Israeli soldiers will not face criminal prosecution for the death of an elderly Palestinian-American man who was stopped at a checkpoint, dragged from a car, bound and blindfolded and then left unresponsive on the ground overnight after apparently suffering a heart attack due to his rough treatment.
Palestinian leaders had called for the Israeli soldiers that detained 80-year-old Omar Assad at a makeshift checkpoint in his West Bank hometown of Jiljilya to be prosecuted in an international court.
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Israel’s Military Advocate General – the Israeli army’s chief legal body – said in a statement on Tuesday that the soldiers involved would face only disciplinary measures.
A Palestinian autopsy found that Assad, a former resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the United States, had a history of heart problems and suffered cardiac arrest caused by stress. Palestinian officials attributed this to him having been manhandled by the Israeli soldiers.
Assad died in January 2022 after Israeli forces cuffed his hands with a zip tie, temporarily gagged, blindfolded and left him on the cold ground because, they claimed, he had refused to show identification when they stopped him at a checkpoint while he was driving home late one night, according to an Israeli military investigation.
The investigation also said the Israeli soldiers assumed that Assad was asleep when they cut off the cable binding his hands and did not offer medical help when they saw that the 80-year-old was unresponsive. They then left Assad lying on the ground without checking to see if he was alive. He was later found dead in the early morning with a plastic zip-tie still around one wrist.
Israeli investigators said the soldiers were forced to restrain Assad because of his “aggressive resistance”. Assad’s family had expressed scepticism that the behaviour of an ailing 80-year-old could justify such harsh treatment.
On Tuesday, the Israeli military acknowledged the soldiers’ misconduct, saying their actions “did not correspond with what is required and expected” of the Israeli military.
But the decision to not prosecute the Israeli soldiers involved was made “following the hearings and after a thorough examination of the investigation materials, which indicated no causal link was found between the errors in the conduct of the soldiers and [Assad’s] death”, the Israeli military’s advocate general said in a statement.
According to the statement, an Israeli military medical official said it was impossible to determine that Assad’s death was caused specifically by the soldiers’ conduct and that the soldiers could not have been aware of the 80-year-old’s medical condition.
Two commanders would be dismissed and barred from serving in senior military positions for two years, the military said. One of the commanders would be “reprimanded”, the Israeli military said, without elaborating, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
The news that Israel would not file charges in the case did not surprise Nawaf Assad, Omar’s brother living in Virginia, in the US.
“Israel somehow gets away with anything it wants,” he told the AP.
“It’s still clear to us that the soldiers acted criminally.”
‘US treats us as separate classes of citizens’
A report by Israeli rights group Yesh Din based on military data from 2017 to 2021 found that Israeli forces were prosecuted in less than 1 percent of hundreds of complaints filed against them on alleged offences against Palestinians.
In rare cases where soldiers were convicted of harming Palestinians, the military courts handed extremely lenient sentences, demonstrating “a reluctance on the part of the military law enforcement system to take appropriate action concerning crimes committed by soldiers against Palestinians”, the group said.
Assad was one of two US citizens killed by Israeli forces last year – along with Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
The two cases caused outrage in Arab-American communities amid the failure of US President Joe Biden administration to hold Israel accountable and continued unconditional support for the country.
“It’s not just that Israel sees two classes of American citizens, it is that the US treats us as separate classes of citizens [when] they do not give us equal protection,” James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute think tank, told Al Jazeera last month.
“We’re all deserving of the same rights. We’re not children of a lesser God,” he said.
The US State Department, which often says it has no higher priority than the safety of US citizens abroad, called last year for “a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability of Mr. Assad’s death”.
“We continue to closely track this case with the Israeli government,” the State Department told Al Jazeera at the time.
American Muslims for Palestine, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group, said in a social media post on Tuesday that “a criminal government cannot be trusted with prosecuting its own crimes. #OmarAssad“.
According to the Israeli investigation, dragging an 80 y/o man from his car, brutalizing him and leaving him for dead couldn’t have possibly led to his death. This is precisely why a criminal government cannot be trusted with prosecuting its own crimes. #OmarAssad https://t.co/FhZceCkrMH
— American Muslims for Palestine (@AMPalestine) June 13, 2023
“According to the Israeli investigation, dragging an 80 y/o man from his car, brutalizing him and leaving him for dead couldn’t have possibly led to his death,” the group said.