Opinion |

Time to Do Away With the Netzah Yehuda Battalion

Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy
Netzah Yehuda Battalion soldiers listening to a rabbi speak at their boot camp summery ceremony in 2013
Netzah Yehuda Battalion soldiers listening to a rabbi speak at their boot camp summery ceremony in 2013Credit: Alex Levac
Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy

The death of 80-year-old Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad at the hands of soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda battalion is just the latest episode of a longer history in which soldiers from this battalion have used wanton violence against Palestinians. It is time for the IDF chief of staff to make a decision that should have been made long ago – to dismantle the battalion.

Netzah Yehuda is something unique in the world: a political-religious military unit. The battalion comprises formerly Haredi youth who have left school, Haredim who rebelled against their parents, hilltop youth, religious nationalist Haredi youth who have been assured a female-free environment during their service, youth from impoverished families and others from across the country's faithful.

Studies of various armies have shown that social homogeneity fosters excessive cohesion in the unit, with the result being the rise of a culture that leads the unit to hold itself apart from the general military culture and even to subvert it. This is particularly the case when the unit's recruits hail from marginalized groups, alienated from the wider society in which they live.

But Netzah Yehuda is not just religiously homogenous, it is also political. The broad common denominator among its soldiers is the concept that policing the Palestinians is a “holy” mission, as the battalion commander explained in a 2017 interview with the Maariv newspaper. This “holiness” translates into the formation of a unit-wide culture that encourages an eagerness to use violence.

This eagerness is heightened when many soldiers in the battalion are already rebelling against the communities they came from, and so feel a need to prove themselves, often out of a sense of inferiority in relation to their community of origin. And as if that weren’t enough, working in a set area all the time in policing, which is perceived as inferior to combat, increases the tendency toward aggression.

The phenomenon of “putting an emphasis on aggressiveness,” which then has a tendency to slide into “excessive violence,” is found throughout the West Bank-based Kfir Brigade to which the battalion belongs, as an internal IDF study found in 2014, but it is magnified in Netzah Yehuda.

Thus it is inevitable that the unit developed a clear political culture that attracts those whom it suits to its ranks. As one soldier from the battalion told Maariv in 2003, the hilltop youth enlist in this battalion because “the settlers found a place where the army doesn’t clash with their ideology.”

The IDF deliberately did not deploy this battalion during the disengagement, lest its troops refuse to obey orders. And in 2018, when Border Police tried to arrest setters who threw rocks at Palestinian homes in the Ramallah area, two soldiers from the battalion tried to hinder them.

This political-religious battalion stands out not only for its cruelty to Palestinians, but also with other displays of its violent impulses, such as waving signs saying, “We’ve come for revenge,” after the murders of the three yeshiva students in 2014, or the participation of a soldier from the battalion in the “wedding of hate” in 2015, in which a rifle was waved in front of the picture of the baby Ali Dawabshe who was burned to death in Duma village.

Contrary to the popular notion that the battalion enables the integration of Haredim into the army and is therefore dependent upon the good will of the Haredi leadership, it actually serves the Haredi community by enabling those who have left the religion to remain within a religious framework, in a battalion in which close involvement by civilian rabbis is routine.

Service in the battalion is also shorter than the standard service, and the last part of it is devoted to professional training in anticipation of the return to civilian life. Therefore, the army’s freedom to maneuver here versus Haredi society is greater than it appears. It’s time to go ahead and disperse this battalion’s companies.

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