ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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IDF soldiers won’t be indicted over death of elderly Palestinian-American

Military says pair involved in abandoning 78-year-old Omar As’ad in January 2022 incident will face disciplinary action, but not criminal charges

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 Military Advocate General on Tuesday said criminal charges would not be brought against an officer and a soldier over the 2022 death of an elderly Palestinian-American, who suffered a heart attack after being temporarily bound and gagged by soldiers and later abandoned at a construction site in the middle of winter.

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 as they continued to examine people. 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 Israel Defense Forces probe of the January 12, 2022, 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.

In November 2022, the IDF said it had summoned the commander of the checkpoint force, a lieutenant, and the commander of the soldiers that guarded the detainees, a sergeant, for a hearing over the death of As’ad.

Indictments were considered against the pair after “irregularities” were found in their conduct. Still, the IDF said it was “not possible to establish a correlation between these irregularities and the death.” A military source claimed As’ad’s family had not cooperated with the IDF investigation, including refusing to hand over medical documents that could prove such a correlation.

The Military Advocate General’s Corps notified the pair via their lawyers that they would face disciplinary measures but that they would not be criminally prosecuted over the incident.

“The decision was made after an examination of the allegations raised in the hearings and a thorough examination of the investigative materials, from which it emerged that no correlation was found between the failures in the conduct of those involved and As’ad’s death,” the IDF said in a statement.

The IDF cited a medical opinion by a senior military doctor, “who found that it is not possible to establish that As’ad’s death was actually caused by the activities of the forces, or that the troops should have been aware of As’ad’s medical condition during the detainment and before his release.”

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

In October 2022, 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 surprise 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 until December 2022 only operated 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.

The controversial and violent incidents, especially the death of As’ad, have increased calls by some to shut the battalion down.

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