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US finds Israeli units committed human rights abuses before Gaza war



US finds Israeli units committed human rights abuses before Gaza war

The US has found five units of the Israeli security forces responsible for gross violations of human rights, over incidents in the West Bank before the current Gaza war, the state department has said.

The findings come at a time when Israel is facing potential accountability from the international criminal court and the state department for its conduct of the conflict in Gaza, in which more than 34,000 people have been killed.

The units found to be involved in abuses in the West Bank are mostly from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) but include at least one police unit. They have not been sanctioned, however, the state department said.

Four of the units were judged to have carried out effective remedial action after the US state department shared its findings with Israel.

The fifth, an ultra-orthodox military unit known as Netzah Yehuda, drawn in part from West Bank settlers, was about to be blacklisted earlier this month under the Leahy laws, which ban US funding of any foreign military units involved in atrocities.

The unit had carried out no apparent remedial action despite having been alerted to the abuses and Israeli government lawyers had ignored communications about the issue for months, according to US officials.

Shortly before the sanctions were due to be announced, however, Israeli government lawyers urgently contacted Washington and insisted that under the current 10-year US memorandum of understanding governing military relations with Israel signed in 2018, Israel should be given more time to respond to the US finding. US officials stressed that Leahy sanctions remained under consideration.

“After a careful process, we found five Israeli units responsible for individual incidents of gross violations of human rights. All of these were incidents much before October 7 and none took place in Gaza,” a state department spokesperson, Vedant Patel, said.

“Four of these units have effectively remediated these violations, which is what we expect partners to do … For a remaining unit, we continue to be in consultations and engagements with the government of Israel.”

The Guardian reported in January that the Leahy laws were interpreted by different, more lenient rules in Israel compared with other countries.

Netzah Yehuda is notorious for a series of incidents involving abuse of Palestinians in the West Bank. In 2022, the battalion commander was reprimanded and the platoon commander and company commander were removed from their positions following the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian American man, Omar Assad, who suffered a heart attack after being detained, bound and gagged by members of the unit at a West Bank checkpoint.

The IDF admitted Assad’s death was a consequence of “moral failure and poor decision-making” by the soldiers who had detained him.

Netzah Yehuda is now active in Gaza. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has described the unit’s potential sanctioning by the US as the “height of absurdity and a moral low” and vowed to resist any such decision.

The prime minister himself is facing possible war crimes charges for his leadership of the Gaza war. Reports in Israeli media in recent days have said that the government expects the international criminal court to issue arrest warrants as early as this week against Netanyahu, the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, and other military leaders.

According to a report on the Axios news website, Netanyahu has appealed to Biden to intervene to stop the warrants being issued. The US is not a member of the court, but under the Trump administration, it sanctioned court officials after complaining about its investigations of US military operations in Afghanistans and Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Asked about the prospect of ICC warrants, the White House spokesperson, Karine Jeanne-Pierre, said: “We’ve been really clear about the ICC investigation, we don’t support it, we don’t believe that they have the jurisdiction.”

Meanwhile, Reuters has reported that several senior US officials in the state department have advised the secretary of state that Israeli assurances that it has used US-supplied weapons in accordance with international humanitarian law, are not “credible or reliable”.

Under a national security council memorandum issued by Joe Biden in February, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, must report to Congress by 8 May, on the credibility of the Israeli assurances. A negative report could lead, in theory, to the suspension of US military aid.

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