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Israel Unhappy With US Sancti 04/22 07:13

   

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli leaders on Sunday harshly criticized an expected 
decision by the U.S. to impose sanctions on a unit of ultra-Orthodox soldiers 
in the Israeli military.

   The decision, expected as soon as Monday, would mark the first time the U.S. 
has imposed sanctions on a unit inside the Israeli military and would further 
strain relations between the two allies, which have grown increasingly tense 
during Israel's war in Gaza.

   While U.S. officials declined to identify the unit expected to be 
sanctioned, Israeli leaders and local media identified it as Netzah Yehuda -- 
an infantry battalion founded roughly a quarter of a century ago to incorporate 
ultra-Orthodox men into the military. Many religious men receive exemptions 
from what is supposed to be compulsory service.

   Israeli leaders condemned the anticipated decision as unfair, especially at 
a time when Israel is at war, and vowed to oppose it.

   "If anyone thinks they can impose sanctions on a unit in the IDF, I will 
fight it with all my might," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

   Netzah Yehuda, or Judea Forever, has historically been based in the occupied 
West Bank and some of its members have been linked to abuses against 
Palestinians. It makes up just a small part of Israel's military presence in 
the territory.

   The unit came under heavy American criticism in 2022 after an elderly 
Palestinian-American man was found dead shortly after he was detained at a West 
Bank checkpoint.

   A Palestinian autopsy said Omar Assad, 78, had underlying health conditions, 
but had suffered a heart attack caused by "external violence."

   It said doctors found bruises on his head, redness on his wrists from being 
bound and bleeding in his eyelids from being tightly blindfolded. A military 
investigation said that Israeli soldiers assumed that Assad was asleep when 
they cut off the cables binding his hands. They didn't offer medical help when 
they saw that he was unresponsive and left the scene without checking to see if 
he was alive.

   Assad had lived in the U.S. for four decades. After an outcry from the U.S. 
government, the Israeli military said the incident "was a grave and unfortunate 
event, resulting from moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the 
soldiers." It said one officer was reprimanded and two other officers 
reassigned to non-commanding roles, over the incident.

   But the army decided against criminal prosecution, saying military 
investigators could not directly link their actions to the death of the U.S. 
citizen.

   Human rights groups long have argued that Israel rarely holds soldiers 
accountable for the deaths of Palestinians.

   Investigators said soldiers were forced to restrain Assad because of his 
"aggressive resistance." Assad's family has expressed skepticism that the 
behavior of an ailing 78-year-old could justify such harsh treatment.

   Amid the uproar with the U.S., Israel moved Netzah Yehuda out of the West 
Bank in late 2022 and reassigned it to northern Israel. The battalion was moved 
to the southern border with Gaza after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack triggered the 
ongoing war.

   In a statement Sunday, the army said its Netzah Yehuda soldiers "are 
currently participating in the war effort in the Gaza Strip."

   "The battalion is professionally and bravely conducting operations in 
accordance to the IDF Code of Ethics and with full commitment to international 
law," it said. It said that if the unit is sanctioned, "its consequences will 
be reviewed."

   Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that he had made a decision on 
reviews of allegations that several Israeli military units had violated 
conditions for receiving U.S. assistance outlined in the so-called Leahy Law 
and that they would soon be made public.

   The White House declined to comment and referred to Blinken's comments from 
Friday.

   Benny Gantz, a former military chief, defense minister and current member of 
Israel's War Cabinet, said in a statement that he spoke Sunday evening with 
Blinken and told him the expected decision is a "mistake" because it would harm 
Israel's international legitimacy during wartime and because Israel's judicial 
system is "strong and independent."

   Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, another member of the War Cabinet, said he 
delivered a similar message to the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, and 
planned on talking to Blinken as well in hopes of blocking the expected 
decision. He said punishing the unit could cast a shadow over the entire 
Israeli military. "That's not the way to behave with partners and friends," he 
said.

   Two U.S. officials familiar with the situation said the U.S. announcement 
could come as soon as Monday.

   The officials said about five Israeli units were investigated and all but 
one had been found to have taken action to remedy the violations. The Leahy 
Law, named for former Sen. Patrick Leahy, bars U.S. aid from going to foreign 
military units that have committed human rights abuses.

   A reservist in the Netzah Yehuda unit, Sgt. Maj. Nadav Nissim Miranda, said 
the Assad death was "an unfortunate incident" but also an aberration. He told 
Channel 12 TV that targeting the battalion would hurt efforts to encourage 
religious men to enlist.

   But Yesh Din, an Israeli legal advocacy group, said the case was not 
isolated. It said one out of every five soldiers convicted of harming 
Palestinians or their property since 2010 comes from Netzah Yehuda, making it 
the unit with the highest conviction rate for such cases.

   The U.S. review was launched before the Hamas war and not connected to 
recent Israeli actions inside Gaza or the West Bank --- which has experienced a 
dramatic spike in deadly violence since the Gaza war erupted. The U.S. has also 
recently imposed sanctions against violent settlers.

   Gadi Shamni, a retired general who once served as the military's commander 
over the West Bank, said a main problem with the unit is that it was 
traditionally assigned exclusively to the West Bank. Violence between troops 
and Palestinians and settlers and Palestinians has surged there in recent 
years. In contrast, he said other units regularly rotate in and out of the 
volatile area.

   He said the exposure to nonstop friction and violence had caused a level of 
"tiredness" among the troops. Nonetheless, he said it was a stereotype to 
punish the entire unit and it would have been better to target specific 
individuals or commanders.

   But Ori Givati, the director of advocacy at Breaking the Silence, an Israeli 
group of former combat soldiers critical of Israel's occupation, said the 
problems run much deeper than any particular unit.

   He said abuses of power by soldiers toward Palestinians are systematic and 
the lack of repercussions for wrongdoings are fueling incidents like the death 
of Assad.

   Israeli hard-liners blasted the expected U.S. decision. Israel's 
ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said the U.S. 
crossed a "red line," and Tally Gotliv, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, 
accused the U.S. of antisemitism.

   But even the head of the opposition, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, 
rejected the move.

   He said the anticipated sanctions are "a mistake and we must act to cancel 
them." He noted that "the source of the problem is not at the military level 
but at the political level."

 
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