Inside Sources Say State Dept Refuses To Trace Whether Israel Is Using U.S. Military Aid Illegally

Weapons paid for by the United States have likely been used in the extrajudicial killings of at least 14 Palestinians, in violation of the Leahy Law.

Alex Kane December 13, 2018

Palestinians in Nabi Saleh carry Sabaa Obeid in the moments after an Israeli sniper shot him on May 12, 2017. (Miki Kratsman/Activestills)

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.

“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.”

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 those 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 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. Mar­co Car­tolano con­tributed research and fact-checking.

Alex Kane is a New York-based free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East.
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