Foreign Policy

Does America Need To Be Involved in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Neither side needs military aid funded by U.S. taxpayers.

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An American bomb was used to destroy an American news bureau in the Middle East last week.

On Friday, Israeli forces blew up a building in Gaza which housed several foreign news bureaus, after warning the journalists inside to evacuate.

Israel has claimed, without providing evidence, that the Palestinian militant group Hamas was operating out of the building. The Associated Press, the American news agency whose office was destroyed in the attack, denies the claim and has demanded an independent investigation.

The bomb used to destroy the Associated Press bureau appeared to be an American-made Joint Direct Attack Munition, according to the Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera, whose office was also in the building.

In fact, U.S. military aid pays for about one-fifth of Israel's military budget, and ensures that Israeli forces are the best-equipped in the region. All of that material support is on top of U.S. diplomatic involvement, which has largely favored Israel.

Israel has been "the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II," according to the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan think tank housed in Congress. The Middle Eastern republic has received $104.5 billion in military aid in $34 billion in economic aid since its independence in 1947.

The Biden administration is requesting $3.8 billion in aid to Israel this fiscal year, making up about 59 percent of all U.S. foreign military aid. But numbers don't tell the whole story: U.S. law also requires the United States to help maintain Israel's "qualitative military edge"—its technological advantage over its neighbors.

Because of that legal requirement, Israel is granted earlier access to and better versions of American weapons technology than other Middle Eastern countries. The United States sometimes even "offsets" its weapons sales to Arab countries by providing Israel even more advanced weapons at the same time. And the U.S. military stores part of its global emergency stockpile of munitions in Israel, allowing the Israeli military to dip into it from time to time.

All of this largess dates back to a time when Israel was a small, weak state surrounded by hostile neighbors.

But times have changed. Israel is now a wealthy, technologically advanced nation armed with nuclear weapons. The Jewish state has peace treaties with six Arab nations. Several of those nations even joined Israel in an alliance called the Abraham Accords last year after receiving generous offers of U.S. assistance and arms sales.

Rather than relying on the American defense industry, Israel now produces its own high-tech weapons, which much of the world is clamoring to buy.

And the biggest issue Israel faces no longer comes from other states, but from the Palestinian territories, which Israeli forces captured in 1967 and have continued to occupy ever since.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues despite, or perhaps partially because of, heavy U.S. involvement. The United States has ostensibly been trying to broker a deal for Palestinian independence for years, while sometimes single-handedly blocking dozens of U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israeli actions.

The United States also provides around $200 million per year in economic assistance to the Palestinians, and $40 million dollars per year training and equipping the Palestinian Authority security forces, which patrol part of the territories and could become the police force of an independent Palestinian state. Some Israeli officials consider Palestinian security cooperation vital to keeping the peace, but the Palestinian Authority is widely seen as corrupt and has not held an election since 2006.

American critics on the right also criticize the Palestinian Authority for its payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners, which critics say incentivize terrorism. (Congress has cut aid to the Palestinians over this issue.) Critics on the left, meanwhile, note that U.S. aid to the Palestinians subsidizes Israel's occupation by paying for services the Israeli authorities should be providing themselves.

In 2007, an ill-fated covert operation by the Bush administration provoked a civil war in Gaza. Islamists led by Hamas then took over the Palestinian enclave, provoking an Israeli blockade and nearly 14 years of sporadic warfare that most recently flared up this month.

The latest round of fighting began when several issues in Jerusalem—mob violence by Israeli nationalists, the attempted removal of Palestinian families from their homes, clashes between Palestinians and the police over holy sites—exploded into civil unrest all at once. It escalated after Hamas fired rockets at Israeli cities.

Israeli officials have rejected ceasefire offers, vowing to continue operations "until we achieve complete calm." Over a dozen Israelis and over 200 Palestinians have been killed in the violence so far.

The Biden administration has stated its "unwavering support" for Israeli operations and blocked a U.N. Security Council statement calling for a ceasefire, although the White House also told Israeli leadership that it expects "a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire" on Wednesday.

Some members of Congress are now attempting to pull the United States out of the conflict or, at the very least, impose some limits on U.S. involvement.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D–Minn.) is now sponsoring a bill to ban Israel from using U.S. taxpayer money to detain Palestinian children, demolish Palestinian homes, or annex Palestinian land.

"A budget is a reflection of our values. I'm committed to ensuring that our government does not fund state violence in any form, anywhere," Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.) said in a floor speech last week supporting McCollum's bill. "American government dollars always come with conditions, no matter the context. The question at hand is: should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing, and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid?"

But proponents of U.S. restraint face an uphill battle. The U.S. foreign policy establishment has long been sympathetic towards Israel, and two thirds of Congress signed a letter last month calling for "robust funding for Israel's security without added conditions."

"As America's closest Mideast ally, Israel regularly provides the United States with unique intelligence information and advanced defensive weapons systems," the letter states. "Reducing funding or adding conditions on security assistance would be detrimental to Israel's ability to defend itself against all threats."

In fact, the Biden administration had approved a $735 million weapons sale to Israel shortly before the latest round of fighting in Gaza broke out.

The sale included Joint Direct Attack Munitions—the same kind of bomb that smashed into the Associated Press office on Friday.