On Palestinian Human Rights, We in America Need to Move From Talk to Action

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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Miami, March 8, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Miami, March 8, 2016.Credit: AP

The U.S. State Department’s newly released annual human rights report generated unprecedented interest when it declared that Israeli forces used “excessive force” against Palestinian civilians as well as arbitrary arrest, torture, and unlawful killings. It was a rare validation by the U.S. government of the abuses human rights groups have alleged for years – but it wasn't unprecedented. Previous reports have also included severe violations, and while the administration has sometimes issued statements of condemnation in the past, they have had little effect in demanding accountability from Israel. 

Will this report, then, amount to just another meaningless, barely felt slap on the wrist from the White House to Israel? Or might it be part of a catalyst for a different and long-awaited conversation about U.S. policy and military aid to Israel? 

For the first time in years, the answer is “maybe.” The timing of the report’s release coincides with a moment in America’s political discourse where the Israel-Palestine conflict is being critically reexamined. BDS movements are rapidly growing on college campuses. There is increasing coordination between domestic and international human rights, religious, peace, and justice groups (i.e. Black Lives Matter, JStreet, Jewish Voice for Peace, Churches for Middle East Peace, Friends Committee on National Legislation) with pro-Palestine activists. But perhaps most notable (and unexpected) of all is what is currently taking place on the presidential campaign trail.

During last Thursday's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders emphasized the importance of Palestinian human rights, leaving Hillary Clinton to defend the deaths of almost 1,500 civilians during Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket attacks in the 2014 war. Sanders strongly criticized those attacks, calling them “disproportionate” and pushed for a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stating that while Israel has a right to exist in peace and security, Palestinians should also be treated with “respect and dignity.” 

A Palestinian girl cries as she stands outside a cave that she lived in with her family after Israeli forces destroyed its entrance in Khirbet Tana, near the West Bank city of Nablus April 7, 2016. Credit: Reuters

This statement, basic as it was, distinguished him from previous candidates who have largely ignored Palestinian suffering when discussing the topic. Slowly but surely, the conflict has gradually become the number one foreign policy issue of his campaign, and now the presidential race, following the long post-mortem over the Iraq war.

Sanders is not alone in his desire to hold Israel accountable. Over the last year, various members of Congress have made significant efforts to increase American pressure against the Israeli military detention and abuse of Palestinian children and the destruction of Palestinian villages in the West Bank. And in February, almost a dozen members of Congress submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to investigate specific instances where Israel had allegedly committed a “gross violation of human rights” toward Palestinians under the Leahy Law. This law prohibits the State Department and Pentagon from providing military assistance to foreign militaries that violate human rights with impunity. The fact that one of the signers of the letter was Senator Leahy himself, speaks volumes as to the seriousness of the initiative.

Israel is the world’s largest recipient of American military aid, raking in $3 billion per year in weapons, training, and equipment. This amounts to a significant 25% of Israel’s military budget. (That number may actually increase in the future, if Israel’s request for additional funding is approved). Human rights organizations worldwide have repeatedly claimed that such a large stake deems the U.S. complicit in Israeli aggressions against the Palestinians, and as such, it has a responsibility to suspend transfers of military aid until and unless Israel stops violating human rights across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

But the abuses, which are often dismissed or denied outright by the Israeli government, persist while the funding still flows. Two weeks ago, the Palestinian village of Umm al Kheir in the West Bank had six homes bulldozed, leaving 31 Palestinian refugees, including 16 children, homeless. A new Human Rights watch report revealed that Israeli military detention and abuse of Palestinian children has dramatically increased in the last year. The construction of Israeli settlements, considered illegal by the U.S. and under international law, continues at a rapid pace. And Gaza, which risks running out of water by the end of this year and becoming completely unlivable by 2020, is still far from being rebuilt.

The crisis has clearly reached a tipping point. Both sides – Israeli and Palestinian - must be held equally accountable if we ever hope to achieve any semblance of peace. Stern statements and annual reports without consequences are no longer sufficient to keep the region from boiling over, and increasing numbers of American citizens and politicians refuse to remain complicit bystanders in a conflict that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and marred the U.S.’s reputation as a world leader.

During an election period, that last point is critical: The issue is whether, by not holding Israel to account for human rights abuses, America is abiding by its own ethical and legal standards and striving to be transparent and accountable to its citizenry. In Leahy's words: the U.S. must investigate allegations of abuses by security forces in Israel, a country that receives U.S. aid, because "This is only fair to U.S. taxpayers, and it is necessary in upholding the law that our country stands for." There is no better time than now, during this rare surge of momentum, for America to practice the justice it preaches. 

Wardah Khalid is a Middle East policy analyst who most recently worked on Israeli-Palestinian issues at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @YAmericanMuslim.