Just over a year ago, soldiers belonging to a controversial, ultra-Orthodox unit of the Israel Defense Forces stopped a 78-year-old Palestinian American man on his way home from visiting a relative in the occupied West Bank. When the man refused to cooperate with an identification check — insisting on his right to go home — soldiers forced him out of his car, blindfolded him, and zip-tied his hands behind his back. They then dragged him to a nearby yard, where they left him lying face down on the ground, according to witnesses.
Omar Assad had already stopped breathing when the soldiers left him, a man detained alongside him told reporters. When a doctor finally arrived, he found that Assad had been dead “for 15 or 20 minutes.” An autopsy found that he had suffered a fatal, stress-induced heart attack.
The brutal death of Assad, a U.S. citizen who had retired to his home village near the Palestinian city of Ramallah after four decades in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sparked widespread outrage. B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group, denounced the soldiers’ “utter indifference” in failing to provide first aid or call an ambulance; the U.S. State Department called Assad’s death “troubling.” Following an internal review, the IDF itself acknowledged that “the incident showed a clear lapse of moral judgment.”
Israel recently moved the unit involved in Assad’s death out of the occupied West Bank. But the soldiers’ treatment of Assad was not unusual. While hardly the only ones accused of human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, members of the Netzah Yehuda unit often committed gratuitous acts of violence, a former member of the unit told The Intercept in his first interview with an international news organization.
The Netzah Yehuda battalion was originally set up to allow ultra-Orthodox Israelis to serve in the military. But over the years, the unit has attracted not only some of the most religious soldiers, but also a growing number of far-right extremists, including many settlers. Unlike other units, enlistment in Netzah Yehuda is voluntary; until recently, it was deployed exclusively in the West Bank, where its members were in daily contact with Palestinians living under occupation. As such, the unit — whose name is an acronym for “Haredi Military Youth” — was known for getting “a lot of action,” the former member said.
The ex-Netzah Yehuda soldier asked not to be identified because of the enormous social cost associated with publicly criticizing Israel’s military. Since leaving the unit, he has come to reject the occupation and his own role in it. Netzah Yehuda has long been criticized in Israel — some senior political and military figures have even called for the unit to be disbanded — but testimonies from former members are rare. While The Intercept could not independently verify some of the incidents the former soldier described, he also spoke to Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans who gather testimony from soldiers in the occupied territories.
The IDF did not answer a detailed list of questions for this story nor address the former soldier’s allegations on the record. But in a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson wrote that the Netzah Yehuda unit was moved from the West Bank to the Golan Heights “to diversify the IDF’s area of operation and accumulate operational experience.”
The spokesperson also referred The Intercept to an earlier statement in which the IDF wrote that it is “considering filing indictments” against the soldiers involved in Assad’s death. “As part of the investigation, anomalies were found in the conduct of the commander of the checkup force and the commander of the soldiers that guarded the detainees,” that statement read. “It was also found that it is not possible to establish a correlation between these abnormalities and the death.”
Even before Assad’s death last January, Netzah Yehuda members had been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture, and beatings, among other abuses. In August, the unit made headlines after a video of some members beating two young Palestinians went viral on TikTok. The IDF suspended the soldiers involved in that beating and opened a criminal investigation. It wasn’t the first time: According to Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, Netzah Yehuda soldiers have been convicted of offenses against Palestinians at a rate higher than those in any other IDF unit.
But it was the death of Assad — which came only weeks before the killing by a different IDF unit of another Palestinian American, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh — that put the unit on the radar of U.S. officials. The incident prompted calls for the U.S. government to impose consequences on a foreign military it supports to the tune of $3.3 billion a year. In particular, a growing number of critics have urged the Biden administration to apply U.S. legislation known as the “Leahy Law,” after recently retired Sen. Patrick Leahy, which limits the ability of the State and Defense departments to provide military assistance to foreign units that have a record of human rights violations. The law has never been applied to any units of the Israeli military, despite a number of cases — including the killings of several U.S. citizens by Israeli forces — likely meeting its criteria.
“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 Adam Shapiro, advocacy director for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a U.S.-based human rights group focused on the Middle East and North Africa. DAWN also submitted a complaint detailing a series of incidents involving the unit to the International Criminal Court, accusing its members and two of its commanders of war crimes. “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,” the group noted last fall.
