DCritics of the occupation regime have long complained that Palestinians in the occupied territories are subjected to harassment or even violence by the Israeli army on a daily basis. Likewise, this rarely has any serious consequences, or any consequences at all, for the soldiers involved. The death of a 78-year-old man in army custody has now led to an internal military investigation which has concluded there was a “moral failure” by the soldiers.
Two commanders were relieved of their posts for two years, and another was reprimanded. According to the army, these are harsh penalties. In addition, the military police are conducting a criminal investigation, the outcome of which is still pending. However, the military’s investigative report into the “very serious, extraordinary and deplorable” incident dismisses a key Palestinian claim: that the heart attack the man suffered was the result of excessive violence.
On the floor in the cold for an hour
Omar Abdulmajid Assad was on his way to his home in the village of Dschildjilya, northwest of Ramallah, on the night of January 12 when his car was stopped at a roadblock. A unit of the Israeli occupying army set it up at short notice – according to the military, to prevent “terrorist activities” and to confiscate weapons. Assad could not identify himself and apparently got into an argument with the soldiers. They then forcibly took him to an empty building nearby, handcuffed and gagged him.
Inside the house, the old man lay on his stomach on the floor in the cold for at least half an hour. Several other Palestinians were also arrested and taken there. An initial statement from the army said Assad was “released” after a while. In fact, however, the soldiers only untied his handcuffs and left the premises. Only then, as some of the other Palestinians told the media, did they notice Assad’s motionless body in the dark room. They called doctors who took Assad to a hospital in Ramallah; there his death was declared.
The investigative report now states that the soldiers assumed Assad was asleep. Regardless, they would have failed in their duty by just leaving him on the floor like that. Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said it was a “careless act” that goes against the “values” of the Israeli army. On Tuesday he even spoke of “immoral and reprehensible” behavior from which all units should learn.
The army leadership was presumably under particular pressure to ensure a quick clarification in this case, because Omar Abdulmajid Assad also had American citizenship and had lived in Wisconsin for a long time. Several members of Congress sharply criticized Israel after Assad’s death, and the State Department spokesman called for a “thorough investigation” into the case.
Notorious Ultra-Orthodox battalion
The unit that was responsible for the operation also came into focus – and not for the first time. Netzah Yehuda (Eternity of Judah) Battalion is a unit composed exclusively of male ultra-Orthodox Jews. It was established in 1999 under the name Nahal Haredi to allow ultra-Orthodox people to serve in the army while respecting their religious dictates. Many of the battalion’s members have previously attended ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious schools or come from radical settlements.
The unit has earned a reputation for its frequent abuse of Palestinians. In one instance, in late 2019, Netzah Yehuda soldiers even beat up a Palestinian Bedouin at a gas station in the Negev, Israel. The left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted senior officers as reporting ongoing disciplinary problems in the battalion. The army leadership is also aware of the problem. Consequences for the entire battalion have not yet been drawn.