Analysis |

In Death of Elderly Palestinian, the Israeli Army Ignores the Elephant in the Room

The Netzah Yehuda Battalion, whose troops left an 80-year-old man to die in the cold, has a concerning past and extremist ideology – and something in common with the friendly-fire incident that took two Israeli officers' lives

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, at a military ceremony in January.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, at a military ceremony in January.Credit: Fadi Amun
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The series of decisions that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi made on Monday were well needed. They came in response to the death of Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, an elderly Palestinian man, after he was detained by soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion. The findings of subsequent investigations – from the media and the Israeli military – into what transpired between As'ad and the members of the ultra-Orthodox battalion called for a serious response.

Kochavi described the behavior of the soldiers as “insensitive” and ordered the battalion commanders to be reprimanded. He also dismissed two more junior officers who had been at the scene from their posts. A parallel military police investigation is still underway.

Nevertheless, it seems that given the seriousness of the incident, the chief of staff could have let himself take things a few steps further. First, the firing of the platoon and company commanders contains a strange caveat: They will be barred from command roles for two years. And then what? If, in the meantime, they aren’t involved in the deaths of other senior citizens, will they once again be capable commanders in the eyes of the IDF?

And second, the army refrained from leveraging the conversation to address the very existence of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, even though its performance over the years has been mediocre and riddled with serious ethical violations.

The findings of the Central Command’s probe confirm what was already reported in Haaretz: One of the battalion's companies set up a surprise checkpoint in the middle of the night outside the village of Jiljilya, north of Ramallah, and stopped Palestinian drivers to search their vehicles. As’ad, who was already agitated, argued with the soldiers when he was stopped. The soldiers then forcibly overpowered him, handcuffed him and, for some of the time they detained him, covered his mouth.

He was placed on the ground, in the freezing cold, next to other detainees. A short time later, when the other Palestinian drivers were being released, As’ad was unresponsive and remained prone on the ground. The soldiers, who claimed later that they thought he was sleeping, left him there, even as they allowed the others to leave. After the soldiers themselves departed, local residents alerted a Palestinian doctor, who found that As’ad had died of a heart attack.

This is a horrific chain of events that demonstrate, as senior officers have since noted, that these soldiers did not see As’ad as a human being. They ignored the fact that a man who could have been their grandfather did not pose a threat, treated him with excessive roughness and then left him to die, despite clear indications that there was a problem.

On Tuesday morning, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, who heads the Central Command, described the conduct of the commanders and soldiers at the scene as “obtuse” and said they displayed “poor judgment.” It’s doubtful that that sums up the situation.

The soldiers’ version of events – that they did not beat As'ad and that they did not notice his deteriorating condition – doesn’t seem convincing. The obtuseness doesn’t end at the company or platoon level.

Boredom and burnout

When it comes to maintaining the occupation, the Nahal Haredi Battalion, as Netzah Yehuda used to be known, sits at the bottom of the pyramid. The battalion spends nine or 10 months of the year in the West Bank and gets minimal training; other infantry battalions spend about half their time in training. The army even avoids moving it from one operational area of the West Bank to another. The result for the troops is boredom and burnout, which their commanders try to mitigate with missions taken of their own initiative. This is how a surprise checkpoint in the middle of a village is born.

An operation like this can make sense when the army is looking for a terrorist cell after a shooting attack. It is much less needed when all of the people detained in said operation are, according to Palestinian witnesses, over 50 years old.

The attempt to add a bit of variety to the troops' missions created another problem: The soldiers were told to act “clandestinely.” In order to do that, they had to keep As’ad quiet. They did so by placing a strip of fabric over his mouth (the IDF says it was removed or fell out after a short time).

As was already reported in Haaretz, this is not a particularly unusual incident for the battalion. Its mix of young men who have dropped out of Haredi educational institutions and settler hilltop youth has created an extreme ideological line among the soldiers, which neither the army brass nor the battalion’s officers did much to address. That grew into frequent incidents like beating Palestinians, which in some cases led to indictments.

