An Israeli battalion, which US media say Washington is likely to sanction over alleged rights violations against Palestinians, has a long history of transgressions and impunity, according to analysts and Israeli media.

The military’s Netzah Yehuda unit was founded in 1999 to encourage ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to enlist but has since accepted other religious recruits, including residents of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, where Netzah Yehuda was deployed until 2022.

Netzah Yehuda guarantees ultra-Orthodox recruits that they would serve in line with their practices, which include a strict kosher diet, total separation from women and allotted time for prayer and religious studies.

The unit has mainly attracted marginalized ultra-Orthodox youths “who see the army as a means of integrating into Israeli society and earning a living,” said David Khalfa of Jean-Jaures Foundation, a French think tank.

But it has also drawn “rather radical religious nationalists having strong hostility towards Arabs,” he told AFP. “Marked by a strong ideological and sociological leaning, the battalion has acquired a scandal-prone reputation.”

The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, is home to three million Palestinians alongside some 490,000 Israelis living in settlements considered illegal under international law.

‘Nationalist Ideology’

The January 2022 death of Palestinian-American Omar Assad, 78, at the hands of Netzah Yehuda soldiers in the West Bank drew attention to the unit. Later that year, the US State Department ordered embassy staff in Israel to investigate the case.

Handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded, Assad was left lying on the ground on his stomach for more than an hour in a freezing winter night.

Following Assad’s death, several Israeli media outlets published reports detailing incidents linked to the battalion that had gone largely unpunished, including beatings of Palestinians and attacks on Bedouin citizens of Israel.

The Jerusalem Post newspaper said that Netzah Yehuda troops effectively allowed settlers to attack Palestinians, while Haaretz, a left-leaning daily, denounced the “clear ideological connection between the residents of the settlements and the unauthorized outposts and the soldiers” in the unit.

According to Khalfa, “within the army there are lively debates” over Netzah Yehuda, with some military officials considering it “dangerous for the army to bring together so many young people sharing the same nationalist ideology.”

As the United States – Israel’s close ally and top provider of military assistance – probed Assad’s death, the battalion was transferred to the annexed Golan Heights.

But since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, Netzah Yehuda has been redeployed to the West Bank and sent into Gaza.

With AFP