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A Palestinian-American died in Israeli custody. American Jews help fund the unit responsible

An 80 year-old Palestinian-American, Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, died cold and alone on Jan. 12, 2022.

He died after being dragged from his vehicle, handcuffed, gagged and forced to lie on his stomach on frigid marble ground in below-freezing temperatures.

Omar As’ad’s son told the Associated Press that his father was “the life of the party” and a generous philanthropist, giving often to the poor. “He just loved everybody.”

As’ad also loved to eat, particularly his favorite dish maqluba, and play cards. He was returning home from a late-night game with a cousin when he ran into the makeshift checkpoint.

The sequence of events that resulted in his death remains unclear. We know that around 3:00 a.m., As’ad encountered a spontaneous checkpoint on his way home in Jiljilya, a small, well-off village north of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

An hour later, he was dead. The autopsy report listed his cause of death as a heart attack brought on by “external violence,” with bruises on his head indicating traumatic brain injuries.

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While routine checkpoints for Palestinians entering Israel-proper from the West Bank are part and parcel of daily life, it’s hard to see what threat to Israeli security necessitated setting up a makeshift checkpoint in the middle of a quiet village, not to mention violently detaining an elderly man and leaving him to die.

While it happened in the Middle East, in many ways, this was an American tragedy. Omar As’ad, his wife and all five of his children are American citizens. And Netzah Yehuda, the unit who set up the checkpoint, receives significant financial support from a U.S.-based nonprofit, the majority of whose board members live in the United States.

As’ad lived in Milwaukee for nearly all of his 40 years in the United States. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Gwen S. Moore, both Wisconsin Democrats, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding a formal investigation into the circumstances around As’ad’s death.

The death of an American citizen at the hands of this battalion is a stain upon those directly responsible for funding the unit. But I am also troubled by the silence in the broader American Jewish community.

The Netzah Yehuda unit of the Israel Defense Forces was established in 1999 for haredim not suited to full-time yeshiva study, offering soldiers the option for strict halachic observance within a combat unit. Thousands of young men currently serve through the program, according to the organization’s website.

The founding intention was to give outcasts within ultra-Orthodox communities a chance to participate in Israeli society while still being immersed in Torah and shielded from a secular lifestyle. But more frequently, writes Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, Netzah Yehuda attracts religious-extremist settlers known as “hilltop youth,” who have been recently implicated in waves of violence against local Palestinians.

“We are talking about an especially difficult population,” writes Asaf Malchi, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

That “difficult population” has become infamous for violence.

Netzah Yehuda soldiers have been accused of brutalizing Palestinians in their custody, including electrical shocks and sodomizing an individual in their custody with a gun butt. The amount of abuse allegations in recent years is staggering.

Unlike other infantry units, whose service will rotate them throughout different bases around the country, the soldiers in the Netzah Yehuda battalion serve entirely in the West Bank. A former Netzah Yehuda member told Haaretz that Netzah Yehuda soldiers take pride in the fact that “unlike all the brigades that are replaced every few weeks, we live this sector and know what to do.”

The head of the Israeli military’s Central Command called this latest incident a “basic failure in the value of human dignity,” and Israeli defense officials told Haaretz they “felt embarrassment” over the “lack of humanity” when American officials demanded answers about As’ad’s death.

How can Friends of Nahal Haredi, an organization whose leaders are deeply devoted to Torah, justify funding this unit?

Secretary of State Blinken and the Biden Administration must push Israel for real accountability: it is not okay for Palestinian-American grandfathers to have flannel stuffed in their mouths, be zip-tied and thrown to a cold floor, and left to die.

And the broader American Jewish community should demand answers from the New York-based Friends of Nahal Haredi — not because we are responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, but because Jewish values demand action in the face of such a flagrant miscarriage of justice.

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