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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 22 APRIL 2024

Netanyahu slams reported US plan ‘to punish army unit’; Iran’s supreme leader praises strike on Israel

Netanyahu slams reported US plan ‘to punish army unit’; Iran’s supreme leader praises strike on Israel
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish fighters from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion of the Israeli army. (Photo: EPA / Jim Hollander)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned a reported US plan to sanction an ultra-Orthodox army battalion over human rights abuses in the West Bank, a move which could fuel tension over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Iran’s supreme leader praised the country’s retaliatory strike against Israel a week ago, even as he dismissed Tehran’s low success rate in hitting targets as an insignificant matter.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Hamas’s political leader on Saturday to discuss the need for a permanent ceasefire and accelerated humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Netanyahu decries reported US plan to sanction army unit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned a reported US plan to sanction an ultra-Orthodox army battalion over human rights abuses in the West Bank, a move which could fuel tensions over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

“At a time when our soldiers are fighting terrorist monsters, the intention to sanction a unit in the IDF is the height of absurdity and a moral low,” Netanyahu wrote on X, referring to the Israel Defense Forces.

The US is expected within days to announce the punitive measure, which would be the first time the US sanctions an Israeli army unit, Axios reported on Saturday, citing three people with knowledge of the matter in the US that it didn’t identify.

Blacklisting the Netzah Yehuda Battalion would prohibit it from receiving US military equipment or training. It’s been accused of mistreating Palestinians, including in an incident in January 2022 when an elderly US-Palestinian man, Omar Assad, was found dead after his detention by members of the unit in the West Bank.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said he would reveal “in the days ahead” his determinations on whether specific Israeli military or police units were liable to be sanctioned under the so-called Leahy Law, which bars military assistance to other countries’ security forces that violate human rights.

Netanyahu has clashed repeatedly with President Joe Biden’s administration over its pressure to do more to protect civilians and work toward a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. He praised the US House passing a $26-billion aid Bill for Israel on Saturday that includes both support for missile defences and humanitarian help in Gaza, saying on X that it showed “strong bipartisan support for Israel”.

Iranian-backed Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union, killed 1,200 people and abducted 250 others in an unprecedented attack on Israel on 7 October. More than 100 remain captive in the coastal strip.

The Hamas-run health authority says more than 34,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza since Israel started a devastating offensive aimed at wiping out the militant group. International organisations warn of the risk of famine among a large part of the territory’s more than 2 million inhabitants because of a lack of aid, which Israel denies.

The US has criticised Israeli plans to attack the southern Gazan city of Rafah, the enclave’s one remaining safe haven, where more than a million displaced people are crowded. Negotiations on a deal to free the hostages are deadlocked, with Hamas rejecting Israel’s offer of a temporary pause in fighting. 

“In the coming days, we will increase the diplomatic and military pressure on Hamas, because this is the only way to free our hostages and achieve victory,” Netanyahu said in a video address ahead of the Passover holiday. 

Iran’s supreme leader: Number of missiles that hit Israel ‘trivial issue’

Iran’s supreme leader praised the country’s retaliatory strike against Israel a week ago, even as he dismissed Tehran’s low success rate in hitting targets as an insignificant matter.

“The number of missiles that were launched or hit the target, which is the focus of the other side, is a second-hand and trivial issue,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday.

The Iranian leader, who was speaking in a meeting of senior military commanders, didn’t address a subsequent Israeli attack early on Friday.

His statements follow a bout of escalating military aggression between Israel and Iran that has stoked concerns about an all-out war in the region.

Tensions surged when Iran, which backs the Palestinian militant group Hamas in its war with Israel, vowed retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its consulate in Syria on 1 April that killed several officers. Tehran followed with an unprecedented attack against Israel last weekend, launching an estimated 300 drones and missiles at the Jewish state.

Read more: Week of Iran-Israel strikes marks a Mideast ‘game-changer’

Most of the projectiles were intercepted by Israel’s air defence systems, causing limited damage and no fatalities, according to Israeli officials. Iranian state-run media, though, reported that the attack inflicted “heavy blows” on targets, including an air base, within Israel. 

Erdoğan, Hamas official meet on Gaza while Abbas slams US veto

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Hamas’ political leader on Saturday to discuss the need for a permanent ceasefire and accelerated humanitarian aid in Gaza. 

Separately on Saturday, the head of the Palestinian Authority criticised the US veto this week at the UN Security Council of a resolution on the admission of Palestine as a full member state. 

Erdoğan received Ismail Haniyeh and his delegation, including former Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, at Istanbul’s historic Dolmabahçe Palace. 

“It is vital that Palestinians act with unity in this process. The strongest response to Israel and the path to victory lie in unity and integrity,” the Turkish leader said, according to his directorate of communications. 

Erdoğan highlighted Ankara’s diplomatic efforts aimed at brokering a pause in the six-month conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, according to a statement on X, formerly Twitter, after the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.

Erdoğan has called Hamas militants “freedom fighters” and repeatedly criticised Israel’s conduct in the war. 

Erdogan has stopped short of cutting ties with Israel altogether. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would “reconsider” bilateral relations with the US after Washington’s veto this week of a resolution to admit the Palestinian territories as a full UN member state.

Thursday’s move “constitutes a blatant aggression against the rights, history, land, and sanctities of the Palestinian people, challenging the will of the international community”, Abbas told the state news agency Wafa. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

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