The State Department began looking into the unit’s record following Assad’s death, although officials would not confirm reports that they had asked the U.S. Embassy in Israel to draft an internal report on the unit’s conduct and begun interviewing witnesses. The IDF characterized the unit’s recent move out of the West Bank and its redeployment to the Golan Heights as an operational decision. But many have pointed out that the move followed increased U.S. scrutiny of the unit’s record. Israeli authorities have also opened a criminal investigation into Assad’s death and made a rare offer of compensation to his family — a signal, to some, that U.S. pressure was having an impact.
The State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Israel did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. At a press briefing in December, State Department spokesperson Ned Price did not directly answer a reporter’s question regarding calls to apply the Leahy Law to Netzah Yehuda but said, “We manage our security relationships around the world in the context of human rights and the rule of law and in accordance with U.S. legislation, including in this case with the Leahy vetting laws.”
Stanley Cohen, an attorney representing the Assad family in the U.S., told The Intercept that the family has repeatedly asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into Assad’s death but has received no response. “The U.S. government has an obligation at this point to initiate a grand jury investigation or certainly a preliminary FBI investigation of what happened and why and how,” Cohen said. “This is an elderly man, simply driving home, in a community filled largely with elderly Palestinians, many of whom are American Palestinians.” (The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.)
Cohen noted that the Assad family declined the Israeli government’s offer of compensation and rejected “Israel’s interpretation that the family only cared about money and not justice.”
“We didn’t have to press the so-called nuclear button in order to get accountability.”
For Shapiro, of DAWN, there is no question that U.S. pressure played a role in the redeployment and the compensation offer, even if those measures fall far short of Leahy Law requirements. “It wasn’t just a random decision to move this unit,” he told The Intercept. “For me, the biggest lesson of all of this is that when the U.S. does something even as minor as asking questions, there can actually be very positive results, though this is not a full, positive outcome yet.”
“Of course, we would like to see a cutting of aid,” Shapiro added. “But we didn’t have to press the so-called nuclear button in order to get accountability. There are things that can be done, and this is a perfect example of that.”
With Netzah Yehuda soldiers now out of the West Bank, however, it’s unclear whether the State Department will continue to investigate their record or demand accountability for their crimes. It also seems unlikely that U.S. officials will heed calls to finally apply the Leahy Law against a unit of the IDF.
“The fact that they moved the unit out of there was a positive step,” Tim Rieser, a senior foreign policy aide to Leahy, told The Intercept. “But they should have disbanded it altogether and punished the soldiers who were responsible.”
The Netzah Yehuda unit, originally known as Nahal Haredi, was established in 1999 to offer ultra-Orthodox Israeli men, who are usually exempt from mandatory military service, an opportunity to serve in the IDF while keeping to strict religious codes. No women are allowed in the unit or on its bases, which also adhere to strict kosher standards. A rabbi works with the unit, and soldiers’ terms of service are shorter than in other branches of the military so that members can focus on religious studies. But the 500-man battalion, which started with only a few dozen recruits, was also intended to provide discipline to young men with troubled backgrounds, including some who had been shunned by their families or who had violent and sometimes criminal pasts, the former soldier said.
He had been drawn to Netzah Yehuda because of its religious accommodations, he noted, but had also been impressed to learn that the unit had received a series of awards, including for thwarting several attacks and “neutralizing” alleged terrorists.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be boring,” he told The Intercept. “As a 19-year-old, that gets the testosterone going. It was ‘Black Hawk Down,’ that type of thing.”
“It put a lot of very problematic people in the same place.”
He soon realized, however, that putting troubled young men, many with ultra-nationalist views, in a position of power and with constant access to Palestinians was a recipe for abuse. “I think that the intentions of the rabbis that came up with this were in the right place. I get where they came from, but I don’t think that it panned out very well because it put a lot of very problematic people in the same place,” the former soldier said. “Some were very politically motivated, I would say the settlers were the most politically motivated. And then there were a bunch of teenagers who drew a short straw in life and tried to take it out on other people.”
“There’s definitely a problem with discipline,” he added. “Some officers would not take some people with them on missions because they knew that they might lose a couple of soldiers on the way, because they might just wander off in the middle of a Palestinian village and do whatever they want.”
