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Blinken hints at US move to restrict aid to Israeli military unit

The United States is expected to invoke a decades-old law to restrict military assistance to Netzah Yehuda, an Israeli military unit accused of gross human rights violations.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the press after meeting with the Armenian Prime Minister, European Union Foreign Policy chief and the EU Commission President, in Brussels on April 5, 2024.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Monday the State Department would make public this week its plan to withhold aid from an Israeli military unit accused of human rights violations in the West Bank. 

“You'll see in the days ahead that we will have more to say,” Blinken told reporters. 

Speaking at the unveiling of the State Department’s annual report on worldwide human rights violations, Blinken denied the US government holds Israel to a different standard when assessing potential rights abuses, including in the Gaza Strip.  

"Do we have a double standard? The answer is no," Blinken told reporters. "We apply the same standard to everyone. That doesn't change whether the country is an adversary, a competitor, a friend or an ally."

The State Department is expected to announce that an Israeli military unit known as Netzah Yehuda is in violation of the Leahy law, which bars US military training and equipment from going to foreign security forces credibly accused of committing gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, rape and torture. 

On Friday, Blinken told reporters he had made “determinations” about possible assistance cuts under the 1997 law but did not name any specific Israeli military units or individuals. On Monday, he told reporters to “stay tuned” when asked about the expected measures. 

Axios first reported that the department has determined that Netzah Yehuda, an ultra-Orthodox battalion that primarily operates in the West Bank, is in violation of the Leahy law.  

The battalion was implicated in the killing of Palestinian American Omar Assad, a 78-year-old former Milwaukee grocery store owner who died of a heart attack in January 2022 after soldiers from Netzah Yehuda detained, bound and handcuffed him at a West Bank checkpoint. The Israeli military disciplined three of the unit’s commanders but did not bring criminal charges.

Restricting assistance to Netzah Yehuda would mark the first time the United States has applied the decades-old Leahy law to Israel, the recipient of some $3.8 billion in annual US military assistance.  

It comes as the Biden administration continues to face pressure from the Democratic party’s left wing to curtail weapons transfers to Israel over its military conduct in Gaza, where the Palestinian death toll from the six-month war against Hamas has surpassed 34,000. 

Some critics say the designation of a single Israel military unit is mostly symbolic, given that it’s difficult to trace whether Netzah Yehuda specifically is receiving US funding. Josh Paul, who in October resigned in protest from the State Department bureau handling overseas arms transfers, called it “more of a distraction than a real practical step forward.” 

“It lets the secretary [of state] suggest that he is taking action while at the same time the weapons continue to flow into Gaza, where there are a lot of gross violations of human rights happening,” Paul told Al-Monitor. 

Before he left in October, Paul said a State Department panel known as the “Israel Leahy Vetting Forum” had concluded there were six Israeli military units credibly alleged to be involved in gross violations of human rights. Of those six, the panel recommended a waiver for two of the units because the Israeli government was taking steps to hold them accountable, he said. 

On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to fight the expected US move, which he called “the height of absurdity and a moral low.” 

“If anyone thinks they can impose sanctions on a unit of the IDF, I will fight it with all my strength," Netanyahu said. 

Ahead of the expected Leahy determination, Blinken held separate phone calls Sunday with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz. 

A day earlier, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved $26 billion in new military aid for Israel and humanitarian assistance for civilians in conflict zones including Gaza. President Joe Biden has pledged to sign the entire $95 billion foreign aid package, which includes funding for Ukraine and Taiwan, following its expected Senate passage this week.