Gallant says planned move would set 'dangerous' precedent

US mulling sanctions against other IDF units for alleged rights violations – sources

Official says move is part of US policy that disapproves of Israeli conduct in West Bank, but backs right to self-defense; source says practical impact of sanctions may be limited

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

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

Washington is considering sanctions against other Israeli military and police units alleged to have committed human rights violations against Palestinians in addition to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which the Biden administration is slated to designate this week, two US sources told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

The State Department probed Netzah Yehuda and several of the other units in the Israeli security forces for well over a year due to alleged human rights violations.

In the case of Netzah Yehuda, the IDF in December 2022 decided to move the infantry unit largely comprised of ultra-Orthodox nationalists out of the West Bank so they would no longer be in contact with Palestinians. But no steps were taken to hold specific soldiers accountable for the repeated incidents of misconduct against Palestinians that ran rampant in Netzah Yehuda, a US official said, explaining the unprecedented decision to move ahead with sanctioning an Israeli military unit.

The practical impact of the sanctions may be limited, though. They will bar Israel from using US military aid to purchase weapons for Netzah Yehuda, but Israel could still use its own funds to purchase weapons for the beleaguered battalion, a second US source said.

However, as with the sanctions that the US began imposing this year against violent settlers, the US source predicted that other Western countries would follow Washington’s lead in targeting units that rights groups have found to repeatedly and unjustly target Palestinians.

While much of the focus is on conduct taking place in the West Bank, the source speculated that probes will also be opened into units operating in Gaza, given the flood of videos that IDF soldiers have posted on social media throughout the war against Hamas that show them violating the IDF’s code of conduct.

Israeli soldiers from Netzah Yehuda Battalion at a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 17, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The US source noted that the Biden administration was differentiating between its disapproval of Israel’s actions in the West Bank while continuing its robust support of Israel more broadly, including through the $14 billion aid package passed by Congress over the weekend.

The Walla news site, which broke the story on the impending US sanctions, noted that this was not an issue of Israel being singled out by the Biden administration. Around the same time that the US began probing Netzah Yehuda, it also started investigating a special forces unit in the Australian army over allegations that it had carried out human rights abuses in Afghanistan. But unlike the IDF, the Australian army took significant steps against the unit, including the criminal prosecution of one of the unit’s soldiers.

The sanctions are being levied under what is known as the Leahy Law, which prohibits providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights and have not been brought to justice. Sanctioned units are also banned from participating in joint military drills with the US Army.

While the State Department looks into thousands of allegations of Leahy Law violations each year, it created a special panel known as the Israel Leahy Vetting Forum that exclusively vets allegations against the IDF and Israel Police due to the political sensitivity of the issue.

ProPublica reported last week that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat on the panel’s recommendation regarding Netzah Yehuda for months ostensibly concerned about the political ramifications of the move.

However, the US official says the administration was not avoiding this week’s announcement and was long planning on tying it to the State Department’s human rights report, which will be released this week.

Responding to the reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he would fight against sanctions being imposed on any Israeli military units for alleged rights violations.

“If anyone thinks they can impose sanctions on a unit of the IDF — I will fight it with all my strength,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a session during the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting on Capri Island, Italy, on April 19, 2024. (Gregorio Borgia/Pool/AFP)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi Sunday evening on ways to prevent the planned sanctions, his office said.

“I expect the American administration to go back on its intention to impose sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda Battalion,” Gallant said in remarks published by the Defense Ministry, warning that the planned move would set a “dangerous” precedent.

Gallant instructed Israel’s defense establishment to “act at all echelons in order to make clear to the American government the importance of supporting IDF operations, which are carried out subject to international law,” the statement continues.

In additional remarks, Gallant said Netzah Yehuda operated “in accordance with IDF values ​​and according to international law, and any event that deviates from the procedures is handled accordingly.”

“The commanders and troops of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion are operating at the front of the fighting, since the outbreak of the war, they have been working to drive away Hezbollah forces on the northern border, to thwart terror elements in the West Bank, and these days are working to dismantle the Hamas brigades in the Gaza Strip while risking their lives,” he continued.

“Any attempt to vilify an entire unit casts a heavy shadow on the actions of the IDF to protect the citizens of Israel and thwart terror elements. Harm to one battalion is harm to the entire defense establishment, this is not the way to behave with partners and friends,” Gallant said.

Gallant also spoke with US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew, and is slated to speak with Blinken as well, the ministry said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) speaks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken outside the Kirya military HQ in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Elad Malka/ Defense Ministry)

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz said in a statement on Sunday that he spoke with Blinken and asked him to reconsider the matter as well.

Gantz said any such sanctions would be a mistake because they would harm Israel’s legitimacy during a time of war and that they were unjustified because Israel has an independent justice system and a military that keeps international law.

Netzah Yehuda, or Judea Forever, has historically been based in the West Bank and some of its members have been linked to abuses against Palestinians. It makes up just a small part of Israel’s military presence in the territory.

The battalion has been at the center of several controversies in the past 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 died after being detained, handcuffed, blindfolded, and later abandoned in near-freezing conditions by soldiers of the battalion.

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

Israel moved the unit out of the West Bank in December 2022 — though it denied it did so due to soldiers’ behavior — and it has since served mostly in the country’s north. It has also been deployed to the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing war against Hamas.

In a statement Sunday, the army said its Netzah Yehuda soldiers “are currently participating in the war effort in the Gaza Strip.”

“The battalion is professionally and bravely conducting operations in accordance to the IDF Code of Ethics and with full commitment to international law,” it said. It said that if the unit is sanctioned, “its consequences will be reviewed.”

Times of Israel staff, Emanuel Fabian and agencies contributed to this report.

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