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Congress seeks to hold Israel accountable for demolishing Palestinian homes

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A “Dear Colleague” letter was sent by more than 60 Democratic Representatives to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week seeking to hold Israel accountable for its massive demolition of Palestinian homes last July in the Wadi al-Hummus neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), and Steve Cohen (D-TN) led the effort. “U.S.-supplied military equipment to Israel should only be used for legitimate self-defense against the very real security threats Israel faces,” stated Khanna. “Such military equipment should not be used to turn Palestinian homes into rubble, displace families, and tear apart communities. I look forward to the State Department providing the information necessary to ensure that U.S.-supplied military equipment in the West Bank is not being used in this destructive practice.”

Signers of the letter included a mixture of long-time supporters of Palestinian rights such as Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and David Price (D-NC); first-term progressives such as Reps. Chuy Garcia (D-IL), Deb Haaland (D-NM), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Andy Levin (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI); and several veteran Jewish Members of Congress who have become increasingly outspoken on Israel’s policies such as Reps. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and John Yarmuth (D-KY).

“Dear Colleague” letters are typically statements of positions or requests for information addressed by Members of Congress to another institution or decision-making body. Although they do not carry the weight of law, these letters serve as important gauges of congressional interest and can pave the way toward future executive or legislative action.

Such a trajectory was followed by McCollum before she introduced her path breaking bill on Palestinian child detainees. Her legislation was preceded by two “Dear Colleague” letters she spearheaded on the subject addressed to the Obama administration. The boilerplate responses she received provided the impetus for introducing even more consequential legislation.

Both McCollum’s bill and the Khanna-Eshoo-Cohen letter are examples of a new assertiveness and willingness among progressive Democrats to take measures to hold Israel accountable.

Their letter requests Pompeo to conduct “an examination of Israeli compliance with the provisions of the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (AECA)” in relation to Israel’s home demolitions.

The AECA strictly limits the use of US-supplied weapons by foreign countries to “internal security” and “legitimate self-defense,” along with a few other narrow purposes. Organizations supporting Palestinian rights have long campaigned for Congress to recognize that Israel’s misuse of US weapons in Occupied Palestinian Territory to commit grave human rights abuses against Palestinians violates the AECA.

The letter to Pompeo also asks for “a determination as to whether a report to Congress on this issue is required by section 3(c)(2)” of the AECA. This bland language belies its importance, potentially triggering a process which could result in the United States ceasing all credits, guarantees, sales, and deliveries of weapons to Israel.

Under the AECA, these sanctions are imposed either through a presidential determination or joint resolution of Congress finding that a foreign country has violated the law; sanctions can only be lifted after “the President determines that the violation has ceased” and the foreign country “has given assurances satisfactory to the President that such violation will not recur.”

Although it is extremely unlikely that Pompeo will report to Congress that Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes violates the AECA and even less likely that the Trump administration or Congress would impose sanctions on Israel at this time, the letter is nevertheless a crucial milestone in holding Israel accountable for its actions.

While the Khanna-Eshoo-Cohen letter probably will not bear fruit under the Trump administration, it could be a template for potential bold action by the next president.

The letter is also significant because, unlike most congressional initiatives critiquing aspects of Israel’s policies, it does not mince words. It calls Israel’s “destructive practice” of demolishing Palestinian homes “unlawful,” resulting in the “forcible transfer of civilians.” The employment of this latter phrase is especially noteworthy since it is defined as a crime against humanity under the statute of the International Criminal Court, potentially providing congressional backing for holding Israel accountable in that forum.

The letter also presses the State Department to shed light on the often opaque nature of which weapons are given to Israel by US taxpayers through foreign military funding; what, if any, end-user agreements are imposed on the usage of these weapons; and how the United States determines whether Israel’s usage of these weapons constitutes legitimate self-defense.

By requiring the State Department to answer a very detailed set of these types of questions, this letter could greatly help Congress in its oversight of military aid to Israel.

Last December, Khanna, Eshoo, and Cohen joined most of their Democratic colleagues in passing a watered-down resolution supporting a negotiated two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The resolution failed to include any meaningful pressure on Israel to end policies like home demolitions that vitiate the possibility of Palestinian sovereignty.

