Widowed Palestinian doesn't expect much from US action against Israel

By Ali Sawafta

JILJILYA, West Bank (Reuters) - Omar Assad's 81-year-old widow still hopes to see justice served against the Israeli soldiers she blames for his death two years ago in the occupied West Bank, but isn't pinning hope on any action the United States might take against their battalion.

Assad, a dual Palestinian-U.S. citizen, died from a heart attack after being detained by members of the Israeli army's Netzah Yehuda unit. His widow, Nazmiya Assad, said he had been coming home from a game of cards when the soldiers held him.

He was 78 at the time of his death, and still had a plastic zip-tie around one wrist when he was found dead in the early morning at a construction site in his village of Jiljilya, some 20 km (12 miles) north of Ramallah.

A Palestinian autopsy found he died from a stress-induced heart attack brought on by being manhandled.

His death drew attention in the United States, which in 2022 called for a criminal investigation and is now reported by Israeli media to be planning sanctions against the Netzah Yehuda unit over its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank - an unprecedented step by Israel's closest ally.

News of the potential sanctions drew an outraged response from Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he would fight the decision "with all my strength."

Nazmiya Assad, speaking to Reuters in an interview at her home in Jiljilya, said it would be good if sanctions were imposed and the perpetrators brought to justice, saying this might serve to deter such violence in the future.

But she also expressed doubt Washington would take meaningful steps against Israel.

"I don't think they will do anything, because they give them the freedom to do whatever they want. They kill many people without compassion - the elderly, women, or children," she said, referring to Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank.

Even as Washington approves more military aid to Israel, the prospect of U.S. sanctions has added to strains in ties already frayed by differences over how Israel has waged its Gaza assault and by U.S. sanctions on violent Israeli settlers.

The Israeli military has said soldiers temporarily gagged Assad - who had a history of heart problems - with a strip of cloth and cuffed his hands with a zip tie because of his refusal to cooperate. The soldiers left him supine and unresponsive, saying they assumed he had fallen asleep.

Netzah Yehuda's battalion commander was reprimanded and two officers were dismissed, but Israeli military prosecutors decided against pursuing criminal charges because they said there was no link between the errors made by soldiers and Assad's death.

The Military Advocate General said a military medical official found it impossible to determine that his death was caused specifically by the soldiers' conduct, and that the soldiers could not have been aware of his medical condition.

Nazmiya Assad noted there was a medical centre a few hundred metres (yards) from where he was being held. "Not one of them had compassion to help the man," she said.

The Assads had lived in the United States for 45 years, returning to Jiljiya 10 years before his death.


Muraweh Abdel Rahman, 54, said he had been detained by the same group of solders and taken to the site where Assad was already being held. After the soldiers left, he said he ran to Assad's lifeless body. "I felt his neck there was no pulse. I felt his hand, there was no pulse," he said.

Abdel Rahman, a fruit and vegetable trader, said the soldiers had stopped his car as he was driving through the area with a friend in the early hours while on his way to market.

The soldiers bound their hands and forced them to sit on the ground at the construction site where Assad was being held.

Abdel Rahman said one of the soldiers held a rifle at his head and threatened to shoot him, and a second soldier struck him in the leg.

Asked for comment on the account, the Israeli military said the Netzah Yehuda battalion operates with full commitment to international law and the Israel Defense Forces acts to address incidents that deviate from orders and the expected values of its soldiers.

"In cases where suspicion of a criminal offence arises that justifies opening an investigation, an investigation is opened by the Military Police," it said. Any incident of inappropriate behaviour by soldiers is "handled accordingly", it said.

The Netzah Yehuda battalion was set up in 1999 to accommodate the religious beliefs of ultra-Orthodox Jews and other religious nationalist recruits in the Israeli army, which has occupied the West Bank since seizing it in a 1967 war.

The Israeli army says the Netzah Yehuda battalion is an active combat unit that operates according to the principles of international law. The battalion primarily operated in the West Bank before being moved out of the territory in late 2022 after U.S. criticism.

Abdel Rahman did not think U.S. sanctions have any impact.

"Our problem is not with a soldier, or a battalion ... our problem is the occupation. End the occupation, and we will be rid of all these problems," he said.

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)