Israeli soldiers will not face criminal charges in death of elderly Palestinian-American

Isabel Debre

AP  /  June 13, 2023

JERUSALEM – The Israeli military said Tuesday that it would not bring criminal charges against soldiers involved in the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian-American who was dragged from a car, bound and blindfolded after being stopped at an impromptu checkpoint last year.

The army said that the soldiers would not face prosecution because military investigators could not directly link their actions to the death of American citizen Omar Assad. It said that the soldiers would face only disciplinary measures.

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 army added, without elaborating.

Human rights groups long have argued that Israel rarely holds soldiers accountable for the deaths of Palestinians, with military investigations often reflecting a pattern of impunity. B’Tselem, a leading Israeli watchdog, grew so frustrated with the system that in 2016 it dismissed the probes as a whitewash and halted its decades-long practice of assisting investigations.

Even in the most shocking cases — and those captured on video — soldiers often get relatively light sentences. The deaths of American citizens have drawn outsized attention, such as the killing of prominent Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last year in the Jenin refugee camp last year.

Several independent investigations determined that Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli fire. Israeli officials eventually conceded that an Israeli soldier probably killed her but ruled out any criminal investigation into her death.

High-profile cases, like those of Abu Akleh and Assad, have sparked outrage over the dangers of life in the occupied West Bank. Palestinians say they suffer systematic mistreatment living under military occupation.

Israel announced its decision not to file charges in Assad’s case just before 11 p.m. local time. The news did not surprise Nawaf Assad, Omar’s brother living in Virginia.

“Israel somehow gets away with anything it wants,” he said. “It’s still clear to us that the soldiers acted criminally.”

Assad died in January 2022 after Israeli soldiers bound, temporarily gagged, blindfolded and left him on the cold ground. Assad had refused to show the Israeli soldiers identification when they stopped him at a checkpoint while he was driving home late one night, according to the Israeli military investigation.

Investigators said soldiers were forced to restrain Assad because of his “aggressive resistance.” Assad’s family has expressed scepticism that the behavior of an ailing 78-year-old could justify such harsh treatment.

The military investigation said that Israeli soldiers assumed that Assad was asleep when they cut off the cables binding his hands. They didn’t offer medical help when they saw that he was unresponsive and left the scene without checking to see if he was alive. An autopsy said Assad died of a heart attack.

Last year, the Israeli military said the soldiers at the scene were guilty of a “moral failure and poor-decision making” — a rare concession of error.

On Tuesday, the military again acknowledged the soldiers’ misconduct, saying their actions “did not correspond with what is required and expected” of the Israeli military.

But the army argued that it was “not possible to determine that Assad’s death was caused specifically by the soldiers’ conduct.” Troops could not have been aware of Assad’s medical condition, it added.

Nawaf Assad said his family needed time to determine their next steps. “I still want to see justice somehow,” he said.