Israeli ministers Gantz, Ben-Gvir trade accusations amid planned US sanctions on army unit

Israeli ministers Gantz, Ben-Gvir trade accusations amid planned US sanctions on army unit
Israeli ministers Gantz and Ben-Gvir blamed each other for damaging national security as the US prepares to impose sanctions on an extremist army unit
3 min read
22 April, 2024
Benny Gantz said that "ministers who damage national security should not sit in the cabinet", in an apparent reference to Ben-Gvir [Getty]

Israeli ministers Benny Gantz and Itamar Ben-Gvir traded barbs on Sunday, accusing each other of endangering Israel's national security.

The accusations came after a report that the US is planning on sanctioning the Israeli army’s Netzah Yehuda battalion, which is made up of far-right settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews, over its abuses against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The battalion is accused of serious human rights violations, and the US is also considering similar moves against other police and military units, according to Israeli media reports.

During an Israeli parliament session on Sunday, after news of the sanctions came out, Gantz said "ministers who damage national security should not sit in the cabinet", in an apparent reference to Ben-Gvir.

He added that Israeli ministers should be held to account and "certainly not engage in division or attempts to pass laws and decisions that harm our security and political interests."

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Gantz also criticised Ben-Gvir’s recent efforts to maintain ultra-orthodox Jews’ exemption from military service, saying there should be no "favouring a sector or a group," in Israel.

Ben-Gvir responded to the comments with a sharply worded accusation, saying that it was instead Gantz who was harming national security, citing his time as defence minister from 2020 to 2022.

"The person who harmed the security of the State of Israel, who drove the concept of containment and surrender to Hamas, endangered Golani’s soldiers, brought in workers from Gaza, opened the checkpoints in the West Bank, shut down the emergency response teams, and hosted [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas in his home, is Gantz," he said.

He added that "someone like" Gantz should not sit in the cabinet. Gantz, a long-time rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was included in the Israeli war cabinet after the war on Gaza began last October.

If the US goes ahead with sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda battalion, it would mark the first time the US government has targeted an Israeli army unit with sanctions.

"If anyone thinks they can impose sanctions on a unit of the [Israeli forces] – I will fight with all my strength," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement in response.

Members of the battalion have been involved in a number of violent incidents, such as the death of 78-year-old Palestinian-American Omar Assad and several cases of torturing and abusing Palestinian  detainees.

If the sanctions are imposed, they would prohibit the transfer of US military aid to the unit and prevent soldiers and officers from participating in training either with the US military or in programmes that receive US funding.

The battalion was originally established in 1999 to cater to the religious beliefs of ultra-Orthodox Jews but later also attracted far-right settlers. It has usually been deployed in the occupied West Bank.

In 2022, 78-year-old US citizen, Omar Assad, died of a heart attack after being detained, bound, gagged and then abandoned by members of the unit.

Ben Gvir said on Saturday that the report was "extremely serious," and called on Defence Minister Yoav Gallant "not to submit to what America dictates."

The report comes amidst Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, which has killed at least 34,151 Palestinians, mostly women and children, and left over 76,000 wounded since October.

Israel’s war on the besieged enclave has left the territory in ruins and plunged the Gaza Strip into a deep humanitarian crisis, with parts of the north already experiencing famine.