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20 Apr 2024, 8:21 pm

Israel aghast as US said poised to sanction notorious IDF unit; Netanyahu: ‘A moral low’

Quote:
The Biden administration is slated to announce sanctions against the IDF’s Netzah Yehuda battalion for alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank, the Axios news site reported on Saturday. It would be the first time the US has ever taken such a step.

The battalion has been at the center of several controversies in the past connected to right-wing extremism and violence against Palestinians, notably including the 2022 death of Omar As’ad, a 78-year-old Palestinian-American who died after being detained, handcuffed, blindfolded, and later abandoned in near-freezing conditions by soldiers of the battalion.

Israel moved the unit out of the West Bank in December 2022 — though it denied it did so due to soldiers’ behavior — and it has since served mostly in the country’s north.

The reported US plan drew a scathing response from Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The IDF must not be sanctioned!” he wrote on X. “I’ve been working in recent weeks against the sanctioning of Israeli citizens, including in my conversations with the American administration.

“At a time when our soldiers are fighting terrorist monsters, the intention to issue sanctions against a unit in the IDF is the height of absurdity and a moral low,” he added, committing to fight the move.

Centrist war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz joined the criticism, saying the infantry unit was “an integral part of the IDF” and was bound by military and international law. He added that Israel has “strong and independent” courts capable of dealing with alleged violations.

“We have great respect for our American friends, but imposing sanctions on the unit is a dangerous precedent and sends the wrong message to our shared enemies at a time of war,” Gantz said, while pledging to “take action so this decision does not pass.”

The expressions of surprise and anger in Israel came shortly after leaders voiced profound gratitude to the US after the US House passed a major military aid package for the Jewish state.

Citing unnamed American sources, the Axios report said the sanctions would bar the transfer of US weapons to the largely ultra-Orthodox infantry unit and prevent its soldiers from training with US forces or taking part in any activities with US funding, under the Leahy Laws.

Authored by then-senator Patrick Leahy in the late 1990s, the laws prohibit providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights and have not been brought to justice.

One of the sources was quoted saying that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had decided not to sanction other military and police units that the administration was investigating, as it had seen adjustments in their conduct.

An administration official told the news site that the decision to sanction Netzah Yehuda was based on research done before October 7 that examined incidents in the West Bank.

The report came days after ProPublica said a State Department panel recommended that Blinken sanction several Israeli units for alleged rights abuses, including Netzah Yehuda.

Netzah Yehuda was created so that ultra-Orthodox and other religious soldiers can serve without feeling they are compromising their beliefs. The soldiers do not interact with female troops to the same extent as other servicemen and are given additional time for prayer and religious study.

Members of the unit have been involved in multiple controversial and violent incidents and have also been convicted in the past of torturing and abusing Palestinian prisoners.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, the US has issued three rounds of sanctions against settler individuals for violence against Palestinians. The latest round was issued on Friday and included the leader of the far-right group Lehava, Benzi Gopstein, who is a close ally of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Ben Gvir said Saturday that imposing “sanctions on our soldiers is a red line.”

Describing the Axios report as “extremely grave,” Ben Gvir stated that he “expects Defense Minister Yoav Gallant not to submit to American dictates” and that the members of Netzah Yehuda “must be fully supported.”

“If there is not anybody at the Defense Ministry who will back up the battalion as required, I will ask to absorb them into the Israel Police and the Ministry of National Security,” continued Ben Gvir, who added that he would be willing to integrate the battalion into the Border Police.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said imposing sanctions “while Israel is fighting for its existence is utter madness.”

“This is part of a planned move to force the State of Israel to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state and to forsake Israel’s security,” Smotrich charged in a post on X.


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