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


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.

It is not only occupied Palestine that experiences the effects of non-lethal weapons. Egypt—the second largest recipient of US military aid at $1.3 billion per year—also purchased the teargas and stun grenades fired with abandon in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution from Combined Systems, Inc.

The governments of Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen have also recently purchased extensive amounts of teargas from US manufacturers to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations. In Bahrain, more than a dozen deaths have been attributed to the firing of tear gas at opposition protesters, according to Amnesty International. Bahrain reportedly buys its tear gas from Combined Systems, Inc.

"Protesters throughout the Middle East—and people watching in solidarity from around the world—saw that every time there was a teargas canister, that symbol of repression of democracy and human rights was 'Made in the USA,'" Patrick Connors, an organizer with the Palestine solidarity group Adalah New York observed.

That "Made in the USA" label exemplifies the tight-knit alliance between foreign governments, the United States government and corporate war profiteers. This alliance ties US taxpayer hands behind their backs, forcing them to be financially complicit in the occupation of Palestine and the global crackdowns on nonviolent demonstrations.

"The US taxpayer and the US citizen are deeply implicated in everything that the Israeli military does to abuse the rights of Palestinians and to prolong and entrench their 44-year military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip," Josh Ruebner, advocacy director for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told AlterNet.

At the individual level, US military aid to Israel alone costs each American taxpayer $21.59—funding $300 worth of weapons for every Israeli man, woman and child. Of course, this money is not spent by individual Israeli citizens, but the numbers illustrate the US taxpayer’s role in making the IDF one of the more formidable armies in the world.

"Everything that the Israeli military does—every time a Palestinian civilian is killed, every time a Palestinian is prevented from going to work or farming his or her land or has their land stolen to build illegal Israeli settlements—all of these actions are executed with US weapons that are paid for by us, the taxpayers," Ruebner emphasized.

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has also broken down US aid to Israel at the state level, and published how many affordable housing vouchers, green jobs training programs or early reading education programs could be funded if this money were redirected to domestic programs. In California, over 42,000 low-income people could have affordable housing vouchers and more than 57,000 unemployed workers could be trained for the green jobs economy if US aid to Israel were redirected domestically.

Israel receives massive amounts of US aid despite the fact that it is not a poor country. According to the International Monetary Fund, Israel is the 28th wealthiest country in the world, ranking higher than New Zealand, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. If Israel wished to sustain the military occupation of Palestine on its own time, it would be more than financially able to purchase weapons, internationally or domestically, on the open market.

Still, as we fill out our taxes, we can’t help the fact that $21.59 of our hard-earned money goes to fund human rights violations committed by the Israeli military. Another good portion funds the suppression of democracy and dissent in other countries with US-made products. Instead of financing affordable healthcare, housing and education, our government is using our money to finesse an international reputation as the power that violently crushes resistance to repression. 

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