Apr 21, 2024 - World

Israel presses the U.S. to reconsider sanctions against IDF battalion

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) meets with Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington, DC.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) meets with Israeli minister Benny Gantz on June 3, 2021, in Washington, DC. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / POOL / AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli government called on the Biden administration on Sunday in public and in private to reconsider its expected decision to sanction the Israel Defense Forces' "Netzah Yehuda" battalion for human rights violations in the occupied West Bank.

Why it matters: Israeli officials told Axios they are highly concerned the unprecedented decision could lead to more sanctions on other IDF units.

Driving the news: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to within days announce sanctions against the IDF's "Netzah Yehuda" battalion for human rights violations in the occupied West Bank, Axios reported on Saturday.

  • The sanctions would ban the battalion and its members from receiving any kind of U.S. military assistance or training, sources said.
  • A 1997 law authored by then-Senator Patrick Leahy prohibits U.S. foreign aid and Defense Department training programs from going to foreign security, military and police units credibly alleged to have committed human rights violations.

A U.S. official said Blinken's determination about the Netzah Yehuda unit is based on incidents that occurred before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and all took place in the West Bank.

Behind the scenes: Axios' reporting about the expected sanctions caught Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, members of his war cabinet and senior IDF leadership by surprise, according to Israeli officials.

  • A senior Israeli official told Axios the government didn't know a decision had been made and an announcement was imminent.
  • One Israeli official said that at a war cabinet meeting on Sunday night, Netanyahu and other ministers and senior IDF officials were scrambling to understand the upcoming decision and admitted they don't have a full picture of how the decision was made.

Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant held an urgent meeting with senior IDF officials about the issue on Sunday, one of his aides said.

  • "Gallant directed the defense establishment to act at all levels in order to make clear to the U.S. government the importance of backing up IDF operations, which are carried out according to international law," the ministry of defense said.
  • "Harming one battalion is damage to the entire IDF — this is not the way to behave with partners and friends," Gallant said in a statement, adding that he expected the Biden administration to change its decision.
  • "[T]his could be a cry for generations and open a dangerous door for this type of action."
  • The aide stressed Gallant wants to try to solve this issue in private talks with the Biden administration.
  • Gallant also spoke on Sunday with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew and with Blinken.

The intrigue: Two other Israeli officials said the Israeli foreign ministry and the Israeli embassy in Washington have been warning the IDF, the ministry of defense and the prime minister's office for months that such a scenario was possible and recommending they take urgent steps to prevent it.

  • "The issue had been neglected by the senior IDF leadership and by the politicians. They ignored the implications of the Leahy law and thought they could dodge the issue without giving real answers to the Biden administration," one official said.
  • "All the alarms have been going off, but folks said it will be OK," the official added.

State of play: Minister Benny Gantz, who is a member of the Israeli war cabinet, spoke with Blinken on Sunday and asked him to reconsider the expected sanctions decision, Gantz's office said.

  • Gantz told Blinken the decision will harm Israel's legitimacy at a time of war and stressed the move isn't justified because Israel has a strong and independent judicial system and all IDF units are subject to orders that are in line with international law, Gantz's office said.
  • A State Department spokesman confirmed Blinken and Gantz spoke about the issue but said the call also focused on the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza and on recent tensions with Iran and Lebanon.

What they're saying: Netanyahu said in a statement on Sunday that he will strongly defend the IDF and its soldiers.

  • "If somebody thinks they can impose sanctions on a unit in the IDF — I will fight this with all my powers," he said.
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