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


JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday harshly criticized an expected decision by the U.S. to impose sanctions on a unit of ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the Israeli military.

The decision, expected as soon as Monday, would mark the first time the U.S. has ever imposed sanctions on a unit inside the Israeli military and further strains relations between the two allies, which have grown increasingly tense during Israel’s war in Gaza.

While U.S. officials declined to identify the sanctioned unit, Israeli leaders and local media identified it as Netzah Yehuda — an infantry battalion founded roughly a quarter of a century ago to incorporate ultra-Orthodox men into the military. Many religious men receive exemptions from what is supposed to be compulsory 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 they can impose sanctions on a unit in the IDF, I will fight it with all my might,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netzah Yehuda, or Judea Forever, makes up just a small part of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank.

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

A Palestinian autopsy said Omar Assad, 78, had underlying health conditions, but had suffered a heart attack caused by “external violence.”

But the army decided against criminal prosecution, saying military investigators could not directly link their actions to the death of the U.S. citizen.

Investigators said soldiers were forced to restrain Assad because of his “aggressive resistance.”

Amid the uproar with the U.S., Israel moved Netzah Yehuda out of the West Bank in late 2022 and reassigned it to northern Israel. The battalion was moved to the southern border with Gaza after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack triggered the ongoing war.

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

“The battalion is professionally and bravely conducting operations in accordance to the IDF Code of Ethics and with full commitment to international law,” it said. It said that if the unit is sanctioned, “its consequences will be reviewed.”

A reservist in the Netzah Yehuda unit, Sgt. Maj. Nadav Nissim Miranda, said the Assad death was “an unfortunate incident” but also an aberration. He told Channel 12 TV that targeting the battalion would hurt efforts to encourage religious men to enlist.

The U.S. review was launched before the Hamas war and not connected to recent Israeli actions inside Gaza or the West Bank.