Herzog Calls Death of Elderly Palestinian-American in Israeli Custody an 'Ethical Failure'

Israel's president says the 'completely unnecessary' death of 78-year-old Omar As'ad must be investigated, but reiterates that IDF soldiers are the 'best of the best'

Herzog, last November.
Herzog, last November.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog said Monday that the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian-American after being mistreated by IDF soldiers is an “ethical failure” which “should serve as a warning light for us all.”

Omar Abdalmajeed As'ad was detained by soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion at a West Bank temporary checkpoint on January 12. An initial army investigation determined that he died after being handcuffed, gagged, and forced to lie on his stomach in the cold without any medical aid from the soldiers guarding him. The elderly man had a history of diabetes and heart problems.

Herzog spoke at a conference for B'Sheva, a newspaper serving Israel’s national religious sector. He commented that the “completely unnecessary” death of As’ad “is a world apart from the imperative to ‘let your camp be holy’ [Deuteronomy 23:14], on which we were all raised.”

Herzog referred to the IDF soldiers as “the best of the best,” saying that they deserve “full backing” and “an embrace” from all Israelis. “But it is precisely for this reason, and because we pin such high expectations on them, that whenever there is an ethical failure, especially at the cost of human life, no stone must be left unturned in order to investigate, study, and do everything we can to prevent such a failure from recurring,” Herzog said, noting that As’ad was “as old as the grandmothers and grandfathers of our soldiers.”

Omar Abdalmajeed As'ad.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed “sorrow” at As’ad’s death, calling the incident “grave and unethical.”

As’ad hailed from the village of Jiljilya and lived among the Palestinian community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for decades before returning to the West Bank in 2009.

Speaking to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Nides on Friday, Army Chief Aviv Kochavi said the soldiers’ behavior was “a grave moral lapse,” echoing language used in the report issued after the initial military investigation.

According to the report, As’ad was stopped while driving by soldiers who were performing sweeping the local area. When he refused to be checked for weapons, the soldiers tied a cloth around his mouth and cuffed his hands, the report said. About half an hour later, the soldiers freed As’ad and other detainees from their restraints.

The soldiers believed As’ad was asleep and did not try to wake him, the report said, adding that “the incident showed a clear lapse of moral judgement” and a failure to “protect the sanctity of human life.”

After the report was published, the army announced that the commander of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion would be reprimanded and two officers – the company and platoon commanders – would be dismissed. Kochavi assured Nides that military police would continue to investigate.

The Biden administration has demanded a complete probe into the incident, as have several members of Congress. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, where As'ad lived, called his fate a "horrible tragedy," adding that As'ad's family "deserve answers."

“The United States expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case, and we welcome receiving additional information on these efforts as soon as possible,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement last week.

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