On Tuesday, Joe Biden said he’d formally ask Congress to approve military funding for Israel in the coming days, emphasizing: “We stand with Israel. And we will make sure it has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, [and] respond to this attack.” The sentiment is understandable given the horror of Hamas’s massacre on October 7.
Yet bombing Gaza — a heavily blockaded, densely populated strip of land where “military precision” is impossible and enormous civilian casualties are unavoidable — will not make the situation better. Decimating what is in effect a two-million-person refugee camp will not bring back the Israeli civilian lives lost, nor will it punish the perpetrators of the October 7 attacks. Already, the death toll in Gaza has eclipsed the horrifically high Israeli casualty total.
Unfortunately, the United States’ default position for decades has been to send military aid to Israel at every turn, despite its long record of committing human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians.
Israel is the largest cumulative beneficiary of US foreign assistance since World War II. From 1946 through September 2023, Israel received a total of nearly $160 billion in US economic and military support. Economic aid makes up about 20 percent of that figure, but its share is shrinking; the United States began to phase out the assistance after Israel became an advanced economy. Large-scale US subsidies, beginning in 1971, first stabilized Israel’s economy, then catalyzed its rapid economic growth — including the expansion of its high-tech sector in the 1990s — up until 2008. As of 2022, the country’s GDP per capita ranks fourteenth worldwide.
Weapons, munitions, and other matériel make up nearly 80 percent of the US assistance sent to Israel since 1946. Through September 2023, the United States has given the country more than $124 billion in military aid.
While US economic aid largely ended in the mid-2000s, US subsidies for Israel’s military have intensified since then. Annual military aid was set at $2.1 billion for fiscal years (FY) 1999–2008, $3 billion for FY2009–2018, and $3.8 billion for FY2019–2028. Of the current $3.8 billion annual figure, $500 million is for missile programs sponsored by the Pentagon’s budget. The remaining $3.3 billion in military aid comes from the State Department’s budget, specifically through the Foreign Military Financing program. This financing mechanism effectively acts as a multibillion-dollar gift card for Israel to spend exclusively on US-made weapons and other matériel every year.
Congress habitually adds to this predetermined yearly total through supplemental legislation, and it is poised to do so once again in the days ahead. Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced this week that he will introduce a bill to provide “supplemental funding for Israel’s defense” in order to “help Israel defend itself.” But Israel isn’t the needy underdog Chairman Cardin and many other politicians make it out to be. The country ranks fifteenth among all countries in military spending and, as mentioned above, is set to get another $3.8 billion in FY2024 on top of the $3.8 billion it received earlier this year. What’s more, Israel holds an overwhelming military advantage not just over Hamas but over the entire region.
There is another problem: sending additional US military aid to Israel should be illegal. This is made clear in US law. The Foreign Assistance Act prohibits US assistance to countries with “a consistent pattern” of violating human rights. Decades of Israeli occupation and systematic persecution of Palestinians, which human rights groups have labeled “apartheid,” underpin the country’s sustained violations of international law.
The Arms Export Control Act says the United States can only supply weapons to another country if they’re for “legitimate self-defense.” To choose just one example, Israel’s bombardment of international news offices, residential apartments, and refugee camps using US-made bombs in 2021 wasn’t self-defense. The Leahy laws require the United States to vet foreign military units for past human rights abuses before sending them arms. In practice, Israel is exempt from this requirement — the United States doesn’t even bother tracking which US weapons go to which Israeli units.
On the question of US military aid to Israel, it shouldn’t matter what affection Congress or Biden have for the country, because US law is clear about prohibiting military aid to chronic human rights abusers. In this sense, the challenge isn’t to change the minds of political leadership. It’s to get them to simply uphold the law. Their willingness to ignore past abuses effectively gives Israel the green light to continue committing human rights abuses in the days and weeks ahead.