IDF mulls charges against 2 soldiers over death of elderly Palestinian-American man

Military summons pair involved in abandoning 78-year-old Omar As’ad in January incident, but army also says it can’t establish correlation between troops’ actions and his death

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Omar As'ad, a Palestinian-American who died after being violently detained by IDF troops in the West Bank on January 12, 2022. (Courtesy)
Omar As'ad, a Palestinian-American who died after being violently detained by IDF troops in the West Bank on January 12, 2022. (Courtesy)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday said it had summoned an officer and a soldier for a hearing over the death of an elderly Palestinian-American man who suffered a heart attack after being temporarily bound and gagged and later abandoned at a construction site in the middle of winter by Israeli soldiers.

Soldiers had detained 78-year-old Omar As’ad after he refused to identify himself at a random checkpoint the soldiers had set up in his village of Jiljilya in the central West Bank. They gagged him and tied his hands with zip-ties at a construction site in the near-freezing January night. When they later came to release him, he was unresponsive. The soldiers removed the bindings but left As’ad on the ground unconscious at the scene.

An IDF probe of the January 12 incident called As’ad’s death an “ethical failure” by the soldiers involved. Two junior officers were removed from their positions over the incident and the head of the unit, the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, was formally censured.

The IDF said Thursday that “irregularities” in the conduct of the commander of the checkpoint force, a Lieutenant, and the commander of the soldiers that guarded the detainees, a sergeant, were uncovered as part of the investigation, and therefore indictments were being considered against the pair.

Still, the IDF said it was “not possible to establish a correlation between these irregularities and the death.” A military source said As’ad’s family had not cooperated with the IDF investigation, including refusing to hand over medical documents that could prove such a correlation.

Hearing letters were sent by the IDF Military Advocate General’s Corps to the pair via their lawyers, the military said.

Israel faced intense pressure from the US to investigate the death and bring those responsible to justice, with As’ad also holding American citizenship.

Last month, the Defense Ministry confirmed it would compensate As’ad’s family, agreeing to pay some NIS 500,000 ($140,000) in return for dropping a legal claim.

According to the initial IDF probe, As’ad was detained by soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion who set up an impromptu checkpoint in the central West Bank village of Jiljilya, stopping cars and checking the identification documents of people inside.

The investigation found that As’ad — who refused to identify himself when asked and who yelled at the soldiers — was tackled by the troops, who then bound his hands with zip ties.

They 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 by tying a strip of fabric over his mouth for a short amount of time, the probe found.

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)

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 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 zip tie 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 tackled to the ground, bound and gagged. As’ad had previously undergone open-heart surgery and was in poor health, according to his family.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda battalion are seen at a military base, in the northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Soldiers in the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which operates in the West Bank, have been at the center of several controversies connected to right-wing extremism and violence against Palestinians.

Battalion members have been convicted in the past of torturing and abusing Palestinian prisoners.

In August, after four members of Netzah Yehuda were filmed beating a detained Palestinian, Israel’s Diaspora Minister Nachman Shay called for the unit to be shut down.

Some Israeli analysts and journalists also questioned whether it was time to close the battalion down after the death of As’ad.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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