On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders sent a one-page letter to David Friedman, President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, asking the envoy-designee to explain his funding of a West Bank settlement and to consider repealing the tax-exempt status for charities financing settlements, like the one Friedman runs.
Sanders also suggested that the U.S. give some of the $3.8 billion it gives to Israel in military aid to Gaza.
Given that Israeli security experts and officials have acknowledged that the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza and the lack of reconstruction there contributes to continuing instability and violence, do you believe that a portion of this aid should be directed toward measures that would facilitate a much greater flow of humanitarian and reconstruction materials?
The senator called out Friedman for his support of an illegal settlement, the Beit El settlement in the West Bank near Ramallah.
“Why, as an American citizen, did you finance these activities?” Sanders wrote.
The question was part of a longer line of inquiry into financially promoting projects that Israel deems illegal, and are constructed on land belonging to Palestinians.
“You yourself have helped raise millions of tax-exempt dollars for these settlements. Indeed, your name adorns a building in the Beit El settlement that was constructed on private Palestinian land and illegal even under Israeli law,” Sanders said.
“As ambassador, would you take steps to end the flow of donations to illegal settlements, perhaps by supporting the re-examination [of] their tax-exempt status?” Sanders continued.
In Israel, it is illegal for non-governmental organizations to hold tax-exempt status if their sole purpose is to build project in the West Bank. Often donations are made through American partner groups, like Friedman’s American Friends of Beit El, and then distributed overseas.
The issue of tax-exempt status for charities with a role in Israel’s occupation have come under scrutiny in the past, and organizations providing such funding are currently being challenged in a U.S. court. However, the IRS, which officially prohibits charity donations to any occupied territory, has yet to prosecute or strip the tax-exempt status of any group.
In 2010 the New York Times ran a piece looking into U.S. dollars funneled to Israeli settlements that were used to purchase, in part, “guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles to secure outposts deep in occupied areas.” One charity engaged in political campaigning.
U.S. tax codes allow for the funding of educational and cultural projects abroad, but not security related expenses, or political expenditures.
In 2015 the Israeli journalist Uri Blau investigated contributions to the settlements from American charities between 2009 and 2013. He found $281 million was sent to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, of which $224 million first passed through Israeli charities.
In 2015 a group of plaintiffs represented by Martin McMahon filed a lawsuit petitioning the Department of Treasury to revoke the tax-exempt status of charities that sent more than $20,000 annually to Israeli settlements. The suit was dismissed and later refiled with an amended complaint representing, in part, U.S. citizens of Palestinian heritage who own plots of land in the West Bank where settlers have constructed buildings financed by American tax-exempt charities.
Sanders also asked Friedman about his commitment to a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Friedman has previously written multiple op-eds against the two-state solution but recently retracted those remarks during his senate confirmation hearing in mid-February.
“Do you believe the Palestinians have a right to a state of their own? How would you propose to advance U.S. interests and values in the region in the absence of a two-state solution?” Sanders asked in the letter.