LONDON: A senior Democrat has demanded that US President Joe Biden do more to stop “racists” in Israel’s government committing “gross violations” of Palestinian rights and territorial integrity.
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen told The Guardian after a recent visit to the West Bank that US military support for Israel is being used to annex parts of the Occupied Territories, facilitate violence by Israeli settlers and, along with inaction from the White House, is emboldening the far-right wing of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Van Hollen added that Israel should be investigated over possibly violating the 1997 Leahy Law on foreign militaries receiving US assistance whilst abusing human rights.
“President Biden should get more personally engaged in addressing these issues. We should make it clear, for example, that US military assistance is not to be used to aid and abet settler violence, and not to be used for the purpose of expanding settlements or protecting those who are erecting illegal outposts,” Van Hollen told The Guardian, adding that what is happening in the West Bank is a “land grab” of Palestinian territory.
“When you see it first-hand it underscores how alarming the situation is now with this ultra-rightwing Netanyahu government that includes known racists like (National Security Minister Itamar) Ben-Gvir and (Finance Minister Bezalel) Smotrich, and clearly shows that they’re determined to totally take over the West Bank,” he said.
“I’m very concerned about settler violence and the fact that you’ve got the (Israel Defense Forces) either looking the other way or sometimes cooperating with settlers in attacks on Palestinian villages and towns.”
Van Hollen said it is “time to really take a close look at how US security assistance is being used,” though he added that Israel still needs American support in the face of threats from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
He said far-right elements in Israel’s government have little respect for the US or Biden. Earlier this year, Ben-Gvir tweeted: “President Biden needs to realize that we are no longer a star on the American flag.”
Van Hollen said: “Ben-Gvir openly thumbing his nose at the United States pretty much indicated they’ll do what they want to do, regardless of the US position.
“So, I do think that in the absence of more accountability demanded from the United States, we undermine our own credibility.
“We have to stand up for principles that underscore US policy, which is values of democracy, of freedom of human rights, rule of law.
“If we don’t stand up for those policies, even when we’re dealing with countries that are friends like Israel, we will undermine our credibility around the world.”
Van Hollen added that the focus should not just be placed on vocal figures such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, saying: “Obviously the rest of the (Israeli governing) coalition is either complicit in their actions through active support or through neglect.
“This is all happening on the watch of this current government and so the government needs to be held responsible for their actions, if they refuse to rein them in.
“President Biden himself keeps saying that he supports a two-state solution with equal measures of dignity and freedom for both peoples. But what’s happening on the ground in real time is undermining the vision laid out by President Biden himself.
“This is a moment to re-examine American policy and make determinations regarding the way forward.”
Van Hollen stopped short of saying the Israeli government itself is racist, but said: “Clearly the actions taken by Smotrich are a gross violation of the rights of Palestinians. He is essentially trying to expand Israeli civilian control over more of the West Bank.
“You’ve already got a de facto annexation, that’s obviously a step toward de jure annexation. But also, the fact that you’ve got Smotrich calling for — and I think I’m quoting him here — wiping out the Palestinian village of Huwara.
“You’ve got Ben-Gvir participating in marches with people chanting ‘Death to Arabs.’ You’ve got a huge spike in anti-Christian activities.
“So, it’s pretty clear that you have these ultranationalists violating the human rights of Palestinians.”
In the US, there has been growing opposition to continued cooperation with Israel under its current government.
In November 2022, former American Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer joined Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East peace negotiator, in calling for an end to Washington’s “controversial” military and diplomatic support for Israel, and a cut in weapons sent to the IDF.
A majority of American Jews, meanwhile, back the US imposing limits on aid to prevent it supporting Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
That opposition is also present abroad where, increasingly, the situation in Israel is being compared to apartheid in South Africa.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said, after their own visit to the West Bank earlier this year, that “the ever-growing evidence (shows) that the situation meets the international legal definition of apartheid,” with Israeli government policies “clearly show(ing) an intent to pursue permanent annexation rather than temporary occupation, based on Jewish supremacy.”
Van Hollen disagreed with this assessment, saying: “I do not describe what’s happened in the West Bank to date as apartheid. As you know, there’s an active debate over exactly how to define what’s happening there.
“But clearly, when you’ve got these racists like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich leading the charge on various policies, there’s a real danger of Israel heading in that direction in the West Bank.”