U.S. punishes Israeli extremists accused of blocking, ransacking humanitarian aid for Gaza

DEIR AL BALAH, GAZA - MAY 20: Palestinians who were forced to migrate to the central town of Deir al-Balah to protect themselves from the attacks on Gaza by Israel and ensure their safety, form queues to receive clean water distributed by aid organizations in Gaza on May 20, 2024. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Palestinians who were forced to flee to the central Gaza city of Deir al-Balah wait for water in May. (Anadolu via Getty Images)

The Biden administration took the unusual step Friday of blacklisting a group of Israelis implicated in the looting and destruction of lifesaving humanitarian aid destined for Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip after eight months of brutal war.

It is only the second time in recent years the U.S. has punished Israeli groups for their violent and sometimes deadly actions against Palestinians.

Last year, the State Department announced it was barring U.S. entry to dozens of Jewish settlers who attacked Palestinian villagers in the West Bank, destroyed their properties and attempted to seize their land.

Several hundred Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed in recent months in these attacks and in Israeli military operations.

The latest U.S. measure targets a group known as Tzav 9, Hebrew for "Order 9," a reference to call-up orders for Israeli reservists. U.S. officials say the group has ties to extremist Jewish settlers in West Bank settlements.

"For months, individuals from Tzav 9 have repeatedly sought to thwart the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, including by blockading roads, sometimes violently, along their route from Jordan to Gaza, including in the West Bank," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement. "They also have damaged aid trucks and dumped life-saving humanitarian aid onto the road."

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They have also burned aid trucks, he said. "We will not tolerate acts of sabotage and violence targeting this essential humanitarian assistance," Miller said.

With negotiations for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war still unsuccessful, the inability of international organizations to get food, water and medicine into Gaza has deepened the suffering there, with more than a million Palestinians facing starvation. Aid agencies report that children are dying from malnutrition, and hundreds of people are dying from a lack of medical care. Most hospitals have been rendered inoperable by Israel's ongoing bombardment of Gaza.

Last month Israel closed the Rafah crossing on Gaza's border with Egypt, a principal entry point for aid. The U.S. military built a pier into Gaza's coast, but it has been plagued by high seas and other problems that have limited its use for delivering aid.

Tzav 9 claims it is stopping "gifts" from reaching Hamas, the militant group in Gaza whose attack on kibbutzim and a musical festival in southern Israel on Oct. 7 left nearly 1,200 Israelis and others dead and triggered the current war.

At times Israeli extremists have filmed themselves in the act of blocking trucks, destroying cargo and dumping aid in the road.

More than 37,000 Palestinians — including vast numbers of civilians — have been killed by Israel's air and land attacks in Gaza.

It is not clear what impact the new sanctions will have on the group. The U.S. measures bar members of the sanctioned group from financial transactions with American persons or entities, and may impede their travel to the U.S. Any assets they have in the U.S. are to be frozen.

The State Department also called out the Israeli government, noting it was Israel's "responsibility to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian convoys transiting Israel and the West Bank."

Friday's action comes in part in response to an urgent plea from Jordan, which has been supplying most of the targeted aid trucks.

Jordan has been able to dispatch up to 40 trucks a day to Gaza — a tiny fraction of what aid workers say is the bare necessity.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.