The steady stream of incidents gave rise to recommendations, both inside and outside the IDF, to disband the battalion or at least move it out of the West Bank to another operational area. In recent years, the IDF closed or reduced its ethnic-based units, such as the Bedouin and Druze battalions. But it appears that the Defense Ministry and chief of staff both fear that any change regarding Netzah Yehuda would come with a political price.

Disbanding the battalion, especially after an internal IDF committee found that the military had for years inflated its numbers of ultra-Orthodox recruits, may make the Knesset and cabinet take notice. On the other hand, right-wing groups may view it as harassment of soldiers on ideological grounds.

A rabbi recites a prayer as Nahal Haredi, now Netzah Yehudah Battalion, soldiers finish basic training, at Masada, in 2012. Credit: Alex Levac

But there is another consideration in the background, which the army is not rushing to admit: Netzah Yehuda is a big battalion, and its soldiers are highly motivated to serve in the West Bank. Its presence there frees higher-quality battalions to train for war. That is an asset the IDF is loath to give up, despite all the warning signs.

The Military Police investigation into the affair has yet to be completed. If the military prosecutor decides to bring some of the people involved to trial, we can expect a political storm to ensue. That is the long-term effect of the Elor Azaria trial: Every indictment involving soldiers’ conduct toward Palestinians risks setting off a tsunami from the right that has nothing to do with the severity of the charges.

But one day, if Channel 12 News invites the mother of the soldiers facing indictment in the As'ad affair to the studio, remember the circumstances of the case. According to the army’s own findings, those soldiers left an 80-year-old man to die in the cold with the unconvincing excuse that they thought he was asleep.

Disproportionate responses

This is not the only important inquiry to reach the chief of staff’s desk this week. Kochavi is in the middle of a challenging week, during which he held a series of discussions on the accident that occurred at the Nabi Musa base, where two officers from the Egoz unit were accidentally killed by a fellow officer. An expert committee headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon is investigating the incident, as is Egoz itself, which is a commando unit assigned to the Central Command.

As was reported after the accident, the case of friendly fire exposed a series of major shortcomings. For instance, the unit left the base without coordinating and without two-way radios. It didn’t operate according to standard procedure, and the entire training exercise was especially disorderly. It also turns out, as verified by reports in Haaretz, that there had been several wild chases for people suspected of stealing equipment on those training grounds in the weeks leading up to the accident.

The training grounds where the Egoz friendly fire incident took place, in the Jordan Valley. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Some of the reports' contributors disagreed about which questions to focus on: the errors made within the Egoz unit, or broader failures found in other infantry units that point to a problematic organizational culture. There was also the question of how much the changes in the army's open-fire regulations – and confusion regarding the measures that need to be taken – contributed to the fatal incident. Two majors – Ofek Aharon and Itamar Elharar – were killed in the accident.

More disputes are likely to follow regarding what changes should be made on the command level in response. At the moment, it appears that the commander of Egoz, Lieutenant Colonel A., is in danger of being removed from his post. A., who has been described as an excellent officer, was cited for courage under fire in Gaza. Next summer, he was supposed to be promoted to colonel and be appointed to command a reserve battalion. Due to the errors revealed by the investigations' findings, he will most likely be disciplined.

But, as in the case of the investigation into Netzah Yehuda, it seems that there are deeper messages in the Egoz affair that go beyond the unit itself. One can even find a common denominator between the two: N., the commander of the Egoz team that fired the shots, set out to find weapon thieves in the Judean Desert with a bullet already in the chamber of his gun, as if he was preparing to ambush terrorists in southern Lebanon. The soldiers of Netzah Yehuda treated the elderly As’ad as if he were a dangerous terrorist. It is likely that the “secrecy” they were ordered to keep as part of the operation contributed to his death.

In both incidents, the soldiers and their immediate commanders acted disproportionately, taking measures that were excessive in relation to the smaller missions they had been assigned. That led, directly or indirectly, to the utterly unnecessary loss of life.

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