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA) agreed on a framework for cooperation aimed at restoring funding for the agency revoked by President Trump in 2008. According to the deal, the US would resume funding “on the condition that UNRWA takes all feasible measures to ensure that no part of the US contribution is used to assist any refugee receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestinian Liberation Army or any other guerrilla organization.”
UNRWA, which provides schools, health services and other aid to Palestinian refugees, has been reeling under funding cuts for several years.
Defending Israel or masking the costs of war?
The Iron Dome was first deployed in 2011, after Israel developed the project in partnership with Israeli weapons giants Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. US defence firm Raytheon became a production partner in 2014.
"The number of Israelis killed and wounded would be far higher if it had not been for the Iron Dome system, which has been a lifesaver as it always is," Israeli military spokesman Lt Col Jonathan Conricus said during the offensive in May.
While some experts have cast doubt on its actual performance, others point out that propping up Israel’s military with the messaging that it serves defensive purposes merely serves to perpetuate human rights abuses and exacerbate the situation.
“This idea that it's a defensive measure is really obscuring the fact that it allows Israel to freely bomb Gaza without having any consequences of its own or limiting the consequences that it has,” Hassan said.
“What [the Iron Dome] has done is it’s masked the costs of war for Israel and allowed it then to engage in very heavy-handed bombing campaigns against Gaza that have really debilitated the Gaza Strip and made it economically unviable and really uninhabitable for the people that are that are stuck living there.”