Calls for Israel to investigate itself are empty gestures

Mourners attend the funeral of Haj Suleiman Hathaleen near Yatta in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills on 18 January 2022. Carmel settlement is seen in the background.

Mamoun Wazwaz APA images

The UN agency for Palestine refugees is calling on Israel to investigate the death of Haj Suleiman Hathaleen.

The elderly Palestinian community leader died on Monday after he was struck by a tow truck during a police operation in the southern West Bank earlier this month.

By calling on “the ISF” – a reference to “Israeli security forces,” an offensive euphemism for Israel’s forces of occupation – to investigate themselves, UNRWA is essentially asking the fox to establish responsibility for the disappearance of chickens from the proverbial henhouse.

It is part of a broader pattern of third states and international agencies deferring to Israel’s sham self-investigations that the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has dismissed as a “fig leaf” mechanism to whitewash the crimes of the occupation.

That system exists so that Israel can claim that it investigates crimes against Palestinians carried out by its forces and ward off the attention of international justice bodies like the International Criminal Court.

By constantly deferring to Israel’s self-investigation mechanism, UNRWA and others are shirking their responsibility to take meaningful action and are perpetuating a system of entrenched impunity.

Israel has demonstrated that it has no interest in taking responsibility for the death of Hathaleen.

Its police drove off after the tow truck carrying cars confiscated from Palestinians veered off course and struck the elderly man, dragging his body several meters.

The driver of the truck has yet to be questioned by police, the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported on Wednesday.

One of Hathaleen’s sons attempted to file a complaint against the driver at a police station at a nearby Israeli settlement.

Haaretz reported that “​​the police refused to accept the complaint and told him to file it with the justice ministry’s police misconduct unit, although the driver was a civilian and not a policeman.”

Haaretz added that a photo taken shortly before Hathaleen was injured shows an Israeli officer wearing what appears to be a body camera.

Shortly before striking Hathaleen, the truck driver posted a video on his Facebook page recorded by a dashboard-mounted camera.

Yet the Israeli police say they didn’t have cameras at the time of the incident.


According to Haaretz, “the police said they are investigating the incident with input from the State Prosecutor’s Office.”

In order to view this claim as credible, one would have to ignore all the evidence to the contrary in the case of Hathaleen’s death, and the behavior of Israeli police in the cases of countless Palestinians who were killed before him.

The same goes for Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz’s assertion that the death of Omar Assad is being investigated by the military.

Assad, an older man with multiple medical conditions, was detained by soldiers while driving home after visiting relatives in Jiljilya village near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank during the early hours of 12 January.

More than 50 soldiers had entered the typically quiet village that night. “No apparent military operation and no active hostilities” were underway at the time, according to Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group.

Assad was one of four Palestinian men who were arbitarily detained and taken to a building under construction.

They were held for more than an hour in freezing winter weather.

One of the detained men testified to Al-Haq that Assad lost consciousness in the presence of the soldiers.

Instead of providing him with medical care, according to Al-Haq, the soldiers “quickly left the scene.”

Assad was then found unresponsive, a plastic zip-tie still around one of his wrists and a blindfold over his eyes.

A local doctor tried to resuscitate Assad, to no avail.

Palestinians mourn Omar Assad during his funeral in the West Bank village of Jiljilya on 13 January.

Ahmad Arouri APA images

Al-Haq states that the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of Assad at the hands of the Israeli military “may amount to torture.”

The Israeli military published a statement shortly after Assad’s death claiming that soldiers had apprehended a Palestinian “resisting a check, and he was released later that night.”

To put it generously, the Israeli military’s claim is not credible. To put it plainly, it is a lie.

Wake up to reality

Al-Haq states that the soldiers’ conduct towards Assad may amount to war crimes subject to investigation by the International Criminal Court.

The group called on the international tribunal to “expedite its investigation” of suspected war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Assad held US citizenship and raised his seven children in the country. His treatment and death has generated unusual attention from American lawmakers relative to other Palestinians who have died in Israeli custody.

The US Embassy in Israel said that it expected Israel to carry out a “thorough investigation” into Assad’s death.

The US State Department has meanwhile asked Israel for “clarification.”

But these are empty gestures.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, told the Biden administration last year that there is a “deep systemic failure” when it comes to securing accountability for Palestinians harmed by Israelis.

For example, of the more than 215 Palestinians killed by Israeli army snipers during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza beginning in March 2018, only one indictment has been filed.

“The indicted soldier was convicted of minor offenses and received an extremely lenient sentence,” according to Yesh Din.

Between 2017-2018, 80 percent percent of complaints against soldiers suspected of harming Palestinians were closed without any investigation. Of the investigations that were opened, only around 3 percent led to indictments.

“Israel is unable or unwilling to take resolute action … to eradicate violence and harm to Palestinians and to investigate suspicions of human rights violations or war crimes,” Yesh Din stated.

It’s a reality of total impunity that Palestinians know all too well.

As Hala Hamad, one of Assad’s daughters, told The Washington Post, her family wants “a thorough investigation from the US government and the UN because [Israel] can’t investigate their own crimes.”

UNRWA and any other institution truly concerned with Palestinian rights must wake up and acknowledge that truth.


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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.