Inside Sources Say the State Dept Refuses To Trace Whether Israel Is Using U.S. Military Aid Illegally
Weapons paid for by the United States appear to have been used in the killings of at least 272 Palestinians since 2009.
December 13 | January 2019 Issue
The video shows a familiar West Bank scene. As a Palestinian flag in Nabi Saleh flutters in the wind on a spring day in 2017, two Palestinians with slingshots launch stones at Israeli soldiers. About a dozen others stand to the side, behind the ruins of a demolished house, calmly observing.
Then, a young man wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, alone, is seen heading up a slight slope toward the house. The camera jerks for a second, and the youth disappears from the frame. A single shot rings out. The observers duck. The young man, back in the frame, is running toward the others, holding his stomach. Then he falls. The screams for an ambulance begin.
The young man’s name was Sabaa Obeid, a 22-year-old from Salfit, a town about 13 miles north. He, too, had been throwing stones. Shot by one of the Israeli soldiers, he was declared dead later that day.
Witnesses to the confrontation say the armed soldiers were never in life threatening danger from the stones, which were flung from hundreds of feet away. No Israeli soldier has been killed by a Palestinian stone-thrower at a protest in the past 18 years, according to statistics compiled by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. (The Israeli military did not return requests for information.) “Stone-throwing poses little or no serious risk to Israeli soldiers, who are generally too far away for the stone-throwers to have any chance of hitting them,” wrote Amnesty International in a 2014 report. “Israeli forces frequently respond to such stone-throwing protests using grossly excessive force.”
The soldier who killed Obeid used a Ruger sniper rifle, a weapon manufactured by Sturm, Ruger & Co., the third biggest gun company in the United States. U.S. taxpayer dollars likely paid for it. Israel must spend roughly 75 percent of its annual military aid from the United States on U.S.-made weapons.
The shooting of Obeid with a U.S.-made weapon was not an isolated incident. Human rights groups have recorded dozens of incidents of the Israeli military using U.S.-made weapons in unlawful ways to injure and kill Palestinian civilians. During weekly demonstrations in Gaza last spring, for example, Amnesty International documented Israeli snipers injuring unarmed Palestinian protesters using weapons manufactured by Remington, the U.S.’s second largest gun corporation.
Taken together, witness testimony, video evidence and human-rights reports paint a picture of U.S. arms flowing to an Israeli army that recklessly uses live ammunition on civilians who pose little threat, in apparent violation of international law.
“Theoretically, you’re only allowed to use live ammunition in very extreme cases of grave danger to life,” says Sarit Michaeli, the international advocacy officer for B’Tselem. “The [Israeli] army has a much broader definition, [with] all of these specific descriptions—but none of them apply to a demonstration where some youth are throwing stones.”
Israel’s army has long deployed U.S. weapons to kill Palestinian civilians.
An In These Times survey of detailed reports published by the United Nations, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reveals that, since 2009, at least 272 Palestinians appear to have been killed by U.S.-made weapons used by Israeli forces.
Fourteen of these killings occurred during law enforcement situations (outside of an active war zone), such as during demonstrations. Some of these incidents have been captured on video. In one video from 2016, for example, an Israeli soldier, armed with a U.S.-made M4 assault rifle, executed an injured Palestinian who was lying still on a Hebron street after he stabbed a soldier.
The full death toll of Palestinians killed by U.S. weapons is likely far higher, since many reports are not able to identify the weapon used.
It’s not supposed to be this way. U.S. arms exports to Israel (and other countries) are governed by laws placing restrictions on sales to nations that abuse human rights. Campaigns to cut U.S. military aid to Israel have latched onto a particular measure, known as the Leahy Law. The law prohibits U.S. assistance or training from flowing to foreign military units that have committed a gross violation of human rights, unless the foreign government has held that unit accountable.
But interviews with human rights advocates, congressional aides and former and current U.S. officials reveal that enforcement of the Leahy Law in Israel is lax, with no tracking of which army units receive U.S. weapons.
