Watch CBS News

Why the U.S. is investigating the ultra-Orthodox Israeli army battalion Netzah Yehuda

Gaza mass grave uncovered, officials say
Over 200 bodies found in Gaza mass graves at hospital sites, Palestinian officials say 02:00

Dr. Islam Abu-Zaher was working the night shift at Arab Medical Centre in the West Bank when he heard knocking on the door. "Doctor, doctor, we need help!" 

Israeli soldiers had arrested several people, he was told, and one of them had died. He grabbed his emergency bag and rushed to the scene, where he found a familiar patient: 78-year-old Omar Assad, whom he had treated for cardiac problems in the past. 

Dr. Abu-Zaher said he found the elderly man face down on the ground, bound and blindfolded, showing no signs of life. After multiple attempts to resuscitate Assad, the doctor pronounced him dead. 

Assad had been arrested at a military checkpoint that night in January 2022 by members of the Israel Defence Forces' Netzah Yehuda Battalion. An IDF investigation of the incident said that soldiers had tied Assad's hands because he "refused to cooperate."  

"He's an old man," said Dr. Abu-Zaher. "He's obese. He can't walk properly. He has a lot of medical problems. He didn't make any kind of risk for soldiers."

Mahmdou Abu Eboud was arrested shortly after Assad, and says he saw IDF soldiers check the man's pulse before abandoning him on the ground and leaving the scene. According to the Israeli military's investigation, soldiers released Assad from all constraints and did not identify any signs of distress or ill health, explaining "the soldiers assessed that Assad was asleep and did not try to wake him."

After the soldiers left, Abu Eboud sent for the doctor.

"The man was sick, he'd had open heart surgery. On top of all this it was zero or below zero that night," Abu Eboud explained. "If you put a [78]-year-old man in this position … with all these health issues, and handcuffed, laying on his chest and it's cold, what would happen?"

Assad was an American citizen. The U.S. State Department issued a statement at the time saying it was "deeply concerned" by the incident. And it is not the only instance where members of the battalion have faced accusations about their conduct.

Now, Israeli media reports indicate that the U.S. is looking at blacklisting the Netzah Yehuda Battalion under the "Leahy Laws," which prohibit providing funds to assist military individuals or foreign security forces implicated in gross violations of human rights.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday he had made "determinations" linked to accusations of human rights violations by Israel. An announcement by the U.S. is expected this week. 

The Netzah Yehuda Battalion was created in 1999 to accommodate ultra-Orthodox Jews and religious nationalists in the army by allowing them to serve in a unit where they could observe more stringent religious practices. Reuters reports the battalion primarily operated in the West Bank but was moved out following U.S. criticism in late 2022.

Israel's Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, said in a recent statement that the battalion has been fighting Hezbollah along Israel's northern border with Lebanon, and "most recently, they are operating to dismantle Hamas brigades in Gaza."

Israeli human rights groups have long complained that Israel rarely holds soldiers to account for the deaths of Palestinians. In Omar Assad's case, an officer was reprimanded and two others were reassigned, but there was no criminal prosecution.

Abu Eboud says "this step comes too late," insisting "the whole government should be sanctioned, not that unit." 

"The American government and the Israeli government are allies," he added. "This is their spoiled child."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.