Israel punishes officers in death of elderly Palestinian man

Death of Omar Asaad, 78, had sparked calls for an investigation from the US State Department and from members of Congress.

Scene of a Palestinian ramming attack at an Israeli military checkpoint near the town of Abu Dis
Soldiers tied Asaad's hands and gagged him and took him to a nearby building with three other detainees shortly before he died [File: Ammar Awad/Reuters]

The Israeli army has said it is to strip two officers of their commands and reprimand a third following the death of an elderly Palestinian man during his arrest and assault by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death last month of 78-year-old Omar Abdulmajeed Asaad – who held a US passport – but called on Israel on Tuesday to probe all Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli troops, not just those involving US passport holders.

Asaad’s death had sparked calls for an investigation from the US State Department and from members of Congress from Wisconsin, where he had lived for decades, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

In a rare statement acknowledging error, the Israeli army said Asaad’s death during a late-night operation in the village of Jiljilya on the outskirts of Ramallah on January 12 was a result of “moral failure and poor decision-making”.

It said Asaad had no identification and “refused to cooperate” when he was stopped by troops. Soldiers tied his hands and gagged him and took him to a nearby building with three other detainees.

When troops released the detainees, they thought Asaad was “asleep” and left him where he was, the army said.

A post-mortem found he died of a “stress-induced heart attack caused by the circumstances of his detention by Israeli soldiers”, the Palestinians’ official news agency Wafa reported.

“The investigation concluded that the incident was a grave and unfortunate event, resulting from a moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers,” the army said in a statement.

Armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi said: “Leaving Mr Asaad alone and without checking his condition was a careless act that runs contrary to the values of the Israel Defence Force, at the centre of which is the requirement to protect the sanctity of any human life.”

The troops were part of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion of religious Jews.

US President Joe Biden’s administration said on Tuesday that it remained “deeply concerned” by Asaad’s death. “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,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement. “We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government.”

‘Faintest of rebukes’

The investigation was carried out by the head of Central Command, which oversees operations in the West Bank.

As a result of the probe, the battalion commander will be reprimanded, while the platoon and company commanders will be stripped of their commands, but not their ranks, and will “not serve in commanding roles for two years”.

The army said the military police are conducting a separate investigation into the case that could lead to criminal charges.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ibrahim Melhem told AFP news agency he welcomed the investigation but wanted to see broader accountability for Israeli actions. “Israel makes this investigation because the martyr holds a US passport,” Melhem said.

“There are many more martyrs like Omar killed by the Israeli army but, because they hold only Palestinian identities, no one cares about them.”

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem pointed out that Israel rarely holds soldiers accountable for the deaths of Palestinians and also said Asaad’s case likely got special attention because of US pressure and his American citizenship.

“Investigations usually take years and usually close with nothing,” said Dror Sadot, the group’s spokeswoman. “This is very unusual.”

Even in the most shocking cases — and those captured on video — soldiers often get relatively light sentences. Palestinians say they suffer systematic mistreatment living under military occupation.

The rights group accused the army of issuing “the faintest of rebukes” to its officers over Asaad’s death. “The fundamental moral failure is that of Israel’s senior echelons, leading a regime of Jewish supremacy, one in which the human life of Palestinians has no value,” it said in a statement.

B’Tselem said it had recorded 77 Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli security forces in the West Bank last year. More than half of those killed were not implicated in any attacks, it added.

Meanwhile, a cousin of Asaad who lives in the West Bank said the army’s response was “totally unacceptable” but that there was nothing the family could do unless Asaad’s relatives in the US take further action.

Overnight raids by the Israeli army are common practice in the West Bank, during which Palestinians are exposed to live fire, arrests, assaults and killings.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies