Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed sorrow at the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian man who suffered heart failure after being bound, gagged and abandoned at a construction site in the middle of winter by Israeli soldiers last month, saying on Tuesday that the Israel Defense Forces would take action against any “deviations” from its values.
Gantz was the latest Israeli defense official to condemn the incident, joining IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohai and head of the IDF Central Command Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, who denounced the soldiers’ actions earlier on Tuesday, after the military’s initial probe of Omar As’ad’s death was completed.
“Along with the full support that we give to the IDF to carry out its mission — we will act against any deviations from the norms of IDF values, as we saw in the death of Omar As’ad. I was updated about the investigation, which was approved by the chief of staff, and I want to express sorrow at his death. The Military Police probe into this incident will continue,” Gantz said in a video statement.
The defense minister made his remarks following a visit to the West Bank, in which he met with top IDF officers, as well as with the head of the Shin Bet and the commander of the Israel Police’s West Bank division. The officials discussed ongoing efforts to fight “nationalist crime” by Israeli extremists, his office said, referring to settler attacks on Palestinians and Israeli law enforcement.
According to an IDF probe, on January 12, soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion set up an impromptu checkpoint in the central West Bank village of Jiljilya, stopping cars and checking the identification documents of people inside.
The first to pass through the checkpoint was As’ad, who refused to identify himself when asked and yelled at the soldiers. According to the probe, they tackled him to the ground and bound his hands with zip ties, then moved him to a nearby construction site, where he was left on the ground in the near-freezing January night.
In order to prevent him from calling out and telling others about the checkpoint, the soldiers also gagged him, first with their hands and then by tying a strip of fabric over his mouth for a short amount of time, the probe found.
Three other Palestinians were brought to the same building. When the Netzah Yehuda soldiers decided to pack up the checkpoint roughly half an hour later, they untied the four Palestinians and let them go, according to the investigation.
By that time, As’ad was unresponsive. The soldiers left him on the ground at the construction site. They later told military investigators they thought he was asleep.
As’ad, an American citizen who had lived in the US for many years, was found dead a few hours later with one ziptie still around one of his hands and a blindfold over his eyes.
An autopsy conducted by the Palestinian Authority and reviewed by the IDF determined that he had died of a stress-induced heart attack, brought on by being tackled to the ground, bound and gagged. As’ad had previously undergone open-heart surgery and was in poor health, according to his family.
Netzah Yehuda, which operates solely in the West Bank, has long been plagued by allegations of brutality and abuse against Palestinians
Kohavi said the soldiers’ decision to leave him on the ground in the freezing night was “grave and unethical.” Fuchs similarly denounced the decision, as well as the initial choice to violently detain him.
In his remarks, Gantz also called for the IDF, Shin Bet and police to crackdown on “nationalistic crime and Jewish terror” in the West Bank, using harsher terminology to describe Israeli extremist violence against Palestinians than is normally heard by Israeli officials. However, he stopped short of describing attackers as settlers, skirting verbiage that has become a third rail for the government coalition.
The past year saw a major rise in violent attacks by Israeli extremists against Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, against Israeli left-wing activists and security forces. Gantz has called for the military and law enforcement to take a harsher stance against this violence.
“The IDF, police and Shin Bet are expanding their efforts, and we will ensure that all of the necessary forces are prepared for the mission. This is a fight that is important for our security and no less important for our ethical character,” Gantz said.
During the visit, Gantz met with Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and the head of the police’s West Bank division, Uzi Levi, in order to receive an update on the ongoing joint effort to combat “nationalistic crime,” his office said.
Though there is general consensus among the military, police and Shin Bet about the need to combat Israeli violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, the IDF and police over who is responsible for actually taking action against it.
As the military maintains a far larger physical presence in the West Bank than the police, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev has called for the IDF to directly intervene when Israelis attack Palestinians, detaining those involved until they can be handed over to the police.
The IDF, however, generally tries to limit its confrontation with Israeli civilians, particularly with Israeli settlers, in a bid to maintain positive relationships with the Israelis living in West Bank settlements, which the military is charged with protecting.