Israeli leaders criticize expected US sanctions against military unit that could further strain ties

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

The decision, expected as early as Monday, would mark the first time the US has ever imposed sanctions on a unit within the Israeli military and further strain relations between the two allies, which have been increasingly tense during Israel’s war in Gaza become.

While U.S. officials declined to identify the sanctioned unit, Israeli leaders and local media identified it as Netzah Yehuda — an infantry battalion created about a quarter-century ago to incorporate ultra-Orthodox men into the army. Many religious men are given exemptions from what would be a mandatory service.

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

“If anyone thinks he can impose sanctions on any unit in the IDF, I will fight it with all my might,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netzah Yehuda, or Judea Forever, has historically been based in the occupied West Bank and some of its members have been linked to abuses against Palestinians. It constitutes only a small part of Israel’s military presence in the area.

The unit came under heavy U.S. criticism in 2022 after an elderly Palestinian-American man was found dead shortly after being detained at a checkpoint in the West Bank.

A Palestinian autopsy revealed that 78-year-old Omar Assad had underlying health problems but had suffered a heart attack due to “external violence.”

It said doctors found bruising on his head, redness on his wrists from being tied up and bleeding in his eyelids from being tightly blindfolded. A military investigation shows that Israeli soldiers assumed Assad was asleep when they cut the cables holding his hands. They did not provide medical assistance when they saw him unresponsive and left the scene without checking to see if he was still alive.

Assad had lived in the US for forty years. After protests from the US government, the Israeli military said the incident was “a serious and unfortunate event, resulting from moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers.” It said one officer was reprimanded over the incident and two other officers were placed in non-command roles.

But the military refrained from pursuing criminal charges, saying military investigators could not directly link their actions to the U.S. citizen’s death.

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

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

Amid the tumult with the US, Israel moved Netzah Yehuda from the West Bank and assigned to northern Israel in late 2022. The battalion was moved to the southern border with Gaza after Hamas’ attack on October 7 sparked the ongoing war.

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

“The battalion conducts operations professionally and courageously in accordance with the IDF Code of Ethics and with full commitment to international law,” the report said. It said if the unit is sanctioned, “its consequences will be assessed.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday that he had made a decision on the review of allegations that several Israeli military units had violated the conditions for receiving US aid set out in the so-called Leahy Act, and that they would soon be made public to be made.

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

The officials said that about five Israeli units were under investigation and that all but one had taken action to correct the violations. The Leahy Act, named after former Senator Patrick Leahy, bans US aid from going to foreign military units that have committed human rights abuses.

A reservist in 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 TV that targeting the battalion would harm efforts to encourage religious men to enlist.

But Yesh Din, an Israeli legal advocacy group, said the case is not an isolated incident. It says one in five soldiers convicted of harming Palestinians or their property since 2010 comes 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 was not related to recent Israeli actions in Gaza or the West Bank – which has seen a dramatic spike in deadly violence since the outbreak of the Gaza war. The US has also recently imposed sanctions on violent settlers.

Gadi Shamni, a retired general who once served as an army commander in the West Bank, said a major problem with the unit is that it had traditionally been assigned exclusively to the West Bank. Violence between troops and Palestinians and between settlers and Palestinians has increased enormously in recent years. In contrast, he said other units regularly rotate in and out of the volatile area.

He said exposure to non-stop friction and violence had caused a degree of “fatigue” among the troops. Nevertheless, he said it was a stereotype to punish the entire unit and that it would have been better to target specific individuals or commanders.

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

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

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

But even the head of the opposition, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, rejected the proposal.

He said the sanctions “are a mistake and we must take action to lift them.” He noted that “the source of the problem is not at the military level, but at the political level.”


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem contributed to this report.