US to impose sanctions on Israeli military unit for alleged human rights violations

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The United States is set to blacklist a controversial Israeli military unit for alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, in its first sanctions against the Israeli military.

The sanctions would prohibit the transfer of U.S. military weapons or any other form of assistance to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, an all-male IDF infantry unit made up of ultra-Orthodox Jewish and religious nationalist recruits, according to sources familiar with the matter. This would be the first time the United States has directly targeted an IDF unit.

Israeli leaders across the political spectrum reacted angrily to reports of the sanctions on Sunday, which were first reported by Axios.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the U.S. action “the height of absurdity and a moral low point” at a time when Israeli soldiers were “fighting terrorist monsters.”

Bezalel Smotrich, the ultranationalist finance minister, called the US decision “absolute madness”.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, has pledged to push for Israeli sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank.

Benny Gantz, the country’s centrist war cabinet minister and Netanyahu’s main political rival, said Netzah Yehuda was an “inseparable part” of the IDF and that Israel’s “strong and independent judiciary” could investigate any violations of the military or international law.

“I have great appreciation for our American friends, but the decision to impose sanctions on an IDF unit. . . creates a dangerous precedent,” he added.

Gantz spoke with Blinken on Sunday and asked the United States to “reconsider the intended decision,” according to the minister’s office.

The US State Department has been considering sanctions for some time under the auspices of legislation passed by former Senator Patrick Leahy in the late 1990s, which sought to end US support for foreign military units involved in “gross violations of human rights”.

“You can expect to see them in the coming days,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday, when asked about recommendations he had received for imposing sanctions based on the Leahy Act. Asked about the move on Sunday, the State Department pointed to Blinken’s comments.

Netzah Yehuda has faced years of allegations of abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank, where the organization was primarily deployed before the Israeli military moved it out of the territory in early 2023 after growing U.S. criticism of its conduct.

In the most infamous incident a year earlier, an 80-year-old Palestinian-American, Omar As’ad, died in the middle of the night after being arrested and tied up at a Netzah Yehuda checkpoint in West Bank. A subsequent IDF investigation fired two junior officers from the unit, although no legal action was taken.

More recently, the unit – initially created to allow ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army, with all the attendant religious rituals – was deployed in the final stages of Israel’s main ground offensive in the Strip. from Gaza.

According to Israeli military analysts, at least half of the unit’s recruits come from the radical strain of the religious nationalist movement, particularly from illegal West Bank settlements, while the ultra-Orthodox continue to reject compulsory military service.

The Biden administration and the EU have imposed a series of sanctions in recent months against several extremist Jewish settlers for their attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Last week, the State Department announced measures against a handful of other Israeli nationals, including Ben Zion Gopstein, a prominent settler activist and close political associate of Ben-Gvir.

Yet the Biden administration has also been a staunch ally and supporter of Israel as it continues its war against Hamas in Gaza, despite growing international opprobrium.

President Joe Biden has affirmed his “ironclad” commitment to the security of the Jewish state. The United States also helped Israel intercept a barrage of Iranian missiles and drones fired from Iran, passed a massive defense bill that includes aid to Israel, and vetoed a Security Council resolution. UN Security Council recognizing a Palestinian state.

Yet Israeli conduct and policy in the West Bank, with its military occupation for more than five decades, constitutes a major – and growing – point of difference, as US officials have consistently stated.

According to Israeli analysts, the real impact on Netzah Yehuda’s operations would be felt primarily in the supply of US-made equipment like the M16 rifle, vehicles and kit, as well as financial donations from the US. United for Unity directly through a private foundation. But most important for the IDF, some added, is its lack of confidence in the Israeli military and judicial system to independently investigate and prosecute any abuses committed by its soldiers.

The Israeli military said on Sunday that it was still unaware of the imposition of sanctions against the unit, but stressed that the battalion was currently fighting in Gaza “in a professional and courageous manner.” . . in accordance with the IDF Code of Ethics and . . . international law.

“The Israeli military remains committed to continuing to examine exceptional incidents professionally and in accordance with the law,” the statement added.

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington

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