Apr 26, 2024 - World

State Department reviewing plans to sanction IDF unit

Israeli soldiers of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox battalion "Netzah Yehuda" take part in their annual unit training in the Israeli annexed Golan Heights, near the Syrian border on May 19, 2014.

Israeli soldiers of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox battalion "Netzah Yehuda" take part in their annual unit training near the Syrian border on May 19, 2014. Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department has put on hold its intention to impose sanctions on the Israel Defense Forces "Netzah Yehuda" battalion for human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and is reviewing the issue in light of information Israel provided in recent days, U.S. sources familiar with the issue said.

Why it matters: The review is part of a consultation process outlined in an agreement between the U.S. and Israel. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also been under extensive pressure from the Israeli government, members of Congress and some senior Biden administration officials to reconsider the possible sanctions.

The big picture: The Biden administration had intended to withhold U.S. military aid and training from the Netzah Yehuda battalion — an unprecedented move in the history of relations between the countries.

  • 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.

Driving the news: Last Saturday, Axios reported Blinken planned to impose sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda unit under the Leahy law.

  • The intended sanctions caught Israeli leaders by surprise and drew angry responses from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid. Both publicly called on the Biden administration to not go forward with this move.
  • Israeli President Issac Herzog discussed the matter with Vice President Kamala Harris while Israeli defense minister Yoav Galant and minister Benny Gantz discussed the matter with the Blinken.
  • The Israeli message in these discussions was that the Biden administration should reconsider the intention to impose sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda battalion, Israeli officials said.

Behind the scenes: In recent days, there have been several phone calls between IDF and Israeli Foreign Ministry lawyers and State Department officials, during which Israel shared new information about the Netzah Yehuda battalion, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • An Israeli official said the new information focused on a Tik-Tok video from 2022 in which soldiers from the battalion filmed themselves abusing Palestinian detainees.
  • The Israeli official noted that the video was a central part of the U.S. claim against the battalion and said Israel presented the State Department with information about the investigations into the incident and the disciplinary steps taken.
  • Israel clarified there were no civil law suits against the soldiers because no complaint was filed by Palestinians.

Between the lines: Israel expressed grave concern during the talks that a State Department determination that the Netzah Yehuda battalion committed human rights violations in the West Bank that were not dealt with by the IDF would increase the likelihood the International Criminal Court would issue arrest warrants Israeli soldiers and officers, the Israeli official said.

  • Blinken also faced intense pressure both from members of Congress, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew and other senior officials in the administration who opposed the move, two Israeli and U.S. officials said.

State of play: A few days ago, Blinken sent a letter to Johnson, in which he stated the process regarding the Netzah Yehuda battalion will not affect the supplemental aid package to Israel that was passed by Congress. Blinken's letter was first published by ABC news.

  • In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Axios, Blinken stated that he determined that one unit in the IDF — the Netzah Yehuda battalion —committed human rights violations and that the IDF has so far not taken the necessary steps to address this.
  • "The Israeli government has presented new information regarding the status of the unit and we will engage on identifying a path to effective remediation for this unit," Blinken wrote.
  • A senior U.S. official said Blinken's determination that the Netzah Yehuda Battalion committed gross violations of human rights in the West Bank has not changed, but a process of consultation with Israel on the issue is now underway to examine whether it is taking steps to address this.
  • The U.S. official said that if these steps are not satisfactory in accordance with the Leahy law and if it appears Israel has not held soliders and officers accountable and corrected the conditions that led to the violations, the U.S. will apply the law and withhold aid to this unit.
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