Palestinian-American died in handcuffs in Israeli custody, witnesses say
JILJILYA, West Bank – As dozens of Israeli soldiers rushed from the village, witnesses said, the face of the 78-year-old man they had detained for an hour was ashen blue from lack of oxygen.
Hours earlier, the man, Omar Abdelmajed Assad, was in good spirits, his family said, playing cards and drinking coffee, and optimistic he would soon be able to travel freely between his birthplace in the West Bank and his home adoption in the United States. United States, where his children and grandchildren live.
Many questions remain about what happened to Mr Assad from the time he was arrested by Israeli forces around 3am last Wednesday in what they described as a ‘routine check’ until the moment where he was found dead an hour later, face down. ground, apparently from a heart attack.
His family demanded an American investigation, as did several members of Congress.
Interviews with two witnesses, members of his family and the doctor who tried to resuscitate him suggest that although Mr Assad was not beaten, as some news reports claimed, he did die in custody. An elderly man with pre-existing health conditions, he was blindfolded, handcuffed and made to lie on the floor, conditions which his doctor said contributed to his death.
Moreover, a witness said that when the soldiers found out about his condition, instead of giving him medical attention, they abandoned him.
As murky as the circumstances of his final hour may be, Mr. Assad’s life and death tell a story familiar to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Many are familiar with the nightmare of Israeli control of Palestinian identity papers, which can mean the difference between being able to travel abroad or not. And they know the fear of being arrested in a night raid.
Mr Assad was driving to his home in Jiljilya when he was arrested during what the Israeli army described as “a routine check”.
“We ended up apprehending him after he resisted a stop, a street check, where he was questioned,” said Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, a military spokesman. “And because of his lack of cooperation and his behavior, that’s why they arrested him.”
An hour later, when the soldiers left the yard where Mr. Assad and four other people had been detained, one of the detainees, Mmdouh Abdulrahman, found Mr. Assad unresponsive, face down on the tiled yard. he said. He checked Mr Assad’s pulse and found none, while another inmate rushed to a nearby clinic to call a doctor.
“His face was blue, blue, blue,” said the doctor, Islam Abu Zaher, who tried to revive Mr Assad with CPR and a defibrillator. “You are talking about someone who was deprived of oxygen for 15 or 20 minutes. It could have caused his heart and lungs to stop.
Dr Abu Zaher, who had been Mr Assad’s doctor, asked why an elderly man had been “thrown to the ground like a sack” and not given first aid.
“As soon as they saw that he was unconscious and had no pulse, they quickly withdrew in order to avoid the wrath of the village,” he said. “At that time, the chances of reviving him were nil.”
The military declined to answer questions about how Mr Assad was treated while in custody or his condition when the soldiers left, saying it was part of the investigation.
“There is now an ongoing military police criminal investigation looking into the incident and trying to find out exactly what happened that night,” Colonel Shefler said.
Like many people from this mountainous village north of Ramallah, Mr. Assad and his wife, Nazmieh, have gone abroad in search of economic opportunities. They left in 1970, settling first in Chicago, where Mr. Assad worked for years in his brother-in-law’s grocery store. After more than a decade, the family moved to Milwaukee, where they opened numerous grocery stores and raised seven children.
The prosperity of Jiljilya’s expatriates, most of whom went to the United States and Brazil, transformed the village, which is now full of lavish houses and villas with red and blue roofs, paid for in dollars and reales.
More than ten years ago, Mr. Assad retired and the couple returned to Jiljilya.
“This is my country,” Nazmieh Assad, 79, said in an interview. “Even though I had been in America since the 70s, at night I always dreamed of being back here.”
They returned with a long-expired three-month visa and have since requested the reinstatement of their residence permit. They wanted to return to the United States to see their growing offspring of seven children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, but feared that without Palestinian identity cards they would not be allowed to return home.
After capturing the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, Israel began a policy of revoking the identity cards of West Bankers who had moved abroad for more than six years, no longer considering them residents. An estimated 140,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have lost their residency permits.
This practice ended in 1994 with the signing of the first Oslo Accord, but Israel retains control of the approval process for reinstating Palestinian identity cards.
Last Tuesday evening, when Mr. Assad stayed up late playing cards and drinking coffee with his cousins, he was in good spirits, his wife said, because he knew a list of approved recipients was to be published d day to day.
Around 3 a.m., he returned home.
Even in villages like Jiljilya, which is under Palestinian Authority administration, Israeli forces regularly carry out night raids aimed at thwarting attacks.
Rada Bakri, a 62-year-old businessman, was still awake when he heard screams outside. He looked out his kitchen window and saw the soldiers surround a car and its driver, who turned out to be Mr. Assad.
After five minutes of heated exchanges, several soldiers grabbed Mr. Assad and dragged him out of the car, said Mr. Bakri, who lives part of the year in Brazil, where he owns clothing stores.
Once outside the car, Mr. Assad was blindfolded with his own red and white keffiyeh and his hands were cuffed behind his back with black ties, Mr. Bakri and other witnesses said.
“He’s an old man,” Mr Bakri said. “What’s he going to do to them?” What kind of resistance will he oppose? If he sits on a chair, he needs five minutes to get up.
About 10 minutes later, he said, he saw the soldiers drag Mr. Assad some 50 yards down a side street toward the yard of a house under construction.
Less than half an hour later, Mr. Abdulrahman, who works as a night watchman, and a friend, a commodity merchant, were heading to a wholesale commodity market in the city of Nablus when they arrived at the same crossroads.
“The soldiers attacked us from all sides,” said Mr. Abdulrahman, 52.
They were arrested, ordered to go to the same courtyard where Mr. Assad had been taken and made to sit on the ground. In the darkness, Mr. Abdulrahman did not at first notice that Mr. Assad was lying face down to his right.
A little later, a soldier came to check on Mr Assad, lifting his jacket which had been draped over his upper body, Mr Abdulrahman said. He whispered something to his fellow soldiers. A soldier cut one of the zip ties on Mr Assad’s wrist and they quickly left, Mr Abdulrahman said.
After they left, Mr. Abdulrahman lifted the jacket and untied the keffiyeh, recognizing his friend.
Dr Abu Zaher said he had been treating Mr Assad for obstructive lung disease for the past few months and about four years ago his patient underwent open-heart surgery and several stents implanted. The lung disease could have prevented Mr Assad from breathing while lying face down, Dr Abu Zaher said.
On Sunday, the living room of the Assads’ two-story house contained the remains of a wake: a carafe of bitter Arabic coffee – traditionally served during mourning – and plump dates in a decorative box.
Ms Assad, dressed in a black dress with traditional Palestinian embroidery, recalled how her husband was already making travel plans in anticipation of their names on the ID list.
“He was so happy,” she said. “He said once our names are known, we’ll go visit our eldest son first, then the girls in Milwaukee.”
On Tuesday evening, just hours before Mr. Assad’s arrest, the government published the list with the names of hundreds of people who would obtain new Palestinian identity papers.
His name and that of his wife did not appear there.