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Israel issues ‘Red Line’ warning as US attacks Israeli military unit over human rights abuses in West Bank

US-Israel Relations: The US plans to impose sanctions on an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) unit over suspected human rights violations of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, according to a Saturday report from the news site Axio. This would mark the first time the Biden administration would take action against an Israeli military unit.

Controversial History of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion

Past conflicts over right-wing extremism and violence against Palestinians from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion have haunted the group. Omar As’ad, a 78-year-old Palestinian-American, also died as a result of his arrest by the battalion soldiers.

According to The Times of Israel, he was found tied up, blindfolded and then abandoned in freezing temperatures. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his disapproval of the proposed US action, calling it a “moral low point” and the “height of absurdity.”

Netanyahu’s Twitter response

“Sanctions should not be imposed on the Israeli army! In recent weeks, I have opposed the imposition of sanctions on Israeli citizens, including in my conversations with senior US government officials,” he tweeted.

“At a time when our soldiers are fighting the monsters of terror, the intention to impose a sanction on a unit in the IDF is the height of absurdity and a moral low point. The government led by me will take all necessary action against these steps,” he said.

Minister Ben Gvir’s strong stance against sanctions

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s Minister of National Security, stated that imposing punishments “on the soldiers of Netzah Yehuda was a red line.” Gvir called the Axios report “serious” and stated that he expected Defense Secretary Yoav Gallant to resist following US orders.

He threatened to ask the Israeli Ministry of Defense to combine the battalion with the National Border Police if they did not act to support the battalion. The Netzah Yehuda is an army unit composed mainly of ultra-Orthodox soldiers who are allowed to serve their country without compromising their religious beliefs. The soldiers are given more time for prayer and religious studies, but are not allowed to mingle with female soldiers.

Netzah Yehuda leaves the West Bank

Israel moved the unit out of the West Bank in December 2022 and has since operated mainly in the north of the country. However, the Jewish state refuted allegations that the troops’ behavior led to the unit being moved.

According to Axios, which cited sources, the Leahy laws prevent Netzah Yehuda soldiers from participating in US-funded activities or training with US forces. The restrictions will also prevent the US from supplying the unit with weapons.

Background and application in US-Israel relations

The statute, which bears the name of former senator Patrick Leahy, bans organizations or individuals from receiving military aid if they are suspected of violating human rights and have not been prosecuted, according to The Times of Israel.

According to sources cited in the Axios piece, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken opted not to sanction other Israeli military and police groups that the Biden administration was eyeing because of their noticeable improvement in behavior.

The study was released a few days after a ProPublica story claimed that Blinken should impose sanctions on many Israeli organizations, including Netzah Yehuda, for alleged human rights abuses, based on the recommendation of a State Department panel Affairs.

Consequences of troop misconduct

It is notable that a number of troops from the battalion were involved in and previously found guilty of abusing Palestinian prisoners. Since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on October 7 last year, the US has so far imposed penalties on people who have committed acts of violence against the Palestinians.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Hamas launched an unprecedented offensive against Israel, killing some 1,200 people and starting the war. Benzi Gopstein, the leader of the far-right organization Lehava and a close associate of Gvir, was implicated in the latest round of punishment, which came into effect on Friday, according to The Times of Israel.