While it wasn’t until years later that the former Netzah Yehuda soldier began to reevaluate and ultimately disavowed his time in the military, the racist beliefs and often unruly behavior of his peers were readily apparent. One of the soldiers, he recalled, said that the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994, by an Israeli extremist was “justified.” The soldier was disciplined over the remark, “but most people in the unit didn’t understand why — because in the eyes of a lot of people there, it was obvious that the murder of Rabin was justified.”
There were other incidents that revealed the unit’s extremist tendencies. On one occasion, while he was stationed in the northern West Bank, a group of unit members slashed the tires of an Arab driver — a fellow member of the Israeli military — in a nod to the “price tag” attacks frequently carried out by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. The incident infuriated some officers, “but a lot of people thought it was completely fine,” the former soldier recalled. “They said that we shouldn’t have Arabs in the military.”
Members of the unit made no secret of their extremism. On Friday nights, after sharing their Shabbat meal, they would sing racist anthems about Jewish power, including songs glorifying Meir Kahane, the U.S.-born founder of the Kach party, an ultranationalist political group that until recently was listed as a terrorist organization in both the U.S. and Israel. Kahane’s grandson himself served in the unit. “I had no idea how he got into the military to begin with,” the soldier said. “Usually, they wouldn’t let someone like that in.”
The IDF does not “intentionally” recruit soldiers with a criminal background and launches investigations “in cases where criminal offenses are suspected,” the spokesperson wrote in the statement to The Intercept, which also noted that “the IDF is a stately body and prohibits any form of political expression.”
Collective Punishment and “Hannukah Parties”
The Palestinians who members of Netzah Yehuda met daily had been completely dehumanized, the former soldier added. While The Intercept could not independently corroborate details about the specific incidents he described, the episodes are well in line with the violence, harassment, and restriction of movement that Palestinians living under occupation are routinely exposed to and that human rights groups have documented for decades.
The former soldier said that he once witnessed a commander punch a Palestinian man in the stomach and shove him into a military car, apparently because the man was moving too slowly. Some of the soldiers were not allowed to guard Palestinian detainees, he added, because their superiors “didn’t trust everyone to do that without harming them.”
Some of the most violent incidents happened when the ex-soldier was stationed near a large settlement in the West Bank. Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law and, in some cases, even under Israeli law. Nevertheless, the military is routinely deployed to protect settlers there, even as settler violence against Palestinians has been on the rise.
One Friday, after a funeral for a man killed by the IDF in a Palestinian village near the settlement, a crowd of residents turned up to protest, the former soldier recalled. “Usually, it would just be a couple kids throwing rocks. We would shoot a couple of gas grenades back. There would be back and forth for half an hour, and then we would each go home,” he said. “But after this funeral a huge crowd came together, and when we got there, we had almost no crowd control equipment because all that ammunition, like the rubber bullets and the gas canisters, had run out. So all we had was live ammunition, and it’s very difficult to do crowd control with live ammunition. That day, they actually told us that we are not allowed to shoot at anyone, because they had just killed someone. And in a situation like that, when you start opening fire on a crowd, you can kill a lot of people, and that was going to be an even bigger problem.”
Instead, the soldiers were instructed to pour mounds of dirt over the main road to the village, essentially trapping its residents. “It was collective punishment,” said the soldier.
Another time, the former soldier recalled, a commander took a group of soldiers into a Palestinian village, where they went door to door, knocking and then throwing flash-bang and gas grenades into each home — retribution after some children from the village had thrown rocks on a nearby road earlier that day.
The former soldier, who said he was not directly involved in the grenade-throwing or some of the other, more egregious incidents he described, remembers being disturbed by the episode. “The company commander said, ‘Let’s throw them a Hanukkah party, because it was during Hanukkah,’” he told The Intercept. His fellow soldiers, he said, “were very excited about that whole thing. They would say, ‘You should have seen the face of the family when we opened the door. Everyone was sitting and watching TV, and all of a sudden, they got tear-gassed.’”
“A lot of soldiers were excited about being able to just walk into a stranger’s house with little to no consequences,” he said. “You couldn’t do that in Tel Aviv.”
