Details of an army investigation obtained by Israeli media indicate troops didn’t seek aid for the unresponsive detainee, but none are likely to be prosecuted.
Mourners attend the funeral of Omar Assad, a 78-year-old Palestinian American who was found dead after being detained and handcuffed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Jiljilya. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)
Steve Hendrix, The Washington Post, January 23, 2022
JERUSALEM — A leaked summary of an Israeli investigation into the death of a Palestinian American in the West Bank after Israeli troops detained him this month suggested that no soldiers were likely to be prosecuted despite investigators confirming that the man was dragged from his car, blindfolded and handcuffed and then fell silent while being held at a construction site.
The leaks, reported Sunday by Ynet, the online service of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, included findings that the soldiers never sought medical aid for the man, 78-year-old Omar Assad, even though a military medic was at hand. Five soldiers, including a company commander and a platoon commander, told investigators that they thought Assad had simply fallen asleep and that he had demonstrated no signs of being ill. The investigation is being conducted by the Israel Defense Forces.
“We did not identify any signs of distress on him: a cry for help or, for example, the gripping of his hand to his chest,” the soldiers said, according to the report. They also confirmed that Assad was gagged and had his hands tied at the time, the report said.
But two witnesses who were detained at the same time have told The Washington Post that Assad was unconscious and not breathing when the soldiers left them in the courtyard of an under-construction house.
One of the detainees, Mraweh Abdulrahman, said he saw one soldier seem to squat on Assad and check his condition before consulting with other troops. One of the soldiers then cut loose one of the plastic ties on Assad’s wrists before all the troops departed.
Assad, a former Milwaukee grocery store owner, suffered from a coronary condition. He died of an apparent heart attack, according to Islam Abu Zaher, a physician who tried to resuscitate him at the scene almost immediately after the soldiers left. Assad’s face was blue when Zaher arrived, the doctor said, suggesting that he had been without oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes.
Palestinian officials said Sunday that they expect to release the results of an autopsy early next week.
A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the leaked summary but denied that any conclusions have been reached.
“It should be clarified that no decisions have yet been made regarding the investigation case,” the IDF said in a WhatsApp message Sunday.
The Ynet report said the final decision on any actions against the soldiers would be up to the chief military prosecutor. But the leaked summary suggested that none of the soldiers or officers “would be indicted, nor have they been suspended.” Ynet did not say how it obtained the information.
The U.S. State Department has called on Israel to conduct a “thorough investigation.” Assad spent most of his life in the American Midwest and raised five children in the United States before moving back to the occupied West Bank about a decade ago.
“We are deeply concerned by media reports of the circumstances surrounding Mr. As’ad’s death and are gathering additional information about the incident,” the U.S. Embassy said last week in an emailed statement.
Military lawyers representing the soldiers said they were not responsible for Assad’s death, Ynet said.
“The Palestinian was lawfully detained during the operation in accordance with procedures,” they said, according to the report. “His death is not related to the conduct of the military force.”
But human rights groups condemned the suggestion that no military members would be held accountable. The Israeli group B’Tselem said the IDF probe was shaping up as a “whitewash.”
“The investigation will be over soon, the army will exonerate the soldiers and say their actions were in line with what’s expected,” B’Tselem said in a statement Sunday.
The Ynet report describes a late-night encounter that unfolded very much as the Palestinian witnesses described, except for the troops’ assertion that Assad was fine when they left.
The report said soldiers had set up two surprise checkpoints in Assad’s home village of Jiljilya, just north of Ramallah, stopping vehicles at random to find any weapons or Palestinians wanted for questioning.
The soldiers described stopping Assad, who his family said was returning from playing cards at a cousin’s house less than a mile from his home. He did not have his U.S. passport or any other ID with him.
The soldiers said Assad “looked at least 20 years younger” than his age and that he protested loudly that he was not a terrorist, according to the report. Concerned that his shouts would tip off others to the presence of the roadblock, the report said, at least two soldiers “seized him by force and led him to the abandoned house, and even covered his mouth.”
They handcuffed and blindfolded Assad, the report said, and placed him on a chair. The witnesses, however, said Assad was left lying on stone pavers.
At one point, Assad began to look a little “stoned” or confused, the soldiers told investigators, according to the report. The soldier in charge of guarding him referred to Assad as “the one falling asleep.”
The soldiers said they decided to leave after briefly interrogating the other Palestinian detainees, who turned out not to have weapons or outstanding warrants against them. The soldiers then cut the tie around one of Assad’s wrists, removed the blindfold and left him in a chair, according to the report.
But Abdulrahman and another detainee, Abdulaziz Hamouda, said Assad was lying on the ground when the Israeli team left. They went to his side and found him not breathing.
Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.
Jerusalem bureau chief Steve Hendrix has written for just about every section of the paper since coming to the Washington Post 20 years ago, reporting from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and most corners of the United States.