US set to impose sanctions on Israeli military unit over alleged human rights abuses

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The US is expected 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 Israel Defense Forces.

The sanctions would ban the transfer of US military weaponry or any other forms of assistance to the Netzah Yehuda battalion, an all-male IDF infantry unit made up of ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist Jewish recruits, according to people familiar with the matter. It would be the first time the US has targeted a unit of the IDF directly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gantz spoke to Blinken on Sunday and requested that the US “reconsider the prospective decision,” according to the minister’s office.

The US state department has been weighing sanctions for some time under the auspices of legislation passed by former Senator Patrick Leahy in the late 1990s, which aimed to stop US support for foreign military units implicated in “gross human rights violations”.

“You can expect to see them in the days ahead,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Friday when asked about recommendations he had received to impose sanctions based on the Leahy law. Asked about the move on Sunday, the state department pointed to Blinken’s comments.

Netzah Yehuda has for years faced allegations of abuse against Palestinians in the West Bank, where it was primarily deployed before the Israeli military shifted it out of the territory in early 2023 after growing US 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 detained and bound at a Netzah Yehuda checkpoint in the West Bank. A subsequent IDF investigation dismissed two junior officers from the unit, although legal action was never taken.

More recently, the unit — originally established as a pathway for ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military, with all the attendant religious ritual — was deployed in the latter stages of Israel’s major ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.

According to Israeli military analysts, at least half of recruits to the unit have hailed from the radical strain of the religious-nationalist movement, including illegal West Bank settlements, as the ultra-Orthodox continue to spurn compulsory military service.

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

Last week, the state department announced measures against a handful of additional 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 stalwart ally and supporter of Israel as it prosecutes its war against Hamas in Gaza, despite mounting international opprobrium.

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

Yet Israeli conduct and policy in the West Bank, with its military occupation of over five decades, is a major — and growing — point of difference, as US officials have consistently stated.

According to Israeli analysts, the actual impact on Netzah Yehuda’s operations would mostly be felt in the provision of US-made equipment like the M16 rifle, vehicles and kit — as well as financial donations from the US for the unit directly through a private foundation. But the wider significance for the IDF, some added, was in the lack of confidence it showed in the Israeli military and judicial system to independently investigate and prosecute any abuses by its soldiers.

The IDF said on Sunday that it was still not aware of the imposition of sanctions on the unit, but stressed that the battalion was currently fighting in Gaza “professionally and bravely . . . in accordance to the IDF Code of Ethics and . . . international law”.

“The IDF remains committed to continue to examine exceptional incidents professionally and according to law,” it added.

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington

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