IDF unaware of US plan to sanction unit, as PM says he’ll fight it ‘with all my might’

Gantz, Eisenkot, Lapid join Netanyahu-led criticism of unprecedented planned step against Netzah Yehuda Battalion, linked to abuses in West Bank, though Lapid also blames coalition

Troops of the Kfir Brigade's Netzah Yehuda Battalion operate in northern Gaza's Beit Hanoun, in a handout image published March 8, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Troops of the Kfir Brigade's Netzah Yehuda Battalion operate in northern Gaza's Beit Hanoun, in a handout image published March 8, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military said Sunday that it was unaware of plans by the United States to sanction its Netzah Yehuda Battalion, a unit previously involved in a series of controversial and violent incidents in the West Bank, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to fight against the move “with all my might.”

“If a decision is made on the matter, it will be reviewed,” the IDF said, in its first remarks on the issue.

The IDF’s statement came a day after the Axios website reported that, in an unprecedented step, the Biden administration was to announce sanctions against the Netzah Yehuda Battalion for alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank.

The battalion, which is part of the Kfir Brigade and largely made up of ultra-Orthodox troops, is currently deployed to the Gaza Strip front, following months in the north.

Previously, it was stationed permanently in the West Bank, where it was at the center of several controversies 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 had been 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.

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

It was then stationed on the Syrian border until the outbreak of the ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Amid the war in Gaza, Netzah Yehuda troops have participated in several pinpoint operations in northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun.

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

The IDF said in its statement that the troops are “now participating in the war in the Gaza Strip, with courage and professionalism, while adhering to the values ​​and spirit of the IDF and the principles of international law.”

“Over the past few years, the battalion’s troops have been at the core of operational activities around the clock, to safeguard the security of the citizens of the State of Israel, alongside being a leading battalion in the integration of ultra-Orthodox troops in the IDF,” the statement continued.

Regarding the controversial incidents, the army said that “the IDF is working and will continue to work to investigate every unusual event in a focused manner and in accordance with the law.”

Netzah Yehuda was created so that ultra-Orthodox and other religious soldiers could serve without feeling they were 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 and detainees.

In a video statement on Sunday, Netanyahu promised to protect the IDF and its soldiers from sanctions and any other such moves. “If somebody thinks they can impose sanctions on any IDF unit, I’ll fight that with all my might, he said.

News on Saturday night of the reported decision to impose sanctions on Netzah Yehuda drew sharp, immediate condemnation from Netanyahu, who called it “the height of absurdity and a moral low.”

After Saturday’s bitter criticism from the prime minister and coalition members, opposition leaders on Sunday also expressed dismay at the planned move, though some placed partial blame on the government.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapidat at a Yesh Atid party faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Opposition and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called the reported move “a mistake” and said Israel should battle to have it canceled. But, he went on, “the source of the problem is not at the military level but at the political level.”

The world, he said in a post on the X social media site, “knows and understands” that far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who is responsible for the Israel Police, “does not want the police to enforce the law in the West Bank” and allied far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich “is not opposed to Jewish terrorism and extreme settler riots.”

“Imposing sanctions against an IDF unit is not the right way to act against the State of Israel,” said centrist war cabinet minister and former IDF chief Benny Gantz joined the criticism, saying the infantry unit is “an integral part of the IDF” and was bound by military and international law. “We are the only country that listens to the United States,” said Gantz. “They should simply talk to us.”

Gadi Eisenkot, also a former IDF chief and a war cabinet minister, said imposing sanctions on any army unit is “fundamentally wrong.”

“We will work together to prevent the decision, because if there are complaints, they should be addressed to the political and military leadership and not to the commanders on the tactical level,” Eisenkot said.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda battalion are seen studying at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

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

Ben Gvir subsequently wrote to Netanyahu, demanding that the prime minister respond to the American move by convening the security cabinet to discuss imposing “immediate sanctions” on the Palestinian Authority.

Citing unnamed American sources, the Axios report said the sanctions would bar the transfer of US weapons to the 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.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, the US has issued three rounds of sanctions against settler individuals for violence against Palestinians, prompting harsh pushback from Finance Minister Smotrich, who has pledged to “fight with all our might” and not “let up” until all Western sanctions are lifted.

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 Ben Gvir.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: