Tax dollars at work: American foreign aid to Israel

While waiting for a connecting flight in the Dallas, Texas, airport, I witnessed a woman turn to a man and ask him to watch her luggage so she could go peruse about some of the shops. The man answered in playful banter, “Well, as long as you’re not a terrorist…” The woman laughed and replied in her Southern accent, “No, it’s okay, I’m Israeli.” The two chuckled, and the woman, who was not an Israeli, but an American, named the US location she was actually from. The topic changed, and the woman got her dose of pre-flight shopping. I balked.

Yes, this actually happened.

In about 15 seconds, this exchange summed up the extreme bias apparent in US mainstream media and discourse on the topic of Israel and Palestine. “No, it’s okay, I’m Israeli” as an answer to “Are you a terrorist?” exposes the subconscious notion harbored by many Americans:  that Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim are interchangeable terms that all equal “terrorist”.

If more Americans knew the reality of life in the West Bank or Gaza, they might just be whistling a different tune.

Terror, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder

Let’s examine the events of December 12th, when a teenage boy was shot dead at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron. When demonstrators gathered to protest the controversial, premature death of seventeen-year-old Muhammad Ziad Awad Salaymah, they were met with live rounds of ammunition and tear gas, in the country that labels itself the most democratic nation in the Middle East. In the same story Al Jazeera reported that it is commonplace for “Israeli soldiers [to] use rubber-coated metal bullets, tear gas bombs and stun grenades against non-violent protesters in the West Bank – in addition to spraying them with water mixed with chemicals. These tactics have led to the injuries of hundreds and even several deaths among protesters.”

Concerned for the safety of innocent civilians in Gaza, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon spoke of the most recent wave of violence to break out between Israel and Hamas this past November. By the time a ceasefire was reached “more than 139 Palestinians had been killed, more than 70 of them civilians, and more than 900 were injured. In addition, some 10,000 Palestinians had lost their homes.” To the grieving family members who lost loved ones or homes, and to those whose lives have been forever altered by a debilitating injury, the Israeli military is the terrorist.

While I agree that Israel has the right to defend itself, one can hardly call peaceful protesters in the West Bank a threat to Israeli existence. “Shoot first, ask later” tactics at checkpoints also serve no peace-keeping purpose, but rather spark outrage and increase tensions in an already tense region. And shelling such a densely populated area as Gaza when Israel has the resources and technology to carry out targeted assassinations with drones, mass killings of civilians are not self-defense.

In a 2009 statement, the Secretary of Press boasted of President Obama’s pro-Israel stance, quoting Obama’s speech before the United Nations, “the slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance – it’s injustice.”

It should also be said that “the slaughter of innocent Palestinians is not self-defense – it’s injustice.”

Who starts the peace process?

Again, US impressions of who must begin the peace process are skewed in favor of Israel.

Many Americans rightly wonder, “How can you negotiate with an entity that has sworn your destruction?” as did this Baltimore Sun reader in his response to an editorial stating that perhaps the successful statehood bid would make Israel resume the peace process. He asserted that, “The pressure should be on the Palestinians and Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself from constant aggression by the Palestinians.”

Bill Maher boasted a similar opinion in an interview with Jewish Journal’s blog Hollywood Jew.

HJ: Why are you more on the side of Israelis?

BM: Take this conflict; here, everyone in the newspapers, the pundits, they talk about it like it’s very complicated. It’s not that complicated: Stop firing rockets into Israel and perhaps they won’t annihilate you.”

While I agree that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets into Israel, both Halikman and Maher’s gross oversimplifications ignore the realities of systematic Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Like the majority of American citizens and politicians, they fail to ask equal questions of Israel.

They confuse the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but more than anything, they willfully woefully ignore the baseline inequality between Israeli and Palestinian existence.

What’s fair is fair

The West Bank and Gaza are territories. One lives under occupation and the other under blockade. The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, “governs” the West Bank to the extent that it can, although it does not have control of its borders and does not collect and distribute its own taxes. Hamas, the group that rules in Gaza, is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization rather than a legitimate source of authority, although some Israeli columnists propose that this assessment change.

Israel, meanwhile, is a full-fledged nation. Please note that because Israel is exclusively a Jewish State, Palestinians living in Israel do not enjoy the full civil rights endowed to their fellow Jewish citizens. Israelis are free to exit and re-enter their nation. Palestinians are not.

Mere existence is a struggle even for Bedouin communities within Israel like Al-Arakib, where families who have lived on the land for years play a constant cat and mouse game as they continue to rebuild the homes the Israeli Lands Administration continues to destroy.

Palestinians in the West Bank are deprived access to water and can face forced illegal eviction at a moment’s notice like the residents of The Firing Zone. Or in Gaza, where people live “free” of occupation, but under a blockade that allows in aid packages containing slightly less calories than the amount each person needs to survive.

Both sides have certainly alternated playing the role of instigator and victim. Both sides have done wrong, but the situation is far from equal.

