Palestinian American detained by Israeli soldiers died of heart attack, autopsy says

Men stand next to a poster of Omar Muhammad Asaad in the village of Jiljilya, in the occupied West Bank (Reuters)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  January 26, 2022

Omar Muhammad Asaad, 80, was found with abrasions on his wrists and bleeding on the insides of his eyelids, The New York Times reports.

An 80-year-old Palestinian American who died shortly after he was detained by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank suffered a stress-induced heart attack that was most likely caused by being gagged in a cold construction site, the New York Times reported, citing a coroner’s report.

Israel has come under renewed pressure to investigate the death of Omar Muhammad Asaad, who was found dead with a zip-tie around one of his hands and a blindfold over his eyes shortly after he was detained by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank village of Jiljilya earlier this month.

The autopsy report, which was conducted by the coroner for the Palestinian Authority and released on Wednesday, said Asaad had bruises on his head as a result of traumatic brain injuries, without saying what may have caused those injuries.

It said that there was internal bleeding in his eyelids from being blindfolded tightly as well as other bruises on his arms and welts on his wrists from zip ties.

“The investigation indicated that he had been subjected to harsh treatment and violence,” The Times quoted an excerpt from the preliminary findings of the investigation as saying.

“His body had many injuries documented and detailed in the autopsy.”

A local physician, Islam Abu Zaher, who tried to resuscitate Asaad, said he had apparently died of cardiac arrest while being held, the Washington Post reported.

The Post said the findings of the medical exam described the cause of death as “stress-induced sudden cardiac arrest due to external violence”.

Asaad reportedly suffered from a heart condition, high blood pressure and diabetes and was not able to perform any demanding physical tasks, Abd al-Ilah Asaad, his cousin, told MEE a day after his death.

“What happened with Omar is a major crime against humanity. It happened without the slightest consideration for his age and his medical condition,” Abd al-Ilah said.

Calls grow for thorough investigation

On Monday, the Post reported that despite investigators confirming that Asaad was dragged from his car, blindfolded and handcuffed before falling silent, no soldiers were likely to be prosecuted, according to a leaked summary of an Israeli investigation into his death.

According to the leaked report, Israeli soldiers never sought medical aid for Asaad, even though a military medic was at hand.

Five soldiers, including a company commander and a platoon commander, told investigators that they thought Asaad had simply fallen asleep and that he had demonstrated no signs of being ill.

Asaad, an American citizen who lived in Chicago and Milwaukee for more than 40 years, returned to the occupied West Bank 10 years ago. 

Several US lawmakers have demanded a probe into his death, with Senator Tammy Baldwin, who represents Asaad’s state of Wisconsin, calling the incident a “horrible tragedy that demands a thorough investigation”.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters earlier this month that Washington would ask for “clarification” from Israel over Asaad’s death. Several US representatives also issued condemnations and called for an investigation.

“We support a thorough investigation into the circumstances of this incident,” Price said.

Just last week, the Milwaukee Muslim community mourned his death and his family called for justice, with his daughter Hala Hamad telling the Washington Post: “We want a thorough investigation from the US government and the UN because [Israel] can’t investigate their own crimes.”

Palestinians and left-wing groups have long been critical of Israeli military investigations, which they say rarely bring results.

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem suggested on Sunday that no Israeli soldiers would be held accountable over Asaad’s death and the probe was shaping up as a “whitewash”.

“A chronicle of whitewashing foretold,” said B’Tselem in a tweet. “Soldiers arrested innocent drivers in the dead of night, took an 80 YO to a deserted building, gagged and handcuffed him and left him there. He died. The investigation will be over soon, the army will exonerate the soldiers.”