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Why is the US looking to sanction Israel’s Netzah Yehuda battalion?

April 22, 2024 at 2:43 pm

Israeli soldiers of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox battalion “Netzah Yehuda” hold morning prayers as they take part in their annual unit training in the Israeli annexed Golan Heights, near the Syrian border on May 19, 2014. [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images]

Israeli leaders said they will fight against sanctions being imposed on any Israeli military units for alleged human rights abuses after media reports said Washington was planning its first sanctions against the country’s defence forces.

The United States will impose sanctions on Israel’s Netzah Yehuda battalion over its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Israeli media reported.

What are Netzah Yehuda soldiers accused of?

The Netzah Yehuda battalion was set up in 1999 to accommodate the religious beliefs of ultra-Orthodox Jews and other religious nationalist recruits in the army.

The government created the battalion as a pathway for these groups to serve in the military by allowing them to maintain their religious practices, such as giving them time for prayers and study and limiting their interactions with female soldiers.

The United States called for a criminal investigation after Netzah Yehuda soldiers were accused of being involved in the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian-American, Omar Assad, who died of a heart attack in 2022 after he was detained and was later found abandoned at a building site.

A Palestinian autopsy found Assad died from a stress-induced heart attack brought on by being manhandled.

The case attracted unusual attention because of his dual nationality, his age and a demand by the US State Department for an investigation into his death.

The Israeli military said soldiers temporarily gagged him with a strip of cloth and cuffed his hands with a zip tie because of his refusal to cooperate.

Netzah Yehuda’s battalion commander was reprimanded and two officers were dismissed but Israeli military prosecutors decided against pursuing criminal charges because they said there was no link between the errors made by soldiers and Assad’s death.

The Military Advocate General said a military medical official found it impossible to determine that his death was caused specifically by the soldiers’ conduct, and that the soldiers could not have been aware of his medical condition.

There have been several other incidents in recent years, some captured on video, in which Netzah Yehuda soldiers were accused of, or charged with, abusing Palestinian detainees.

The battalion primarily operated in the West Bank before it was moved out of the territory in late 2022 after US criticism. The unit has recently been serving in Gaza.

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What would sanctions mean?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said he has made “determinations” regarding accusations that Israel violated a set of US laws that prohibit providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights.

The Leahy Laws, authored by then-Senator Patrick Leahy in the late 1990s, prohibit providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights and have not been brought to justice.

Blinken said an announcement could be made “very soon”.

Israeli leaders reacted angrily to reports of the sanctions.

Netanyahu yesterday called the possibility of sanctions on the unit “the peak of absurdity and a moral low” at a time when Israeli forces are fighting a war in Gaza against Hamas. He said that his government would “act by all means” against any move.

Benny Gantz, a minister in the country’s war cabinet, spoke to Blinken yesterday and requested that he “reconsider the prospective decision”.

The Israeli military said the Netzah Yehuda battalion is an active combat unit that operates according to the principles of international law.

Israeli soldiers very seldom face prosecution and conviction for crimes committed against Palestinians. In cases where a soldier is found guilty of misconduct or criminal offences, the sentence meted out is far more lenient than a Palestinian child would receive for throwing stones at occupation forces in the West Bank. In many cases officials intervene and more their prison terms are shortened.

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