Blinken Says Israeli Units Accused of Serious Violations Have Done Enough to Avoid Sanctions. Experts and Insiders Disagree.

Years before Oct. 7, soldiers and officers in four Israeli security force units committed what the U.S. State Department would later determine to be serious human rights violations against Palestinians.

In one incident in 2019, an Israel Defense Forces soldier shot and killed an unarmed Palestinian man on the side of a road in the West Bank. That soldier was given no jail time — only three months of community service.

Under the U.S. Leahy Laws, the government must disqualify any military or law enforcement unit from receiving assistance if there’s credible information that the group had committed violations like rape or extrajudicial killings, unless the offending entity has taken adequate steps to punish the perpetrator.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress he had determined the punishments for the soldiers and officers in all four cases — including the community service sentence — to be adequate, according to a State Department memo to Congress. The units won’t be disqualified from receiving American military assistance. The names of the units were previously reported by Al-Monitor. ProPublica obtained the memo with Blinken’s justifications.

Some experts disagreed with that decision, saying that the punishment Israel meted out in the 2019 case was not adequate. They said the decision to continue the support was another example of special treatment for Israel.

Community service is “not what would be considered appropriate punishment,” said Tim Rieser, a longtime aide to former Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chief author of 1997 laws that the State Department is meant to enforce.

Rieser said Blinken’s justification was “not consistent with how the law was written and how it was intended to be applied.” A former State Department official said it was a “mockery.” Both officials, along with another congressional aide, were especially troubled that during the years it had taken to assess whether Israel had sufficiently punished the perpetrators, the State Department had apparently not disqualified the units from U.S. support.

A State Department spokesperson did not answer questions about Blinken’s memo but told ProPublica the agency has taken “extensive steps to implement the Leahy law for all countries that receive applicable U.S. assistance, including Israel.” The spokesperson said the agency is continuing to review reports of violations. “Israel has a moral obligation and a strategic imperative to protect civilians,” the spokesperson added.

ProPublica previously reported that a panel of internal State Department experts, known as the Israel Leahy Vetting Forum, had sent Blinken multiple cases of violations, along with recommendations to cut units off from assistance, months ago. The recommendations were an unusual escalation after years of deferential treatment of Israel, according to people close to the forum’s activities.

Following the report three weeks ago, Blinken promised to announce his determinations “in the coming days.” At the time, several media outlets reported that the State Department was poised to sanction one of the units, Netzah Yehuda, the ultra-Orthodox military battalion that has operated in the West Bank and been accused of multiple human rights violations.

The vetting forum reviewed the unit for an incident in which commanders gagged, handcuffed and left an elderly Palestinian American man for dead. (The commanders were reprimanded and demoted but did not face prison time, according to the vetting forum’s meeting minutes.) Israel’s leaders responded by fiercely pushing back against U.S. plans to withhold American assistance from the battalion. Blinken has since delayed his decision on it, Axios reported.

Netzah Yehuda is not mentioned in Blinken’s Friday memo. In the meantime, the unit has apparently remained eligible for U.S. military assistance despite the finding that there was a violation.

“That’s an outrage and another example of special treatment for Israel,” said Charles Blaha, the former director of the State Department’s Office of Security and Human Rights and a former participant in the forum. The larger issue, he added, is that “there are literally dozens of Israeli security force units that have committed gross violations of human rights and remain eligible for assistance because of the State Department’s failure to apply the law.”

Blinken’s letter to Congress comes at a time of increasing tension between the U.S. and Israel. Last week, President Joe Biden withheld a shipment of 3,500 bombs to Israel after the country pledged to ignore international outcry and go forward with its incursion into the southern Gazan city of Rafah. It was the first known time since Hamas’ terrorist attack that the administration has halted an arms shipment. Then, on Wednesday, Biden told CNN he would not supply bombs and shells to Israel that it can use to attack Rafah, where there are 1 million civilians sheltering.

Blinken is required to inform Congress about any State Department findings of gross human rights violations that he considered to be remediated. His memo on Friday detailed four cases he apparently decided met that standard.

In one case, a senior officer in the Israeli National Police’s Ma’avarim unit deceived and coerced six women, including some in the Israeli military, to have sex with him. Another officer serving in the West Bank’s COGAT unit forced at least two Palestinian women who were seeking permits to work in Israel to have sex with him between 2013 and 2016. Both of those officers are currently serving significant prison sentences, punishments that experts said are an adequate response from the Israeli government.

In March 2016, Elor Azaria, a medic in the Israel Defense Forces’ 92nd Shimshon Battalion, killed a 20-year-old Palestinian, Abed al-Fatah al Sharif. Al Sharif was disarmed and handcuffed on the ground after stabbing an Israeli soldier when Azaria shot and killed him. Azaria was charged and convicted with manslaughter and appealed before serving nine months in prison.

The case received enormous attention in the Israeli media, spurring debate in Israel about whether the punishment was adequate.

However, experts, including some State Department officials, say the handling of the fourth case is egregious.

In that case in 2019, an unnamed officer from the Shahar Search and Rescue Battalion, which looks for Hamas weaponry and intelligence, shot and killed an unarmed Palestinian man named Ahmed Manasra. Manasra had pulled over on his way home from a wedding to help a woman on the side of the road. The soldier also shot and wounded another driver, who the soldier assumed had been throwing stones at Israeli motorists.

The soldier reached a plea deal with military judges, who acknowledged he had “made a mistake of fact when he shot the victim,” before sentencing him to three months of community service and a three-month suspended sentence. He was also removed from the military.

The Israeli military said during court proceedings that the soldier had “wrongly assumed” that Manasra was the stone thrower and that there was a report of a possible terror attack in the area before the incident, according to The Associated Press.

The Israeli Embassy declined to comment.

“To the best of the Department of State’s knowledge, the investigation and judicial processes were credible,” Blinken noted in his memo to Congress. He determined that the Israelis “are taking effective steps to bring to justice the responsible member of the Shahar Battalion.”

Blaha, one of the former forum members, said if any other country offered such a paltry punishment, his office never would have accepted it as adequate remediation. “The whole process has been such a disappointment to me,” he said.