Gantz, Gallant press Blinken not to sanction IDF unit as US stays mum

Israeli ministers say move undermines Israel’s legitimacy, has no justification; statements from Washington on their calls make no mention of subject

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2024. (Courtesy)
War cabinet minister Benny Gantz, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2024. (Courtesy)

Both Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz held separate talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken late Sunday as they sought to dissuade Washington from going ahead with reported plans to slap sanctions on an Israeli military unit with a checkered rights record, Israeli officials said.

State Department readouts on the calls made no mention of the Israeli concerns, using vague language to portray the talks as the latest in a series of conversations on Gaza and other challenges.

The Axios news site reported Saturday that following months of deliberations by an internal panel, the US State Department intended to sanction the battalion. The IDF said it is unaware of such plans.

Two US sources told the Times of Israel on Sunday that Washington is mulling additional sanctions against other Israeli police and military units.

Netzah Yehuda, a Kfir infantry brigade unit designed for religious troops but which also attracts settler extremists, has been repeatedly entangled in allegations of abuses against Palestinians. It was removed from the West Bank in December of 2022 and has mostly been operating on the northern border since.

Israeli politicians on Saturday night and Sunday reacted with horror to the reported American plan to levy sanctions on Netzah Yehuda.

In a statement following his call with Blinken, Gantz’s office said he had told Blinken that the prospective sanctioning of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion “will harm Israel’s international legitimacy during wartime” and “has no justification, as the Israeli judicial system is strong and independent.”

Illustrative: In this undated photo, soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda battalion are seen studying in a synagogue at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Gallant said Sunday he also planned to bring up the subject with Blinken, though no statement was released following the call.

In a statement earlier Sunday, he said he expected “the American administration to go back on its intention to impose sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda Battalion,” calling such a move a “dangerous” precedent.

According to the Defense Ministry statement, Gallant also spoke to US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew after discussing ways to fight off the planned sanctions with IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi.

“Harm to one battalion is harm to the entire defense establishment,” Gallant said. “This is not the way to behave with partners and friends.”

File: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (right) and other defense officials during an assessment, December 22, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The State Department said Blinken and Gallant discussed hostage talks, ceasefire efforts and increasing the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. “The Secretary also underscored the importance of measures to de-escalate tensions in the region,” the US readout read.

A separate US readout on the Gantz call said Blinken and the war cabinet minister discussed getting aid to Gazans, “the need for an immediate ceasefire that secures the release of hostages, and additional steps to minimize harm to civilians.”

Netzah Yehuda (“Judea’s Foreverness,” a riff on I Samuel 15:29) was formed in 1999 to accommodate ultra-Orthodox combat soldiers, though the actual number of ultra-Orthodox serving in the battalion is unclear. In recent years the battalion has attracted large numbers of so-called “hilltop youth,” radical Jewish teens who live in West Bank outposts the government officially considers illegal.

The unit has faced several allegations of abuse of Palestinians, allegedly contributing to the decision to pull it out of the West Bank in December 2022. In one prominent incident in January that year, Netzah Yehuda soldiers in the central West Bank bound and gagged, in near-freezing weather, 78-year-old Palestinian-American dual citizen Omar As’ad, who died shortly thereafter of a heart attack.

A subsequent IDF investigation said the two soldiers who bound As’ad thought he was sleeping. The soldiers faced disciplinary action, but no criminal charges.

Omar As’ad, a Palestinian-American who died after being violently detained by IDF troops in the West Bank on January 12, 2022. (Courtesy)

The UK’s Guardian newspaper in January of this year named the incident as one of several under review by the Israel Leahy Vetting Forum (ILVF), an internal State Department panel established to ensure that US military aid to Israel adheres to a pair of 1997 laws prohibiting assistance to foreign military units given “credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

In February, the Kan public broadcaster reported that the White House had given Israel 60 days to respond to the internal panel’s findings, failing which sanctions could be slapped on ministers, settlers and soldiers. It is unclear if, or what, Israel has responded.

On Wednesday, investigative journalism site ProPublica published a report claiming the State Department had ignored the ILVF findings. Asked about the ProPublica article at a Friday press conference in Italy, Blinken said he had made “determinations” on the matter, but did not elaborate.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks ahead of a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 18, 2024. (Sam Sokol/ Times of Israel)

According to Israeli broadsheet Haaretz, citing unnamed Israeli and American officials, the internal State Department panel had specifically mentioned the conduct of far-right ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich as part of the White House’s rationale for the sanctions.

The report sparked a tiff between Ben Gvir, the national security minister, and Gantz, who said that “ministers who damage national security should not sit in the cabinet,” without mentioning the Otzma Yehudit leader.

War cabinet member Benny Gantz holds a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 21, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Ben Gvir struck back in an X post, listing his grievances with Gantz from the latter’s 2020-2022 stint as defense minister.

“In my opinion, someone like him should not sit in the cabinet,” Ben Gvir wrote of Gantz.

Ben Gvir had earlier said that he would absorb the unit into the police, “if there is no one at the Defense Ministry who will back up the [Netzah Yehuda] battalion as required.”

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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