The harassment and dehumanization of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation are a daily affair, and Netzah Yehuda soldiers are hardly the only culprits. But on some occasions, the unit’s actions in the West Bank escalated into gross human rights violations and potential war crimes. Since 2015, members of the unit have killed several Palestinians and beaten and tortured others with electric shocks, according to documentation submitted by DAWN to the ICC, which in 2021 opened an investigation into alleged crimes committed in the occupied territories.
In that time frame, Netzah Yehuda soldiers killed three Palestinians, including a 16-year-old boy, “in incidents in which soldiers used lethal force against unarmed civilians without justification,” DAWN charged. “In almost every case […] soldiers were found to be lying or covering up the incidents to suggest that they were acting in self-defense.” In October 2021, unit members were also accused of beating and sexually assaulting a Palestinian man they had detained in the back of a military vehicle and later at a military base. Four soldiers were arrested following that incident; one of them was demoted and sentenced to four and a half months in prison. In 2016, another Netzah Yehuda soldier received a nine-month sentence and demotion for torturing Palestinian detainees on two separate occasions. In one instance, the soldier had attached electrodes to the neck of a man who was blindfolded and handcuffed, increasing the voltage when the man pleaded with him to stop. He did the same to a second detainee a few days later, while fellow soldiers filmed the torture on a cellphone.
It’s unclear whether Netzah Yehuda’s abuses were on the State Department’s radar before last year, but after Omar Assad’s death, U.S. officials began making inquiries about the unit. In September, the State Department’s Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs, Hady Amr, met with Assad’s family and publicly called for accountability for his death. Israel’s offer of a reported $141,000 settlement to the family and later the decision to move Netzah Yehuda out of the West Bank also coincided with a growing chorus of voices, including in Congress, calling for a U.S. investigation into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera journalist who was shot in the head in May while reporting from the West Bank city of Jenin. Furor over the killing of Abu Akleh, who was wearing a clearly visible press vest at the time, eventually forced the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation — the first time the U.S. government has heeded demands for an independent, American investigation of an incident involving Israeli forces.
Whether growing demands for accountability for Abu Akleh’s killing or calls for Leahy sanctions against Netzah Yehuda — or both — factored into Israeli officials’ decision to move the unit is hard to establish. “I don’t know how much of this has to do with Israel being afraid of the Leahy Law versus Israel trying to manage a relationship with the U.S. after they have killed two U.S. citizens,” Brad Parker, a legislative consultant at the Center for Constitutional Rights who has represented the Abu Akleh family in the U.S., told The Intercept. The Leahy Law hardly seems to work as a deterrent when it comes to Israel, he added. “Even if it means absolutely nothing, a statement saying ‘This unit is problematic’ or something like that would be significant, given the fact that the U.S. really doesn’t do anything.”
Other critics argue that anything short of blocking U.S. financial support for Netzah Yehuda is not enough.
“What we need is the political will to apply the law, and thus far this administration has lacked that will.”
“That’s not accountability,” Matt Duss, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Intercept, referring to the unit’s redeployment and the compensation offer. “Some people might claim, ‘Hey, look, high five, we got the Israelis to do something,’ but that doesn’t begin to solve the systemic problem. What we need is the political will to apply the law, and thus far this administration has lacked that will.”
U.S. officials’ failure to apply their own laws against Israel has increasingly become a liability, Duss said, noting that while the U.S. “tends to be very serious about human rights in countries that don’t buy our weapons,” intervening in Israel and with some other allies is viewed as “too politically controversial … despite systemic abuses.”
For Rieser, Leahy’s longtime foreign policy adviser, that’s long been a cause of frustration. “The law has not been applied as consistently as Senator Leahy believes it should be with respect to Israel and some other key U.S. allies,” he told The Intercept. “I think that’s partly due to political calculations by the administration, whose job it is to apply the law.”
There is no public record listing when and where the Leahy Law has been invoked, though public reports indicate that it has been applied to Colombian, Mexican, Turkish, Indonesian, and Pakistani forces, among others. The law is also used as basis for the State Department to vet thousands of foreign military personnel every year — a requirement for the provision of U.S. weapons and training.
