A military investigation into the death of an 80-year-old Palestinian, who died after being detained by Israeli soldiers earlier this month, shows a grave "moral lapse" by the soldiers involved in the incident.
Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi received Sunday the findings of the investigation into the death of Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad who was detained by soldiers belonging to the Netzah Yehuda battalion.
As’ad, who was also a U.S. citizen, was detained three weeks ago at a checkpoint north of Ramallah. He apparently died after being handcuffed, gagged and forced to lie on his stomach in the cold while in custody, allegedly without any attempt at medical intervention by the soldiers guarding him.
After Kochavi was shown the report, IDF representatives forwarded the findings to the American military attaché in Israel. The United States had demanded clarifications from Israel regarding the incident and the circumstances of As’ad’s death.
On Monday, two members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation asked the Biden administration to also investigate the death of As'ad, who lived in Milwaukee before moving back to his home village in the West Bank.
Israeli defense officials said they felt embarrassment in their conversation with the Americans because of the soldiers’ conduct and “lack of humanity” towards As’ad and the other Palestinians they had detained.
The report, released late Monday night, stated that the investigation found that As’ad had been stopped while driving as part of an anti-terror operation to find weapons, and that he had refused to be checked. A fabric strap was tied around his mouth and his hands were cuffed, it stated. No other force was used on him and the soldiers did not see signs of distress, it said in its statement. After the operation, about half an hour later, the soldiers freed As’ad and the other detainees from their handcuffs. Based on his behavior, the soldiers believed he was asleep and did not try to wake him.
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“The investigation found the incident to be serious and unfortunate. It indicates a moral failure and a failure of judgment and severely harms human dignity,” the statement said.
According to the report, Kochavi stated that the soldiers’ decision to leave As’ad without checking on him goes against the IDF’s moral obligations. IDF officials said the officers had created an “enabling atmosphere” for such incidents to occur and failed to enforce discipline.
The commander of the Netzah Yehuda battalion will be rebuked, and two subordinate company and platoon commanders will be immediately dismissed, but the soldiers involved are not likely to be held directly responsible for As’ad’s death. The section of the report dealing with suspicions against the soldiers and commanders holds them responsible for “the circumstances behind the death of Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad.” Still, at this stage of the investigation army prosecutors believe, based on evidence gathered by the military police, that the conduct of the Netzah Yehuda soldiers contributed to As’ad’s death.
The soldiers told military police investigators and the report's authors that after they had completed their mission, which lasted about an hour, they returned to the abandoned building where they had left As’ad handcuffed and with a cloth over his face, along with three other Palestinian detainees who were also handcuffed.
The soldiers said they told all the detainees they were free to leave but that after the other three departed they found As’ad still lying on the ground. Though he was 80 years old and it was very cold, the soldiers thought nothing of the fact that he was lying motionless, deciding to leave him in the abandoned building. According to them, they assumed he was asleep and left without seeking medical aid.
Three soldiers involved in the incident, and their platoon commander, are expected to be questioned on Tuesday by military police. To date, several soldiers and commanders have been questioned under warning, including the company commander.
The Israeli army said that “according to partial findings from the autopsy report, submitted by the Palestinians, As'ad died from a heart attack.” Last week, three Palestinian doctors who conducted the autopsy determined that As'ad's heart attack was caused by stress, after he was subjected to “external violence,” according to reports.
Senior officers who learned the details of the incident expressed shock at the soldiers' behavior. “They didn't see a human being in front of them,” the officers told Haaretz. “They delayed him during a routine activity, without sufficient cause. They lay him down and tied him up in the freezing cold, in almost zero degrees.”
“When other Palestinians alerted the soldiers to his condition, the soldiers removed them and did not let them approach As'ad. And then the soldiers just left. This is not murder, but it's an appalling incident. And it's not just low-ranking soldiers. This was a platoon commander and a company commander.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.