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Five dozen House members demand answers on Israel’s possible illegal use of U.S. military aid

On Monday, more than 60 House Democrats signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting that he address Israel’s use of U.S.-made equipment in its demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The initiative was spearheaded by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif), and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and was supported by a veritable who’s who of progressive House Democrats.

“U.S.-supplied military equipment to Israel should only be used for legitimate self-defense against the very real security threats Israel faces,” Khanna said. “Such military equipment should not be used to turn Palestinian homes into rubble, displace families, and tear apart communities. I look forward to the State Department providing the information necessary to ensure that U.S.-supplied military equipment in the West Bank is not being used in this destructive practice.”

The congressional inquiry is based on the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), which prohibits the sale of “defense articles” and “services” except for the purposes of “internal security, for legitimate self-defense,” and a few other, narrowly defined circumstances. The extensive Israeli use of American-made weapons in its occupation of the Palestinians has been an issue numerous times over the years, but complaints about it have not yielded serious investigations.

The muted reaction in the media, exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, is a strong indication that this letter will meet a similar fate.

Still, more than five dozen members of Congress signing a letter urging a review of U.S. arms sales to Israel is unprecedented. The groups supporting the letter include J Street and Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), two organizations that have historically been reluctant to address issues that could raise questions about the legality of Israel’s use of American military aid. Amnesty International, the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation, and Win Without War were among other groups supporting the letter.

Home demolitions as a tool of occupation

The demolition of homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is one of the most odious practices of Israel’s occupation regime. Most demolitions of Palestinian homes are carried out in response to illegal construction, often undertaken by Palestinians who have been unable to get a permit to add to an existing house. Permits for such construction are almost never granted. In some cases, homes are demolished for purported “military necessity,” such as creating a new military outpost or road, and in other cases, the demolitions are punitive, punishing an entire family for the violent act of one member of that family.

All of these measures are illegal. The fact that Palestinians are, in practice, forbidden from building new structures or expanding existing ones makes it impossible for families to live their lives. Military necessity is rarely a credible justification for the destruction of civilian homes in the context of an occupation that has gone on for more than five decades. And punitive demolitions are a form of collective punishment, a patently illegal act.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Israel undertakes these acts of destruction to make Palestinian life harder, to pressure more Palestinians to relocate to areas under either full or partial administration of the Palestinian Authority, and to clear even more land for the expansion of Jewish-only settlements. This practice, frequently cited by a broad range of opponents of Israel’s occupation, should be clearly out of bounds under the terms of the AECA. While home demolitions are, at best, of questionable legality under international law, it must be stressed that even if they were to be considered legal, they still would not meet the criteria for the use of U.S.-made equipment under the terms of the AECA.

Punitive home demolitions — that is, those that are carried out as a punishment for acts of violence by Palestinians against Israelis — occur less frequently than other categories of demolitions, but they are also the most blatantly odious. Consider for a moment how any of us would feel if a relative who lived in our home committed a crime and we were made homeless to pay for that crime. No one would consider that a justifiable practice, either as punishment or as a deterrent.

Israel engaged in punitive home demolitions until 2005. In that year, a military committee found that demolishing the homes of attackers was not a significant deterrent, but made Israel look bad in the eyes of the world. But in 2014, in the wake of the murder of three young Israeli Jews that led to Israel’s large assault on the Gaza Strip — dubbed Operation Protective Edge — Israel revived the practice and has been engaging in it ever since.

Yet while the punitive demolitions are the most obviously abhorrent, the more routine demolitions, those carried out for building violations, are more devastating to Palestinians. In the West Bank, demolitions have left thousands homeless, worsening the crisis that led them to build illegally since they could not get a permit to build legally to accommodate their basic needs. In East Jerusalem, where the number of people affected over the past 14 years is roughly half that of the much larger area of the West Bank, the demolitions are part of the escalating tensions over Israel’s attempts to expand the Jewish presence and minimize the Palestinians’ in the occupied municipality.

Addressing U.S. complicity

Like the spectrum of groups supporting the congressional letter to Pompeo, the ideological makeup of House members who signed it is also wide ranging. Some are well-known as critics of U.S. policy toward Palestinian rights, such as Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), and David Price (D-NC). But others, such as Jan Schakowsky, (D-Ill.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) have historically been more reserved in their support for peace and criticism of Israeli policy.

This letter is much bolder than most congressional efforts of the past. It states that the U.S. “should work to prevent unlawful home demolitions and the forcible transfer of civilians everywhere in the world and prevent the use of U.S.-origin equipment in this destructive practice.” That implies a sharp questioning of Israel’s practices that is backed by very specific questions the members ask about whether Israel is complying with the AECA, how the State Department is ensuring that compliance, and, particularly, how Pompeo can explain the use of the Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer in home demolitions, an armored, U.S.-made bulldozer Israel modifies for this purpose.

That is unusually specific and demands just the sort of accountability that we should all expect. There is no rational justification for Israel to simply be exempted from U.S. laws regarding the aid we give. As the largest recipient of aid over the past thirty years, we should expect Israel to honor U.S. law to the letter. This letter demands just that, and given the amount of harm that home demolitions do to Palestinian civilians, the overwhelming majority of whom have committed no violation worse than building without a permit, it is long overdue.

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