US expected to sanction Israeli military unit over alleged human rights abuses in West Bank

Fourteen Palestinians killed in West Bank by Israeli forces as violence flares and death toll in Gaza war passes 34,000

The US is expected to blacklist a controversial Israeli military unit for alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, in its first sanctions against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The sanctions would ban the transfer of US military weaponry or any other forms of assistance to the Netzah Yehuda battalion, an all-male IDF infantry unit made up of ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist Jewish recruits, according to people familiar with the matter. It would be the first time the US has targeted a unit of the IDF directly.

Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum reacted angrily to reports of the sanctions on Sunday, which were first reported by Axios.

Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu described the US action as the “height of absurdity and a moral low point” at a time when Israeli soldiers “were fighting the terrorist monsters”.


Bezalel Smotrich, the ultranationalist finance minister, called the US decision “absolute madness”.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, vowed to push for Israeli sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank.

Benny Gantz, a centrist minister in the country’s war cabinet and Netanyahu’s main political rival, said Netzah Yehuda was an “inseparable part” of the IDF and that Israel’s “strong, independent judicial system” could investigate any violations of military or international law.

“I have great appreciation for our American friends, but the decision to impose sanctions on an IDF unit ... sets a dangerous precedent,” he added.

Netzah Yehuda has for years faced allegations of abuse against Palestinians in the West Bank, where it was primarily deployed before the Israeli military shifted it out of the territory in early 2023 after growing US criticism of its conduct.

More recently, the unit – originally established as a pathway for ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military, with all the attendant religious ritual – was deployed in the latter stages of Israel’s major ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.

US president Joe Biden has affirmed his “ironclad” commitment to the security of the Jewish state. The US also helped Israel intercept a barrage of Iranian missiles and drones fired from Iran, passed a massive defence bill that includes aid for Israel, and vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council recognising a Palestinian state.

Yet Israeli conduct and policy in the West Bank, with its military occupation of over five decades, is a major – and growing – point of difference, as US officials have consistently stated.

According to Israeli analysts, the actual impact on Netzah Yehuda’s operations would mostly be felt in the provision of US-made equipment like the M16 rifle, vehicles and kit – as well as financial donations from the US for the unit directly through a private foundation.

The IDF said on Sunday that it was still not aware of the imposition of sanctions on the unit, but stressed that the battalion was currently fighting in Gaza “professionally and bravely ... in accordance to the IDF Code of Ethics and ... international law”.

“The IDF remains committed to continue to examine exceptional incidents professionally and according to law,” it added.

Earlier on Sunday, Israel’s foreign minister has hit out at the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over his decision to publicise his latest meeting with the head of Hamas’s politburo.

Israel Katz shared a photo on X which showed Mr Erdogan shaking hands with Ismail Haniyeh at a presidential office in Istanbul over the weekend, writing that the Turkish president “should be ashamed”.

Mr Erdogan met Mr Haniyeh alongside key members of his cabinet and Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, to discuss Israeli attacks on Gaza and efforts to calm tensions across the region, according to the Turkish presidential office.

Mr Erdogan and Mr Shoukry expressed concern during the meeting that recent drone attacks between Israel and Iran could divert international attention from suffering on the ground in Gaza, where 34,000 people have been killed by Israeli bombardments since October 7th.

The meeting also underscored a regional realignment taking place amid Israel’s attacks on Gaza after an unprecedented assault by Hamas on Israeli towns and kibbutzim in which 1,200 were killed and 250 were taken hostage.

Turkish relations with Israel have rapidly soured as Israel’s assault on Gaza has continued.

Mr Netanyahu has said a date is set for a ground invasion of Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, prompting fears for the more than 1 million people sheltering there.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, thanked the country’s armed forces for their operation against Israel and urged them to “ceaselessly pursue military innovation and learn the enemy’s tactics”, Iran’s official news agency reported on Sunday.

Tehran openly targeted Israel for the first time on April 13th with more than 300 missiles and drones in what it said was retaliation for Israel’s deadly bombing of a consulate compound in Damascus, Syria, on April 1st.

“How many missiles were launched and how many of them hit their target is not the primary question, what really matters is that Iran demonstrated its willpower during that operation,” Mr Khamenei said on Sunday.

Early on Friday, explosions echoed over the Iranian city of Isfahan in what sources said was an Israeli attack, but Tehran played down the incident and said it had no plans for retaliation – a response that appeared gauged towards averting region-wide war.

Elsewhere, Israeli strikes on Rafah overnight killed 22 people, including 18 children, health officials said on Sunday.

The first overnight strike killed a man, his wife and their three-year-old child, according to the nearby Kuwaiti Hospital, which received the bodies. The woman was pregnant, and the doctors managed to save the baby, the hospital said.

The second strike killed 17 children and two women, all from the same extended family, according to hospital records. First responders were still searching the rubble.

The latest Israeli strikes come as the United States was on track to approve billions of dollars in additional military aid for its close ally.

The US House of Representatives approved a $26 billion (€24 billion) aid package on Saturday which includes around $9 billion in humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

Israel has carried out near-daily air raids on Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.

Mr Netanyahu, told western diplomats this week that he intended to push ahead with a ground assault on Rafah, despite warnings that any attack on the city is likely to cause many more civilian casualties and worsen an already acute humanitarian crisis across Gaza.

Israeli military officials say Rafah is Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza. Mr Biden, has called an attack on Rafah a “red line” if undertaken without sufficient precautions to protect civilians.

Israeli forces killed 14 Palestinians in the West Bank during a raid on Saturday, according to Palestinian authorities.

An ambulance driver was also reportedly killed as he went to collect injured people from a separate attack by Jewish settlers.

Israeli forces began an extended raid in the early hours of Friday in the Nur Shams area, near the flashpoint Palestinian city of Tulkarm.

The West Bank, a kidney shaped area about 100km long and 50km wide that has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it was seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Thousands of Israeli demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday to call for new elections and demand more action from the government to bring the hostages held in Gaza home, in the latest round of protests against Mr Netanyahu. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024/Guardian