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Sunday, April 21, 2024

US poised to impose sanctions on IDF unit accused of violations in West Bank | Israel | The Guardian

US poised to impose sanctions on IDF unit accused of violations in West Bank

"Israeli leaders vow to oppose expected measures under Leahy law against the Netzah Yehuda battalion

Israeli soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda take part in a  swearing-in ceremony
Israeli soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda take part in a swearing-in ceremony Photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

A unit of the Israel Defense Forces is facing US sanctions over its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, even as Congress voted for $26bn in new emergency aid to Israel.

According to reports in the Israeli media, US state department officials have confirmed they are preparing to impose sanctions on the IDF’s Netzah Yehuda battalion, which has been accused of serious human rights violations against Palestinians.

The highly significant move, which would be the first time the US government has targeted an IDF unit, prompted immediate anger among Israeli political leaders who vowed to oppose it.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Sunday that the US was also considering similar moves against other police and military units.

In a statement, the IDF said it was unaware of any sanctions in force against any of its units and added: “If a decision is made on the matter, it will be reviewed.”

The sanctions, which would be imposed under the 1997 Leahy law, would prohibit the transfer of US military aid to the unit and prevent soldiers and officers participating in training either with the US military or in programmes that receive US funding.

The reported plans were disclosed as Israeli strikes on the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Saturday night killed 22 people, including 18 children, according to health officials in Gaza.

Most appear to have been victims in the second of two air strikes that killed 17 children and two women, all from the same extended family, according to hospital records.

Mohammed al-Beheiri said his daughter, Rasha, and her six children, ranging in age from 18 months to 16 years, were among those killed overnight and into Sunday. Her husband’s second wife and their three children were still under the rubble, al-Beheiri said.

The news of possible sanctions against the Netzah Yehuda battalion follows a statement by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, on Friday that he had made “determinations” over the claim that Israel had violated the Leahy law, which prohibits the provision of military assistance to police or security units that commit gross violations of human rights.

Since the law was enacted, US aid has been blocked to hundreds of units around the world accused of rights violations.

The state department has been investigating a number of Israeli security units, including police and military, for alleged violations, as senior Israeli officials indicated they had been lobbying against the imposition of any sanctions.

The Netzah Yehuda battalion, part of the Kfir brigade, was set up originally in 1999 to accommodate the religious beliefs of recruits from the ultra-Orthodox and national religious communities, including those from extremist settlements, and has historically been primarily deployed on the West Bank.

Soldiers from the unit were accused in the death of a 78-year-old US citizen, Omar Assad, who died of a heart attack in 2022 after being detained, bound, gagged and then abandoned by members of the unit. It was one of a number of high-profile incidents that have included claims of torture and mistreatment.

That case attracted scrutiny from the state department, which demanded a criminal investigation.

The unit was later redeployed from the West Bank to northern Israel and has also been deployed in Gaza.

According to ProPublica last week, the state department had received a dossier on violations of the Leahy law in December.

The report that an IDF battalion is facing imminent sanctions prompted a sharp response from senior Israeli figures, including the country’s 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 although it was not clear how.

“The Netza Yehuda battalion is an inseparable part of the Israel Defense Forces,” added Benny Gantz, a senior member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet and a former IDF chief of staff.

“It is subject to military law and is responsible for operating in full compliance with international law. The state of Israel has a strong, independent judicial system that evaluates meticulously any claim of a violation or deviation from IDF orders and code of conduct, and will continue to do so.”

Human rights organisations have long argued, however, that the IDF’s military investigative system fails to properly investigate and prosecute human rights abuses committed by soldiers.

The reported plan to impose sanctions on the unit came to light amid a mounting international sanctions campaign against Israelis involved in violence against Palestinians on the occupied West Bank, leading to new announcements targeting individuals and organisations almost monthly.

On Friday, the US and EU separately announced new sanctions against far-right Israeli groups and NGOs linked to settler violence as well as high-profile individuals, including Bentzi Gopstein, who has been a close political ally of Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The complex and conflicted international choreography of aid and sanctions relating to Israel, strikingly apparent this weekend and during Iran’s attack on Israel a week ago, appears designed to demonstrate that while its allies will support what it regards as Israel’s defence, they are determined to punish escalating extremist violence on the West Bank.

The Biden administration in particular has appeared more comfortable condemning Israeli actions policies in the West Bank than in Gaza, where Israel is fighting Hamas in a six-month conflict that has displaced more than 85% of the coastal strip’s population and killed 34,000 Palestinians, many of them civilian."

US poised to impose sanctions on IDF unit accused of violations in West Bank | Israel | The Guardian

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