$14b US aid package for Israel crafted with eye to ‘multi-front war,’ not just Gaza

Most of the funds in hotly debated bill would go to Ukraine, though it also proposes spending billions to bolster Israeli air defenses, ammo stockpiles and weapons systems

This picture taken from the vicinity of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon on February 8, 2024, shows a rocket fired from above nearby Kafarshouba being intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome. (Rabih Daher/AFP)
This picture taken from the vicinity of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon on February 8, 2024, shows a rocket fired from above nearby Kafarshouba being intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome. (Rabih Daher/AFP)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — For months, US President Joe Biden has asked for — and Congress has debated — sending wartime foreign aid to Israel as it battles Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The bill currently on the table, passed in a bipartisan vote by the Senate last week, would see some $14 billion go to Israel as part of a $95 billion foreign aid bill. Biden is now pushing the Republican-led House to take up the bill.

The majority of the bill’s funds would aid Ukraine in its war against Russia, and a smaller portion is earmarked to help Taiwan deter Chinese aggression. Another portion would fund humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza.

But the Israel portion of the aid is significant: It’s more than three times the $3.8 billion the United States sends to Israel in a normal year. And it would be a clear signal that the United States continues to stand behind the Israeli war effort as it continues deeper into its fifth month.

Unlike Ukraine, which has made its need for US funding clear, Israeli leaders have not publicly clamored for the aid. Defense specialists say that if Israel receives the money, it may not even be used in this war in Gaza, which began on October 7 when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel’s south, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

Instead, a lot of the funding is targeted toward replenishing weapons stockpiles — as well as helping Israel prepare for a potential future fight against Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group.

Hezbollah fighters and supporters attend the funeral of Ali al-Debs, one of the terror group’s commanders killed by an Israeli airstrike two days earlier, in Lebanon’s southern city of Nabatieh on February 16, 2024 (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

Here’s how the bill’s funding for Israel breaks down, and what lies behind the numbers.

The largest amount of funding for Israel, $5.2 billion, is targeted toward systems that deter missiles and other airborne threats — both long- and short-range.

A senior Biden administration official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the aid was structured with an eye to other fronts — making sure Israel has the means to prevent, or counter, any escalation on its borders.

“This is for Israel to defend itself in a multi-front war and to be sure it can deter a multi-front war,” the official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Within the $5.2 billion carveout, $4 billion is for procuring short-range antimissile systems for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. It also funds the David’s Sling system, which intercepts mid-to-long-range missiles. Another $1.2 billion is for an “Iron Beam” antimissile system that is still in development. When operational, that system will use lasers to shoot down airborne threats ranging from drones to mortars, anti-tank missiles and rockets.

The Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, October 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Avi Roccah)

Hamas rocket fire has largely abated as Israel has depleted the group, but those missile defense systems would be especially critical in a fight against Hezbollah, which began launching rockets at Israel starting October 8, a day after Hamas’s invasion of Israel launched the war in Gaza.

Hezbollah says its attacks are a bid to keep Israel preoccupied, and Iran has reportedly urged Hezbollah not to escalate its attacks into an all-out war. But with hundreds killed in fighting already — mostly Hezbollah fighters — the specter of broader conflict looms: Israel launched air strikes in Lebanon last week after rocket fire killed a woman in the northern town of Safed.

“As Israel is battling to remove Hamas terrorists from Gaza, Hezbollah, with a far more deadly missile arsenal, is threatening civilian populations in the north,” said Marshall Wittmann, the spokesman for AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby advocating for the bill. “It is imperative that Israel immediately receives the necessary resources to defend against these threats.”

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that gets briefings from top Israel officials, said Israel might safely assume that two-thirds of the up to 200,000 missiles Hezbollah possesses could reach populated areas in Israel across much of the country.

He said Israel could also face continued missile fire from countries farther afield, such as Yemen.

“That’s a massive amount of interceptors needed and I don’t think [Israel] is anywhere near that,” he said. “So I would imagine from a defensive perspective, that’s a huge priority.”

