US donors fund killers of Palestinian American grandfather

Netzah Yehuda Association CEO Yossi Levi, left, posted this photo of himself with Israeli Defense minister Benny Gantz in September (Twitter)

Michael F. Brown

The Electronic Intifada  /  December 15, 2022

The Israeli army’s Netzah Yehuda battalion has “a track record of gross human rights abuses and war crimes, including extrajudicial killing, torture and physical abuse.”

That’s according to a new report from DAWN, a US-based human rights organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

While the Israeli military as a whole is notorious for its crimes against Palestinians, Netzah Yehuda is attracting particular scrutiny.

Sometimes referred to as Nahal Haredi, Netzah Yehuda’s members are drawn from the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, particularly illegal West Bank Jewish settlements.

In what appears to be an effort to deflect attention from Netzah Yehuda, Israel is now moving the battalion out of the occupied West Bank. This follows its soldiers’ killing in January of Omar Assad, a Palestinian American great-grandfather.

The move had been underway for several weeks when Israel announced it officially on 29 November, the same day DAWN released its damning report.

By the end of 2022, soldiers with the battalion will relocate to the occupied Golan Heights, a move expected to last for approximately one year.

Attention from Washington

American pressure – however gentle – likely influenced the decision following Assad’s death.

DAWN urges the State Department to subject the battalion to “the Leahy Law vetting process and add it to the list of military units ineligible to receive US military assistance.” This would be an unprecedented move by the US against an Israeli military unit.

Named for Senator Patrick Leahy, the law prohibits the US government from funding units of a foreign country’s forces “where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.”

Although Netzah Yehuda has just 500 soldiers, the battalion has the highest conviction rate of any Israeli military unit for offenses against Palestinians, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.

That is in a context where only a tiny handful of soldiers accused of crimes against Palestinians are ever indicted or tried in what human rights defenders describe as a sham military justice system.

Nevertheless, 17 of the 83 soldiers convicted by Israeli military courts of various offenses against Palestinians since 2010 came from Netzah Yehuda.

The harrowing death of US citizen Omar Assad after he was stopped by Netzah Yehuda soldiers while on his way back to his house after a night visiting relatives in the West Bank village of Jiljilya meets the standard for applying Leahy Law sanctions, DAWN argues.

His case is just one among a pattern of abuses by Netzah Yehuda between 2015 and 2022, according to DAWN.

The group is also urging the International Criminal Court to “investigate the battalion and its commanders for their commission of war crimes as part of its ongoing investigation into the situation in Palestine.”

DAWN notes that “perpetrators were given minimal punishment or reprimand, while commanders escaped any command responsibility.”

In the case of Assad and two other extrajudicial killings, “the Israeli military did not impose any punitive consequences on any soldiers or commanders and instead promoted the commander at the time of [Assad’s] killing, Lt. Col. Mati Shevach, to the position of deputy commander of the Kfir Brigade.”

The battalion commander did receive a reprimand and the platoon commander and company commander were removed from their positions and barred from command roles for two years.

The notion that this constitutes anything close to justice would be impossible to stomach for Assad’s wife Nazmieh, the couple’s seven US-born adult children, 17 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and their communities in Palestine and the United States.

Even though the US government has ignored the Assad family’s calls for a US investigation of Omar’s killing, Washington does seem to be leaning on Israeli officials slightly more than usual.

But Yossi Levi, CEO of the Netzah Yehuda Association – a charity that raises money for the battalion – claimed the timing of the move out of the West Bank was unrelated to recent developments and had been decided more than two years earlier.

Adam Shapiro, advocacy director for Israel-Palestine at DAWN, however, pushed back against Levi’s tweet, telling The Electronic Intifada that recent developments “suggest this is not coincidence.”

He cited Israel’s offer of compensation to the Assad family in October – which the family rejected – as well as the Israeli military’s announcement last month that it was considering charges against two soldiers in connection with Assad’s death – though those charges reportedly would not include manslaughter.

“While we cannot prove causality, the fact is that the State Department and embassy are asking questions in relation to Leahy Law vetting,” DAWN’s Shapiro said. “That has sent a message to the Israelis and the subsequent action should be seen as evidence that even cursory action by the US can indeed generate some behavior change by Israel.”

“The sad lesson is that the US usually doesn’t effectively use the tools it has,” Shapiro added.

