A human rights watchdog is calling on the US State Department to sanction an Israeli military unit responsible for the 2022 death of a 78-year-old Palestinian American man.
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said that “the US government should immediately impose Leahy Law sanctions” on the Netzah Yehuda unit after the Israeli military closed its probe of two soldiers over Omar Assad’s death without criminal charges.
DAWN added that it “investigated and documented a pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses” by the Netzah Yehuda unit and “and submitted its findings and previously unseen evidence to the State Department for Leahy Law vetting in October 2022.”
Soldiers in the Netzah Yehuda unit, notorious for abuses against Palestinians, are drawn from Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, particularly West Bank settlements built in violation of international law.
The US Leahy Law, named for the senator who championed it, prohibits US aid from funding units of a foreign country’s forces “where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.”
The US provides a floor of $3.8 billion in military assistance to Israel each year.
The law allows for a military unit to avoid sanction if the government to which it belongs “is taking effective steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.”
DAWN said that the Israeli investigation into Omar Assad’s death “does not meet the requirements” of the Leahy law “and should not be considered as a legitimate remediation measure.”
From the very beginning, Israel has sought to evade responsibility for Assad’s death.
The grandfather was found dead after being abducted, bound and gagged by soldiers who stopped him in the usually sleepy village of Jiljliya while he was driving home after visiting family. Assad was left lying on the ground at a construction site on a cold January night for more than an hour.
After finding him unresponsive, the soldiers hastily withdrew. Palestinians who came to Assad’s aid were unable to revive him.
Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, stated 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,” falsely suggesting that he was alive and responsive when the soldiers left.
An autopsy conducted by the Palestinian Authority found that Assad died due to “a stress-induced heart attack probably brought on by being bound and gagged and held in a cold construction site,” as The Washington Post reported.
The examination also “found evidence that Assad had been tightly bound and blindfolded, with abrasions on his wrists and bleeding on the insides of his eyelids.”
The Israeli military’s investigation reportedly found that the gag may have impeded Assad’s breathing “and made it difficult for him to request help,” the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported.
The paper added that sources familiar with the investigation said the older man’s “condition may have been worsened by very cold weather, and that he may have begun suffering from hypothermia.”
Despite these findings, the Israeli military said it found “irregularities” in the behavior of two commanders involved but that it was “not possible to establish a correlation between these irregularities and the death” of Assad.
Implausibly, the Israeli military’s investigation, relying on the opinion of a senior military doctor rather than the autopsy report, concluded that Assad died as a result of natural causes.
DAWN said that “the Israeli military sought only to give the appearance of an accountability process, while ensuring that there would be no meaningful outcome.”
“This follows decades of sham investigations by the Israeli military of killings of Palestinian civilians that absolve Israeli soldiers of responsibility in nearly 100 percent of the investigations they conduct,” the rights watchdog added.
The AP news agency, citing the Israeli army, reported that the “two commanders would be dismissed and barred from serving in senior military positions for two years,” effectively a slap on the wrist.
Only with great exception are Israeli soldiers held accountable for the deaths of Palestinians. In 2016, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem stopped cooperating with the military’s self-investigations, saying that they were a whitewashing mechanism that exists only to perpetuate the occupation.
Parties in the current Israeli government ruling coalition have sought to “codify Israel’s policy of near-blanket impunity to its armed forces in cases involving Palestinians,” according to the human rights group Adalah.
Adalah added that since October 2000, in only one case did Israel’s high court intervene in “authorities’ decision to close a case for the police’s killing of a Palestinian, despite the thousands of Palestinians killed and injured by Israeli security forces, with zero accountability.”
Hassan al-Khatib, an attorney for Assad’s family, said that he will appeal the decision and, if rejected, take the case to the high court.
Assad’s case has attracted additional attention because he was an American citizen. Last year, the US State Department said it wanted to see a criminal investigation into his death.
Assad’s family, including his adult children who still live in the United States, asked the US government last year to conduct its own investigation into his killing, but to no avail.
In October, Israel announced that it had agreed a financial settlement with the family, but through their US lawyer, the family denounced this as a lie. Israel had apparently hoped to pay the family off and make the issue go away.
It remains to be seen whether the US will now act, following the conclusion of the Israeli military’s self-investigation.
State Department officials initially stated that they would seek accountability following the May 2022 shooting death of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh.
But as months went by, US officials deferred to Israel’s discredited self-investigation mechanism and refused to acknowledge the evidence showing that the Palestinian American journalist was deliberately killed by an Israeli soldier.
The US opposes the ICC investigating the iconic journalist’s killing. The FBI is reportedly investigating her death.
During a press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that the Biden administration was aware that Israel had closed its probe into Assad’s death and said it was seeking more information.
“We expected a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability,” Miller affirmed, but wouldn’t say whether those expectations had been realized.