Last Friday, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi met with the U.S. ambassador to Israel and expressed his sorrow for the death of Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, the 80-year-old Palestinian who died last month after being detained and gagged by Netzah Yehuda battalion troops. The special interest in the case by Washington and Kochavi’s expressed sorrow are not a reflection of the severity with which the United States views what goes on in Israel’s backyard, nor any responsibility assumed by Kochavi for the IDF’s war crimes (as proved by the light punishments meted out to the commanders). As’ad simply happened to be a U.S. citizen and his death behooved the U.S. and Israel to make moral statements.
But other victims of Netzah Yehuda fly under the radar. Yaniv Kubovich published a hair-raising exposé in Haaretz in Hebrew this week, following myriad cases involving the Haredi Nahal battalion, whose members embarked on rogue operations, filed false reports and acted with excessive violence devoid of security justification, at times “just for fun,” at others to signify the unit’s unique character. The exposé indicates that under the army’s nose, a sort of militia has developed, operating independently, according to its own code, out of religious faith and political convictions imbibed in the settlements and outposts, from which most of the battalion’s troops hail.
The IDF is well aware of the problem. Two years back, at a Central Command discussion following another incident, an internal document was presented stating that “most of the battalion’s troops come from families in the area, which makes it difficult for them to separate their views … from the commanders’ operational demands.” The discussion raised the option of dismantling the battalion, but it turns out that not only the Palestinians are afraid of Netzah Yehuda. “We very quickly realized that dismantling Netzah Yehuda would mean declaring war on the settler leadership,” a source versed in the details of the discussion told Haaretz. “Their perception is that this battalion belongs to them.”
And indeed, according to the source, “The leaders of the settler movement enter the battalion freely and talk to the soldiers. Rabbis enter their outpost and walk around freely, give lessons and talk to the soldiers about operational incidents. It’s a sort of militia.”
The option of transferring the battalion to other fronts was ruled out. “Nobody really wanted them on his front,” said a senior security source, noting the fear of their lack of discipline in the field could lead to an escalation.
If the IDF continues to fear the political implications of dismantling Netzah Yehuda, the problem will not disappear, but only grow more acute. And if Kochavi doesn’t muster the courage to do the right thing, he will forever be etched on the list of those responsible for the territories in the hands of militias.
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The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.