What is the Israeli army's Netzah Yehuda battalion and what are they accused of?

What is the Israeli army's Netzah Yehuda battalion and what are they accused of?
The US said they were planning to sanction the unit over their treatment and torture of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
6 min read
22 April, 2024
The unit was formed in 1999 to allow ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to serve in the Israeli army [Getty]

After the killing of a elderly Palestinian-American in 2022, Israel’s Netzah Yehuda army unit is in the spotlight again as the US announced on Sunday that it had plans to sanction the army unit.

The sanctions would bar the battalion from receiving any form of US military training and assistance and mark the first time the US, which has historically provided near-unlimited political and military support to Israel, has penalised an Israeli army unit.

The sanctions are for Netzah Yehuda's abuse and torture of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, based on incidents that took place before Israel’s indiscriminate war on Gaza, which has killed over 34,000 Palestinians since October.

The US State Department reportedly began investigating the battalion in late 2022, after many of its soldiers were found to be involved in violent incidents against Palestinians. In 2022 alone, around 146 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank, the highest number in years.

Since the Gaza war broke out on October 7 2023, however, Israel has killed around 485 Palestinians in the occupied territory.

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One of the most prominent killings the group is responsible for is that of 78-year-old Palestinian-American Omar Assad in 2022.

Assad died of a cardiac arrest in January of that year after he was detained and left handcuffed and gagged in the freezing cold by soldiers form the battalion.

The attack on Assad garnered significant media attention, with the US State Department at the time asking for a "thorough criminal investigation".

After initially denying any connection between Assad's death and the actions of the battalion, Israel later removed two officers from their posts.

Here, The New Arab looks at the history and actions of the Netzah Yehuda battalion.

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What is Netzah Yehuda?

Netzah Yehuda, which translates to ‘eternal Judea’, was formed as a military unit in 1999 with the aim of encouraging ultra-orthodox Haredi men to enlist in the army.

The unit allows soldiers to serve without compromising their beliefs. Soldiers do not have to interact with female troops to the same extent as other servicemen and are allocated more time for religious study and prayer.

The battalion, which is sometimes referred to as the "Haredi battalion" however, also includes extremist settlers and is primarily deployed in the occupied West Bank.

In 2005, it became part of a newly formed counterterrorism unit called the Kfir Brigade, which the Israeli army describes as being at the “forefront of the war against Palestinian terrorism.”

Haaretz describes the battalion as “a kind of independent militia that doesn’t obey the army’s rules,” and states that some of its members live in unauthorised settlement outposts.

The unit has recently also been serving in Gaza.

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Violence and torture against Palestinians

There are many accounts of the brigade carrying out violent attacks against Palestinians.

Some notable examples include a brigade member shooting a seemingly unarmed Palestinian with live fire during a protest in Silwad, and soldiers torturing Palestinian detainees using electric shocks.

These are among many incidents, some captured on video, where the unit’s soldiers have been filmed abusing Palestinian detainees.

In 2018, troops from the brigade were involved in physical fights with Israeli border police, after the latter arrested settlers for throwing stones.

Later that year, soldiers from the unit arrested a father and son for allegedly aiding an attacker who killed two soldiers. The soldiers blindfolded and beat them, forcing the son to watch them assault his father.

According to DAWN, a non-profit NGO which aims to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, the battalion often uses physical and sexual assault, in violation of international humanitarian law.

One of the Palestinians killed by the group has been identified as 16-year-old Qassem Abbasi.

DAWN added that the battalion uses lethal force against unarmed civilians without justification, and in almost every case, soldiers were found to be lying or covering up the incidents to suggest they were acting in self-defence.


A 'significant step'

Michael Omer-Man, the director of research at DAWN told The New Arab that the US sanctions on Israel were noteworthy.

“It can seem absurd that it [the US] are putting sanctions on one unit in the West Bank while arming Israel and all of the horrible things happening in Gaza, but it is a step towards holding those units accountable as well,” he said.

“The Leahy sanctions are less about the crime that is committed and more about the impunity that surrounds it,” he said, explaining that if the government or army ensures the abuses do not continue, by prosecuting individuals for example, then the Leahy sanctions won’t apply and the International Court and the US won’t intervene.

The 1997 Leahy law prohibits the provision of military assistance to police or security units that commit gross violations of human rights.

Since the law was enacted the US has blocked aid to hundreds of units around the world accused of human rights violations.

“The key thing to understand here is that what the US government is saying to the Israelis is ‘we do not believe you and trust you to hold your own soldiers accountable or hold your own military accountable’ and that is a Pandora’s box,” Omer-Man explained.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of DAWN, also welcomed the sanctions, calling it an “important and historic step”.

“This sends a strong political message and is a very important crack in the wall of Israeli impunity,” she told The New Arab.

“The Israeli and US government will seek to undersell this sanction, which is an indication of how significant this is,” she said, adding that the cumulative impact of sanctions is important.

“Now we need to see reform of the enforcement of the Leahy law, which is difficult because there is no review of where US funding is allocated.”

Criticism against the battalion

The battalion has previously come under criticism by the US and a number of human rights organisations.

The 972 Magazine reported in 2022 that while the Israeli army does occasionally investigate itself, "the investigation will be at best perfunctory, and at worst so inadequate and slapdash as to actually display contempt".

According to Haaretz, officers and soldiers past and present who have served in the battalion, or are familiar with it, have for years said that it has "set its own moral and professional standards – and the top brass has turned a blind eye".

"We would go out on routine operations in the villages, and suddenly one of the guys would throw a stun grenade at a home or a passing car. It's usually just for laughs and because of stories they've heard about what battalion veterans have done," said a Netzah Yehuda soldier who left the army two years ago.