Taxpayers are spending over $1 billion to send refined fuel to the Israeli military -- at a time when Israel doesn't need it and America does.
Editor's note: Generous support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.
By Robert Bryce
Salon composite/Wikipedia image
Jan. 16, 2009 | Israel's current air and ground assault on the Gaza Strip has left about 1,000 Palestinians dead, including 400 women and children. Several thousand people have been wounded and dozens of buildings have been destroyed. An estimated 90,000 Gazans have abandoned their homes. Israel's campaign in Gaza, which began more than two weeks ago, has been denounced by the Red Cross, multiple Arab and European countries, and agencies from the United Nations. Demonstrations in Pakistan and elsewhere have been held to denounce America's support for Israel.
It's well known that the U.S. supplies the Israelis with much of their military hardware. Over the past few decades, the U.S. has provided about $53 billion in military aid to Israel. What's not well known is that since 2004, U.S. taxpayers have paid to supply over 500 million gallons of refined oil products -- worth about $1.1 billion –- to the Israeli military. While a handful of countries get motor fuel from the U.S., they receive only a fraction of the fuel that Israel does -- fuel now being used by Israeli fighter jets, helicopters and tanks to battle Hamas.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, between 2004 and 2007 the U.S. Defense Department gave $818 million worth of fuel to the Israeli military. The total amount was 479 million gallons, the equivalent of about 66 gallons per Israeli citizen. In 2008, an additional $280 million in fuel was given to the Israeli military, again at U.S. taxpayers' expense. The U.S. has even paid the cost of shipping the fuel from U.S. refineries to ports in Israel.
In 2008, the fuel shipped to Israel from U.S. refineries accounted for 2 percent of Israel's $13.3 billion defense budget. Publicly available data shows that about 2 percent of the U.S. Defense Department's budget is also spent on oil. A senior analyst at the Pentagon, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, says the Israel Defense Force's fuel use is most likely similar to that of the U.S. Defense Department. In other words, the Israeli military is spending about the same percentage of its defense budget on oil as the U.S. is. Therefore it's possible that the U.S. is providing most, or perhaps even all, of the Israeli military's fuel needs.
What's more, Israel does not need the U.S. handout. Its own recently privatized refineries, located at Haifa and Ashdod, could supply all of the fuel needed by the Israeli military. Those same refineries are now producing and selling jet fuel and other refined products on the open market. But rather than purchase lower-cost jet fuel from its own refineries, the Israeli military is using U.S. taxpayer money to buy and ship large quantities of fuel from U.S. refineries.
The Israeli government obtains the fuel through the Defense Department's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, and pays for the fuel and the shipping with funds granted to it through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), another Defense Department program. (In 2008, Congress earmarked $2.4 billion in FMF money for Israel, and $2.5 billion for 2009.) The dimensions of the FMS fuel program are virtually unknown among America's top experts on Middle East policy. For his part, the Pentagon analyst was surprised to learn that FMS money was even being used to supply fuel to Israel. "That's not the purpose of the program," he says. "FMS was designed to allow U.S. weapons makers to sell their goods to foreign countries. The idea that fuel is being bought under FMS is very, very odd."
The fuel program, in fact, raises a number of pressing questions. The shipments have occurred during times of record-high oil prices, when American consumers have been angered by motor fuel prices that in 2008 exceeded $4 per gallon. Given those high prices, it appears to make little sense for the U.S. government to be promoting policies that reduce the volume of -- and potentially raise the price of -- motor fuel available for sale to U.S. motorists.
The U.S. fuel shipments are part of a sustained policy that has widened the energy gap between Israel and its neighbors. Over the past few years, the Israel Defense Force has cut off fuel supplies and destroyed electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Those embargoes and attacks on power plants have exacerbated a huge gap in per-capita energy consumption between Israelis and Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. And that sharp disparity helps explain why the Palestinians have never been able to build a viable economy.
Edward S. Walker, former president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says the fuel supply program is emblematic of U.S. military support for Israel. Walker, who has served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel, explains that the FMF money allows the Israelis to "do with it what they want. They can buy equipment or fuel. It's their choice, not the government's choice. It's the only program where we give someone a blank check and they can use it any way that they choose."
Given the recent spike in oil prices, which helped send the U.S. and the world economy into a tailspin, and Americans still smarting from paying $4 at the pump, says Walker, "Why are we supplying fuel to Israel when we are paying such high prices?"