US sanctions on IDF: Limited practicality but still significant

Washington is reportedly mulling over sanctions against Israeli military units implicated in severe human rights violations against Palestinians. This would be unprecedented if implemented.

US sanctions on IDF: Limited practicality but still significant

Washington is reportedly mulling over sanctions against Israeli military units implicated in severe human rights violations against Palestinians.

These sanctions would be enforced under the Leahy Law, which prohibits providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross misconduct and have not faced justice. If implemented, these sanctions would signify an unprecedented action by the US government against segments of the Israeli army (IDF).

This has prompted a strong reaction from senior Israeli figures, who have vehemently criticised the anticipated sanctions and urged the Biden administration not to proceed.

However, despite their symbolic importance, the anticipated sanctions will likely have limited practical impact if implemented. They do not affect the substantial US military support to Israel, which could be Washington's primary leverage in ending the culture of impunity enjoyed by Israeli human rights violators.

Surge in violence prompting action

American lawmakers critical of Israel's actions have frequently cited the Leahy Law as grounds for reconsidering unconditional US assistance to Israel. Patrick Leahy himself, the law's namesake, has criticised the US for treating Israel differently from other nations regarding law enforcement.

In recent years, the State Department has documented human rights violations by the Israeli army, sparking debates among US policymakers and legislators on how to respond. However, the recent surge in violence in Gaza and the occupied West Bank has prompted American officials to take action based on their findings.

Off the record, US officials have revealed that the State Department has been investigating several Israeli security units, including both police and military, for alleged violations that occurred prior to 7 October.

According to these sources, in December, a US State Department panel investigating human rights violations in the occupied West Bank recommended sanctions against certain Israeli military and police units.

However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly delayed acting on the panel's recommendation, apparently due to concerns about the political fallout.

Blinken confirmed these insights last week, acknowledging that he had reached a decision regarding reported Israeli violations of the Leahy Law and stated that these decisions would soon be made public.

Despite their symbolic importance, the anticipated US sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda Battalion are likely to have limited practical impact if implemented.

Netzah Yehuda Battalion

While five Israeli units were under investigation, leaked information suggests that only the Netzah Yehuda Battalion will face sanctions for now. According to one US official, the Biden administration only opted to target the faction with the most violations to mitigate potential backlash from Israeli officials.

The American Embassy in Israel reportedly commenced its investigation into the Netzah Yehuda Battalion in 2022, enabling it to compile an extensive dossier of their violations.

Founded in 1999 as a special unit for ultra-orthodox soldiers, Netzah Yehuda also admits radical right-wing settlers who were rejected from other combat units in the Israeli army. Consequently, it is the only army battalion without women.

American scrutiny of this battalion intensified following the death of 80-year-old Palestinian-American Omar As'ad due to the harsh conditions of his detention by soldiers from the battalion, despite his age and health.

Although the Israeli army admitted wrongdoing, no soldiers were charged in connection with the incident.

Until December 2022, Netzah Yehuda was permanently stationed in the West Bank, where it was embroiled in several controversies linked to right-wing extremism and violence against Palestinians.

Subsequently, the infantry unit was relocated from the West Bank to the Golan Heights, although Tel Aviv denied this was due to soldiers' behaviour. Following 7 October, the Battalion was deployed to the Gaza Strip to participate in the conflict against Hamas.

Israel's reaction

The reports of an impending sanction against an Israeli army battalion elicited strong reactions from senior Israeli figures. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the intention, labelling it as "absurd" and morally reprehensible.

He vowed to take all necessary measures to oppose such action. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also characterised the decision to sanction the army amid Israel's struggle for survival as "absolute madness."

The Biden administration only opted to target the faction with the most violations to mitigate potential backlash from Israeli officials.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant expressed his expectation for the American administration to retract its sanction plans, cautioning that such a move would establish a dangerous precedent and cast a shadow on Israeli army actions, thereby harming the entire defence establishment.

Read more: Israel fears US sanctions on army battalion could open the floodgates

Likewise, war cabinet member Benny Gantz conveyed his concerns to Secretary of State Blinken and other US officials, urging them to reconsider the reported sanctions due to their potential to undermine Israel's legitimacy during wartime.

Even former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, head of the opposition, opposed the anticipated sanctions, labelling them as a mistake that must be rectified.

Consequently, there is a risk that the significant pressure exerted by Israeli politicians and lobbyists may compel the US to reverse its decision to issue sanctions or postpone them temporarily.

Still signficant

The Biden administration's potential decision, if implemented, would be significant, though it falls short of sanctioning all Israeli units involved in human rights abuses and excludes those implicated in incidents in Gaza after 7 October.

However, it would represent the first time the US government has taken such action against a specific army unit. This move could help address the impunity enjoyed by Israeli soldiers committing violations against civilians, stemming from the army's investigative system's bias favouring soldiers.

Human rights defenders anticipate that this precedent could trigger more thorough investigations into violations by all military and security units, not just those in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Calls for investigations into units in Gaza have grown, fuelled by social media posts by soldiers depicting violations of the Israeli army's code of conduct during conflicts with Hamas. If implemented effectively, this could lead to sanctions against more Israeli military units for human rights violations.

A European diplomat expressed optimism that other Western countries may soon follow suit in sanctioning Israeli army units targeting Palestinians brutally.

US sanctions on the Israeli army battalion could help address the impunity enjoyed by Israeli soldiers committing violations against civilians.

They noted that US sanctions on Israeli settlers over violence against Palestinians have spurred similar actions by the EU and have prompted Canada to consider similar measures.

The diplomat asserted that, as with the US sanctions against violent settlers, other Western nations might also focus on units consistently implicated in unjust actions against Palestinians.

Limited practical impact

Despite their symbolic importance, the anticipated sanctions are expected to have limited practical impact. They would primarily prohibit Israel from using US military aid or equipment to arm the designated battalion or any other units facing similar sanctions.

Additionally, battalion commanders and soldiers would be barred from participating in joint training with the US Army.

To circumvent the sanctions, Israel could simply use its own funds to procure weapons for the affected battalion. Alternatively, the battalion could be integrated into other structures, as suggested by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister of National Security.

He stated, "The Border Police ranks are open to receiving this important battalion" should the Israeli Defence Ministry not support it.

Furthermore, the Israeli army could potentially lift the sanctions by demonstrating improved behaviour by the battalion or by creating the impression of change.

In essence, the sanctions would not significantly impede the substantial ongoing military support provided by the US to Israel, including the recent $17bn emergency military aid package passed by Congress.

In other words, even if implemented, the anticipated sanctions are unlikely to exert significant influence, thus failing to achieve their objective of curbing violations committed by the Israeli army and security units against Palestinians.

Therefore, the US, among other actors, should persist in seeking more effective leverage to address these violations and put an end to the culture of impunity that Israeli human rights violators have long enjoyed.

font change