Israeli commanders disciplined in death of Palestinian-American man

The New York Times
JerusalemWritten By: Raja Abdulrahim ©️ 2022 The New York TimesUpdated: Feb 02, 2022, 12:12 AM IST
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Photograph:(The New York Times)

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The commander of the Netzah Yehuda, the Jewish ultra-Orthodox battalion which conducted the raid on the village, will be reprimanded and the platoon and company commanders will both be removed from their positions

Three Israeli military commanders have been disciplined after an investigation into the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian-American man who was detained, gagged and handcuffed by Israeli soldiers in a night raid on his village last month.

An autopsy showed that the man, Omar Abdelmajed Assad, died from a stress-induced heart attack brought on by injuries sustained while he was detained for about an hour on Jan. 12 by dozens of Israeli soldiers.

The commander of the Netzah Yehuda, the Jewish ultra-Orthodox battalion which conducted the raid on the village, will be reprimanded and the platoon and company commanders will both be removed from their positions. They will not serve in commanding roles for two years, according to the military.

“The incident showed a clear lapse of moral judgment,” the Israeli military’s chief of general staff said in a statement released late Monday that summed up the conclusions of an investigation by the military’s central command. “The investigation concluded that the incident was a grave and unfortunate event, resulting from a moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers.”

The statement, in which Assad’s full name was rendered incorrectly, said the Israeli military deeply regretted his death, but stopped short of apologizing for it.

Assad’s family and human rights groups said the punishments were too light and fit a pattern of impunity for Israelis who kill Palestinians.

“It’s not enough,” said Mohanad Assad, Assad’s 39-year-old cousin. “They need to be tried in international courts.”

The Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, has long dismissed Israeli military investigations into the killings of Palestinians as whitewashing.

But the Israeli military has called those allegations “ridiculous” and said it has proved repeatedly that its investigations are independent and professional.

One example of an investigation that critics say reflects a pattern of impunity was linked to the 2014 war between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, when an airstrike killed four boys playing on a beach, prompting international condemnation. An Israeli military investigation resulted in no criminal charges or disciplinary actions against those involved in airstrikes during that war, including the two that killed the boys.

Assad was driving home around 3 a.m. after a night playing cards and drinking coffee at a relative’s house when he was detained near his home in the village of Jiljilya in the occupied West Bank. Immediately after soldiers left the scene, he was found face down and unresponsive with a blindfold still on, according to witnesses and his doctor, who said he died while in Israeli custody.

Initially, the Israeli military said Assad had been alive when he was released.

The soldiers did not identify signs of distress or see anything of concern regarding Assad’s health before they left, according to the investigation, saying they believed he was sleeping. But the investigation found that the “soldiers failed in their obligations by leaving Assad lying on the floor without the required treatment and without reporting the incident back to their commanders.”

His death brought renewed scrutiny on Israel from its closest ally, the United States, which called for a thorough investigation. Assad was a U.S. citizen with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren living in the United States. His family and several members of Congress have demanded that the United States conduct its own independent investigation.

In addition to the central command’s investigation, a separate criminal investigation by the Israeli military police is still ongoing.

Assad’s autopsy was conducted by the coroner for the Palestinian Authority, which is also conducting its own investigation into Mr. Assad’s death. The authority administers parts of the West Bank but even in Palestinian villages like Jiljilya, Israeli forces regularly carry out raids and operations aimed at thwarting attacks.

Assad’s life and death mirrored the daily perils faced by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, including the fear of being detained in nighttime raids or arrested at home.

According to the investigation, soldiers were in Jiljilya that morning to thwart terrorist activities and seize weapons and as part of that operation, they stopped Assad’s vehicle. Assad refused to cooperate with their security check.

In response, he was detained with his hands bound and his mouth gagged for a short time, according to the investigation.

Dr. Islam Abu Zaher, who attempted to resuscitate Assad after the Israeli soldiers hurriedly left the village, said his face was blue and had been cut off from oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes.

The central command investigation found that soldiers did not use violence against Assad “apart from when Assad was apprehended after refusing to cooperate.”

These findings contradict a preliminary conclusion from the Palestinian investigation, which determined that he had been “severely beaten” and “subjected to harsh treatment and violence.”

The autopsy found that Assad had bruises on his head as a result of traumatic brain injuries, without concluding what may have caused those injuries. There was also internal bleeding in his eyelids from being blindfolded tightly as well as other bruises on his arms and red welts on his wrists from zip ties.

Another man who was detained by the same soldiers said that as soon as they left, he went to Assad and found him unresponsive. Abu Zaher was immediately called and tried to revive him with CPR and a defibrillator.

Assad had open-heart surgery and several stents implanted about four years ago, according to Abu Zaher. He was also being treated for obstructive pulmonary disease in recent months.