U.S. Considers Imposing Sanctions on Israeli Military Unit

The United States is considering imposing sanctions on one or more Israeli battalions accused of human rights violations during operations in the occupied West Bank, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Saturday called the possibility of the Biden administration’s placing such sanctions “the peak of absurdity and a moral low” at a time when Israeli forces are fighting a war in Gaza against Hamas. Mr. Netanyahu said in a social media post that his government would “act by all means” against any such move.

The news about the possible sanctions, reported earlier by Axios, came only a day after the House approved $26 billion for Israel and humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict zones, including Gaza. The sanctions, if imposed, would not hold up the military aid that was just approved in Congress.

On Sunday, Palestinians in the West Bank went on a general strike to protest a deadly Israeli military raid at a refugee camp. At least 10 people were killed in the raid on Saturday, the latest operation in a sweeping economic and security clampdown in the Israeli-occupied territory.

Since the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and detained in raids in the West Bank, which Israeli officials describe as counterterrorism operations against Hamas and other armed groups.

The strike on Sunday “paralyzed all aspects of life” in the West Bank, with shops, schools, universities and banks shuttered, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa. Public transportation also was halted.

The possible imposition of sanctions against the Netzah Yehuda and other battalions would come under the so-called 1997 Leahy Law, which bans foreign military units accused of human rights violations from receiving U.S. aid or training.

It was not clear what practical impact any sanctions might have, given that funding of specific Israeli units is hard to track and the battalions in question do not receive American training. But such a punitive move would clearly sting, especially coming from Israel’s closest ally.

Netzah Yehuda, which has been accused of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank in the past, was established for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men whose strict religious observance demands that men and women be separated. The battalion has attracted other Orthodox soldiers as well, including hard-line nationalists from the West Bank settler movement.

One of the most egregious episodes attributed to the Netzah Yehuda battalion involved the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian-American man who was detained, gagged and handcuffed by members of the unit in a night raid on his village in January 2022.

An autopsy showed that the man, Omar Abdelmajed Assad, had died from a stress-induced heart attack brought on by injuries he sustained while he was detained. An investigation by the Israeli military’s justice system found failures in the conduct of the soldiers involved, who, the military said, “acted in a manner that did not correspond with what is required and expected of” Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli military disciplined three of the unit’s commanders after the investigation. But no criminal charges were brought against the soldiers because, the military said at the time, no causal link was found between Mr. Assad’s death and the failures of the soldiers’ conduct.

Human rights organizations have long accused the Israeli military justice system of whitewashing wrongdoing, and the military of acting with impunity.

The Biden administration has been putting Israel on notice over rising levels of settler violence against Palestinians and anti-settlement activists in the occupied West Bank, imposing financial and travel sanctions on several people and, most recently, on two grass-roots organizations raising funds for some of those individuals.

Benny Gantz, a centrist member of Mr. Netanyahu’s war cabinet and a former military chief, said imposing sanctions on Israeli military units would set “a dangerous precedent.”

The fierce denunciations came just hours after Israeli officials welcomed the bipartisan vote in Congress to approve billions of dollars in aid for Israel, underscoring the dramatic swings and contradictions that have characterized recent relations between President Biden and Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Biden has chided Mr. Netanyahu over civilian deaths in Gaza while nonetheless coming to Israel’s aid in repelling an attack this month from Iran and providing weapons used in the war in Gaza.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said that he talked recently with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Jacob J. Lew.

“Our friends and our enemies are closely watching the ties between Israel and the United States, now more than ever,” Mr. Gallant said in a statement early Monday. “I call on the U.S. administration to withdraw its intention to impose sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda battalion.”

Mr. Biden has faced months of criticism and fury — even from some members of his own party — over his backing of Israel’s war in Gaza as the death toll there has climbed, and any imposition of sanctions against an Israeli unit could be seen as a kind of counterweight. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed during the six months of war, according to Gazan health officials.

Mick Mulroy, a former C.I.A. officer and senior Pentagon official, said in an interview that placing such sanctions on a close ally like Israel would be unusual, so “it should send a message.”

Charles Blaha, the former director of the State Department’s office of democracy and human rights, said he hoped any decision to impose sanctions “would provide incentives to Israel to improve accountability.”

The general strike in the West Bank on Sunday was not the first shutdown in the territory as an act of protest in recent months. The Israeli authorities have tightened restrictions there since Oct. 7, canceling thousands of permits that allowed Palestinians to work in Israel and squeezing the economy in the West Bank, where about 500,000 Israeli settlers live alongside roughly 2.7 million Palestinians.

Violence in the West Bank has sharply escalated in recent months. Nearly 500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces there since the Israel-Hamas war started, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

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