Announcement on Netzah Yehuda to be made in coming days

Blinken: Both Hamas onslaught, ensuing Israeli offensive raise human rights concerns

Top US diplomat denies ‘double standard’ in assessing allegations against Israel, rejects comparisons between Israeli war against terror group and Russian invasion of Ukraine

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Chairs for the Bibas family, hostages held in Gaza, are seen at a Passover seder table set, Thursday, April 11, 2024, at the communal dining hall at Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel, where a quarter of all residents were killed or captured by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
Chairs for the Bibas family, hostages held in Gaza, are seen at a Passover seder table set, Thursday, April 11, 2024, at the communal dining hall at Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel, where a quarter of all residents were killed or captured by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted both Hamas’s October 7 onslaught and the subsequent war Israel launched to defeat the terror group among the issues covered in the State Department’s 2023 human rights report that was unveiled Monday.

“Hamas’s horrific attacks on Israel on October 7 last year and the devastating loss of civilian life in Gaza as Israel exercises its right to ensure that those attacks never happen again, have raised deeply troubling human rights concerns,” Blinken said at a press conference called to unveil the report.

“We continue to work every day to bring the fighting to an end, to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas and other groups, to uphold international humanitarian law, to prevent further suffering, to create a path toward a more peaceful and secure future for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Blinken added.

The Israel chapter of the human rights report itself begins by highlighting the large-scale attack launched by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terror groups on October 7, “killing an estimated 1,200 individuals, injuring more than 5,400 and abducting 253 hostages.”

“Israel responded with a sustained, wide-scale military operation in Gaza, which had killed more than 21,000 Palestinians and injured more than 56,000 by the end of the year, displaced the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza, and resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis,” the report says. “The continuing conflict had a significant negative impact on the human rights situation in the country.”

The State Department declined to say what its source was for the 2023 Palestinian death count from the Gaza war, but it appeared to rely on the Hamas-run health ministry, whose figures have not been independently verified and include some 13,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the recently released 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Blinken denied that the Biden administration uses a double standard when adjudicating allegations of human rights abuses against Israel, amid questions from reporters at the press conference if Washington is seeking to sweep such accusations under the rug only when it comes to the Jewish state.

“Do we have a double standard with Israel? The answer is no,” Blinken said.

“As this report makes clear, we apply the same standard to everyone, and that doesn’t change whether the country in question is an adversary, competitor, a friend or an ally,” the secretary said.

Blinken reiterated that the US efforts looking into allegations of human rights abuses by Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza were “ongoing.”

While acknowledging that such probes take time to conclude, Blinken noted that the US does not wait to reach out to Israeli authorities for immediate clarification regarding alleged abuses when they occur.

Blinken rejected the comparison made by reporters to the speed with which the US responded to alleged rights abuses by Russia in Ukraine, and the more dragged-out process employed to adjudicate alleged crimes by Israel in Gaza.

Firefighters put out a fire at a railway station after a Russian hit in Kostiantynivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, February 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)

“The case of Ukraine is totally different than in Gaza. The Ukrainians are not in any way a legitimate target the way Hamas is in Gaza. [Hamas is also] embedding themselves among civilians, hiding in and underneath apartment buildings, mosques, hospitals.”

“In the case of Ukraine, when Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, we were able to see very plainly what had happened. Each of these situations is different.”

Blinken also stressed that Israel has demonstrated the capacity to probe itself when allegations of rights abuses come to light. “This is what separates democracies from other countries — the ability, the willingness, the determination to look at themselves.”

“It’s my understanding that they have many open investigations based on reports that have come forward with allegations about abuses of human rights,” he added.

Asked whether he’ll be announcing the US decision to blacklist the Netzah Yehuda battalion over alleged human rights abuses, Blinken said an announcement would be made on the matter in the coming days, “so please stay tuned on that.”

The Biden administration had originally planned to announce on Monday the decision to bar US military aid from being used to supply weapons to the IDF’s Nezah Yehuda battalion over alleged rights abuses against Palestinians, a US official told The Times of Israel.

Israeli soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion patrol near the Israeli-Gaza border, October 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The announcement was supposed to have been made in parallel to the release of the human rights report, but the administration decided to hold off on making the announcement as it seeks to clarify its messaging over the decision amid significant Israeli pushback, the US official said.

Amid the US plans to take punitive actions against Netzah Yehuda, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met with the unit’s troops on the Gaza border earlier Monday.

“The entire defense establishment, the IDF and the State of Israel support you, appreciate you and strengthen you in your operations to protect the State of Israel,” Gallant told the Netzah Yehuda troops, according to his office.

The unit, made up of Orthodox nationalists and part of the Kfir Brigade, has been operating in the Beit Hanoun area amid the war, after months on the Syrian border. It had previously been stationed in the West Bank, where it was at the center of several controversies connected to right-wing extremism and violence against Palestinians. It was diverted to the Syrian border following the flood of allegations.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks to troops of the IDF’s Netzah Yehuda battalion on the Gaza border, April 22, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“Errors and mistakes happen wherever there is military activity and they must not happen… but the fact that one, or two, or [multiple] soldiers did something wrong, this should not vilify the [entire] battalion,” Gallant said. In such cases, the soldiers are “taken care of.”

“No one in the world will teach us what morality is and what norms are,” Gallant added.

The 2023 State Department report pointed to “significant human rights issues,” including “credible reports” of arbitrary or unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and unjustified arrests of journalists, among others during Israel’s war in Gaza.

It added that the Israeli government had taken some credible steps to identify and punish the officials who may have been involved in those alleged abuses.

Israel has denied allegations of deliberately causing humanitarian suffering in the enclave. It denies deliberately targeting civilians, accusing Hamas of using residential buildings for cover.

A Palestinian girl climbs on the remains of a building that was destroyed during an Israeli air strike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 5, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Rights groups have flagged numerous incidents of civilian harm during the Israeli army’s offensive in Gaza, as well as raised alarm about rising violence in the West Bank, but so far the Biden administration has said it has not found Israel in breach of international law.

Washington gives $3.8 billion in annual military assistance to its longtime ally. Progressive Democrats and Arab American groups have criticized the Biden administration’s steadfast support for Israel, which they claim provides it with a sense of impunity.

But this month, US President Joe Biden for the first time threatened to condition support for Israel and insisted that it take concrete steps to protect humanitarian aid workers and civilians.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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