Palestinian American Died Handcuffed in Israeli Custody, Witnesses Say

JILJILYA, West Bank — By the time dozens of Israeli soldiers hurriedly withdrew 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, had been in high spirits, his family said, playing cards and drinking coffee, and optimistic that he would soon be able to travel freely between his birthplace in the West Bank and his adopted home in the United States, where his children and grandchildren live.

Many questions remain about what happened to Mr. Assad from the time he was detained by Israeli forces around 3 a.m. last Wednesday in what they described as a “routine check” to the time he was found dead an hour later, face down on the cold ground, apparently of a heart attack.

The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli military are conducting investigations. The United States has asked Israel for “clarification” of what happened to Mr. Assad, who was a U.S. citizen.

His family has demanded an American investigation, as have several members of Congress.

Interviews with two witnesses, family members and the doctor who tried to resuscitate him suggest that while Mr. Assad was not beaten, as some news reports claimed, he did die in custody. An elderly man with pre-existing health ailments, he was blindfolded, handcuffed and made to lie on the ground, conditions that his doctor said contributed to his death.

Moreover, one witness said, when the soldiers discovered his condition, instead of providing medical attention they abandoned him.

However murky the circumstances of his last hour, Mr. Assad’s life and death trace a story familiar to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Many know well the nightmare of Israeli control of Palestinian identification papers, which can mean the difference between being able to travel abroad or not. And they know the fear of being picked up in a nighttime raid.

Mr. Assad was driving to his home in Jiljilya when he was stopped in what the Israeli military described as “a routine check.”

“We ended up apprehending him after he resisted a check, a routine check, where he was questioned,” said Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, a military spokesman. “And because of his lack of cooperation and his behavior, that is why they stopped him.”

An hour later, when the soldiers left the courtyard where Mr. Assad and four others had been detained, one of the detainees, Mmdouh Abdulrahman, found Mr. Assad unresponsive, face down on the tile courtyard, he said. He checked Mr. Assad’s pulse and found none, while another detainee ran to a nearby clinic to summon 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’re talking about someone who had been cut off from oxygen for 15 or 20 minutes. This could have caused his heart and lungs to stop.”

Dr. Abu Zaher, who had been Mr. Assad’s physician, questioned why an elderly man was “thrown on the ground like a bag” and not given first aid.

“The minute they saw that he had lost consciousness and he had no pulse they withdrew quickly in order to avoid the anger from the village,” he said. “By that point the chances to revive him were zero.”

The military declined to answer questions about how Mr. Assad was treated during his detention or what his condition was when the soldiers left, saying that was part of the investigation.

“There is now an ongoing military police criminal investigation which is reviewing the incident and is looking to find out exactly what happened during that night,” said Colonel Shefler.

Like many people from this mountainous village north of Ramallah, Mr. Assad and his wife, Nazmieh, went abroad in search of economic opportunity. 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 of their own and raised seven children.

The prosperity of Jiljilya’s expatriates, most of whom went to the United States and Brazil, has transformed the village, which is now replete with red- and blue-roofed palatial homes and villas, paid for with dollars and reales.

More than a decade ago, Mr. Assad retired and the couple moved back to Jiljilya.

“This is my country,” Nazmieh Assad, 79, said in an interview. “Even though I was in America since the 70s, at night I always dreamed of being back here.”

They returned under a three-month visa, long since expired, and ever since have been applying to have their residency permits reinstated. They wanted to travel back to the United States to see their growing brood of seven children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, but feared that without Palestinian ID cards they would not be allowed to return home.

After Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, it began a policy of revoking the identity cards of West Bankers who had moved abroad for longer than six years, no longer considering them residents. An estimated 140,000 Palestinians in the West Bank lost their residency permits.

That practice ended in 1994 with the signing of the first Oslo accord agreement, but Israel maintains control of the approval process for reinstating Palestinian IDs.

Last Tuesday night, when Mr. Assad stayed up late playing cards and drinking coffee with cousins, he was in a buoyant mood, his wife said, because he knew that a list of approved recipients was expected to be published any day.

Around 3 a.m. he headed home.

Even in villages like Jiljilya, which is under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, Israeli forces regularly conduct night raids aimed at thwarting attacks.

Rada Bakri, a 62-year-old businessman, was still awake when he heard yelling outside. He looked out his kitchen window and watched as the soldiers surrounded a car and its driver, who turned out to be Mr. Assad.

After five minutes of heated exchange, 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 kaffiyeh and his hands were cuffed behind his back with black zip ties, Mr. Bakri and other witnesses said.

“He’s an elderly man,” Mr. Bakri said. “What is he going to do to them? What kind of resistance is he going to put up? If he sits on a chair he needs five minutes to get back up.”

About 10 minutes later, he said, he saw the soldiers drag Mr. Assad about 50 yards up a side street toward the courtyard of a house under construction.

Less than half an hour after that, Mr. Abdulrahman, who works as a night security guard, and a friend, a produce merchant, were heading to a wholesale produce market in the city of Nablus when they came to the same intersection.

“The soldiers came at us from every direction,” said Mr. Abdulrahman, 52.

They were stopped, ordered to drive to the same courtyard where Mr. Assad had been taken, and made to sit on the ground. In the dark, Mr. Abdulrahman did not initially notice that Mr. Assad was lying face down to his right.

A bit later, a soldier came by to check on Mr. Assad, lifting his jacket that 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 left quickly, Mr. Abdulrahman said.

After they were gone, Mr. Abdulrahman lifted the jacket and untied the kaffiyeh, recognizing his friend.

Dr. Abu Zaher said that he had been treating Mr. Assad for obstructive pulmonary disease in recent months and that about four years ago his patient had open-heart surgery and several stents implanted. The lung disease could have made it difficult for Mr. Assad to breathe lying face down, Dr. Abu Zaher said.

On Sunday, the living room of the Assads’ two-story home held the remnants of a wake: a carafe of bitter Arabic coffee — traditionally served during mourning — and plump dates in a decorative box.

Ms. Assad, wearing a black robe with traditional Palestinian embroidery, recalled how her husband was already making travel plans in anticipation of their names being on the ID list.

“He was so happy,” she said. “He said once our names come out we’ll go visit our oldest son first and then the girls in Milwaukee.”

Tuesday evening, just hours before Mr. Assad was detained, the government published the list with the names of hundreds of people who would get new Palestinian identification papers.

His and his wife’s names were not on it.

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