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Israeli leaders criticize expected US sanctions against military unit

By Josef Federman | Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders harshly criticized Sunday the expected US decision to impose sanctions on a unit of ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the Israeli army.

The move, expected as early as Monday, would mark the first time the United States has imposed sanctions on an Israeli army unit and would further strain relations between the two allies, which have become increasingly tense for the Israeli war in Gaza.

While U.S. officials declined to identify the unit expected to be sanctioned, Israeli leaders and local media identified it as Netzah Yehuda — an infantry battalion founded about a quarter-century ago to incorporate ultra-Orthodox men in the army. Many religious men receive exemptions from what is supposed to be obligatory service.

Israeli leaders condemned the expected decision as unfair, especially at a time when Israel is at war, and vowed to oppose it.

“If anyone thinks they can impose sanctions on an IDF unit, I will fight them with all my strength,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netzah Yehuda, or Judea Forever, is historically based in the occupied West Bank and some of its members have been associated with abuses against Palestinians. This represents only a small part of the Israeli military presence in the territory.

The unit came under heavy US criticism in 2022 after an elderly Palestinian-American man was found dead shortly after his arrest at a West Bank checkpoint.

A Palestinian autopsy found that Omar Assad, 78, suffered from underlying health conditions but suffered a heart attack caused by “external violence.”

It says doctors found bruises on his head, redness on his wrists from being tied up and bleeding in his eyelids from being blindfolded. A military investigation found that Israeli soldiers assumed Assad was sleeping when they cut the cables tying his hands. They did not offer medical help when they noticed he was unresponsive and left the scene without checking to see if he was alive.

Assad had lived in the United States for four decades. After an outcry from the U.S. government, the Israeli military said the incident “was a serious and unfortunate event, resulting from a moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers.” It says one officer was reprimanded and two other officers reassigned to non-command roles following the incident.

But the military decided not to pursue criminal charges, saying military investigators could not directly connect their actions to the U.S. citizen’s death.

Human rights groups have long said that Israel rarely holds soldiers responsible for the deaths of Palestinians.

Investigators said soldiers were forced to subdue Assad because of his “aggressive resistance.” Assad’s family has expressed skepticism that the behavior of a sick 78-year-old man could justify such harsh treatment.

Amid tumult with the United States, Israel moved Netzah Yehuda out of the West Bank in late 2022 and reassigned him to northern Israel. The battalion was moved to the southern border with Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attack sparked the ongoing war.

In a statement Sunday, the army said its Netzah Yehuda soldiers are “currently participating in the war effort in the Gaza Strip.”

“The battalion conducts operations with professionalism and courage, in accordance with the IDF code of ethics and with full commitment to international law,” he said. He said that if the unit was sanctioned, “its consequences would be reviewed.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that he has made a decision to examine allegations that several Israeli military units violated the conditions for receiving U.S. aid set out in the so-called Leahy Act and that they will be soon to be made public.

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said in a statement that he spoke with Blinken on Sunday evening and told him that the expected decision was a “mistake” because it would harm Israel’s international legitimacy by times of war and because the Israeli judicial system is “strong and independent.”

Two U.S. officials familiar with the situation said the U.S. announcement could come as early as Monday.

Officials said about five Israeli units were investigated and all but one took steps to address the violations. The Leahy Act, named after former Senator Patrick Leahy, prohibits U.S. aid from going to foreign military units that have committed human rights abuses.

A reservist from the Netzah Yehuda unit, Sgt. Major Nadav Nissim Miranda said Assad’s death was “an unfortunate incident” but also an aberration. He told Channel 12 television that targeting the battalion would harm efforts to encourage religious men to enlist.

But Yesh Din, an Israeli legal rights group, said the case was not isolated. It says one in five soldiers convicted of harming Palestinians or their property since 2010 has come from Netzah Yehuda, making it the unit with the highest conviction rate for such cases.

The US review was launched before the Hamas war and is not linked to recent Israeli actions in Gaza or the West Bank – which have seen a dramatic increase in deadly violence since the start of the Gaza war. The United States has also recently imposed sanctions against violent settlers.

Gadi Shamni, a retired general who once served as a military commander in the West Bank, said the unit’s main problem was that it was traditionally assigned exclusively to the West Bank. Violence between troops and Palestinians and between settlers and Palestinians has increased in recent years. In contrast, he said other units regularly rotate in and out of the volatile zone.

He said exposure to incessant friction and violence had caused a level of “fatigue” among the troops. Still, he said punishing the entire unit was a stereotype and it would have been better to target specific individuals or commanders.

But Ori Givati, advocacy director of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group of former combat soldiers critical of the Israeli occupation, said the problems run much deeper than any particular unit.

He said soldiers’ abuse of power against Palestinians is systematic and the lack of repercussions for wrongdoing fuels incidents like Assad’s death.

Israeli hardliners blasted the expected US decision. Israel’s ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said the United States had crossed a “red line,” and Tally Gotliv, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, accused the United States of anti-Semitism.

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