‘An independent militia’

The signs of subtle pressure from Washington include that US embassy officials have been compiling information about alleged abuses by Netzah Yehuda.

The embassy, however, has not responded to The Electronic Intifada’s requests for comment about its investigation.

But the fact that the State Department made the unusual request to the embassy in September to compile a report is clearly meant as a signal to Israel of Washington’s displeasure.

According to the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, Netzah Yehuda “has become a kind of an independent militia that doesn’t obey the army’s rules.”

The newspaper, which has documented numerous abuses by the battalion, quoted an Israeli military official saying, “We very quickly realized that dissolving Netzah Yehuda would be a declaration of war for the settler leadership.”

“Their view on the ground is that this battalion belongs to them, that it’s a force that works for the settlement enterprise,” the military official added.

Of course that is true of all Israeli military units, but Israel likes to maintain the pretense that the army is in the West Bank for the purpose of “security” and “order,” not to help the settlers perpetrate outright land theft.

Raising ‘charitable’ funds in the US

The US embassy also did not respond as to whether it would seek information about the role of Friends of Nahal Haredi, a US-registered tax-exempt organization that collects charitable contributions to benefit the battalion.

The organization is variously listed as operating out of Teaneck, New Jersey and Airmont, New York. Canadians are advised to donate via the Toronto-based Ne’eman Foundation.

Yossi Levi’s Netzah Yehuda Association invites supporters to make financial contributions via the Friends of Nahal Haredi website. This is a common arrangement that allows US-based donors to make tax-deductible contributions that benefit a foreign organization.

The Netzah Yehuda Association states that it supports unit members, “accompanying them throughout all stages of service: from enlistment, through active duty, to transitioning back to civilian life.”

Notably, Levi has warmly praised Bezalel Smotrich, a segregationist and promoter of ethnic cleansing, for helping the Netzah Yehuda Association.

Smotrich is being given a senior role in Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming government and will effectively rule over Palestinians in the West Bank.

Smotrich’s hatred and incitement against Palestinians is so extreme that even Britain’s major Israel lobby groups felt the need to shun and condemn him when he visited the UK earlier this year.

Several other Israeli military units also receive support from the Netzah Yehuda Association.

‘Material support’ for war crimes

Friends of Nahal Haredi suggests a donation of $25 to buy personal care items such as a toothbrush and underwear for a soldier, and accompanies that request with an image of soldiers aiming their weapons.

Donors willing to give significantly larger amounts are told they can pay for the housing costs of two soldiers, “including quality beds, a private closet for each soldier, full equipment for the apartment, food every week.”

While there’s no mention that donations are used to buy weapons, donors would be directly supporting soldiers as they participate in a military occupation that deprives millions of Palestinians of their basic rights and sometimes their lives.

That hardly meets the “charitable” purpose that tax-exempt organizations are required to serve under US law.

Over the last decade, Friends of Nahal Haredi’s annual revenues have ranged from about $350,000 to over $1 million according to its public filings.

But the US-based organization does not openly declare on its tax forms that it is supporting soldiers who are members of an active military unit in an occupied territory.

On multiple filings it states rather more vaguely that the money it collects is primarily for “distribution to nonprofit organizations involved in rehabilitating young adults to receive an education, join the workforce, reunite them with their families and become productive citizens.”

As recently as last year, members of Congress called on the US Treasury to investigate the use of tax-exempt charitable funds raised by US-based organizations that finance Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

The lawmakers wrote that they were “seriously concerned” that allowing such organizations to fund illegal activities on occupied Palestinian territory “is in violation of the United States government’s international law obligations to not explicitly or implicitly recognize violations of international humanitarian law or peremptory norms.”

Exactly the same argument could be made about a US-based charity sending “material support” to an Israeli military unit engaged in human rights crimes in those same territories.

Friends of the IDF

Friends of Nahal Haredi is not the only US-based tax-exempt organization to spend tax-exempt charitable donations on Netzah Yehuda.

A Friends of the IDF event in August 2021 raised over $2 million for the battalion. The event was co-chaired by Friends of Nahal Haredi board member David Hager.

Hager works alongside Adam Milstein as a managing partner at Hager Pacific Properties.

prominent player in pro-Israel advocacy, Milstein is a major donor to anti-Palestinian organizations, including – it has been reported by Al Jazeera – Canary Mission, a website that targets the reputations of US supporters of Palestinian rights in an effort to deter people from criticizing Israel.

