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.