Battles in the US Congress that erupted again this week, holding up an extra $1bn in military funding for Israel, underscored just how divorced from reality the conversation about US financial aid to Israel has become, even among many critics.
For 48 hours last month, a small group of progressive Democrats in the US House of Representatives succeeded in sabotaging a measure to pick up the bill for Israel to replenish its Iron Dome interception missiles. The Iron Dome system was developed by Israel, with generous financial backing from successive US administrations, in the wake of the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Today, it ostensibly serves to protect Israel from short-range, largely improvised rockets fired intermittently out of Gaza.
Supplies of the Iron Dome missiles, each of which cost at least $50,000, were depleted back in May, when Israel triggered widespread confrontations with Palestinians by intensifying its settlement of Palestinian neighborhoods near Jerusalem’s Old City and violently raiding al-Aqsa Mosque. Palestinian militant groups fired large numbers of rockets out of Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel for the past 15 years. Iron Dome intercepted the rockets before they could land in Israel.
The group of progressive Democrats, known popularly as the Squad, scotched an initial move by their congressional leadership to include the $1bn assistance to Israel in US budget legislation. But the money for Iron Dome was quickly reintroduced as a standalone bill that passed overwhelmingly, with 420 votes in favor and nine against. Two representatives, one of them the prominent Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voted “present” – counting effectively as an abstention.
This week, the furor moved to the Senate when Rand Paul, a strong Republican critic of US foreign aid, refused to nod through the bill and thereby give it unanimous assent. It will now need to go through a more complicated legislative process.
The latest funding for Iron Dome comes in addition to the $3.8bn Israel receives annually from the US in military aid, which has made Israel the biggest recipient, by far, of such largesse. Putting the new tranche of Iron Dome aid into perspective, it is twice what Washington contributes annually to NATO’s budget.
The previous administration, under former President Donald Trump, turned US funding for NATO into a big domestic controversy, arguing that the US was shouldering too much of the burden. But there has been barely a peep about the massive military bill the US is footing for Iron Dome.
The Squad’s main achievement in launching its brief blocking move was to force out into the open the fact that the US is paying for Israel’s stockpile of missiles. Like the House leadership, the Israel lobby had hoped the money could be transferred quietly, without attracting attention.
What little debate did ensue related to whether Israel really needs US military assistance. A few commentators asked why Washington was kitting out one of the richer countries on the planet with missiles in the midst of a pandemic that has hit the US economy hard.
But the lobby quickly stifled a far more important debate about whether the US should be encouraging Israel’s use of Iron Dome at all. Instead, US funding for the interception missile system was presented as being motivated solely by a desire to save lives.
In attacking Paul’s decision to block the bill, the biggest pro-Israel lobby group in Congress, AIPAC, argued this week that his move would “cost innocent lives, make war more likely, and embolden Iran-backed terrorists”.
It was precisely the claim that the Iron Dome is defensive that appeared to push Ocasio-Cortez, usually seen as one of the few US politicians openly critical of Israel, into a corner, leading to her abstention.
Images from the House floor showed her tearful and being given a hug by another representative after the vote. She later attributed her distress in part to how Iron Dome funding had a polarizing effect at home, noting that the House bill was a “reckless” move to “rip our communities apart”.
That was an apparent reference to factional tensions within the Democratic Party between, on one side, many Jewish voters who back what they see as Israel’s right to defend itself and, on the other, many Black and Hispanic voters who think it is wrong for the US to financially support Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
Some saw her indecision as evidence of her ambitions to run for the Senate, where positions critical of Israel would be more likely to damage her prospects of success.
Expiring in silence
In Israel, and in Jewish communities beyond, the conversation about US support for Iron Dome is even more detached from reality. The nine US representatives who voted against were roundly castigated for willing the deaths of Israelis by voting to deny them protection from rockets fired from Gaza. In predictable fashion, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, called those who voted against “either ignorant or antisemitic”.
But some liberals took the argument in a different, even more fanciful direction. They called the Squad “hypocrites” for voting against the $1bn funding, arguing that Iron Dome missiles not only save Israelis, but Palestinians too. One Haaretz commentator went so far as to claim that Palestinians were actually the main beneficiaries of the Iron Dome system, arguing: “The fact Israel has a defensive shield against rocket attacks makes a wide-scale military operation with thousands of – mainly Palestinian – casualties less likely.”
Of course, there is the small question of whether Israel has indeed been “forced” into its attacks on Gaza. It is precisely its military superiority – paid for by the US – that has freed it to carry out those massive attacks, in which large numbers of Palestinians, including hundreds of children, are killed, rather than negotiate an end to its decades-long occupation.
