Israeli Unit Responsible for Widespread Human Rights Abuses Against Palestinian Civilians, Killing of Palestinian-American Omar Assad
(Washington D.C., November 29, 2022): The U.S. State Department should formally subject the Israeli Army's Netzah Yehuda Battalion to the Leahy Law vetting process and add it to the list of military units ineligible to receive US military assistance, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) in a detailed report of its investigation presented to the government. Such a move would be the first time any Israeli security force is sanctioned by the U.S. government for gross human rights abuses.
Netzah Yehuda has a track record of gross human rights abuses and war crimes, including extrajudicial killing, torture and physical abuse, including most recently the killing of Palestinian American citizen Omar Assad, which meet the threshold for Leahy Law sanctions. DAWN has documented these violations committed by unit soldiers between 2015 and 2022, and also documented how perpetrators were given minimal punishment or reprimand, while commanders escaped any command responsibility. In the cases of Assad and two other extrajudicial killings, the Israeli military did not impose any punitive consequences on any soldiers or commanders and instead promoted the commander at the time of the killing, Lt. Col. Mati Shevach, to the position of Deputy Commander of the Kfir Brigade.
"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."
- Adam Shapiro, advocacy director for Israel-palestine
"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, Israel-Palestine at DAWN. "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."
DAWN also submitted a file on Netzah Yehuda to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and two of its commanders, Lt. Col. Mati Shevach and Lt. Colonel Shlomo Sheeran, regarding war crimes committed by the battalion. In its request to the ICC, DAWN requested the prosecutor's office, as part of its ongoing investigation into war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to investigate multiple potential war crimes as defined under Article 8 of the Rome Statute, including, but not limited to, the war crimes of wilful killing; torture; inhuman treatment; wilfully causing great suffering; unlawful confinement; attacking civilians; murder; and cruel treatment. DAWN also urged the court to investigate Lt. Col. Mati Shevach and Lt. Colonel Shlomo Sheeran, commanders of the battalion during the time of the documented incidents, under Article 28 of the Rome Statute, which places responsibility on commanders for the actions of their subordinates, based on the doctrine of command responsibility.
"The ICC has a historically important opportunity to impose real accountability on systematic and widespread Israeli crimes against Palestinians, and in so doing, demonstrate to the world that the court can and does take on cases regardless of political pressure," said Shapiro. "This submission along with mountains of evidence of Israeli war crimes submitted to the court should make it pretty easy for the court to do its job, and pretty hard to evade justice."
As detailed in DAWN's submission for Leahy vetting and to the ICC and the ICC, on January 12, 2022, soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda battalion detained 78-year-old Palestinian-American Omar Assad as they operated a makeshift checkpoint in the center of Jiljiliya village, where Assad lived, approximately 14 km northeast of Ramallah. According to Assad's brother, a resident of the village, who spoke to DAWN on August 27, 2022, the military was very rarely seen in Jiljiliya. The soldiers forced Assad out of his vehicle and took him to the courtyard of a house under construction about 100 meters from the intersection where they stopped him. The soldiers left him bound, gagged, blindfolded, and exposed to the elements on a cold night. When other Palestinians detained at the checkpoint went to rouse Assad after the soldiers left they found him dead.
The medical examiner's report determined the cause of death to be a heart attack induced by the stress caused by the physical abuse Assad suffered, specifically the stress caused by the blindfolding. DAWN's investigation found that as part of a resolution of a lawsuit brought against it in 2019, the Israeli army confirmed that blindfolding is not permissible for purposes of detention and agreed to retrain all military units. Netzah Yehuda soldiers' actions in blindfolding Assad were a proximate cause of his death, according to the coroner's report.
"Any prosecutor looking at the facts of this case would immediately bring to justice the soldiers who intentionally violated orders and used an illegal tactic when they blindfolded Mr. Assad and ended up killing him," said Shapiro. "But it seems that if you are wearing an Israeli military uniform, and you abuse a Palestinian, including murder, you are excused."
Between 2015 and 2022, the battalion has been involved in a number of other grave incidents involving abuses of unarmed Palestinian civilians, including shooting and killing unarmed civilians, torture, physical assault, beating, and sexual assault, in violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. During this period, soldiers from the unit killed two other unarmed Palestinians – Iyad Zakariya Hamed (38) and Qassem Abbasi (16) – in incidents in which soldiers used lethal force against civilians without justification. In almost every documented case, soldiers were found to be lying or covering up the incidents to suggest that they were acting in self-defense.
"Netzah Yehuda has achieved notoriety in Israel for its abuses of Palestinians, as well as a track record of impunity for gross violations of human rights, killing a Palestinian-American and two other Palestinian civilians in incidents which can only be understood as murder."
- Raed Jarrar, DAWN's advocacy director
"Netzah Yehuda has achieved notoriety in Israel for its abuses of Palestinians, as well as a track record of impunity for gross violations of human rights, killing a Palestinian-American and two other Palestinian civilians in incidents which can only be understood as murder," said Raed Jarrar, Advocacy Director at DAWN. "The US should apply the Leahy Law to Israeli military units to demonstrate that it will hold Israel accountable and to the same human rights standards as other governments the US arms."
The Leahy Law authorizes the State Department and the Defense Department to suspend US military assistance to a specific foreign military unit if they find it has committed gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and those responsible have not been brought to justice. Under 22 U.S. Code § 2304, which governs the provision of security assistance, gross violations include "torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of person." The deliberate actions of the Netzah Yehuda soldiers – in contravention of explicit Israeli regulations for detention – demonstrated malice towards and complete disrespect for the physical integrity of Assad. Those actions were direct causes of his death – not merely contributing factors – based on the findings of the medical professionals who attended to and examined Assad.
The United States provides Israel with $3.8 billion of military assistance each year, joint training exercises and other forms of support. If Netzah Yehuda was sanctioned, it would be ineligible to receive any form of assistance.
On March 3, 2021, Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor, formally opened an investigation into violations of the Rome Statute in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since June 13, 2014. DAWN's submission on Netzah Yehuda follows the organization's referral of Israel's former West Bank Legal Advisor Col. Eyal Toledano on October 31, 2022, believed to be the first submission of an individual Israeli suspect to the ICC for investigation.
DAWN's Culprit Gallery
DAWN works to expose the identity of the state agents who enable repression and to make them recognizable at home and abroad. These individuals, whom DAWN identifies as "culprits," bear administrative, civil, moral, legal, or political responsibility for human rights abuses, IHL violations, and international crimes. From other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, DAWN has identified the abuses of individual judges, prosecutors, state security operatives and officers, prison wardens, attorneys general, and diplomats in its Culprit Gallery.
The DAWN profile of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion in its Culprits Gallery is the second profile of an Israeli perpetrator of human rights and international humanitarian law violations who bears responsibility for repression.