US holding off on penalties for IDF’s Netzah Yehuda unit over West Bank rights abuses

Several Israeli officials spoke this week with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to try to convince the US to halt planned actions against battalion

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)

The US has determined that an Israeli military unit committed gross human-rights abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank before the war in Gaza began six months ago, but it will hold off on any decision about aid to the battalion while it reviews new information provided by Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a letter to House Speaker Mike Johnson.

The undated letter, obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, defers a decision by the US whether to impose a first-ever block on US aid to an Israeli military unit over its treatment of Palestinians. Israeli leaders, anticipating the US decision this week, have angrily protested any such aid restrictions.

Blinken stressed that US military support for Israel’s defense against Hamas and other threats would not be affected by the State Department’s final decision on the one unit. Johnson muscled through legislation providing $26 billion in additional funds for Israel’s defense and for relief of the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The legislation, signed by US President Joe Biden, will send $17 billion in wartime assistance to Israel and $9 billion in humanitarian relief to citizens of Gaza and other war-torn regions — with Biden specifying at a White House event to announce the signing on Wednesday that the package “includes $1 billion for additional humanitarian aid in Gaza.”

The allegations of rights abuses by IDF units took place before war erupted in Gaza on October 7, with Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel, in which terrorists murdered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 253.

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)

The reports earlier this week that said the US would take action against Netzah Yehuda were strongly condemned by Israeli leadership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other ministers in the government publicly calling on the US not to go ahead with the sanctions.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials, including Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, held separate talks with Blinken this week in an effort to prevent Washington from going ahead with slapping sanctions on Netzah Yehuda, a Kfir infantry brigade battalion designed for religious troops that is largely comprised of ultra-Orthodox nationalists.

The consideration to sanction Netzah Yehuda came following a State Department probe into the battalion and several of the others in the Israeli security forces for well over a year due to alleged human rights violations.

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.

Following this incident and other reports of alleged abuse Palestinians suffered at the hands of the battalion’s soldiers, the IDF decided to move it out of the West Bank in December 2022 so they would no longer be in contact with Palestinians.

No steps were taken, however, to hold specific soldiers accountable for the repeated incidents of misconduct against Palestinians that ran rampant in Netzah Yehuda, a US official told The Times of Israel earlier this week, explaining the unprecedented decision to consider sanctioning an Israeli military unit.

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