Netzah Yehuda: What is the Israeli army battalion and why could it face US sanctions?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Washington could stop arms transfers to the hardline unit

Israeli soldiers of the Ultra-Orthodox battalion "Netzah Yehuda" take part in their annual unit training in the Israeli annexed Golan Heights, near the Syrian border. AFP
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Israeli leaders are reacting angrily to reports that an Israeli army battalion could be sanctioned under US human rights legislation, after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a decision on the move would be made “soon”.

The unit in question is the Netzah Yehuda battalion, established in 1999 to accommodate ultra Orthodox Jews – many of whom resist Israel’s compulsory military service.

Critics of US policy regarding its military support to Israel – normally almost $4 billion per year and now boosted by $26 billion this year – say sanctions on the unit of 1,000 men would mostly be symbolic.

Who are the Netzah Yehuda battalion?

The unit is well-known to rights groups, and was identified by the US State Department – which evaluates abuses by military units of allied countries – as having allegedly murdered civilians.

The unit made headlines in 2022 when its members were accused of killing a 78-year-old dual US-Palestinian citizen, but rights organisations have flagged alleged abuses by the soldiers long before then.

Omar Assad was found dead on an abandoned building site having been detained by the unit. A Palestinian autopsy later found he had suffered a stress-induced heart attack, after being handcuffed, gagged, threatened and manhandled by the troops.

Detractors of the unit point to its composition, with many recruits belonging to the so-called Hilltop Youth, an extremist settler organisation with a history of attacking Palestinian shepherds and establishing illegal settlements.

Attempting to placate the US, Israel withdrew Netzah Yehuda from the West Bank in 2022 and moved it to the Golan Heights.

Benny Gantz, a minister in the Israeli war cabinet, spoke to Mr Blinken on Sunday 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. The US State Department clearly disputes this – at least for now – and could use existing legislation to halt support for the battalion.

What is the Leahy Amendment and will it be used against Israel?

The possible sanctioning of the unit is in line with US legislation introduced in 1997, known as the Leahy Law, named after human rights campaigner and Senator Patrick Leahy.

The law was enacted amid US military support for Columbia in its war against Marxist rebel group FARC, after several Colombian army and police units were accused by rights groups of severe human rights violations.

The US did not want to restrict arms supplies to its Columbian ally wholesale – as it did briefly to allies Pakistan and El Salvador in the 1960s and 1980s respectively – so the law emerged as a compromise to halt support to individual units. Since its passing, it’s been applied to security forces in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Mexico, but not Israel.

Updated: April 24, 2024, 10:53 AM