Houthi supporters attend a rally against the US-led strikes against Yemen and in the support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in Sanaa, Yemen, February 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman)

As the war has continued, the Biden administration has increasingly urged Israel to safeguard Palestinian civilian life and exercise greater precision in its strikes on Gaza. More than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, whose unverified figures do not differentiate between combatants and civilians. Israel said on Monday that it believed it had killed 12,000 Hamas fighters.

In December, Biden said Israel’s bombing of Gaza was “indiscriminate.” Israel rejects that criticism, saying that it takes steps to protect civilians when shelling in Gaza.

To enable Israel’s strikes to be more targeted, the bill also sets aside $801.4 million for ammunition for Israel. The Biden administration official confirmed that that money would go to precision weapons.

“Israel does not want unguided missiles,” the official said.

In 2021, Congress allocated $1 billion in emergency funding to help Israel replenish its Iron Dome system after a two-week conflict that May. This time, it is setting aside $3.5 billion for Israel to replenish systems and ammunition it may have burned through in the first months of the war, and to maintain systems used during the war.

Israel used money from the $3.8 billion it receives annually from the United States to pay for wartime munitions, such as the Iron Dome. Israel would use these new funds to return to those priorities, including the modernization of F-15 and F-35 aircraft.

A picture taken from Israel’s southern city of Sderot shows an IAF F-35 over the northern Gaza Strip, on October 29, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The rest of the money for Israel, more than $4 billion, goes to an American priority: restocking weapons the United States keeps stockpiled in the region, including in Israel, on a contingency basis.

Those weapons stocks have been depleted, as Biden gave Israel the green light to access the stockpile.

“We have these stockpiles for a reason to make sure we are ready for any emergency,” the official said. The money in the bill “makes sure the United States remains strong and we have readiness to respond to any emergencies.”

In total, the bill provides $9.2 billion for humanitarian assistance for Ukraine and Gaza. How that breaks down between the two wars is not spelled out.

But Joel Braunold, the managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, who consults with US officials on relief distribution, said he understood that between $1.7 billion and $2 billion would go to the Palestinians’ humanitarian needs.

Those needs are immense. International health organizations say Gaza is on the verge of a famine and have accused Israel of not doing enough to let in aid. Israel has countered that it is doing all it can to provide aid but does not have reliable partners on the other side of the border.

Braunold noted that the bill bans any aid from reaching the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, the Palestinian aid agency known as UNRWA which Israel says acts in collusion with Hamas.

The money will “go to Gaza through bilateral and multilateral assistance,” he said, referring to nonprofit organizations working in Gaza, and to international aid groups. “While the bill gives significant flexibility to the administration to transfer resources between these accounts, it bans any resources from going to UNRWA.”

The Biden administration has joined a number of Western nations in suspending assistance to UNRWA in light of Israeli intelligence saying that a portion of its staffers were involved in the October 7 massacres or affiliated with Hamas. But Biden administration officials are also pressing Israel to facilitate the entry of more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

Israeli soldiers take position as they enter UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City where the military discovered tunnels and a secret data center underneath the UN agency, February 8, 2024. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The lion’s share of the funding bill, $60 billion, is for Ukraine’s defense needs. The question of getting Ukraine weapons as it continues its two-year-long effort to repel Russian invaders has also gotten the lion’s share of the attention in the debate over the bill.

Democrats and a portion of Republicans want to continue aiding Ukraine. But another faction of Republicans, allied with former US president Donald Trump, are skeptical of aiding Ukraine. Republicans have demanded that the bill include provisions to tamp down a migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border — though they recently rejected a compromise to that effect.

In a speech last week, Representative Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who is among Israel’s staunchest defenders in his party, focused on addressing Republicans who have stalled the funding for Ukraine’s war.

“Give the victims of Putin’s war crimes a vote, Mr. Speaker,” Hoyer said, addressing Mike Johnson, the Louisiana Republican who is speaker of the House. “Give Ukraine hope.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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