By Carlo Aldrovandi, Trinity College Dublin | –

The US and Israel have been involved in intense discussions recently about whether Washington will sanction a unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after reports of a string of human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank before the Gaza conflict began in October.

Netzah Yehuda is an ultra-Orthodox division of the IDF that was established as a way of encouraging Haredi Jews, currently exempted from military service, into the Israeli armed forces. It was reported on April 20 that the Biden administration was considering sanctioning the unit under the “Leahy Law”. This 1997 law prohibits the US government from providing funds to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in “gross violations of human rights”.

But following a series of exchanges between the US and Israeli government, US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said: “The Israeli government has presented new information regarding the status of the unit and we will engage on identifying a path to effective remediation for this unit.”

The Netzah Yehuda battalion has been mired in misconduct controversies since long before the outbreak of the current hostilities with Hamas. But one incident from 2022 has particularly rankled with Washington as it involved a Palestinian-American former resident of Milwaukee. Omar Assad, 80, died after being forcibly detained and left outside overnight on a construction site near a makeshift IDF checkpoint in his West Bank hometown of Jiljilya.

Assad, who is reported to have been gagged and bound when detained, was allegedly unresponsive when left by the IDF soldiers. He was found dead the following morning. A subsequent Palestinian autopsy found that Assad, who had a history of heart problems, had suffered cardiac arrest caused by stress.

The IDF conducted an investigation and discharged two junior officers from the unit, but no legal action was taken. This is just one episode in a list of human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by members of Netzah Yehuda on Palestinian civilians that have come under investigation by the US government.

Ultra-Orthodox unit

Netzah Yehuda, formerly Nahal Haredi was created in 1999 as an all-male combat unit with the specific goal of enlisting young Jews who had dropped out of ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious schools. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, fixed-term military service has been compulsory for all Jewish Israelis. But the ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi – community has been traditionally exempted from conscription.

Al Jazeera English Video: “What is Israel’s Netzah Yehuda battalion? | Al Jazeera Newsfeed”

Netzah Yehuda aims to integrate young Haredim within the ranks of the IDF. By enlisting in this unit they are able to adhere to their strict religious beliefs, one of which involves avoiding interaction with women – who are also required to serve in the military. Netzah Yehuda’s recruits come largely from underprivileged, impoverished and marginalised backgrounds.

A significant group among the Netzah Yehuda are the so-called “hilltop youth”. These are second-generation settlers who were born and raised in the illegal outposts scattered across the occupied Palestinian territories. They consider Judea and Samaria on the West Bank their home, rather than Israel proper.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon oversaw the exit of Israeli forces from Gaza in July 2005. This was accompanied by the dismantling of Israeli settlers’ communities living in the strip. Since then the number of settlers living illegally on the West Bank has risen to more than 700,000. Hilltop youth have been implicated in numerous reports of violence and aggression against Palestinians there.

One notorious aspect of this has become known as the “price-tag policy”. Also called arvut hadadit (or “mutual responsibility”), it is designed to deter the Israeli government from curbing settlement expansion or forcing settlers to leave their unauthorised outposts in the occupied territories. Young and ideologically motivated settlers exact a “price” for what they consider to be a betrayal by attacking Palestinians and vandalising their homes or holy sites.

The shared ideology and experience of alienation from broader Israeli society tends to foster cohesion within Netzah Yehuda combat unit. This, in turn, leads to the soldiers seeing themselves as separate from the broader IDF ethos.

Netzah Yehuda’s motto is: v’haya machanecha kadosh (and your camp shall be holy). This is a quotation from the Torah, which is taken literally by battalion soldiers to mean – as one commander told the Hebrew Maariv newspaper in 2017 – that they are on a “holy mission”. This contributes to a culture that encourages unrestrained violence against non-Jewish populations in the West Bank.

Targeted sanctions

US sanctions would mean a ban on transferring US weapons or giving military assistance to Netzah Yehuda specifically. It would not necessarily contradict the US president’s often-stated “ironclad commitment” to Israeli security. The announcement that the White House was considering the move came a day after the US Congress approved US$26 billion (£21 billion) in military aid for Israel.

Sanctions would nonetheless send a strong signal to Israel and to the rest of the world. It would be the first time Washington sanctioned the IDF on grounds of non-compliance with international humanitarian law. Despite claiming to be “the most moral army in world”, the IDF has been unwilling to dismantle a battalion which appears to act as an independent militia with scant accountability to central command.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and members of his government reacted angrily to news that the US was considering sanctions against a unit of the IDF. “If anyone thinks they can impose sanctions on a unit of the IDF – I will fight it with all my strength,” Netanyahu said.

National security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, a member of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, said “sanctions on our soldiers is a red line”. His colleague, finance minister Bezalel Smotrich – who represents the far-right Religious Zionist Party, said to impose sanctions on a unit of the IDF “while Israel is fighting for its existence is complete madness”.

The IDF claims Netzah Yehuda “operates in accordance to the IDF Code of Ethics and with full commitment to international law,” and that the IDF “remains committed to continue to examine exceptional incidents professionally and according to law”.The Conversation

Carlo Aldrovandi, Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.