By seeking to actually hold Israel accountable for its actions, their “Dear Colleague” letter is a welcome corrective to such toothless resolutions.

The full text of the letter and the full list of signers can be found on Khanna’s website.

Josh Ruebner

Josh Ruebner is the Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting. Former Policy Director at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Middle East Analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Author of "Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State?" and "Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace".

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18 Responses

  1. bcg on March 17, 2020, 6:52 pm

    Just in case some people don’t know, here’s the February report on home demolitions from ICAHD:

    https://icahd.org/2020/03/02/february-2020-demolition-and-displacement-report/

    During the month of February 2020, at least 41 structures were demolished in the occupied Palestinian Territories (including East Jerusalem) by Israeli forces, displacing at least 72 people- including 26 children- and affecting a further 191 people[1]
    All the demolitions and confiscations were carried out on grounds of lacking an Israeli-issued building permit, other then the demolition of a house in Jenin (on 6 February) that was carried out as a punitive act. Most of the demolished structures supported agricultural, herding and commercial livelihoods….

    • Misterioso on March 17, 2020, 10:39 pm

      @bcg

      Thanks very much for the information.

      To state the screaming obvious, “Israel” is a monster, a frothing at the mouth mad blood thirsty beast, the very epitomy of evil and it is supported and financed by Uncle Sam. WAKE UP AMERICA!!

      • Ernie on March 18, 2020, 3:40 am

        Birds of a feather, if you ask me.

      • Misterioso on March 18, 2020, 9:18 am

        @Ernie

        “Birds of a feather, if you ask me”

        Agreed!

        I should have written “wake up Americans.”

        Although more and more Americans, especially youth, are learning the hideous truth about “Israel” and its bought and paid for supporters in Washington and elsewhere, most still know little and continue to be fooled.

      • Mooser on March 18, 2020, 11:13 am

        This is an opportunity for the Republicans to put themselves on record as firmly in favor of Israel’s home demolitions.

    • Misterioso on March 18, 2020, 10:00 am

      http://www.dci.plo.ps/en/article/14759/Dr-Ashrawi-on-US-Congress-members-oversight-of-military-aid-to-Israel

      Press Release – The Palestine Liberation Organization, March 17/2020

      Dr. Ashrawi on U.S Congress members oversight of military aid to Israel

      (March 17, 2020): “We welcome the letter signed by 64 U.S lawmakers concerning the crime of home demolition that Israel employs systematically against Palestinian families. This overdue scrutiny should be the beginning of accountability for Israel’ unchecked crimes, which are often overlooked by the U.S Congress. Home demolitions, forced transfers and collective punishment are serious crimes and constitute a grave violation of both international law and international humanitarian law. Using American taxpayer’s money to commit these crimes is also in violation of the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act, which entails that US-supplied military equipment to Israel should only be used for so-called self-defence.

      “Israel employs several tactics to entrench its illegal occupation of Palestine, while using home demolition, forced transfer, collective punishment and other illegal actions to minimize the number of Palestinians on the land. It is time for the U.S Congress to actively monitor its generous military aid to Israel and to hold it accountable when it violates the aid conditions or its obligations under international law. Israel has been exempt from any kind of accountability and acts freely with full impunity. Israel has also violated U.S law pertaining the use of American aid and it is time for Congress to bring Israel into compliance and respect of its own legislation.

      “In this context, and in compliance with International law and international humanitarian law, the responsibility of Congress extends to ensuring that American companies listed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights as contributing to the human rights violations of the Palestinian people. Congress should use its authority to end the companies’ illegal profiteering and contributions to violations of international law.”

  2. Kay24 on March 18, 2020, 4:27 am

    This is heartening, despite knowing it will not be a successful endeavor by these Congress people. Moscow Mitch and those in the pockets of those dreadful zionists, will stamp on this bill, and kill it. Besides, Jared will make sure Trump will not sign it.

    I however, applaud these decent people in the Congress, including Rho Khanna, who seems to have some sense of compassion for the suffering of the Palestinians. The rest seem hard hearted and cruel. Years of this inhumane treatment by the zionists, and years of America enabling them. Our shame.