More than two decades after it was first introduced, Leahy’s signature legislation “has been institutionalized to the point that it’s not going away,” said Rieser. “It has been built into the training and guidance of the State and Defense departments. It is permanent law. But Congress and human rights defenders still need to ensure that the law is applied as intended.”
Defense officials have at times resisted the law’s implementation. The Intercept reported last year on one of several programs set up to circumvent it. Before he retired, Leahy also worked to close a major loophole in the law that made it difficult to apply against countries that receive U.S. assistance in bulk installments, like Israel, whose security agreements with the U.S. are outlined on a 10-year basis. Previous arrangements made it hard for U.S. officials to know which units of the IDF received what — something Leahy addressed through a recent amendment to the defense budget. “We don’t know with certainty which IDF units receive U.S. equipment,” Rieser said. “We realized that was a loophole for countries that receive bulk shipments of equipment, and Congress modified the law to address that issue.”
The ultimate obstacle to the law’s implementation, however, remains a political one. “Many members of Congress or administration officials are reluctant to suggest that Israeli soldiers may have committed a gross violation of human rights,” said Rieser, noting that Leahy repeatedly called on multiple administrations to apply the law with respect to Israel. He noted that during the Trump administration, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, suggested that the law should not apply there.
The argument, Rieser noted, was that “Israel is a democracy, it has a credible justice system, and therefore the Leahy Law doesn’t apply.” But Israel’s investigations of alleged military misconduct are carried out by the IDF itself, he noted; they have often been cursory and rarely resulted in appropriate punishment. “The Israeli justice system, particularly the military justice system, is not perceived as being impartial in cases involving Palestinians.”
An Extreme Symptom
Shawan Jabarin, the general director of Al-Haq, a prominent Palestinian human rights organization based in the West Bank, told The Intercept that he first heard about the Leahy Law during a trip to the U.S. in 2001, a few years after the legislation was introduced. “We first called for Leahy sanctions to be applied against the IDF two decades ago,” he said.
Over the years, the State Department has flagged several incidents of human rights abuses committed by Israeli forces as potential Leahy cases, including the 2003 killing by an Israeli military bulldozer of American peace activist Rachel Corrie. (Last year, The Intercept published exclusive documents revealing internal deliberations about the law’s application to that case).
Yet none of those incidents resulted in sanctions against any unit of the IDF. “Nothing happened,” said Jabarin. “Nothing happened because this is Israel.”
Multiple U.S. administrations have in the past responded to Israeli abuses with measured words of condemnation, but the U.S. government has never publicly imposed consequences on Israel for its military’s misconduct — neither by applying the Leahy Law nor by threatening to withhold military assistance or limit arms exports under other U.S. statutes. A formal sanctioning of Netzah Yehuda would have only minor practical impact but would convey that the U.S. government is ready to draw a line.
“Israelis got very upset when Ben and Jerry’s said it didn’t want to have ice cream sold in settlements,” said the former soldier. A U.S. rebuke of Netzah Yehuda would likely renew calls to address its history of abuses, he noted, but warned that singling out one unit for censure risks giving a pass to the rest of Israel’s military apparatus.
“For the Israeli public, Netzah Yehuda is very convenient because it’s a group of people that are not very popular in Israeli society to begin with, the Haredim. So it’s very easy to scapegoat and say these Haredim and these settlers, they are the ones who are a problem, it’s not our kids from Tel Aviv and these other nice cities, who also go and kill Palestinians.”
Ori Givati, advocacy director at Breaking the Silence — the group of former Israeli soldiers who have denounced the abuses of Israel’s occupation — told The Intercept that “anything that pushes the U.S. to do anything is a step in the right direction.”
“Every unit that serves in the territories is violent toward Palestinians — every unit,” he said. “Some are documented less, some are documented more. Netzah Yehuda has maybe a tendency to be more violent than others toward Palestinians, but they are not worse than any other unit which invades people’s homes in the middle of the night. They’re not the problem; they’re maybe an extreme symptom.”
Jabarin, the Palestinian human rights activist, agreed that sanctioning Netzah Yehuda would have only symbolic impact — but would be important nonetheless.
“It’s not just the unit, it’s the system behind it,” he said. “Still, this is a test. Can [the U.S.] act according to its principles, its laws, the values they speak about?”