In May, during the holy month of Ramadan, Israeli security forces teamed up with a bevy of far-right settler groups to raid, assault, and restrict worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Israeli government justified the crackdowns as security measures needed to quell clashes between protestors and authorities over the eviction of 300 Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Ensuing clashes between Israel and Hamas resulted in the deaths of 212 Palestinians (including 61 children and 36 women), alongside 10 Israeli civilians. 72,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes. This incident is a microcosm of broader injustices inflicted by the Israeli government— illegal settlements, discriminatory laws, and excessive use of military force. The United States has aided these injustices for decades with generous military aid packages. It is time to halt this aid to Israel.
Sheikh Jarrah Background
In 1876, Arab landowners sold the land consisting of Sheikh Jarrah to two Jewish trusts. By 1948, it housed Palestinian refugees who’d been pushed from their homes following the Arab-Israeli war. The ensuing legal battles reveal systemic burdens solely shouldered by Palestinians. For example, Israeli law permits only Jewish people to reclaim land lost before the formation of Israel in 1948.
Since the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli officials have tried to guarantee a Jewish majority in the region— currently a 60:40 ratio of Jews to Arabs. This objective is pursued by revoking residency status for arbitrary and obscure reasons: not providing proof of residency to the Israeli Ministry of Interior every five years, working or studying abroad longer than six months, or failing an impromptu home visit by authorities. For example, an unused toothbrush is considered indicative of a vacant home, which is grounds for eviction. From 1967-2016, Israel stripped the residency rights of 14,595 East Jerusalem residents by applying these methods.
Illegal Settlement Construction
Multiple UN Security Council resolutions have deemed Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem illegal. These resolutions were passed unanimously with the backing of the respective Reagan, Bush Sr., and Obama Administrations. They cite Article 4 of the Geneva Convention on what constitutes an occupied territory and legal activity by the occupying force. After the Six-Day War, the people residing in the Palestinian territories did not vote to be incorporated into Israel. In fact, anywhere from 200,000-300,000 were expelled from their homes. Therefore, they should be considered an occupied people.
The settler movement, which has ballooned in recent years, is often characterized by the violent removal of indigenous Palestinians. For decades, settlers champion themselves as extrajudicial “Lords of the Land” who shoot, evict, and burn down Palestinian crops with impunity. Yet the 2018 Nation-State Law codifies illegal settlement construction as a national priority. It enables religious fundamentalists to claim that settlements in the occupied territories are a “national value” and in accordance with biblical interpretations of the Holy Land.
The Israeli government justifies the mass casualties of Palestinian civilians by blaming Hamas, an extremist group that supposedly forces the well-armed hand of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Yet, Hamas did not suddenly fall from the sky. In fact, during the 1970s-1990s, Israel financed the Islamist group from which Hamas evolved. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood— an Egyptian Islamist group established in 1928.
Prior to 1967, Gaza was governed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a secular nationalist who repressed Brotherhood-affiliated groups within Gaza. After prevailing in the Six-Day War, Israel acquired Gaza and supported the Brotherhood’s intellectual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Israel viewed Yassin as a necessary counterweight to the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. Yassin established the Islamist group Mujama al-Islamiya, which Israel originally recognized as a charity. But in 1984 Israel issued Yassin a 12-year prison sentence for smuggling arms. However, Israel released him after just one year–the strategic deterrence he offered against the PLO was too valuable. Mujama eventually transformed into Hamas and became more violent.
As of 2007, Hamas serves as a democratically-elected government for an isolated, disempowered people. After Hamas’ election, Israel and its ally Egypt enacted a devastating blockade on Gaza. In the 11 years since its enactment, Gazan unemployment swelled from 35 to 52 percent. Poverty rose from 39 to 55 percent. Based on pre-blockade trends, the poverty rate would have dwindled to 15 percent by 2017 if things held constant.
In addition to its rocket attacks, Hamas frequently espouses grotesque anti-Semitic rhetoric. These actions are morally condemnable and endanger the lives of civilians on both sides of the conflict. We must evaluate the structures that provide fertile conditions for Hamas’ resonance as a source of security. The Palestinian Authority is prohibited from forming an army, air force, or navy.
