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Israeli leaders criticize expected U.S. sanctions against military unit that could further strain ties

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JERUSALEM -

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, has historically been based in the occupied West Bank and some of its members have been linked to abuses against Palestinians. It makes up just a small part of Israel's military presence in the territory.

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."

It said doctors found bruises on his head, redness on his wrists from being bound and bleeding in his eyelids from being tightly blindfolded. A military investigation said that Israeli soldiers assumed that Assad was asleep when they cut off the cables binding his hands. They didn't offer medical help when they saw that he was unresponsive and left the scene without checking to see if he was alive.

Assad had lived in the U.S. for four decades. After an outcry from the U.S. government, the Israeli military said the incident "was a grave and unfortunate event, resulting from moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers." It said one officer was reprimanded and two other officers reassigned to non-commanding roles, over the incident.

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

Human rights groups long have argued that Israel rarely holds soldiers accountable for the deaths of Palestinians.

Investigators said soldiers were forced to restrain Assad because of his "aggressive resistance." Assad's family has expressed skepticism that the behavior of an ailing 78-year-old could justify such harsh treatment.

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."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that he had made a decision on reviews of allegations that several Israeli military units had violated conditions for receiving U.S. assistance outlined in the so-called Leahy Law and that they would soon be made public.

Two U.S. officials familiar with the situation said the U.S. announcement could come as soon as Monday.

The officials said about five Israeli units were investigated and all but one had been found to have taken action to remedy the violations. The Leahy Law, named for former Sen. Patrick Leahy, bars U.S. aid from going to foreign military units that have committed human rights abuses.

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.

But Yesh Din, an Israeli legal advocacy group, said the case was not isolated. It said one out of every five soldiers convicted of harming Palestinians or their property since 2010 comes from Netzah Yehuda, making it the unit with the highest conviction rate for such cases.

The U.S. review was launched before the Hamas war and not connected to recent Israeli actions inside Gaza or the West Bank -- which has experienced a dramatic spike in deadly violence since the Gaza war erupted. The U.S. has also recently imposed sanctions against violent settlers.

Gadi Shamni, a retired general who once served as the military's commander over the West Bank, said a main problem with the unit is that it was traditionally assigned exclusively to the West Bank. Violence between troops and Palestinians and settlers and Palestinians has surged there in recent years. In contrast, he said other units regularly rotate in and out of the volatile area.

He said the exposure to nonstop friction and violence had caused a level of "tiredness" among the troops. Nonetheless, he said it was a stereotype to punish the entire unit and it would have been better to target specific individuals or commanders.

But Ori Givati, the director of advocacy at Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group of former combat soldiers critical of Israel's occupation, said the problems run much deeper than any particular unit.

He said abuses of power by soldiers toward Palestinians are systematic and the lack of repercussions for wrongdoings are fuelling incidents like the death of Assad.

Israeli hard-liners blasted the expected U.S. decision. Israel's ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said the U.S. crossed a "red line," and Tally Gotliv, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, accused the U.S. of antisemitism.

But even the head of the opposition, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, rejected the move.

He said the sanctions are "a mistake and we must act to cancel them." He noted that "the source of the problem is not at the military level but at the political level."

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Jack Jeffery in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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