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Blinken says no 'double standard' for Israel ahead of expected sanctions on military unit

The State Department investigation into allegations of Israeli human rights abuses and the role of American weapons in potential violations is being carried out to the same standard as that for any other country, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday.

Blinken was speaking during the release of the State Department’s 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, but he addressed the department preparing to announce in the coming days restrictions on military assistance for specific units of the Israeli military over credible reports of human rights abuses. 

“Do we have a double standard? The answer is no,” Blinken said in response to a question from Reuters.

He said an announcement is expected “in the days ahead” on State Department findings on whether to restrict assistance to the Netzah Yehuda military unit over alleged human rights abuses. 

The unit, which is made up largely of ultra-Orthodox Israelis and primarily operates in the West Bank, is reported to have the highest conviction rate for abuses against Palestinian civilians.

U.S. restrictions on military assistance over human rights abuses are required under the Leahy Law, named for former Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), author of the 1997 legislation that requires the U.S. to cut off assistance to any foreign military or law enforcement units if it’s determined there is credible evidence of human rights violations. 

“With regard to the Leahy Law report that I think you’re referring to at the outset, this is a good example of a process that is very deliberate and seeks to get the facts, to get all the information that has to be done carefully,” Blinken said Monday in response to Reuters questioning at the State Department.

“I think you’ll see in the days ahead that we will have more to say, so please stay tuned on that.”

The potential announcement of U.S. sanctions has drawn pushback from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and head of the Israeli opposition, Benny Gantz, who spoke with Blinken on Sunday. 

“Minister Gantz expressed to the secretary that the prospective decision to impose sanctions on the ‘Netzah Yehuda’ battalion is a mistake,” said Tom Sagiv, spokesperson for Gantz, in a statement.

Gantz said sanctioning the Israeli military unit would harm Israel’s international legitimacy during a time of war and has “no justification as the Israeli judicial system is strong and independent.”

Blinken, in his remarks to the press, noted Israel “has demonstrated the capacity to look at itself,” conduct investigations into wrongdoing and dole out punishment. 

“It’s my understanding, they have many open investigations based on reports that have come forward with allegations about abuses of human rights or abuse of international humanitarian law, laws of war, etc.,” he said. 

“In the first instance, I think that’s the most important thing that any of our democracies have to make sure that we’re policing ourselves, holding ourselves to the standards that we’re asking of others,” he added. “I believe Israel is in the process of doing that based on knowledge of open investigations that they have. And as I said, when incidents are brought to our attention, we look at them and particularly if there’s a possibility that U.S. arms were used in those instances.”

The move to sanction Netzah Yehuda would mark a significant action for the Biden administration, which has rushed arms to Israel for its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but criticized Israel’s military for the high death toll for Palestinian civilians, estimated to be more than 20,000 killed. 

In the West Bank, where violence has escalated between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration took an extraordinary step in March to sanction individual Israelis for carrying out violence against Palestinians. 

In the State Department’s 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the administration condemns Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct 7, which killed more than 1,100 people, injuring more than 5,400, and abducting 253 hostages. Hamas is holding approximately 133 Israelis hostages, with freed hostages testifying to torture and sexual abuse. It’s unclear how many of the remaining hostages are still alive. 

But the administration in the 2023 report also raised Israel’s conduct of the war. It noted that “Israel responded with a sustained, wide-scale military operation in Gaza, which had killed more than 21,000 Palestinians and injured more than 56,000 by the end of the year, displaced the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza, and resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis.”

The report says that significant human rights issues include credible reports of “serious abuses in a conflict by Hamas and Israel.”

Source: The Hill

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