In response to Hamas’ growing power, the Israeli government is becoming increasingly radicalized while treating Arab-Israelis as second-class citizens. Israel consistently violates international law regarding settlement construction. Meanwhile, according to the 2019 US News and World Report annual survey, Israel ranks as the world’s 8th most powerful country. It receives $3.8 billion in annual military assistance and $8 billion in loan guarantees from the United States. It also commands a clandestine arsenal of 75-400 nuclear warheads.
This grotesque power imbalance is illuminated by recent Israeli military operations in Gaza. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Israeli Security Forces killed 1,391 Palestinians – including 345 children and 110 women. Israeli casualties stood at three civilians and one soldier. Four years later in Operation Pillar of Defense, the death toll amounted to 87 Palestinian civilians and 4 Israeli civilians. In 2014, Operation Protective Edge resulted in the deaths of 2,202 Palestinians and 73 Israelis. Of the Palestinians killed, 63 percent were civilians with no connection to Hamas. By contrast, of the Israelis killed, 66 were soldiers.
Israel possesses one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world. For example, the IDF identified and demolished an extensive underground tunnel network established by Hamas- killing 300-400 operatives in the process. Since 2014, the IDF has destroyed 18 of these tunnels. It is immoral, inexcusable, and counterproductive for Israel to continue its callous slaughter of civilians under the guise of defense. If the Israeli government prioritized defense over domination, targeted operations would not be accompanied by gratuitous bombing campaigns of hospitals, homes, schools, and press outlets.
Israeli officials routinely rationalize Palestinian casualties as unavoidable due to Hamas using civilians as “human shields.” This justification is a propagandistic smokescreen. In 2018, the IDF’s media unit publicized a video implying that children at Palestinian protests were being used as human shields. Sometimes this obfuscation is applied to adults. Again that year, the IDF released a video entitled “Hamas uses Paramedics as Human Shields.” It depicted Palestinian medical worker Razan Al-Najjar’s death – caused by Israeli Security Forces – as a tragic, unavoidable consequence of Hamas’ disregard for civilian safety. However, the clip deceptively omitted Al-Najjar’s admission in an earlier video that protecting the wounded – especially during a peaceful protest – was her obligation as a medical worker. Not only was she killed by Israeli forces, but her death and life’s work was exploited to excuse additional carnage.
In fact, the IDF continues to rely on human shields. For example, during Operation Cast Lead, 2 Israeli soldiers instructed a 9-year-old boy to inspect a suspicious bag at gunpoint. The soldiers were demoted and served a short sentence, yet their commanding officers were not tried. Unsurprisingly, this dearth of institutional accountability led to more abuses. From 2009-2014, the IDF engaged in human shield procedures on at least 1,200 occasions.
The fixation on Hamas’ use of human shields deflects from the propensity of Israeli officials to hide behind their citizens. Israel’s military headquarters are situated behind densely populated central Tel Aviv. The office of the Commander in Chief is a mere quarter-mile from Ichilov Hospital. Military bases in Haifa and Tel Aviv are located behind medical centers. The residencies of the Prime Minister, defense minister, and military chief are surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
Discriminatory Policies and Rhetoric
While in power (2009-2021), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party championed and implemented increasingly discriminatory policies. For example, the Nation-State Law limits the right of self-determination exclusively to Jews, removes Arabic as an official language, and enshrines continued settlement construction as a “national value.”
New Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government will likely accelerate Arab discrimination within Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In 2013, a reporter reminded Bennett that his proposal to kill suspected terrorists without a trial is illegal. Bennett not only dismissed these legal concerns but defended his stance by declaring, “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there’s no problem with that.” If Bennett’s violent conflation of Arabs with terrorists was insufficiently disconcerting, in 2018 he claimed that as Defense Minister he would support a “shoot to kill” policy for individuals crossing into Israel from Gaza. When pressed if the policy would apply to children, he bluntly stated, “they are not children – they are terrorists. We are fooling ourselves.”
