OCCUPIED WEST BANK — Around 3 a.m. on January 12, Omar As’ad was driving back to his home in the village of Jiljilya in the Occupied West Bank when he was stopped at a temporary Israeli military checkpoint. Israeli soldiers dragged the 78-year-old man out of his vehicle, bound his hands with zip ties, blindfolded him, gagged him, and left him in the courtyard of a construction site with one zip tie still wrapped around his left wrist.
According to an autopsy conducted by the Palestinian Authority, As’ad suffered a stress-induced heart attack and died during detention.
As’ad was both Palestinian and American, and this dual nationality has garnered his story significant media coverage and created an international rift as U.S. lawmakers call for greater accountability over his death.
Israeli army investigating itself
Eyewitness accounts, provided to Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, documented how As’ad passed out during detention and medical aid was not provided to him. As’ad suffered from several chronic health problems including ischemic heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and had undergone open-heart surgery.
Abdel Rahman, 52, who was detained with As’ad, gave this testimony to Al-Haq:
He was not sitting but was on his face on the right side, that is, his right cheek was on the tile. I could not call him because I was scared of the soldiers, but I did not hear a breath from him and did not feel any movement. Then a soldier approached him and sat down on one knee at his head… I saw the soldier after he touched his head, he stood and … cut the plastic zip-tie. After a few seconds, I saw the soldiers moving away, and I heard them whispering between each other, then a soldier pointed his weapon towards us and then they left.”
Islam Abu Zaher, a local doctor, examined As’ad after the soldiers left at around 4 a.m. He tried to resuscitate him, but estimated As’ad had died between 15 to 20 minutes before he arrived at the scene.
The Israeli military conducted an internal probe and dismissed two officers and censured a third over As’ad’s death. A Military Police investigation is ongoing and may result in criminal charges. The internal investigation found the group of soldiers left As’ad on the ground because they assumed he was sleeping and chose not to wake him. The head of the military’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, condemned the soldiers’ actions, but said their actions weren’t motivated by hatred but rather were taken because “they cared more about completing their mission” than about As’ad’s wellbeing.
A photo obtained by Israeli media showed As’ad in his final moments, bound on the floor. The officers involved are hoping the image will exonerate them, claiming he was still alive because his head is lifted in the picture.
As’ad’s family has dismissed the military probe as insufficient and is working with an attorney to file a case against the Israeli military. “We don’t think that the army made a simple mistake in killing a senior person, and we’re not happy by only dismissing two officers,” As’ad’s niece, Enas Sehweil, told MintPress News. The family hopes for fair trial proceedings, to have the officers involved imprisoned, and to receive financial compensation.
The family is also requesting the right of family reunification and for his American relatives to visit Palestine. “His sons and daughters have no Palestinian documentation with them because they live in the [United States] and due to the refusal of the Israeli government,” Sehweil said. “Israel declines their visas all the time.”
Issa Amro, co-founder of the nonviolent Palestinian resistance group Youth Against Settlements, also rejected the Israeli army’s investigation and labeled As’ad’s death “a kind of extra-judicial execution.” “The Israeli army can’t investigate itself,” Amro said. “Dismissing someone for a few months or a few weeks — that’s not accountability.”
Al-Haq’s analysis of As’ad’s death determined the Israeli army’s treatment of As’ad may amount to war crimes. The organization wrote:
The detention and treatment of Mr. Omar Abdul Majeed As’ad by the IOF, which may have caused his death, amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty and inhuman treatment, in violation of Mr. As’ad’s rights to life and health, and an inhuman treatment amounting to a grave breach of the GCIV [Fourth Geneva Convention].
Demands for US probe grow
The case of As’ad, who lived in the U.S. for 40 years and was a Wisconsin resident, has caught the attention of American congressional representatives.
Wisconsin lawmakers Sen. Tammy Baldiwn (D) and Rep. Gwen Moore (D), sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on Jan. 31, demanding the State Department launch an investigation into As’ad’s death and into “whether any equipment procured by United States funds were used by Israeli forces involved in his detention” and “whether any U.S. laws protecting Mr. Assad (sic), an American citizen, were violated.”
BREAKING: Text of @SenatorBaldwin & @RepGwenMoore's letter on Israel's killing of Omar Assad calls on State Department to "determine whether any U.S. laws protecting Mr. Assad, an American citizen, were violated." Such a determination could lead to sanctions under the Leahy Law. https://t.co/Gd1Q6U1ydL
— Josh Ruebner (@joshruebner) February 4, 2022
Experts pointed out that if U.S. laws were violated in the death of As’ad then it may lead to sanctions under the Leahy Law — meaning U.S. military aid, Israel’s greatest source of foreign assistance, could be cut off.