Human rights advocates say they have brought the State Department evidence of specific crimes committed by soldiers who clearly used U.S. weapons, only to have that evidence brushed off. A current U.S. official, who asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press and could be fired as a result, told In These Times that they are not aware of any time when an Israeli unit was cut off from U.S. assistance under the Leahy Law.
This lack of enforcement allows Israel to get away with extrajudicial executions of Palestinians, human rights advocates say.
Maria LaHood, deputy legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, says the United States’ “unparalleled support for Israel” gives it leverage to end these extrajudicial killings if it chooses. “Our government does not lack the legal tools to put an end to Israel’s human rights violations,” she says. “It lacks the political will.”
Like that of many Palestinians, Sabaa Obeid’s life was shaped, constrained and ultimately ended by Israel’s occupation, which began in 1967.
Obeid lived in a modest, two-story stone home in Salfit, with his mother, father and brothers. Today it is decorated with reminders of his life—like the motorbike clock that hangs on the wall, an homage to his love of motorcycles—and with posters memorializing his death.
The city of about 11,000 is an administrative and commercial hub. But Israel’s separation wall snakes around the Israeli settlement of Ariel to the north of the city. The settlement divides Salfit from many of the surrounding villages.
Obeid came of age during the Second Intifada of 2000-2005, a bloody Palestinian uprising during which Israeli forces killed 3,223 Palestinians and Palestinians killed 950 Israelis, with numerous civilians and children slain on both sides. Obeid’s parents say that one of his first experiences with the reality of Israeli occupation came when soldiers raided his elementary school in Salfit, shooting tear gas at the students. As Obeid grew older, he and his friends would come outside to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers when they raided the city on manhunts.
“During the Second Intifada there were clashes and youth being killed all the time,” says Nidal Obeid, Sabaa’s father. “We live in a place that has never seen peace.”
Sabaa Obeid was arrested on charges of stone throwing when he was 18. After 16 months in an Israeli prison, he returned to his parents’ home determined to fight for the rights of Palestinian prisoners. “He memorized the names of prisoners. He wanted to be a martyr,” says Asmaa Shaheen, his mother. “I wanted him to be engaged [to be married], so he’d get distracted. He said, ‘There are brides in heaven waiting for me.’ ”
In April 2017, about 1,500 Palestinian prisoners launched a hunger strike for better conditions. To show solidarity, Sabaa Obeid ate very little, and he and his friends set up a symbolic tent in Salfit to gather community support.
On May 12, 2017, Obeid headed down to nearby Nabi Saleh, a tiny village famous for its resistance to Israeli occupation, to participate in a protest in support of the strike. In the hills of Nabi Saleh, where the red-tiled roofs of the Israeli-only settlement of Halamish peer down on the village, he joined a group of young Palestinians throwing stones down at two Israeli soldiers who were taking cover behind an unfinished building. One of the soldiers, armed with a Ruger sniper, took potshots at the stone-throwers.
A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says this confrontation was a “violent riot” that constituted a “threat” because “approximately 100 Palestinians threw rocks at IDF troops and a road used by civilians.” But video footage taken by Mersiha Gadzo, a journalist, shows that at most 20 people were throwing stones, some with their hands, others with slingshots.
“At the end of the day, we are talking about stones from a distance of 100 meters. How dangerous can it be?” says Miki Kratsman, an Israeli photographer who captured the day’s events. “We’re not talking about a dangerous situation.”
At around 2:15 p.m., Obeid walked over to a fence and crouched down to throw a few rocks at the two soldiers standing hundreds of feet away. Then he turned to head back toward the rest of the group, according to witness testimony given to B’Tselem. (In These Times could not contact this witness.) Before he could reach cover behind the remains of what was once a house, the Israeli sniper took aim at Obeid and pulled the trigger on his Ruger rifle, sending a .22 caliber bullet directly into Obeid’s stomach. That afternoon, Obeid was pronounced dead.