Bennett’s disregard for Palestinian autonomy goes beyond increased settlement construction. He supports annexing 30 percent of the West Bank. This position aligns with his broader belief that the creation of a Palestinian state would be “suicidal.”
History: U.S. Military Aid to Israel
The size and flexibility of U.S. military aid to Israel is unparalleled. Israel is the largest recipient of this assistance since World War II. Israel receives 48 times more aid relative to comparatively wealthy U.S. allies— $3.8 billion v. $79 million on average annually. Understandably, some of these nations, like the United Kingdom, do not face comparable security threats. However, South Korea— which received a paltry $775,000 in 2017— borders an adversarial nuclear power in North Korea. Unlike Israel, South Korea does not possess a nuclear stockpile deterrent. The per capita disparity relative to significantly poorer allies is more astonishing. Each Israeli receives the equivalent of a $436 subsidy from Washington annually. This figure stands at $154, $91, and $14 for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Egypt respectively.
Aid to Israel is not tied to any human rights objectives— it is the only U.S. ally to receive its allocation in a lump sum. The U.S. only makes 10-year security funding commitments to Israel. There are no tracking or reporting requirements to determine if American weapons are used to inflict human rights abuses. U.S. defense contractors are arguably the largest beneficiaries of this arrangement. Since 2016, the Israeli government is contractually obligated to expend three-fourths of its military aid on products sold by American defense firms.
The premise that Israel would be rendered defenseless without US assistance is ahistorical. During the Six-Day War, Israel prevailed against Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. U.S. assistance did not reach anywhere near its current levels until 1973, ballooning to $2.6 billion— a 530 percent increase from the previous year. The shift stemmed from a two-prong approach pursued by the Nixon Administration. First, leverage Israel as a Soviet deterrent. Second, use increased aid to coax Prime Minister Golda Meir into disengaging nuclear missiles directed at Egypt.
These justifications do not hold water today. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Israel’s military is more adept than ever. Since 1967, Israel has negotiated peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Meanwhile, diplomatic relations with Syria have largely been hobbled by Israel’s refusal to make concessions on its illegal annexation of the Golan Heights. The Nixon-Meir episode inaugurated a troubling habit where Washington ignores or enables unbridled Israeli aggression.
If Bennett’s public statements forebode his governing style, then violence, discrimination, and dispossession of Palestinians and Arab Israelis will likely intensify. There is a potential silver lining to this mercurial transition of power. Bennett’s far-right Yamina Party is partnered in a coalition government with moderate Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and 8 other parties. Unfortunately, this ideologically disparate coalition holds a razor-thin margin in the Knesset— 61/120 seats. If 1 party bolts, Netanyahu likely reclaims his old job.
U.S. military aid to Israel has empowered defense contractors and demagogues at the expense of the safety and security of Arabs and Jews in the region. Some may lament that harping on Israel’s human rights abuses is superfluous and misdirects from greater regional atrocities. However, as American taxpayers we do not fund Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Iranian government— actors widely considered Israel’s biggest threats in the region. Yet, we foot the bill for the “defense” of a nation that can defend itself.
The McCarthyite smear that criticizing the Israeli government constitutes anti-Semitism feeds the dual loyalty trope. It assumes Jewish Americans are a monolith who blindly endorse Israel’s actions. This is not true. Only one-third of American Jews believe Israel wants to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Only 28 percent think that Israel should not dismantle any illegally built settlements. Approximately 42 percent thought President Trump favored Israel too heavily— a higher percentage than Catholics and Protestants. Former Netanyahu senior adviser Ron Dermer thinks Israel should prioritize cultivating stronger relationships with American Evangelicals than Jews. He conceded that Jewish Americans are “disproportionately among our critics.” Criticizing the Saudi government’s human rights abuses is not Islamophobic. Doing the same for the Chinese government is not Sinophobic. Weaponizing racial or ethnic identities to silence legitimate concerns trivializes complex issues into reductive soundbites.