The largest hold-ups to peace talks have been Israel’s refusal to halt settlement building and Palestine’s refusal to acknowledge Israel’s existence. While Palestinian refusal to acknowledge Israel’s existence is a static mindset that is not carried out in action, Israeli settlement building is an action that continues to change the Palestinian landscape and even the viability of a separate Palestinian state.

Forget the rhetoric, and look at what’s happening on the ground. The Palestinian territories are disappearing, and have been disappearing over the past 50 years, as can be seen in the map below.

If given the option to choose between the peace process or continued expansion, which does Israel choose? Immediately after the successful Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, Netanyahu announced plans to move forward developing settlements in the highly contentious E1 section of East Jerusalem, splitting the West Bank in two by separating Ramallah and Bethlehem, and cutting off Palestinian access to East Jerusalem. As the two-state solution envisions East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, settlement development in E1 would serve the final deathblow to the two-state solution.

Does Israel recognize the Palestinian right to exist?

Why do I care about Israel-Palestine?

I’m not Israeli and I’m not Palestinian. I know people on both sides and I consider myself an ally to those pursuing peace and equality. I stand in solidarity with Palestinians seeking their full civil rights and with Israelis yearning for an end to inequality and violence. But I also know that this is not my fight to fight, and not my country’s fight to fight. We have plenty to take care of at home, as the shocking tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has shown us.

Thomas Friedman recently wrote an opinion column in the New York Times entitled “My President is Busy.” Friedman continues, “Soon Americans will be asked to pay more taxes for less government. It’s coming. It will not make us isolationists, but it will change our mood and make us much pickier about where we’ll get involved. That means only a radical change by Palestinians or Israelis will get us to fully re-engage.”

While Mr. Friedman makes an excellent point that once Americans are hit in the wallet, we might look at foreign aid with an enhanced level of scrutiny, his notion of “re-engage”-ing with the topic of Israel-Palestine ignores the US role in the conflict. If we’re speaking about the US public conscience, then yes, only radical changes will bring Israel-Palestine back to the forefront of our political discussions — and the conflict in Gaza and UN Statehood Bid have certainly done that. However, the US is already very much engaged in the conflict. We fund 20% of the Israeli military… with US taxpayer dollars.

So, why should Americans care about the situation in Israel and Palestine? Because we are involved in it.

Our military aid packages to Israel total billions annually (the amount for 2012 was $3 billion) and are dispersed not in installments as they are for all other nations receiving US foreign aid, but in one lump sum at the beginning of the fiscal year. Israel is the VIP aid recipient, receiving US taxpayer money not only to purchase (American) weapons to strengthen their military but to also fund research to develop their own weapons industry. Israel is now one of the lead arms exporters in the world. More details about US foreign aid to Israel can be found in the Congressional Report on US Foreign Aid to Israel.

As an American tax-payer, I do not want my tax-payer dollars to go towards bolstering Israeli military strength. Strength that is used to perpetuate an unequal situation. Strength that is used to fire live ammunition at protesters. Strength that is used to shoot teenage “threats” to Israeli existence at checkpoints in the West Bank.

I do not want my tax-payer dollars funding a country that does not hold their soldiers accountable for killing innocent civilians or peaceful US activists like Rachel Corrie, who was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer.

How to proceed?

Currently, Americans, or rather our representatives in Washington, must make tough choices about what we fund and what we cut. Instead of cutting funding for social services and entitlements, I would love to hear our Congress call into question the amount of US military aid sent to Israel.

I agree with the stance of many Middle East peace groups in requesting the following in an open letter to President Obama:

“Israel, the biggest long-term recipient of US aid, should not be above the law. Mr. President, please condition US aid to Israel on compliance with US and international law. It must not be used to violate the rights of Palestinians.

Anything less is a danger to Palestinians, to Israelis, to Americans and to the entire world.”

We can’t afford to fund world actors who are acting counter to US interests in the world. Israel, recipient of up to three billion in USAID annually, is continuing to advance policies that harm rather than help our strategic interests in the region and undermine our moral authority. The mission statement of the US Department of State is as follows:

 “Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.”

I think we should re-assess the extent to which our unconditional, no strings attached aid packages to Israel carry out these goals.

We do not solve old problems by approaching them the same way that has failed and continues to fail. We must rejuvenate our approach to issues by trying new tactics. I respect the fact that Mahmoud Abbas pushed the envelope and forced the issue of Palestinian statehood with Israel. The majority of the United Nations thought so as well. And now, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress has voted to join the BDS movement. The world is beginning to act.

Now is the time for the US to remind Israel of the definition of democracy and perhaps give the necessary nudge towards a lasting peace that empowers all. It’s about time we see some action that reflects the rhetoric about wanting peace. A good friend will tell you what you need to hear, even when you don’t want to hear it. The United States, as Israel’s number one ally, must step into this role, and save Israel not from the Palestinians, but from itself.