An IDF spokesperson told In These Times in August 2018 that Obeid’s killing was investigated by military police, and the findings “have been forwarded to the Military Advocate General for further examination.” The IDF did not respond to In These Times’ request for those findings.
But the prospects for accountability appear slim. Between 2000 and 2016, only 25 of 280 Israeli soldiers investigated for involvement in the killings of Palestinians have been charged with crimes, according to data compiled by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization. Of those, only eight were convicted—four on charges of negligent manslaughter, two for manslaughter, and two for negligence.
Obeid was the fourth Palestinian killed by Israeli soldiers in Nabi Saleh, where residents began holding weekly unarmed marches in 2009 to protest an Israeli settlement’s takeover of a natural spring long used by the villagers. One of those slain, 28-year-old Mustafa Tamimi, was shot in the face by an Israeli-fired tear gas canister manufactured by Combined Systems Inc., a Pennsylvania corporation. No criminal charges were filed.
“When the value of Palestinian life is so low [in the eyes of the Israeli army], no one is held to account,” says Amit Gilutz, a spokesperson for B’Tselem. “Soldiers know they’ll be fine no matter what.”
Israel is the recipient of the largest annual package of Foreign Military Financing, the grant program that allows foreign countries to purchase U.S.-made weapons. The current terms, signed under the Obama administration and implemented by President Donald Trump, give Israel $38 billion in U.S. military aid in the next 10 years, an increase of $8 billion over the previous decade. This includes $5 billion for missile defense.
Israel is one of a handful of countries that can use Foreign Military Financing grants to buy directly from private U.S. weapons corporations, a process with much less U.S. oversight than Foreign Military Sales, where the U.S. government coordinates the purchase of weaponry. And in a unique arrangement, Israel can use about 25 percent of its U.S. military aid to buy equipment made by Israeli companies. (This arrangement will end over the next decade.)
It’s a lucrative deal for U.S. weapons manufacturers. According to a State Department report, the U.S. authorized the shipment of almost $3 million in firearms last year—like the Ruger sniper rifle that killed Obeid. But it’s unclear how much a particular company like Ruger is profiting; the U.S. government does not break down the purchases by manufacturer. The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that in 2011, the Israeli military bought over $27 million worth of equipment in preparation for West Bank protests. The shipments included Ruger rifles and tear-gas canisters.
Foreign Military Financing money is not supposed to flow with no strings attached. In 1998, Congress passed what came to be known as the Leahy Law, authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The legislation bans U.S. military aid and training from going to foreign security units that commit human rights abuses, unless the secretary of state determines that the foreign country is holding members of the unit accountable. The law is rarely exercised. According to a 2017 RAND Corporation study, of 180,000 units and individuals vetted by the U.S. government each year under the Leahy Law, only 0.3 percent are rejected for U.S. assistance, in countries such as Colombia, Honduras and Nigeria.
Because the Leahy Law is narrow—it only bars assistance to particular military units that commit rights violations, rather than the entire foreign army—Palestinian rights advocates working in Washington see enforcement against Israel as an achievable goal that could curb civilian deaths.
“The Leahy Law being implemented would not end violations, but I think it would seriously constrain [them],” says Brad Parker, international advocacy officer and staff attorney at Defense for Children International-Palestine. “Israeli officials would have to scrutinize military decisions and the use of force in a way that would ultimately increase protection for Palestinian civilians.”
The State Department did not answer questions from In These Times about whether any Israeli army units have been barred from receiving U.S. weapons under the Leahy Law or whether the State Department has acted on specific evidence of Israeli soldiers misusing U.S. arms. A State Department official told In These Times in a statement that the department “continues to apply the Leahy Law across the board, including in Israel, as it has for years. … We take seriously any credible information of a gross violation of human rights, and we review alleged violations utilizing standardized criteria worldwide.”
This statement is disputed by Bill Harper, chief of staff to Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who has emerged as the leading congressional critic of Israeli human rights abuses. “They cannot credibly make the claim that they enforce the law equally,” Harper says. “We enforce it where we want and ignore it where we don’t.”
