For most of the month of August, in the middle of a global pandemic, the IDF bombed the besieged Gaza Strip almost every night, stopping at the end of the month when Qatar brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Most, myself included, don’t see the detente lasting.
According to the World Bank, Israel spends 4.3% of its GDP on military expenditures. This is in addition to the $3.8 billion in foreign military aid to Israel that the U.S. provides. With calls to defund the police growing in the U.S. in response to ongoing police violence and a growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, it’s time to rethink these numbers.
Let us review what Israel’s military budget has achieved over recent years. The IDF mass incarcerates almost 2 million Palestinians within 140 square miles in the Gaza Strip, including around 930,000 children. They are hemmed in by a wall and fence that intergenerationally entraps them, denying them access to the rest of the planet. Most Palestinians in Gaza are refugees who were forced out of their homes or fled from war as part of the violent founding and expansion of Israel. Before the pandemic, half of the population lived in poverty, and the World Bank projects that the Gaza poverty rate will soon reach 64%.
The IDF has routinely engaged in collective punishment against Palestinians in Gaza. In the 2014 Israeli offensive in Gaza, the IDF killed 2,202 Palestinians, including 1,391 Palestinian civilians and 526 children. The IDF offensive wounded another 11,000 people, of whom 10% have resulting permanent physical disabilities. The 2014 IDF offensive also destroyed infrastructure in Gaza, targeting its only power plant, causing electricity and water to be cut off (the desalination plants are powered by electrical current). It destroyed 18,000 homes, 73 medical sites, and a number of UN shelters, schools, mosques, and churches. All in all, the 2014 IDF offensive on Gaza displaced up to 500,000 people.
In the same period the UN found, “Palestinian armed groups fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars towards Israel in July and August 2014, killing 6 civilians and injuring at least 1,600.”
More recently, Gaza has experienced additional lethal force from the IDF, this time in response to a protest movement. Leading up to the pandemic, every Friday for the last two years Palestinians in Gaza demonstrated by the fence that imprisons the territory as part of the Great March of Return. The protesters demanded an end to the 13-year blockade on Gaza and their right to return to their communities. In response, the IDF killed 214 Palestinians, including 46 children, and wounded 36,100. Among those killed included Palestinian healthcare workers, journalists, and people with disabilties.
Back to last month. The escalation began in response to a group of Palestinians sending incendiary devices attached to balloons over the fence separating Gaza from Israel. The balloons landed in farms and brush in the countryside causing fires. Nobody was harmed in these fires. In response, the IDF bombed the densely populated Strip, leading Hamas to fire rockets into Israel. Israel then blocked fuel transfers to Gaza on August 18, which, once again, led to an energy and water crisis. Gaza was left with only four hours of electricity per day and no running water. Today, electricity function is up to around three-fifths of the need, as fuel transfers have started back up following the agreement to end hostilities, but this level still fails to meet basic standards.
Imagine trying to be any functional human being under these disastrous conditions. Imagine the mental health complications that arise with intergenerational incarceration and threat of death at the hands of the IDF. This is not war; this is years of collective punishment campaigns, ebbing and flowing under the pretense of defense and deterrence.
The IDF is an instrument of racialized population elimination, expulsion, transfer, concentration, and management. It is an authoritarian power that controls the lives of millions of Palestinians who don’t have democratic access to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. What it “defends” is Jewish-Israeli supremacy over non-Jewish Palestinians, an ethnonationalist system that seizes executive authority over Palestinian bodies, lives, and land. It “defends” colonization and, ultimately, “defends” Israeli fear of Palestinians—fears rooted in racist stereotypes that paint Palestinians as violent monsters.
Of course, supporters of the IDF will say “But what about the threat of Hamas?” The reality is, however, that the state of Israel is Palestine’s oppressor and Gaza is a concentration camp. Hamas’s antisemitic ideology and use of violence must be understood as a product of the systematic, totalitarian violence Palestinians have endured at the hands of Israel for over 70 years. Chronologically, the IDF came before Hamas, which was founded in 1987. Militarily, the IDF exists on an entirely different level than Hamas. As historian Rashid Khalidi explains in his book “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017,” while the IDF utilized 42 million pounds of sophisticated, American-manufactured explosives on Gaza in summer 2014, Hamas’s poorly manufactured rockets frequently didn’t make it to Israel. Khalidi further points out that the 4,881 missiles Hamas launched into Israel in summer 2014 had less explosive power than just a dozen of Israel’s 2,000 pound bombs. This is certainly not to excuse antisemitism or indiscriminate violence against Israelis from Hamas. It is simply a sober understanding of the power dynamics and roots of the situation. We need to acknowledge the IDF’s growing budget has not made anyone safer, least among them those entrapped in Gaza.
Israel must revolutionize its priorities just as the U.S. must. Last week a video circulated on social media of an IDF soldier kneeling on the neck of 65-year-old Palestinian Khairy Hannoun, who was protesting a land confiscation in the West Bank. Online, people drew comparisons between Khairy Hannoun who was injured and George Floyd who was killed by the same tactic. It wasn’t the first time this summer parallels have been pointed out between police killings of Black people in the U.S. and Israeli killing of Palestinians. On May 30, 2020, Israeli Police fatally shot Eyad al-Hallaq in Jerusalem, an autistic Palestinian who was murdered for not stopping at an apartheid checkpoint. As activists in the U.S. are calling to reallocate police funds into community investment, Israel must stop spending billions on Palestinian death and invest into Palestinian life, justice, repair, and healing. Israel must organize land redistribution, especially for refugees living in exile for decades. Central to this process must be Palestinian freedom, dignity, and autonomy. It’s time to defund the IDF.