Two Israeli military officers will be removed from their positions immediately and a third will be formally censured over the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian American man, who suffered a heart attack after he was bound, gagged and abandoned in a half-constructed building by Israeli troops earlier this month, the Israel Defense Forces said Monday night.
The punishments against the commanders are the result of an internal disciplinary probe. A Military Police investigation into the case is ongoing, which will determine if charges will be filed against the soldiers involved.
According to the internal investigation, which was presented to IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Monday, a group of soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which operates solely in the West Bank and has been long-plagued by allegations of brutality and abuse against Palestinians, on January 12 set up a checkpoint outside the central West Bank village of Jiljilya, stopping cars and checking the identification documents of people inside.
One of those to pass through the checkpoint was Omar As’ad, 78. According to the soldiers, As’ad refused to identify himself when asked, so they bound his hands with zipties and moved him to the courtyard of a nearby abandoned building 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, tying a strip of fabric over his mouth, the probe found.
Three other Palestinians were brought to the same building. When the 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 largely unresponsive. But 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.
The military probe’s findings largely matched the claims of the three other Palestinians who were at the scene, who said the soldiers saw that As’ad was not fully conscious and left him anyway.
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.
Kohavi described the As’ad’s death as an extremely grave ethical failure by the soldiers involved.
“The troops leaving the scene and leaving As’ad in that place without checking his condition shows obtuseness and goes against IDF values, chiefly the need to preserve the respect of every person as a human being,” Kohavi said.
The IDF’s disciplinary probe found “an ethical failure by the soldiers and a mistake in their thought process, alongside a severe violation of the value of respecting people,” the military said.
The investigation “also found professional lacunae in the planning and execution of the” checkpoint, the IDF said.
In light of these failures, the commander of the soldiers’ platoon and the commander of their company will be immediately removed from their positions and will be barred from any command positions for the next two years, and the head of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion will be formally censured by the head of the IDF Central Command, the military said.
As’ad hailed from the quiet, well-heeled town of Jiljilya in the central West Bank north of Ramallah. In 1969, as newlyweds, Omar and wife Nazmiya moved to the United States, where they spent over four decades managing a number of grocery stores.
“We were doing well there. We opened a few stores, and we raised our sons and daughters,” Nazmiya said after her husband’s death.
But Nazmiya said she never really took to life in America. Her brother was killed during an armed robbery in a Chicago store, and once their children were all fully grown, the couple decided to return to their home village to live out their final years together.
In recent days, American officials have increasingly pressed their Israeli counterparts about As’ad’s death, as he was a US citizen. On Friday, the US State Department sent an inquiry to the IDF, asking why it had yet to reports its findings into As’ad’s death. The military appeared to respond to this, saying the disciplinary probe could only have been conducted after those involved were questioned by the Military Police.
The Military Police investigation into the As’ad’s death is ongoing. Once complete, the findings will be passed to the Military Advocate General, who will decide whether criminal charges should be filed.
The IDF on Monday said Military Police investigators have spoken to the officers involved, the soldiers and “additional witnesses,” and were working on speaking to Palestinian witnesses as well.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.