Several members of Congress echoed calls for a State Department investigation, including the only Palestinian-American in Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
Israeli soldiers’ cruel treatment of US citizen Omar Assad was inhumane—they abused him, then left him to die in the cold without medical attention.
— Congressman Chuy García (@RepChuyGarcia) February 2, 2022
Another human being killed by the apartheid gov’t of Israel. 80-year-old U.S. Citizen Omar Assad was dragged from his car, handcuffed, beaten, & left to die on a frigid night by Israeli government. I join @SenBaldwin & @RepGwenMoore in demanding an independent U.S. investigation.
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) February 2, 2022
I commend my congressional colleagues for urging @POTUS to investigate the killing of a Palestinian-American by members of the Israeli military, and I join their call. His loved ones deserve answers, and any act of wrongdoing demands accountability.https://t.co/IgninbdiQg
— André Carson (@RepAndreCarson) February 1, 2022
In a tweet, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) described As’ad as “another victim of this cruel occupation.” Her communications department told MintPress that the congresswoman “supports calls for a comprehensive investigation into this tragic death.”
This week 80-year old Omar Abdulmajeed Asaad, a Palestinian-American living in the West Bank, was pulled from his car, beaten by Israeli soldiers, and left to die on the side of the road. My condolences to Mr. Asaad’s family. He is now another victim of this cruel occupation.
— Rep. Betty McCollum (@BettyMcCollum04) January 14, 2022
Six other members of Congress, who also called for a thorough investigation — including Tlaib, García, Carson, and Moore — were contacted for comment but did not respond.
Several advocacy organizations are also demanding a U.S. investigation. Americans for Justice in Palestine (AJP) Action created an action alert so constituents can urge their representatives to demand a U.S. investigation into As’ad’s death. “The U.S. plays a very large role in the issue of enabling and embedding a lot of the ethnic cleansing and unlawful killings, and this stems from the money that comes and is approved from Congress,” Ayah Ziyadeh, AJP Action’s advocacy director, told MintPress. “The only investigation that was being urged by the U.S. was by the same forces that murdered Omar As’ad, which makes no sense.”
In response to a MintPress inquiry, the State Department reiterated its previous statement on As’ad’s death:
The United States expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case, and we welcome receiving additional information on these efforts as soon as possible. We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government.
The State Department did not address queries as to whether the agency will launch its own investigation.
Settlers turned soldiers
Netzah Yehuda Battalion, the ultra-orthodox military unit that detained As’ad, has a notorious history of violence against Palestinians, specifically of abusing detainees. The army division is driven by a settler ideology and made up of “formerly Haredi [ultra-orthodox] youth who have left school, Haredim who rebelled against their parents, hilltop youth, religious nationalist Haredi youth who have been assured a female-free environment during their service, youth from impoverished families, and others from across the country’s faithful.”
Religiously homogeneous, the battalion also shares a common political goal of believing policing Palestinians is a sacred duty. The group’s rebellious origins and shared colonialist thinking has created a culture where violence and aggression are magnified. A 2014 internal study conducted by the Israeli military found the Kfir Brigade, of which Netzah Yehuda Battalion is a part, places a strong emphasis on aggression leading to a greater use of excessive violence than other army units.
Soldiers from this battalion have not only engaged in abuse but also in flagrant displays of racism. One member was part of the “wedding of hate” held in 2015, in which a rifle was waved at a picture of infant Ali Dawabshe who had been burned to death in a Jewish terrorist attack.
Given its dealings with Palestinians, the military has decided to move the force out of the West Bank. When reached for comment about whether the unit would be disbanded following As’ad’s death, the Israeli army just referred MintPress to its statement on its internal probe.
Before As’ad’s family hired a lawyer, the Israeli government was in frequent contact with the family. His niece, Sehweil, believes this was because the U.S. embassy intensified pressure over As’ad’s death.
AJP Action’s Ziyadeh stressed, though, that the U.S. should not exert pressure only when the situation involves an American. “That shouldn’t be the only reason the U.S. ever cares, if somebody’s an American citizen,” Ziyadeh said. “Especially being a leader of the world, so to speak, you should care about human rights, period. Whether he was an American citizen or not, the killing was unlawful.”
Feature photo | Mourners carry the body of Palestanian American Omar Assad, 80, during his funeral in Jiljiliya, north of Ramallah, Jan. 13, 2022. Nasser Nasser | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.