Washington, DC – A group of progressive Democrats in the United States Congress has called on President Joe Biden to “shift” American policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, saying that US aid should not be used to fund abuses of Palestinian rights.
In a letter to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, 14 lawmakers also urged the US administration to investigate whether American weapons were used to commit rights violations against Palestinians and ensure that “US taxpayer funds do not support projects in illegal settlements”.
“Furthermore, we call on your administration to ensure that all future foreign assistance to Israel, including weapons and equipment, is not used in support of gross violations of human rights, including by strengthening end-use monitoring and financial tracking,” it read.
US regulations, including a provision known as the Leahy law, prohibit assistance to military forces that commit gross violations of human rights.
The letter, led by Congressman Jamaal Bowman and Senator Bernie Sanders, marked a rare call from Congress for restricting the $3.8bn that Israel receives in US military aid every year.
It cited the killing of two American citizens by Israeli forces last year – Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh and Omar Assad, an elderly Palestinian-American who died after being arbitrarily detained.
While the letter only garnered a relatively small number of signatures, progressive activists have described it as norm-breaking. Israel has traditionally enjoyed near unanimous, bipartisan support in Congress.
“These 14 members of Congress represent the rapidly growing popular opinion of Democrats across the country: Americans want to see an end to US support for Israel’s blatant violence against Palestinians,” Beth Miller, political director Jewish Voice for Peace Action, an advocacy group that supports Palestinian rights, told Al Jazeera in an email.
Miller added that the letter was backed by dozens of civil society groups, including racial justice, climate advocacy and civil rights organisations.
“The lawmakers who are pushing this initiative represent the future of US policy toward Palestine/Israel. Democratic leadership should pay attention and catch up,” Miller said.
Palestinian rights advocates have long called on Washington to use its aid to Israel as leverage to pressure the Israeli government to end its abuses, including the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“We urge immediate action to prevent the further loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives,” the Sanders-Bowman letter read.
“At this inflection point, we ask your administration to undertake a shift in US policy in recognition of the worsening violence, further annexation of land, and denial of Palestinian rights.”
Violence has escalated in Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent weeks, with Israeli forces storming Al-Aqsa Mosque and regularly conducting deadly raids in the West Bank. Palestinian gunmen have also carried out fatal attacks against Israeli settlers.
The far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced condemnation from across the world earlier this year after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the Palestinian village of Huwara should be “wiped out”.
Thursday’s letter accused ultranationalist officials in Netanyahu’s government of “pushing repressive, anti-democratic policies and escalating violence towards the Palestinian population”.
The Democratic lawmakers noted that the Israeli government has continued to authorise settlement-building despite US objections.
“We are deeply concerned by Israeli government moves that demonstrate that illegal de facto and de jure annexation of the occupied West Bank is well underway,” the letter said.
Signatories include prominent progressives Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley as well as Muslim-American Congressman Andre Carson and first-term House members Delia Ramirez and Summer Lee.
Betty McCollum, who previously introduced bills that would restrict aid to Israel, also joined the letter.
“We must stop funding Israeli apartheid,” Bush wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Each year, the U.S. funnels billions of tax dollars to the Israeli government, funding obscene human rights violations.
We must stop funding Israeli apartheid.
— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@RepCori) April 14, 2023
Leading rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused Israel of imposing apartheid against Palestinians.
The letter came weeks after disagreements between Biden and Netanyahu played out publicly following a call by the US president for halting a judicial overhaul plan in Israel that critics have said would weaken the courts’ oversight of the government.
The Biden administration has also criticised Israeli settlement plans, but US officials often stress that Washigton’s commitment to Israel is “ironclad”.
As a candidate, late in 2019, Biden dismissed conditioning aid to Israel as a “bizarre” idea.