Jerusalem24– US Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram on Friday to condemn the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces, as well as unconditional US military aid to Israel.
“I think it’s really important for us to have eyes on what happened with Shireen Abu Akleh in Palestine,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “Our tax dollars are a part of this…we can’t even get health care in the US, and we’re funding this. There has to be some sort of line that we draw.”
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As of Friday, a total of 57 US lawmakers had signed a letter requesting the FBI investigate the killing of Abu Akleh.
US aid to Israel under continuous scrutiny
Ocasio-Cortez is not the first US lawmaker to criticize US aid to Israel, which sees an annual $3 billion funding to the Israeli military.
US lawmakers, most notably Representative Betty McCollum, have issued calls in the past to make US military aid to Israel conditional on respect for Palestinian human rights, including during Israel’s latest attack on Gaza in May 2021. Bills to condition US support to Israel on safeguarding Palestinian children’s rights, amongst others, have been introduced as far back as 2017.
“We can’t allow this stuff to be happening with our resources.” – Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez
“U.S. assistance intended for Israel’s security must never be used to violate the human rights of Palestinian children, demolish the homes of Palestinian families, or to permanently annex Palestinian lands,” McCollum said in a statement following the introduction of one such bill in April 2021.
“The unprecedented endorsement of this bill by human rights organizations as well as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations is indicative of an energized movement in support of human rights for Palestinians,” McCollum continued.
“No checks in operation” for US funds or weapons
The scrutiny over US funding of the Israeli military apparatus comes as a report by The Intercept reveals that US weapons were used in the destruction of US assets and USAID-funded projects in Israel’s May 2021 attack on Gaza.
The report explains that while Israel is the single largest recipient of US military aid, “it is subject to virtually no checks in operation ensuring that U.S. weapons are not used to commit war crimes, destroy U.S.-funded projects, or damage the property of U.S. citizens in Gaza.”
The aid system also provides cash-flow financing that allows Israel to purchase weapons in the present using money from the future. It also contains an offshore procurement exemption — offered to no other country — that allows Israel to spend U.S. tax dollars on its own weapons industry without disclosing how it spent the money to Congress or the American public. In addition, the US maintains its own stockpiled weapons in Israel available for use by the Israeli military, which Israel has used in the past to wage campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah.
The end result is an Israeli arsenal almost entirely composed of weapons made or subsidized by the U.S.
Source: The Intercept
In contrast to funding for the Israeli military, “Statutes that govern how aid to the Palestinian territories can be disbursed […] are stringent. The audits ensuring that there are no ties between U.S. funding and Hamas cost millions of dollars, sometimes exceeding the cost of the very aid projects being audited.”
The “destabilizing effects” of cutting off assistance to the Palestinians
The Biden administration has only recently reinstated the disbursement of funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) which had been canceled under Trump.
The bulk of a $500 million fund earmarked for assistance to the Palestinians since the Biden administration came into office has gone to UNWRA, while about a quarter has gone to USAID for various humanitarian and economic projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power told a House Foreign Affairs Committee last Tuesday, “We see a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the government of Israel to resume this assistance out of concern for the destabilizing effects of cutting off assistance [and] the fundamental recognition that economic stability plays a critical role.”
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz echoed such concerns when he urged the Biden administration to pressure European Union and Arab countries into increasing financial aid to the indebted Palestinian Authority (PA) at the end of 2021.
US policy forbids direct US funding to the PA due to the so-called welfare program, which includes payments to Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons as well as the families of those killed by Israel, including during alleged attacks on Israeli civilians or military.
The PA is currently indebted to the tune of $2.37 billion, with international aid to the Palestinian budget steadily decreasing from $1.3 billion in 2013 to just $129 million in 2021. The PA regularly delays payment of public sector workers’ salaries for months at a time.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyieh met EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles in Brussels earlier in May to press for EU financial support for its 2022 budget. The EU postponed the transfer of $223 million in annual aid to the PA after EU members supported a condition put forward by Hungary to change the curriculum in West Bank schools because of “incitement against Israel and anti-Semitic content.”
Addressing a Cabinet session in Ramallah prior to the meeting, Shtayyieh said, “We have called on the European Union to provide its pledged aid without conditions. We hope to accomplish this very soon.”
A joint letter signed by 15 EU Member States in early April expressed concern at the continued delay in PA funding, as well as the imposition of conditions which, the signatories say, do “not enjoy broad support” among Member States.
“The introduction of conditionality at a time when the Palestinian Authority is already engaged in an ambitious programme of educational reform risks undermining, or even reversing, progress achieved to date.”
The letter stressed that the EU objective “must be to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. The continued delay in releasing EU assistance risks having the opposite effect.”
The EU is single largest contributor to the PA’s annual budget, with another significant portion coming from tax revenues. However as per the Oslo Accords, Israel collects these tax revenues on behalf of the PA, and regularly withholds these as a punitive measure for what is sees as non-compliant behavior from the PA – as it did in 2014 when Palestine joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
UNWRA future uncertain amidst “coordinated campaign to delegitimize and defund the Agency”
While the EU has not confirmed if or when funds to the PA might be transferred, the European Commission announced last Monday the allocation of $25 million in humanitarian aid “to meet the basic needs of vulnerable Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.”
Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said this was partly in response “to the rising food prices and food shortages as a global consequence of the Russian aggression against Ukraine”.
However, in a 23 April message from UNWRA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini to Palestinian beneficiaries of UNWRA services, Lazzarini seemed to cast doubt on the longevity of the organization.
“The painful reality is that in the last ten years, and despite immense outreach and fundraising efforts, the resources available to UNRWA have stagnated, while the needs of Palestine refugees and cost of operations keep increasing. The now chronic underfunding of UNRWA is the result of a combination of shifting geopolitical priorities, new regional dynamics and the emergence of new humanitarian crises compounded by donor fatigue for one of the world’s longest unresolved conflicts.”
Lazzarini also alluded to “coordinated campaigns by organizations that aim to delegitimize and defund the Agency,” saying they have “increased in frequency and aggressivity.”
“Whilst I will unreservedly continue to do everything possible to raise the funds to sustain all services and your rights, I must admit that I find it mind-boggling to have to do this every year.”
UNWRA has faced annual shortfalls of nearly $100 million in recent years, Lazzarini said. “One can continue to hope that the financial implosion of the Agency will not happen. Or, we can admit that the current situation is untenable and will inevitably result in the erosion of the quality of the UNRWA services or, worse, to their interruption.”
Lazzarini reiterated his commitment to protecting the rights of UNWRA beneficiaries and ensuring access to services, and stressed that “there is no handover or transfer of responsibilities and programmes on the table, and no tampering with the UNRWA mandate. UNRWA is and remains irreplaceable.”