IDF chief says he expects soldiers to 'respect human life'

General: Troops were too mission-focused when they left elderly Palestinian to die

Central Command chief Yehuda Fuchs decries ‘extremely grave ethical failure’ of Netzah Yehuda soldiers, but says there was no malice on their part

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Palestinian relatives carry the body of Omar As'ad, at his funeral; As'ad was found dead after being detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, in Jiljilya village in the West Bank, on January 13, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)
Palestinian relatives carry the body of Omar As'ad, at his funeral; As'ad was found dead after being detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, in Jiljilya village in the West Bank, on January 13, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

The head of the military’s Central Command on Tuesday condemned soldiers for leaving an elderly Palestinian man on the ground at a construction site, where he subsequently died of heart failure, after they detained him in the middle of the night, but said they did so due to over-dedication to their mission rather than a desire to harm him.

Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs described the incident as an “extremely grave ethical failure” and said the officers involved should have used greater discretion in deciding to detain the 78-year-old man, Omar As’ad, in the first place as well as to then leave him unconscious in a half-constructed building.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi similarly denounced the soldiers’ actions on Tuesday in remarks made to officers preparing to become company and battalion commanders.

“The way they left that man on the ground was grave and unethical. There’s no contradiction between focusing on the mission and preserving the IDF’s values. IDF soldiers and commanders have the tools to handle that complexity,” Kohavi said.

“I expect every soldier and commander to conduct their mission with determination, to know how to fight, but also to respect human life and respect the IDF’s values,” he added.

According to an Israel Defense Forces probe presented to IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Monday, a group of some 30 soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which operates solely in the West Bank and has long been plagued by allegations of brutality and abuse against Palestinians, set up an impromptu checkpoint in the central West Bank village of Jiljilya on January 12, 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 zipties, 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, the probe found. According to Fuchs, the gag was only left in place for a short amount of time.

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 in the building without “realizing the signs of distress or other suspicious signs regarding his health. In light of his behavior, the soldiers assumed he was sleeping and didn’t try to wake him,” the IDF said.

Omar As’ad. (Courtesy)

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 determined that he had died of a stress-induced heart attack, brought on by being bound and gagged. As’ad had previously undergone open-heart surgery and was in poor health, according to his family.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Fuchs said the decision to leave As’ad on the ground when the soldiers took down their checkpoint was mistaken.

“You don’t leave a man lying on the ground. They should have woken him up and put him in his car,” Fuchs said. “The soldiers showed callousness and lack of compassion in terms of respect for human life.”

The Central Command chief said their decision to leave him, unconscious on the ground in the middle of a near-freezing winter night, was not made out of malice, but because “they cared more about completing their mission” than about ensuring As’ad’s well-being.

Fuchs also spoke out in support of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which has a long history of abuse and unnecessary violence toward Palestinians and Arab Israelis. Asked to respond to criticism of the unit from within the army, with some IDF officers describing the detachment as an independent militia, like the Phalangists in Lebanon or the so-called “hilltop youth,” young far-right extremist settlers who populate illegal outposts on West Bank hilltops, Fuchs said the unit has been instrumental in the military’s counter-terrorism efforts in the West Bank.

“Netzah Yehuda are not Phalangists,” he said.

Illustrative: One of five Netzah Yehuda soldiers convicted of beating two Palestinian detainees arrives for a court hearing at the Jaffa Military Court, on January 10, 2019. (Flash90)

The battalion was initially formed as an ultra-Orthodox detachment, giving such soldiers the opportunity to serve in a unit with limited contact with female soldiers and with dedicated time for prayer and religious study, but it has expanded to be a more generally religious unit, though it still has some ultra-Orthodox members. The unit serves solely in the West Bank — unlike other combat units, which also serve on the country’s borders — and has a reputation of attracting far-right recruits.

Fuchs acknowledged the unit’s issues but said that in recent years efforts have been made to address them.

“Most of the events that the battalion had problems with recently were reported [to authorities] from within the battalion,” he noted.

However, Fuchs said that while for now the Netzah Yehuda Battalion would continue to operate solely within the West Bank for the immediate future, the military was planning on moving the unit between different parts of the territory in order to prevent boredom, which has been found to increase the likelihood of abuse.

Fuchs said that he did not oppose deploying the battalion to other areas besides the West Bank and that the military ought to consider doing so.

In the wake of the probe, two junior officers were dismissed from their positions and barred from command roles for the next two years, and the commander of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion will be formally censured.

Fuchs defended the decision to not take disciplinary action against the soldiers involved in As’ad’s death, saying the responsibility was ultimately the commanders’.

“This was an extremely grave ethical failure,” Fuchs said. “I don’t think anyone intended to do this. But it’s our responsibility as the military. We will learn from this event.”

He also took issue with the initial decision to violently detain the man in the first place.

Then-Brig. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs speaks to soldiers in an undated photograph when he served as commander of the army’s Gaza Division. (Israel Defense Forces)

“They could have done any number of things besides that. They could have just released him. They could have detained him but left him in his car. This was an entirely insensitive thought process,” Fuchs said, adding that he expects officers to use discretion in these types of events.

However, he added that just because As’ad was nearly 80 years old did not mean he was immune to detention.

There is, as well, an ongoing Military Police investigation into the incident, which may find individual soldiers culpable, he noted.

Fuchs also defended the decision to set up an impromptu checkpoint inside the village, saying the practice, which many human rights activists decry as a method of intimidation and collective punishment, has allowed soldiers to arrest terrorist operatives, find weapons and otherwise prevent attacks.

However, Fuchs said that the way in which the soldiers conducted the checkpoint was generally not in line with military standards, in terms of where it was set up and how it was run from a safety standpoint, which he said was a separate issue from As’ad’s death.

“We have a protocol for how to do a checkpoint. They didn’t do it that way. It doesn’t have anything to do with the elderly man’s death. But they planned it incorrectly in terms of professional standards,” Fuchs said.

“These types of checkpoints are important, but we have a responsibility to do these things professionally and ethically,” he added.

Fuchs denied any connection between the fact that As’ad was an American citizen — leading to inquiries and criticism from US officials — and the military’s decision to launch a probe into his death and punish the officers involved.

“The investigation began before we knew he was an American citizen,” he said.

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