Just as in life, bullies resort to intimidation and violence because they feel no need to compromise. But even more to the point, Iron Dome is central to Israel’s efforts to keep Palestinians imprisoned in Gaza, entirely subjugated and stripped of any power to resist.
With Israel patrolling tiny Gaza’s land borders and coast, sealing off the enclave from the rest of the world, Palestinians have few options to protest their slow starvation – or to gain attention for their plight. Israeli snipers have fired on Palestinians staging unarmed, mass protests at the fence caging them in, killing and wounding thousands. The Israeli navy fires on or sinks Palestinian boats, including fishing boats, in Gaza’s waters if they stray more than a few kilometers from the shore.
Iron Dome, far from being defensive, is another weapon in Israel’s armory to keep Palestinians subdued, impoverished, corralled and silent. For those claiming to want peace in Israel-Palestine, the extra funding for Iron Dome just made that prospect even less likely. As long as Palestinians can be made to slowly expire in silence – their plight ignored by the rest of the world – Israel is free to seize and colonize yet more of what was supposed to become a future Palestinian state.
Systems of domination
But there is another reason why Ocasio-Cortez should have voted against the Iron Dome resupply, rather than tearfully abstaining – and that is for all our sakes, not just the sake of Palestinians.
The US foots the bill for Iron Dome, just as it does for most of Israel’s other weapons development, for self-interested reasons: because it helps its own war industries, as Washington seeks to maintain its military dominance globally.
With western populations less willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters for the sake of modern wars, which seem less obviously related to defense and more transparently about the control of key resources, the Pentagon has worked overtime to reframe the public debate.
It is hard to disguise its global domination industries as anything but offensive in nature. This is where Israel has played a critical role. Not only has Israel helped to develop weapons systems like Iron Dome, but – despite being a nuclear-armed, belligerent, occupying state – it has leveraged its image as a vulnerable refuge for the long-persecuted Jewish people. It has been able to make more plausible the case that these domination systems really are defensive.
In recent decades, Israel has developed and tested drone technology to surveil and assassinate Palestinians, which has proved invaluable in the US and UK’s long-term occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel’s latest “swarm” technology – making drones even more lethal – may prove particularly attractive to the Pentagon.
Israel has also been the ideal partner for the Pentagon in testing and refining the battlefield use of the new generation of F-35 fighter planes, the most expensive military product in US history. Uniquely, Israel has been allowed to customize the jet, adapting its capabilities in new, unforeseen ways.
Bowing to US hegemony
The F-35’s ultimate role is to make sure major rival airforces, such as Russia’s and China’s, are elbowed out of the skies. And Israel has been at the forefront of developing and testing a variety of missile interception systems, such as Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow, which are intended to destroy incoming projectiles, from short-range rockets to long-range missiles.
Last December, Israel announced it had successfully launched Iron Dome interception missiles for the first time from the sea. Reports noted that the US arms maker Raytheon and the US defense department were involved in the tests. That is because, behind the scenes, the US is not only paying for the development and testing of these systems; it is also guiding the uses to which they will be put. The Pentagon has bought two Iron Dome batteries, which, according to Israeli media, have been stationed in US military bases in the Gulf.
The US has its own interception systems under development, and it is unclear which it will come to rely on most heavily. But what is evident is that Washington, Israel and their Gulf allies have Iran in their immediate sights. Any country that refuses to bow to US global hegemony could also be targeted.
US interest in these missiles is not defensive. They are fundamental to its ability to neutralize the responses of rivals to either a US military attack, or more general moves by the US to dominate territory and control resources.
Just as Palestinians have been besieged by Israel for 15 years, the US and Gulf states may hope one day to deal a knockout blow to Iran’s oil exports. Washington would be able to ignore current concerns that Tehran could retaliate by firing on shipping through the Strait of Hormuz or on hostile Middle Eastern capitals. If Iran’s missiles can be intercepted, it will be incapable of defending itself against increasing economic or military aggression from the US or its neighbors.
Less safe world
Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer, there has been plenty of naive talk that the US is seeking a diminished role in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ultimately, the US is seeking global dominance at arm’s length – through a combination of long-range military power, cyber warfare, robotics and artificial intelligence – that it hopes will lift the restraints imposed by American casualties and domestic opposition.
Israel’s playbook with regards to Palestinians is one that elites in Washington trust can be exported to other corners of the globe, and even outer space. Interception missiles lie at the heart of that strategic vision, as a way to neutralize and silence all resistance. This is why no one who cares about a less violent, exploitative and dangerous world should be indifferent to, or neutral on, congressional funding for Iron Dome.
Missile interception systems are the face not of a more defensive, safer world, but of a far more nakedly hostile, aggressive one.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net. This originally appeared in the Middle East Eye.