The US has called for “full accountability” from the IDF over the death of Palestinian-American Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, 78, from the West Bank village of Jiljilya, who died of a heart attack after he was detained by soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda Battalion at a roadblock on January 12.
“We expect a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday. “We welcome receiving additional information on these efforts as soon as possible. We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government.”
The US statement was issued a day after the IDF published the initial findings of its internal investigation, which found that the soldiers “showed a clear lapse of moral judgment and poor decision-making,” and a failure to “protect the sanctity of any human life.” The army announced that two officers would be dismissed from their positions immediately, and a third, a battalion commander, would be formally reprimanded.
According to the IDF, As’ad was detained by soldiers at an impromptu checkpoint after he refused their request to identify himself and yelled at them. The soldiers, who did not want to draw the attention of others in the area that a surprise inspection was taking place, took swift action. They arrested him, bound his hands, blindfolded and gagged him, and believing he had fallen asleep after moving him to a nearby construction site, left him lying on the ground.
He was later pronounced dead at a Ramallah hospital, where he was taken after one of four other Palestinians detained and then released saw that he was unresponsive and called for a doctor. An autopsy performed under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority concluded that he died of a “stress-induced sudden cardiac arrest due to external injuries.”
The results of the initial IDF probe were presented by OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs to Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, who said that As’ad’s death was the result of an extremely grave ethical failure and went against IDF values.
“Nobody should be left this way on the ground, no matter how old he is, even if he is asleep,” said Fuchs. “We arrested him, therefore it was our responsibility to take care of him.”
Of course, Kohavi and Fuchs are right. The soldiers should never have treated As’ad in such a cruel and inhumane way, and should certainly not have abandoned the old man on a cold winter’s night. Their behavior is unforgivable and contrary not only to IDF values, but to Jewish and humanitarian ones too.
Besides the IDF probe, a Military Police investigation into the death is continuing, and its findings will be presented to the military advocate general, who will decide whether criminal charges should be filed.
It should be noted that if As’ad had not been an American citizen who had lived in Milwaukee for many years and returned to the West Bank a decade ago, his death might not have received the extensive coverage it did in the international media.
At the same time, it must also be pointed out that the IDF roadblock had been set up to stop terrorists who regularly attack Israeli soldiers and civilians. Despite their deplorable conduct, and that it is unlikely an old man was planning a violent attack, the motive of the Netzah Yehuda soldiers is understandable: stopping terrorism.
The Netzah Yehuda battalion, which was established 20 years ago, comprises religiously observant soldiers, most of whom are haredi. The battalion, part of the Kfir Infantry Brigade, has been involved in several violent incidents against Palestinian detainees in recent years.
Calls to disband the battalion over the As’ad’s death are, however, not justified. There are rotten apples and bad behavior in every army that stain their otherwise good name and reputation.
But because the IDF prides itself on being the most moral army in the world, it must ensure not only that the soldiers involved are punished, but that lessons be learned for the future.
The military’s revised Code of Ethics written by a team of experts two decades ago called “Spirit of the IDF” states unequivocally: “The soldier will do his utmost to preserve human life...” The conduct of the IDF soldiers involved in As’ad’s death blatantly violated the spirit of the IDF, and is both morally reprehensible and intolerable. But we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.