In a February 2016 letter, Leahy wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry about his concerns that the State Department is not adequately monitoring the use of U.S. military aid to Israel, and asked for an investigation into whether Israel committed extrajudicial executions with U.S. weapons. “There have been a disturbing number of reports of possible gross violations of human rights by security forces in Israel or Egypt—incidents that may have involved recipients, or potential recipients, of U.S. military assistance,” Leahy wrote. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that Israeli soldiers “are not murderers” and act in a “moral manner.”
In meetings and conversations with the State Department from 2012 to 2015, Mike Coogan, then the legislative coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, says he brought up a 2009 Human Rights Watch report on U.S.-supplied white phosphorus that killed Palestinians in Gaza. He also communicated with officials about a 2014 Amnesty International report documenting U.S.-made tear gas canisters killing Palestinian protesters.
“State said we’ll look into it and we’ll get back to you,” Coogan says. “But they never got back to us.”
Brad Parker told In These Times that, in meetings about the Leahy Law during the Obama administration’s second term, State Department officials said they do not track where weapons go once they are sent to Israeli units, making it difficult to assess whether the weapons are being misused.
One former U.S. official familiar with how the Leahy Law is implemented (who requested anonymity out of concern about losing their current job, which involves working with State Department officials), says that the State Department doesn’t “have much of a record of understanding where material assistance flows.”
The former official believes that an unwillingness to challenge Israel is one reason the broader lack of monitoring goes unaddressed. “Getting more fidelity on specific instances of assistance to, say, Nigeria or Kenya … raises the defenses of a number of different pockets of support for Israel, who are concerned that our support for Israel will be in question or at risk.”
Support for Israel on Capitol Hill is driven by a multi-pronged machine: the weapons industry, which makes money from U.S. military aid to Israel; donors, who give to pro-Israel politicians, both Democrats and Republicans; Christian evangelicals, who see support for Israel as part of biblical prophecy and make up a large part of the Republican base; and Israel’s lobbyists, who continually push Washington to ramp up support.
The current State Department official interviewed for this story also describes a general reluctance to confront allies: “We never want to deliver bad news to them. ... The implementation of the Leahy Law is where you see the downsides of that.”
Under the Trump Administration, which has fully thrown its support behind Israel’s right-wing government, resistance to enforcing the Leahy Law remains.
In leaked emails published by Politico in June 2018, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (who, before his appointment, fundraised millions of dollars for Israeli settlements) pushed back against State Department efforts to improve how U.S. military aid to Israel is monitored. According to Politico, Friedman wrote in October 2017 that he did “not believe we should extend” these efforts, in the form of guidelines on how to better vet military aid, “to Israel at this time.” Friedman went on to say that “Israel is a democracy whose army does not engage in gross violations of human rights” and that limiting U.S. military aid to Israeli units would be “against national interests.”
While the rhetoric against enforcing the Leahy Law more strictly against Israel may have hardened under Trump, there has been no policy change from Obama to Trump, according to Raed Jarrar, an expert on the Leahy Law.
“The difference is the mask has fallen, like many other things with Trump,” Jarrar says. “When it comes to the policies on the ground … there’s no difference. There was no attempt to hold Israel accountable in the past, and there is no attempt to hold Israel accountable now, either.”
Meanwhile, as the Israeli occupation grinds on and Congress continues to sign off on U.S. aid to Israel, Palestinians are left to fume at the fact that U.S. weapons companies, purchased with U.S. taxpayer cash, are supplying Israel with the arms that are killing civilians.
“I hope they taste the same pain we feel for our children,” says Asmaa Shaheen, Sabaa Obeid’s mother. “They’re responsible for the blood that’s shed.”
This story was reported with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. Ashira Ramadan contributed research and reporting to this story. Marco Cartolano contributed research and fact-checking. Hannah Freedman created the interactive map of Palestinians killed by U.S. weapons.
is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
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