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Pending U.S. sanctions on IDF unit irks Israel

Updated April 21, 2024 - 8:17 pm

JERUSALEM — 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 United States has imposed sanctions on a unit inside the Israeli military and would further strain relations between the two allies.

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.

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

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 Israel-Hamas war was sparked by an unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel in which Hamas and other terrorists killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. Israel says terrorists are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of more than 30 others.

Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to call for a new election to replace Netanyahu and a deal with Hamas to release the hostages. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until Hamas is destroyed and all hostages are returned.

A $26 billion aid package approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Saturday includes around $9 billion in humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

The U.S. Senate could pass the package as soon as Tuesday, and President Joe has promised to sign it immediately.

The war has killed at least 34,097 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between combatants and civilians in its count.

Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the terrorists fight in dense, residential neighborhoods. The military says it has killed more than 13,000 Hamas terrorists.

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