Inside story'I'd rather see a soldier in jail than in the ground'

Misfits or misunderstood? Sanctions threat shines light on IDF’s Haredi fighting unit

Claims of ideological vigilantism and cruelty invite US moves against Netzah Yehuda, which has integrated thousands from religious world into mainstream society

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Illustrative: Soldiers from the IDF's Netzah Yehuda Battalion patrol near the Israeli-Gaza border, October 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Soldiers from the IDF's Netzah Yehuda Battalion patrol near the Israeli-Gaza border, October 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Reports that the United States may sanction the Israel Defense Forces’ Netzah Yehuda infantry battalion for its troops’ alleged abuses of the rights of Palestinians have once again put the unique military unit, 70% of whose members come from ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, homes, at the heart of a national debate and international controversy.

Critics of the unit describe it as an unruly force populated by right-wing religious fanatics prone to vigilantism. Now, they say, Netzah Yehuda troops’ disregard for standard military ethics is jeopardizing Israel’s international standing broadly and its relationship with its most important ally, potentially hamstringing the IDF’s ability to operate and further delegitimizing the Israeli army.

Established 25 years ago as a small experiment in recruiting Haredi men into the army, the unit has evolved into an effective fighting force with thousands of veterans, many of them still part of Israel’s crucial army reserves. This is a significant development in a nation where the exemption of the ultra-Orthodox community from army service is a major source of contention.

To the unit’s boosters, the reportedly planned US sanctions are nothing more than an election-year attempt by the administration of US President Joe Biden to appease the left wing of the Democratic Party, which has sought to temper Washington’s support for Israel.

But even in Israel, Netzah Yehuda troops face opposition over a string of incidents that critics say demonstrate a systemic and ideologically motivated disregard for IDF norms, most of them surrounding allegations of cruel and illegal treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, including leaving an elderly Palestinian-American man to die handcuffed and blindfolded on a near-freezing night.

Despite Netzah Yehuda’s apparent warts, Israeli officials have reacted with shock and dismay at the idea of slapping sanctions on a unit that many see as a success story of social integration. The impending brawl between Jerusalem and Washington adds another twist to the story of a unit whose very establishment came out of a polarizing internal ideological schism fraying the fabric of Israeli society.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks to troops of the IDF’s the Netzah Yehuda Battalion on the Gaza border, April 22, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to condemn the reported plan to sanction the unit, which US State Secretary Anthony Blinken is said to have decided to delay. A few hours before the start of the Passover holiday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant went even further, visiting the unit’s home base to show his support.

“No one abroad is going to teach us about morals and norms,” he told the Netzah Yehuda troops.

A ‘moral failure’

Critics of Netzah Yehuda allege that because it has many religious soldiers from West Bank settlements and beyond, it is essentially an enclave of the settler movement inside the IDF, operating outside the army’s norms and utilizing excessive force vis-à-vis Palestinians.

Veterans acknowledge that the unit’s religious bent influences how Netzah Yehuda troops behave.

“Some people like to play nice and look humane but the Torah commands that ‘if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first’ and that is what we do,” said Raphael Bublil, a 25-year-old Netzah veteran from Netivot. The quote comes from the Talmud. Netzah Yehuda troops “are religious. So they put safekeeping the land first. There’s no political correctness. You say what’s on your mind there,” added Bublil, who was discharged in 2019.

In an expose in February, Yaniv Kubovich, the military correspondent of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, wrote that his interviews with several unnamed officers revealed a unit whose soldiers “go on vigilante missions, give false reports, repeatedly engage in problematic incidents and are motivated mainly by the ideology with which they were inculcated in settlements and outposts.”

According to Haaretz, in April 2021, a group of Netzah Yehuda troops beat a Palestinian man in front of his family after pulling over the family car near the settlement of Ofra. The man had a seizure, the report said, which he survived. None of the soldiers involved was disciplined, according to the report, which claimed military authorities were going easy on Netzah Yehuda.

The incident near Ofra, in which Netzah Yehuda soldiers said they feared the Palestinian man tried to run them over, followed another case in 2018 where two Netzah troops reportedly confronted other troops who had taken settlers in custody for allegedly throwing stones at Palestinians. The Netzah troops attempted to free the settlers, the Haaretz report about the 2018 incident said.

Arguably the most serious incident involving Netzah Yehuda occurred in 2022, when its troops were implicated in the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian, Omar As’ad, who died of a cardiac arrest after the battalion’s troops tied him up and left him with other detainees at a construction site near Ramallah on a cold January night. As’ad was a US citizen, a fact that helped focus attention in the US on the incident and Netzah Yehuda.

Yossi Levi, CEO of the Netzah Yehuda Association, attends a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 21, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an internal IDF probe into the death of As’ad, the army said that the soldiers involved were guilty of a “moral failure” and showed “obtuseness and poor decision-making.”

Two officers were relieved of their command posts and the battalion commander was formally reprimanded for the incident.

According to Yossi Levi, a reserves major and Netzah veteran who heads the Netzah Yehuda Association, which raises donations for the unit and does its public relations work, the unit’s long list of problematic incidents is simply a result of its extended deployment in the West Bank, where it is forced into regular confrontations with Palestinians.

Unlike other units, which regularly shift to various frontiers, Netzah Yehuda was exclusively deployed to the West Bank from its founding in 1999 — as Nahal Haredi — until late 2022, when it was moved to the Golan Heights. Like most IDF combat units, Netzah troops have also been deployed in Gaza and along the Gaza border following October 7.

