Over the past several years, US Congresswoman Betty McCollum has tried to spur a debate in the United States about the billions of dollars that Washington sends to Israel each year.
The Democrat from Minnesota wants to know more about just where the money is going, while ensuring that Israel is not using US military assistance to commit human rights abuses against Palestinians.
Last month, McCollum introduced her latest bill, which aims to get guarantees that US aid is not used in abuses against Palestinian children, the destruction of Palestinian property, the removal of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank, or Israel’s attempts to further annex Palestinian land.
The proposed legislation has the support of more than a dozen members of Congress, and dozens of Palestinian, human rights and Jewish organisations, including J Street – and it has drawn the ire of Israel’s supporters, who argue the massive assistance package ($3.8bn annually) is necessary to protect the US’s top ally in the Middle East.
While it would not have enough votes to pass, Palestine advocates say the proposal is opening up a much-needed debate around the US aid to Israel and Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians.
McCollum’s effort has also gained renewed attention this week as Israeli authorities threaten to evict several Palestinian families from the illegally occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Jewish settlers.
Police violence against Palestinians in #SheikhJarrah who only want to remain in the homes they’ve lived in for generations is state-sponsored persecution. NO U.S. taxpayer dollars should support the annexation of Palestinian land or destruction of Palestinian homes. # HR2590
“Police violence against Palestinians in #SheikhJarrah who only want to remain in the homes they’ve lived in for generations is state-sponsored persecution,” McCollum tweeted on May 6. “NO U.S. taxpayer dollars should support the annexation of Palestinian land or destruction of Palestinian homes.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera over email before the latest violence in Jerusalem, McCollum explained her bill and what she hopes to achieve.
Al Jazeera: Why is this bill necessary?
Betty McCollum: Millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are subject to repressive conditions under Israeli military occupation that systematically violate their human rights. US military aid to Israel enables the occupation. My bill prohibits US funds from supporting or enabling human rights abuses.
Not $1 of US taxpayer funds should be used to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people living under Israel’s military occupation.
Al Jazeera: The measure has drawn considerable attention in Congress and among groups that work on Israel-Palestine issues in the US. Why do you think that the idea of conditioning US aid to Israel is so controversial?
McCollum: In Congress, Israel is viewed as a special democracy that shares our values, as well as important bilateral security goals. But Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children, the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the unilateral annexation of Palestinian lands are actions not supported by the American people and they do not reflect our values.
The dehumanisation of the Palestinian people has been such an effective narrative that 75 percent of Congress wants absolutely no restriction on US military aid to Israel, effectively supporting the systemic repression of Palestinian society.
Al Jazeera: Have you seen a shift at all among US lawmakers when it comes to Washington’s unconditional support for Israel? If so, how do you explain those changing attitudes?
McCollum: There is a core group of very courageous colleagues who seek the facts and speak the truth. They are willing to stand up for Palestinian rights because they recognise Palestinians as human beings who have rights and deserve to be treated with dignity. The majority of Congress finds it convenient to demonise Palestinians and support Israel’s policies of systemic persecution. There is also a group that is uncomfortable with Israel’s actions, but are unwilling to challenge the status quo.
Change will not be made overnight or through one bill. It will come when the American people no longer tolerate our tax dollars being used to support the systemic persecution of the Palestinian people – and the public pressure on elected officials is significant enough to effect change.
Al Jazeera: Over 300 members of Congress recently signed a letter calling for aid to Israel to be unconditional. “Reducing funding or adding conditions on security assistance would be detrimental to Israel’s ability to defend itself against all threats,” it reads. What is your response to this?
McCollum: By refusing to place clear restrictions on US military aid to Israel, Congress is effectively giving Israel the green light to abuse the human rights of Palestinian children, demolish Palestinian homes, and to annex Palestinian land.
Congress knows systemic persecution and human rights abuses are being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinian people, and this letter says: ‘We do not care, and in fact, we will continue to look the other way!’
Al Jazeera: What level of support do you believe your bill has in Congress?
McCollum: The goal of my bill is to acknowledge the humanity of the Palestinian people and condemn their repression. At a moment in US history where systemic racism and discrimination in our own country is being exposed and rejected, why is our government helping to fund the repression and abuse of the Palestinian people?
It is my hope that civil society, faith-based groups, and advocates for civil and human rights will pressure Congress to restrict US support for Israel’s military occupation and the dehumanisation of the Palestinian people.