U.S. Pressures Israel To Take ‘Full Accountability’ In Palestinian American’s Death

The U.S. government said Tuesday that it remains concerned over the death of a Palestinian American man whom Israeli soldiers dragged from a car, bound and blindfolded after stopping him at a checkpoint last month.

Omar Assad, 78, had lived in the U.S. as a citizen for four decades ― and still has family in America ― before returning to retire in his home village in the occupied West Bank. Even after Israel announced that its soldiers would be reprimanded, the U.S. State Department expressed continued worry over the incident.

“We continue to be deeply concerned by the circumstances of the death of Mr. Omar Assad, a U.S. citizen who was found dead on January 12, 2022, after Israeli soldiers detained him in the West Bank,” department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

“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,” he added. “We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government.”

On Tuesday, the Israeli Defense Force released a statement about the completion of its internal investigation into the military’s role in Assad’s death. Soldiers had stopped Assad’s car at a checkpoint in Jiljilya about 3 a.m. on Jan. 12. The soldiers took him to a nearby building, where they had detained three other Palestinians.

The IDF claimed that the soldiers “did not identify signs of distress” and thought Assad was asleep when they cut his zip-ties and left him face-down in the abandoned building. The other detainees have said that they didn’t know Assad was with them until the soldiers left.

After finding him unconscious, Assad’s fellow detainees had him taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A Palestinian autopsy report that became public last week said Assad died of a heart attack “caused by psychological tension due to the external violence he was exposed to.” While he had underlying health conditions, the autopsy also found bruises on his head, redness on his wrists from the zip-ties and bleeding in his eyelids from being blindfolded.

Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of Omar Abdalmajeed Assad, 78, who was found dead after being detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, in Jiljilya village, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of Omar Abdalmajeed Assad, 78, who was found dead after being detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, in Jiljilya village, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images

The IDF’s Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi said that the soldiers’ conduct was “immoral and reprehensible” and that the military would reprimand a senior officer and remove two others from leadership roles over Assad’s death. The IDF still maintained that its internal investigation found no use of violence “apart from when [Assad] was apprehended after refusing to cooperate.”

Omar Assad’s son, Hane Assad, told The Associated Press that his father was too old and weak to fight anyone, especially a group of soldiers, and would say to be calm and compliant if stopped by Israeli forces.

The military police are still conducting a separate criminal investigation and said it thoroughly investigates such incidents. But members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who is Palestinian American, and Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.) are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to conduct its own investigation.

“We strongly support human rights and the rule of law as the foundation of United States foreign policy,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday. “As a Palestinian American, Mr. Assad deserves the protections afforded U.S. citizens living abroad and his family deserves answers.”

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and progressive Jewish organization IfNotNow said that Israel rarely holds soldiers accountable for Palestinian deaths, with even the most shocking cases resulting only in relatively light punishments. B’Tselem is tracking more than 30 open investigations into the killings of Palestinians in the West Bank, spokesperson Dror Sadot told AP.

Sadot told AP that Assad’s case was “unusual” because “investigations usually take years and usually close with nothing.” Both B’Tselem and IfNotNow pointed out that Assad’s death likely got special attention because of his American citizenship and pressure from the U.S. government.

“If only every Palestinian had U.S. citizenship,” IfNotNow tweeted. “The first step of verbal accountability must be applied to every Palestinian murdered under apartheid. Where is the [State Department] condemnation of last month’s hit and run of Palestinian elder Haj Suleiman Hathaleen by Israeli police?”

The State Department’s comments about Assad came the same day that human rights organization Amnesty International released a 278-page report concluding that Israel’s maintenance of “a system of oppression and domination” over Palestinians amounts to the international definition of apartheid. The group joins Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem ― as well as Palestinians themselves ― in accusing Israel of apartheid, both within its borders and in the occupied territories.

Biden’s ambassador to Israel denounced Amnesty International’s report, calling it “absurd.” Price also rejected the report’s findings, saying the State Department’s “own reports have never used such terminology.”

During a press conference on Tuesday, an AP reporter asked Price why the U.S. is so critical of Amnesty International’s report on Israel when it relies heavily on the group’s findings that uncover human rights abuses in other parts of the world. The reporter, Matt Lee, cited the organization’s findings for countries like Cuba, South Africa, Myanmar and China, in which the U.S. cited those findings and used the same term Amnesty used to label the atrocities.

“So it’s just when it’s criticism of Israel that you feel free to disagree?” Lee asked. “Where have you ever disagreed with an Amnesty report or a human rights report on a country such as Iran?”

“This is not about any outside group,” Price said. “This is about our vehement disagreement with a certain finding in a report by an outside group.”

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