    • catalan on March 18, 2020, 9:08 am

      “Moscow Mitch and those in the pockets of those dreadful zionists, will stamp on this bill, and kill it. “
      You missed the news. There won’t be a discussion of any bill not least because the congressmen are afraid of meeting. The only item to discuss is the saving from devastation of 20 percent of American workers who are in Great Depression mode, no job, no money, no healthcare. So yeah, the bill about Palestinian homes might just have to have to wait till they solve the food riots and possible military emergency rule, in like the States. Talk about tunnel vision. There just might not be any Cheerios and Starbucks to boycott very shortly.

      • bcg on March 18, 2020, 11:06 am

        @Catalan: So about the topic of home demolitions itself….?

      • Misterioso on March 18, 2020, 12:33 pm

        @catalan

        “The only item to discuss is the saving from devastation of 20 percent of American workers who are in Great Depression mode, no job, no money, no healthcare.”

        Surely, given the increasingly dire financial situation Uncle Sam now finds himself in, it is time for the U.S. to cut off the near 15 $million American taxpayers give the entity known as “Israel” every day (not including tax deductible contributions by American pro-Zionist organizations and individuals.) After all, its now nearly 72 years that America has been subsidizing racist, expansionist, illegal/brutal occupier “Israel.”

      • catalan on March 18, 2020, 1:24 pm

        “Surely, given the increasingly dire financial situation Uncle Sam now finds himself in”
        We’ll surely, you have heard. Europe has found itself in a much worse situation and even Iran and Venezuela and the rest of the Arab world has a bit of a problem. So I wouldn’t worry about “Uncle Sam” just yet.

      • Misterioso on March 18, 2020, 2:58 pm

        @catalan

        “So I wouldn’t worry about ‘Uncle Sam’ just yet.”

        Sigh. You contradict yourself. In your previous posting you stated that the “…only item to discuss is the saving from devastation of 20 percent of American workers who are in Great Depression mode, no job, no money, no healthcare.”

        Obviously, it is time to ‘worry about ‘Uncle Sam.'”

      • Mooser on March 18, 2020, 3:27 pm

        “Obviously, it is time to ‘worry about ‘Uncle Sam.’””

        “catalan” doesn’t have to worry about the USA. He’s from the land of Imallrightistan.

      • catalan on March 18, 2020, 7:18 pm

        ““catalan” doesn’t have to worry about the USA. He’s from the land of Imallrightistan.”
        Actually I am working from home these days and I have some concerns both for me and my coworkers. I am responsible for financial things in our government so pretty important stuff right now. I try to take the long view and worrying won’t help anyone as I have to be an optimist, at least outwardly. Overall, I think you exaggerate our differences. I am not a sociopath. I care deeply about people. I guess our one area of disagreement is that I believe that you not going to Starbucks or vacationing with Airbnb won’t being about a 1947 size Palestinian state. It’s your opinion and more power to you.

  3. Ossinev on March 18, 2020, 10:50 am

    @catalan
    “So yeah, the bill about Palestinian homes might just have to have to wait till they solve the food riots and possible military emergency rule, in like the States. Talk about tunnel vision. There just might not be any Cheerios and Starbucks to boycott very shortly”

    Sounds like the Coronavirus has created an enormous brand new source for Ziowhataboutism.

    • catalan on March 18, 2020, 12:14 pm

      “Sounds like the Coronavirus has created an enormous brand new source for Ziowhataboutism.”
      Ossinev,
      With bds – boycotts (I am sure that the unemployed people will make sure not to get boycotted goods), divestment (sell the stocks of the bankrupt companies ) and of course sanctions (let’s see what the next general assembly of the UN will be about lol). This has potential to make things really good for the Palestinians, which is wonderful! You are unwavering optimist and this is what we (and the Palestinians especially) need now.

      • bcg on March 18, 2020, 3:21 pm

        So, about the actual topic of home demolitions….?

  4. Ossinev on March 18, 2020, 3:04 pm

    @catalan
    “With bds – boycotts (I am sure that the unemployed people will make sure not to get boycotted goods), divestment (sell the stocks of the bankrupt companies ) and of course sanctions (let’s see what the next general assembly of the UN will be about lol). This has potential to make things really good for the Palestinians, which is wonderful! You are unwavering optimist and this is what we (and the Palestinians especially) need now”
    Que???
    Well I suppose you are to be excused if you are from Catalonia.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7mpClSPyhk

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