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How We're Footing the Bill for Violent Crackdowns on Dissent in the Middle East

A global, for-profit system binds together US weapons companies, repressive governments in the Middle East and taxpayer money.

A Palestinian woman at a demonstration in the village of al-Walaja.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler /


It's odd to see an Israeli flag flying in rural Pennsylvania.

Still, until very recently, the Israeli flag flew right alongside the American flag against the bucolic landscape of Jamestown, Pennsylvania. The nondescript warehouse-like buildings surrounding the two flags are not the factories of a local Pennsylvania Jewish-owned business, as one might guess. Rather, they are the headquarters of Combined Systems, Inc.—one of the largest manufacturers and international suppliers of teargas, stun grenades and other "non-lethal" crowd control devices in the world.

Israel, or more accurately, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is their most frequent client. And Combined Systems' relationship with the IDF is an emblem of a global system that binds together US weapons companies, repressive governments and taxpayer money.

Here's how this system generally works: a foreign government requests a certain amount of military assistance from the United States government. If the US government chooses to accept this request, Congress appropriates the amount into the budget, and once the budget is passed, the recipient can use the money to purchase weapons from US manufacturers. Israel is a case in point.

The United States has given foreign aid to Israel since 1949. In the beginning it was only used for economic development. It wasn’t until 1959 that the United States began a modest military loan program to Israel. By 1962, this money was used to fund the purchase of US weaponry, forming the foundation of the relationship between the US government and Israeli military.

Due to an Israeli economic crisis during the 1980s, military loans to Israel were eliminated and replaced with grants. In 2008, all economic aid was eliminated and replaced exclusively with military aid.

Today, Israel receives about $3.1 billion annually from the United States in foreign military financing, or more simply, military aid. Since this form of foreign assistance is part of the congressional budget, this collective amount is financed entirely by the US taxpayer.

Despite proposing drastic cuts to domestic programs, President Obama's most recent budget proposal suggests increasing US military aid to Israel by $25 million. Aside from this increase, the Israeli government has recently requested an additional $700 million to construct more Iron Dome and Magic Wand missile and rocket defense batteries.

Once President Obama submits a budget request, Congress reviews—and in the case of military aid to Israel—will most likely appropriate the proposed changes into the budget. Within 30 days of the budget's passing, Israel receives the lump sum of $3.1 billion in an interest-bearing account. This is an anomaly, as any other country receiving US military aid can only receive the grant in quarterly installments.

As soon as Israel receives the grant, it can begin to purchase weapons and other military devices from US manufacturers.

According to a recently released report from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, US aid to Israel financed the transfer of over 600 million weapons in 500 different categories to the IDF from 2000-2009. These weapons and military devices include the technologically equipped spy towers that monitor checkpoints along the separation barrier, advanced missile systems and the highly toxic white phosphorous dropped on Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

But it is more than just these direct agents of war that US taxpayers subsidize. It is also the teargas canisters, flash-bang grenades and other "non-lethal" methods of crowd control that have been used to violently break up nonviolent demonstrations in Palestine for years. In more recent months, non-lethal weapons have also enabled police crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrations in other parts of the Middle East. These supposedly non-lethal weapons have killed five unarmed Palestinian civilians and permanently injured two US citizens in the Palestinian territories alone in the past decade. These devices are seen most vividly in the empty teargas canisters that litter the West Bank village of Bil'in once a week after the weekly demonstrations protesting the separation barrier are broken up.

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