Israeli Army Weighs Moving Combat Unit Out of West Bank After Death of Elderly Palestinian

Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs said soldiers' actions in 80-year-old man’s arrest represent a ‘fundamental failure’ to respect human dignity

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Netzah Yehuda Battalion soldiers listening to a rabbi speak at their boot camp summery ceremony in 2013
Netzah Yehuda Battalion soldiers listening to a rabbi speak at their boot camp summery ceremony in 2013Credit: Alex Levac
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The death of an 80-year-old Palestinian after his detention by Israeli soldiers last month represented a “basic failure in the value of human dignity,” the commander of the Israeli military’s Central Command said on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters a day after the Israel Defense Forces released the findings of its own investigation into Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad’s death, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs said the military would need to weigh trasnferring the battalion whose soldiers apprehended the elderly Palestinian, deploying them somewhere outside the West Bank.

As’ad, who was also a U.S. citizen, was detained three weeks ago at a checkpoint north of Ramallah by the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, which is comprised mainly of ultra-Orthodox soldiers. While in custody, As'ad was motionless for an extended period of time, allegedly without any attempt at medical intervention by the soldiers guarding him. He was later declared dead at a nearby hospital.

The IDF investigation did not determine whether the soldiers caused As'ad's death, but did conclude that he died while in their custody. But autopsies conducted by three Palestinian doctors determined his death to be caused by a heart attack as a result of the stress he suffered while in the soldiers' custody, according to the Palestiniah Health Ministry.

There have been numerous reports of misconduct by the battalion’s soldiers in the West Bank in recent years. In 2019 and again last year charges were pressed against Netzah Yehuda troops for abusing detainees.

Fuchs described the incident as involving “a failure of values of the highest degree. You don’t leave a man lying on the floor, and it doesn’t make any difference how old they are.”

“There were serious mistakes made in decision-making by the commanders in the field, and the investigation shows operational problems in the force’s conduct,” Fuchs added. “It’s hard to imagine him [As’ad] lying there. I take responsibility for this incident, we take responsibility as an army.”

Reviewing the findings of the IDF’s investigation, Fuchs said that “one of the soldiers covered As’ad’s mouth so he would not reveal the presence of the force. Afterwards, he put a piece of flannel over his mouth, which he immediately removed.”

The commander said the soldiers decided to leave the area after removing handcuffs from As’ad and telling the four Palestinians they had detained that they were free to go.

“They never realized that there was any problem,” Fuchs said. “He was cuffed with his hands behind his back for 25 minutes while lying on the floor... and it was very cold.”

A number of senior officers with first-hand knowledge of its activities conceded in conversations with Haaretz that the army has an ongoing problem maintaining discipline and order in the battalion, which is part of the Kfir Brigade, and the number of incidents involving violence and hostility toward Palestinians is greater than in other units – even when taking into account that the battalion is usually stationed in the West Bank.

According to Fuchs, “I don’t really like it that one battalion stays in the same area for years.” According to him, it had already been decided to move the troops regardless of As’ad’s death and the probe into it.

Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi received the findings of the investigation on Sunday after which 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.

Kochavi reportadly stated that the soldiers’ decision to leave As’ad without checking on him goes against the IDF’s moral obligations. The commander of the Netzah Israel unit will be rebuked, and two subordinate company and platoon commanders will be immediately dismissed.

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