Milstein attended a 2018 Friends of the IDF event that raised $1.4 million for Nahal Haredi and apparently personally contributed as well.

The Milstein Family Foundation has also supported Nahal Haredi.

Both David Hager and Adam Milstein have served prison time for tax evasion.

Both pleaded guilty to participating in an undertaking where they fraudulently claimed tax deductions for “charitable donations” to Orthodox Jewish groups in New York. In fact, 90 percent of those “donations” were given back to Hager and Milstein in the form of kickbacks.

Notably, before Hager was sentenced in 2009, sitting Israeli government ministers, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, a serving Israeli general, an Israeli soldier, and the chief rabbi of Israel all wrote to the federal judge in Los Angeles urging leniency. Ironically, so too did residents of illegal West Bank settlements.

As for Milstein, the Israeli consul-general in Los Angeles was among those who appealed for leniency on his behalf.

Praise for violence against Palestinians

On the fateful night of 12 January, Omar Assad was stopped by Netzah Yehuda soldiers while driving home in Jiljilya. The available evidence indicates he was bound by his hands, blindfolded and marched to a cold construction site where he was eventually left lying incapacitated on the ground.

Other Palestinians who were also being detained at the site called for help after the soldiers left, but it was too late. Omar Assad was dead.

A day earlier, Netzah Yehuda Association CEO Yossi Levi tweeted out a selfie of himself in military uniform as soldiers behind him aimed their assault rifles during an apparent training exercise. The accompanying caption in Hebrew reads: “Ready for battle!”

It is unclear whether any of the soldiers pictured were involved in the killing of Assad or whether they were even from the Netzah Yehuda battalion.

Levi posted the same photo to Facebook, identifying the soldiers as “reserve forces.”

Following Assad’s death, Levi has continued to post photos of soldiers brandishing weapons in Palestinian communities.

In October, Levi promoted an Israeli soldier as a possible “hero” after he exited his car in the West Bank Palestinian village of Huwwara and began firing an assault weapon indiscriminately after a rock was allegedly thrown towards his vehicle.

Levi has also blamed Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, killed in May by an Israeli sniper, for her own death and suggested her press work endangered the lives of Israeli soldiers who were invading the West Bank city of Jenin.

None of this is surprising given Levi’s response just six days after Omar Assad’s deadly encounter with the battalion.

“Cardiac arrest is murder?!” Levi tweeted dismissively.

Levi’s callous reaction is in tune with how Netzah Yehuda battalion members treated Assad with both brutality and indifference.

According to eyewitness accounts, when the soldiers discovered that Assad was unresponsive and possibly dead, they simply fled the scene, instead of providing first aid and calling for an ambulance.

Levi shares the violent, racist anti-Palestinian attitudes that are widespread among Israelis, including incoming ministers like Kahanist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir – the political partner of Bezalel Smotrich.

He has, for instance, expressed openness to stripping citizenship from Palestinian citizens of Israel, labeling them collectively potential “enemies” of the state.

Lapid slaps the US

No one should be under the illusion however that support for the Israeli army’s violence against Palestinians is restricted to extremists like Levi.

After Israel’s killing in May of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, the Biden administration urged Israel to review its rules of engagement – a minimal demand undoubtedly designed to deflect from calls for real accountability.

But Israel’s allegedly centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid – now on his way out – would have none of it. “No one will dictate open-fire regulations to us when we are fighting for our lives,” Lapid shot back.

Lapid added that he would “not allow them to put an IDF soldier on trial who defended himself against fire from terrorists, just to receive a round of applause from the world.”

Yossi Levi was of course delighted with what he termed Lapid’s “very significant statement.”

Despite the Biden administration’s complicity in Israel’s attempted cover-up of Abu Akleh’s killing and lack of action to bring justice for the family of Omar Assad, there is a surprising amount of domestic pressure, including from Democrats in the House and Senate, for this to change.

Leading Democrats are of course still pushing to ensure that a minimum $3.8 billion in annual US “security aid” continues to flow to Israel, notwithstanding the even more open racism of Israel’s incoming government.

Justice and accountability for Palestinian victims of the US-backed Israeli army may still be a long way off, but the scrutiny Netzah Yehuda is receiving offers a little hope that Israel can no longer take for granted that its lies and excuses for wanton crimes will continue to be accepted at face value.

Michael F. Brown is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada