Human rights group wants U.S. to sanction notorious Israeli battalion with Leahy Law

A Netzah Yehuda battalion training (WikiMedia)

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  December 3, 2022

The human rights group DAWN is calling for Leahy Law sanctions to be placed on the Israel’s Netzah Yehuda Battalion

A human rights group is calling for the U.S. State Department to cut off funding to an infamous Israeli battalion by implementing the Leahy Law.

This week Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) made the demand and released a report on human rights abuses and war crimes committed by the Israeli Army’s Netzah Yehuda Battalion, a special unit for ultra-Orthodox Jewish soldiers.

“The very least the US can do is to impose Leahy Law sanctions for the murder of an American against a repeat offender Israeli unit that has been killing and abusing Palestinians with impunity for years,” said DAWN’s Israel-Palestine Advocacy Director Adam Shapiro in a statement. “While Netzah Yehuda might not be the worst abuser in the Israeli Army, its actions have been well-documented by Israeli and international media, offering a unique insight into the absolute unwillingness by Israeli governments to hold its soldiers accountable for violating international law and the Israeli army’s own rules of engagement.”

DAWN also submitted a file on the battalion to the International Criminal Court (ICC). “The ICC has a historically important opportunity to impose real accountability on systematic and widespread Israeli crimes against Palestinians, and in so doing, demonstrate to the world that the court can and does take on cases regardless of political pressure,” said Shapiro. “This submission along with mountains of evidence of Israeli war crimes submitted to the court should make it pretty easy for the court to do its job, and pretty hard to evade justice.”

Last month the unit completed its employment in Gush Talmonim and began training in the Jordan Valley. The battalion kicked off the training by parading through the West Bank. “The march was accompanied by songs and dances and high spirits,” reported the Jerusalem Post. “During the journey, dozens of residents and citizens were seen cheering on the Haredi soldiers, some of whom even joined in the singing and dancing.”

Killing of Omar Assad

On January 12, 2022, Netzah Yehuda soldiers detained 78-year-old Palestinian-American Omar Abdulmajeed Assad outside a checkpoint in the village of Jiljiliya.

Assad, who lived in the United States for forty years, was driving home after a family gathering. Witnesses say the soldiers pulled him out of his car during a raid, dragged him across the ground for over , handcuffed him, gagged him, and forced him to lie down on his stomach. After the raid Palestinians found Assad unconscious and he was pronounced dead upon reaching a hospital.

Assad’s family told the media that he had a preexisting heart condition, diabetes, and hypertension. The Palestinian Ministry of Health put out a statement saying he had died from a heart attack “caused most likely from the beating and aggravated by the long detention and then abandoning him handcuffed for several hours in a building…on a very cold night.”

medical examination confirmed that Assad did suffer a fatal heart attack and noted that it was probably caused by the stress of being blindfolded. While investigating Assad’s death DAWN discovered that (thanks to a 2019 lawsuit) the Israeli army is not permitted to blindfold people while detaining them. Soldiers were supposedly retrained on detention protocol once the rule was implemented.

Assad is not the only Palestinian to be killed by Netzah Yehuda in recent years. In 2016 they shot Iyad Zakaria Muhammad Hamed, a 36-year-old father of two, in Silwad. At first the military said that Hamed had fired at them first and then claimed that he had thrown a molotov cocktail towards them. Ultimately their story was that he had run towards them despite multiple warnings.

An investigation by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem found that Hamed was unarmed and posed no threat to anyone.

“I saw a soldier coming out from among some trees in one of the orchards to the north of where I was. He made a hand gesture to his friends in the tower,” a witness told B’Tselem field-researcher Iyad Hadad. “I got to the entrance to the road that connects the entrance to the village with the tower, opposite where the soldier was standing. Iyad Hamed was to my left. I heard another shot and saw that it had hit Iyad in the back. I saw something come out of his chest. At the same time, I saw three soldiers come out from the area around the tower.”

“There were lots of soldiers, Border Police officers, and Israeli DCO vehicles there,” an ambulance driver who arrived at the scene told the group. “As I approached, I sounded my horn from a distance of about 100 meters. I was surprised to see a soldier or Border Police officer who was lying on the ground and another Border Police officer pointing their weapons at us. They used hand gestures to order us to retreat. I retreated and stopped off to the side, about 100 meters away. The victim was already in a black bag, next to the concrete blocks the military uses to close off the road.”

In 2018 the battalion killed 17-year-old Qassem al-Abbasi outside of Ramallah. The army said that the car he was in drove through a military roadblock and ignored repeated warnings, but his family denied the claims.

“When we were driving to Nablus, we encountered police officers blocking the road. They told us we cannot drive to Nablus from here and we need to turn around and go through the road near Beit El,” Qassem’s cousin Mohammad, who was driving the car told The Times of Israel, “When we reached the Beit El [traffic] circle, we made a right turn and realized we were not going the right way,” said Mohammad. “We began to make our way back to the road we came from and settlers started shooting at us, breaking one of our windows. We kept driving, but then stopped shortly afterwards when the army came.”

The next day the army reversed its claim that the car had driven through a roadblock.

In addition to the killings the DAWN report documents examples of physical assault, sexual abuse, and arbitrary detention carried out by the battalion.

The Leahy Law

The Leahy Law, which is named after its sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), was designed to prohibit the U.S. State and Defense Departments from providing military aid to foreign groups that commit human rights abuses. It also requires that “the government of such country is taking effective steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.”

After Assad’s death the Israeli military disciplined a senior officer and withdrew two others from their leadership roles. They even launched their own probe into the matter, amid pressure from U.S. congress members, and admitted that his death was the result of a “moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers. However, the soldiers have yet to face any penalties. Last month the Israeli military finally moved toward indicting two of the officers for misconduct, but Israeli soldiers very rarely face consequences in these scenarios. According to B’Tselem there were 200 criminal probes into the shootings of Palestinians between 2011-2019, but only two convictions.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the Biden administration was “deeply concerned” about the circumstances surrounding Assad’s death. “The United States expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case, and we welcome receiving additional information on these efforts as soon as possible,” said Price. We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government.”

Biden has consistently rejected calls to condition military aid to Israel. “The idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel, on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find it to be absolutely outrageous,” he told reporters on the campaign trail in 2019. “No, I wouldn’t condition it and I think it’s a gigantic mistake.”

Israel currently receives over $3.8 billion in military assistance from the United States government every year.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss