US sanctions Israeli group for attacking Gaza aid convoys

Biden administration says the Israeli government has a ‘responsibility’ to protect humanitarian trucks heading to Gaza.

Protesters at the port of Ashdod, Israel, block the transport of humanitarian aid before it enters the Gaza Strip [File: Dylan Martinez/Reuters]By Al Jazeera StaffPublished On 14 Jun 202414 Jun 2024

Washington, DC – The United States has imposed sanctions on a “violent extremist” Israeli group for blocking and damaging humanitarian aid convoys to Gaza as the risk of famine increases in the besieged Palestinian territory.

The administration of President Joe Biden on Friday targeted Tzav 9, a group whose stated aim is to prevent any assistance from entering Gaza. It accused the group of looting and setting fire to aid trucks.

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“The provision of humanitarian assistance is vital to preventing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza from worsening and to mitigating the risk of famine,” the Department of State said in a statement.

“The government of Israel has a responsibility to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian convoys transiting Israel and the West Bank en route to Gaza. We will not tolerate acts of sabotage and violence targeting this essential humanitarian assistance.”

The sanctions were announced a day after Israeli media outlets cited Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai as saying far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir pushed to prevent law enforcement from protecting aid convoys to Gaza.

For months, right-wing Israelis have been protesting and blocking roads to prevent aid shipments from reaching Gaza, which is under a suffocating Israeli blockade. The efforts have further strained the flow of desperately needed aid to the territory.

In recent weeks, the protesters have stepped up their attacks on convoys, especially as they go through the occupied West Bank. Last month, they set two aid trucks alight in the Hebron Hills area, an attack the US State Department blamed on Tzav 9.

The sanctions block the group’s assets in the US and largely prohibit American citizens from engaging in transactions with them. They were imposed under an executive order (EO) issued by Biden that set up a legal framework for US penalties against individuals and entities “undermining peace, security and stability” in the occupied West Bank.

Last week, the Biden administration invoked the same order to sanction the Lion’s Den, a Palestinian armed group.

Still, Washington has resisted calls to penalise Israeli officials responsible for abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank, including Ben-Gvir and ultranationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

This month, US Senator Chris Van Hollen urged the Biden administration to use the executive order to target Smotrich.

“In my view, Smotrich should be subject to sanctions under this EO,” Van Hollen said.

The finance minister has withheld taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority, and in March, he declared 800 hectares (1,977 acres) in the West Bank to be Israeli state land.

“You’ve got this person whose stated goal is for essentially Israel to take over the entire West Bank,” Van Hollen told the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an advocacy organisation that recommended sanctioning Tzav 9, welcomed Friday’s measures and called on Biden to target entities and individuals that help fund and enable the group as well.

“Recent revelations that Israeli Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered police to stand down and allow Tzav 9 to block humanitarian aid convoys show how this despicable strategy of starvation is coordinated from young settler activists all the way up to the highest levels of the Israeli government,” Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, director of research for Israel-Palestine at DAWN, said in a statement.

“The US should not continue to ignore Israeli government involvement in these crimes and should apply sanctions to Ben-Gvir next.”

Rights advocates also called on Washington to pressure Israel to lift its siege on Gaza.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that Israel has taken “important steps” in recent months to remove obstacles to aid deliveries in Gaza, but he acknowledged it “can and must do more”.

“It is crucial to speed up the inspection of trucks and reduce backlogs, to provide greater clarity on – and shorten the list of – prohibited goods, to increase visas for aid workers and to process them more quickly,” he said at a Gaza aid conference in Jordan on Tuesday.

Blinken also urged “clearer, more effective channels” to protect humanitarian workers from military operations.

Source: Al Jazeera