“Examined proportionately, there’s nothing unusual in the number of problematic incidents involving Netzah Yehuda. Every unit is going to have such failures. We’re no better or worse,” said Levi, calling the allegations against the unit “unfair.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel in his first media interview since the sanctions issue emerged, Levi also called Netzah troops’ handling of As’ad, the deceased 78-year-old Palestinian man, a “moral failure,” but said it was not representative of how the battalion behaves normally. He denied reports that the unit had been moved out of the West Bank to cut down on friction with Palestinians, claiming the redeployment had been done in response to repeated requests by commanders to rotate like other units. And he denied that the unit had a political bent, citing the army’s policy of neutrality.

“There’s no politics in Netzah. It’s not a ‘right-wing unit’ because, fortunately, the IDF doesn’t do right or left,” said Levi.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda battalion are seen at a military base, in the northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Bublil said that Netzah has been consistently the subject of oversight and disciplinary measures when deemed necessary by army authorities. Even so, he said, they deal firmly with Palestinian violence, including by stone throwers “who need to meet the most severe means available because a stone can kill you.”

Having commanded some 400 men during his service, Bublil said he had led them “under the understanding that I’d rather see one of my troops go to jail than into the ground.”

Army within an army?

According to Axios and other publications, the US State Department is considering applying Leahy Laws to Netzah Yehuda. The laws, named for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, would prohibit the United States from assisting foreign forces implicated credibly in serious human rights violations.

The plan to sanction Netzah Yehuda – reports spoke of an American veto on US foreign aid reaching the unit and a ban on any joint activities – is part of the Biden administration’s plan to “distinguish the State of Israel, within its recognized and sovereign borders, from the State of Judea, with its lawless settlements and outposts,” Barak Ravid, a prominent journalist for Axios and Walla, opined in a Hebrew-language op-ed published Sunday, referring to the West Bank.

According to the Associated Press, citing an undated letter by Blinken to US House Speaker Mike Johnson, the sanctions are on hold while the United States reviews further information, including information provided by Israel, on the allegations facing Netzah Yehuda.

Misfits in arms

Haredi yeshiva students are generally exempt from military service, a fact that is a major point of contention between the Haredi community, where there is a widespread belief that studying Torah is a form of national service, and seculars who want the 150,000-odd exempted Haredi students to help shoulder the military burden.

The High Court has ordered the government to come up with a new military conscription plan that would address wholesale exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews that have been deemed illegal by the court. The government has repeatedly asked the court to extend the deadline for this. Currently, the government is seeking an extension until May 20.

Against this background, some see Netzah Yehuda as a promising way out of the impasse — proof that Haredi men can perform military service and that the military can accommodate the needs of religious soldiers. Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, who belongs to the Shas Haredi Sephardic party, described Netzah Yehuda as “doing critically important and holy work” in a statement from February (Hebrew). “Your main task is to integrate Haredim into a long, meaningful combat duty due to the national need triggered by the war,” Arbel wrote.

A large number of Netzah Yehuda’s recruits, though, fall outside the ultra-Orthodox mainstream. Many hail from the quasi-ultra-Orthodox stream known as Hardal, or Haredi lite. Others come from the fringes of ultra-Orthodox communities, where they may face ostracism.

The force was founded as a joint initiative of the army and rabbis from Haredi communities seeking solutions for young men who had dropped out of — or were not cut out for — full-time yeshiva study, the Haredi world’s main framework for young adult men.

While problematic for ideological reasons among many Haredim, army service for yeshiva dropouts was seen by many ultra-Orthodox community leaders as preferable to the alternative of having them inhabit the outskirts of Haredi society, where they are relatively susceptible to criminal activities, drug abuse and lifestyles even more abhorrent to Haredim than military service.

“Ever since its establishment, Netzah Yehuda was treated like some kind of misfit among the units,” Levi said.

Unlike most IDF units, which get their troops from central recruitment bureaus, Netzah Yehuda has its own enlistment desk. Its troops have multiple discharge dates that can be challenging for maintaining manpower rotation charts.

The unit is also set apart by its religious strictures. These include prayer time, a stricter level of kosher and Shabbat observance than is customary in most IDF units and a total separation between the sexes on Netzah’s bases, as per the lifestyle preferences of most of its troops.

Outside the army, many Netzah soldiers are shunned by their extremely devout families, which belong to insular Haredi societies where army service is deemed immoral.

Many of them are treated as lone soldiers — those without family in the country — alongside young men from Haredi communities outside Israel who enlist into Netzah Yehuda.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest against the drafting of Haredi Jews to the Israeli army, in Jerusalem, April 10, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2012, Dovi Yudkin returned to Israel from Russia, where he had been studying to become a shochet versed in the kosher slaughter of animals for food. Feeling unsettled, he quickly found a home within the unit, becoming an officer and serving for five years before being discharged.

“It was a time of crisis for me. I decided yeshiva wasn’t for me. I realized people were getting killed to keep me safe. I decided to enlist. It took one day to make up my mind,” he told The Times of Israel.

Yudkin’s parents initially shunned him, making him a lone soldier. “But gradually, they softened up,” Yudkin said.

Eventually, three of his brothers would follow him into the army. One serves in Netzah as an officer, another in the elite 8200 intelligence unit and a third in combat engineering.

To Levi, Netzah Yehuda’s role as a melting pot accentuates an injustice that he says is done to the unit.

“Some of the same people who are demonstrating for more Haredim to serve are also calling to disband Netzah Yehuda, the main unit for Haredim who want to serve, due to false allegations that are really about the religious identity of its troops,” he said. “So forgive me if I’m not impressed by this hypocrisy.”

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