Rogue ultra-Orthodox military unit is Israel’s weakest link
Bloomberg Opinion February 21, 2022
It’s not very often that an event in the West Bank village of Jililya garners the attention of members of the U.S. Congress from Wisconsin. But the killing of a 78-year-old Palestinian American from Milwaukee by soldiers of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox battalion has embarrassed Jerusalem, infuriated the U.S. State Department and placed a new stumbling block on the already rocky road of Israeli-Palestinian conciliation. More than a month later, the country is still coming to terms with what happened.
On the night of Jan. 12, one of the coldest of the year, Omar Abdel Majeed Asad was detained by Israeli troops near Jililya as he was driving home from a social event.
The soldiers stopped his car and took him to an empty lot, where he was handcuffed, gagged, blindfolded and laid on the ground. The time was 3:20 a.m. Forty minutes later, one of the soldiers noticed that the captive had turned blue in the face and he wasn’t moving. He was taken to a nearby clinic and pronounced dead. An autopsy conducted by Palestinian doctors found that he died of heart failure.
In the nighttime skirmishes between Israeli troops and suspected terrorists in the West Bank, there are sometimes casualties. But Omar Abdel Majeed Asad was a unique case. Nearly an octogenarian, he did not exactly fit the profile of a terrorist. Then it turned out he was also an American citizen, formerly of Milwaukee.
Within hours, the Israeli military spokesman issued a statement admitting that the incident “showed a clear lapse of moral judgment” on the part of the troops and reflected a failure “to protect the sanctity” of a human life.
If the Israeli Defense Forces thought this was the end of the matter, it was mistaken. Two members of the House of Representatives contacted Secretary of State Antony Blinken and demanded to know what he was planning to do about the killing of a former constituent.
The IDF mea culpa did not impress the U.S. State Department, which called for a criminal investigation and full accountability of the incident. An army review concluded that the soldiers had made a “moral mistake.” The brigade commander was discharged and two junior officers had their promotions frozen for two years.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, IDF chief of staff, was dispatched to meet with the newly arrived American ambassador, Tom Nides, and explained that the killing was “a grave moral error contrary to the ethics of the Israel Defense Forces.” Three days later, Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed the issue, calling it “an ethical failure that should serve as a warning light for us all.”
Now the question is what Israel plans to do differently. The soldiers who were responsible for the death belong to the infamous Netzach Yehuda battalion, a unit made up of members of the ultra-Orthodox community. The battalion, which is segregated from other IDF forces, hostile to outsiders and inspired by the preaching of fanatical rabbis, serves entirely in the West Bank.
Netzach Yehuda exists because of political cowardice. The Haredi leadership refuses to allow the IDF to draft its sons and daughters. The courts have repeatedly ruled that this discriminates against Israelis who comply with mandatory conscription. Back in 1999, the Israeli government made a Faustian bargain: In effect, it was send us a few hundred of your misfits and dropouts each year, and we will let the rest of the community off the hook.
Militarily the battalion is useless; no other command in the army wants it. Usually, their failures and depredations are covered up by the ultra-Orthodox politicos for whom they are a fig leaf. But on that night in January, the boys of Netzach Yehuda picked the wrong victim in an Arab with an American passport.
Certainly, Israel needs to compensate the family of Omar Abdel Majeed Asad. The check should be delivered personally, along with a sincere apology, by Herzog. And the hoodlums who caused the death of an innocent man should spend their next winters in a military prison.
But the Israeli government, unencumbered for the moment by ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, should now muster the courage to disband the rogue battalion. Decent officers and soldiers from the unit can be reassigned to other units. As Kohavi told a group of graduating pilots Sunday, “You don’t need a law to tell you not to leave an 80-year-old man in the cold during operational activity.”
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.