Rada Tawfik Bakri, who watched part of the incident from the window of his home, said he went to the scene soon after the Israelis left and also found that As’ad was unresponsive.
The efforts of a local physician to resuscitate As’ad in the courtyard of the under-construction house were unsuccessful. His body was taken to a nearby clinic and then to a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The Israeli military has said that As’ad was detained by soldiers for only a short time and was alive when he was released. “The initial investigation of the commanders in the field indicated that when the IDF soldiers left the field, he was alive,” said a senior official with the Israel Defense Forces, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case. He said that failing to provide aid to a detainee known to be in medical distress is a violation of military protocols and potentially a prosecutable offense.
The U.S. State Department has called on Israel to conduct a “thorough investigation” into the death of As’ad, a former Milwaukee grocery store owner who raised five children in the United States before moving back to the occupied West Bank a decade ago.
The Israeli military has said little publicly about the circumstances of his death except that soldiers were in the area of his village, Jiljilya, to investigate terrorist activity and that As’ad was detained after he “resisted a check.” At the time, As’ad had been driving home from a cousin’s house. As’ad, who had a history of cardiac and respiratory disease, appeared to have died of a heart attack, according to another cousin, Abdullah As’ad.
Tuesday evening had begun, as it often did, with Omar As’ad joining others to play cards at his cousin’s home less than a mile away from his own house.
In recent years, As’ad had rarely traveled far from Jiljilya, which he and his wife had made home after more than 40 years in the United States. They had moved into a large house they built over the course of 14 years, using money earned from grocery markets they had owned in Chicago and Milwaukee. Their children and more than 15 grandchildren, remain in the United States, family members said. “He was comfortable here,” Abdullah As’ad said of the village, a handsome collection of hillside houses. “He had no problem with the Israelis or anyone else.”
The gathering continued past midnight, and at about 3 a.m., Omar As’ad left to drive himself home, as he had done many times, Abdullah As’ad said.
Bakri, who lives along the route, said he had been up late, sitting around the heater in his living room with his wife and son, when he got a Facebook message from a neighborhood group warning that Israeli soldiers were in the area. It was the second night in a row they had come through Jiljilya and were stopping cars on an unpaved lane just outside the village center.
About 3 a.m., Bakri said he heard shouting outside his door. He pulled the shades aside and saw a group of soldiers clustered around the window of a car. He couldn’t hear what they were shouting. “I didn’t want to open the window,” he said. “You don’t want the soldiers to see you.”
After a few minutes, he saw the soldiers open the car door and pull the driver out by his coat. Bakri couldn’t make out the driver’s face but eventually discovered it was As’ad. The soldiers took him to the back of the car, and at least six of them gathered around him. His relatives later noted that As’ad did not have his U.S. passport with him and did not possess a local ID card, which soldiers invariably ask to see at the start of any encounter.
Then, Bakri said, he watched the soldiers walk As’ad up a nearby lane and out of sight. About half an hour later, the soldiers stopped the next car on the road and directed it up the same lane, Bakri recalled.
At about 4:15 a.m., Abdulrahman and a friend were approaching the same intersection, carrying vegetables to a wholesale market in the West Bank city of Nablus. The friend, who was driving, stopped when Israeli soldiers shined flashlights in their eyes.
A soldier opened Abdulrahman’s door and shoved him to the side, he said. Another soldier crowded in beside the friend and directed him to drive up the lane. After a few meters, the soldiers had them stop behind two other cars and get out.
The soldiers yelled, “What do you have in your truck?” and “Be quiet or I’ll shoot.” The Israelis took their ID cards and cellphones, Abdulrahman said. One soldier shoved him toward the paved courtyard of the under-construction house. Abdulrahman had been detained by Israelis five times before but this was more aggressive, he said. “I speak a little Hebrew and I told him, ‘Slowly, slowly, I’ve been sick,' ” Abdulrahman said.
The soldiers ordered them to sit on the paving stones, where they could see two other Palestinians also being detained. It was only after 20 minutes or so, as the sky began to lighten, that he noticed another figure about 10 feet away, Abdulrahman said. It was prone on the ground and motionless.
Shortly after, a soldier squatted close to the figure. Abdulrahman thought at first that the Israeli was tying his boot, but he seemed to check on the man. The soldier then stood up and spoke quietly with some of the other soldiers, Abdulrahman said. He watched a soldier return to the man and partly cut loose the plastic handcuffs that were binding his wrists.
“Then they just left,” he said of the soldiers. “They didn’t say anything to us.”
When he pulled aside the coat draped over the man’s head, Abdulrahman was shocked to find it was As’ad, someone he knew from the village. “I screamed at him, but he didn’t move,” he said.
And after he felt for a pulse and didn’t find one, he said, he yelled to his friends, “Get a doctor!”
The senior Israeli military official declined to comment on the witness accounts, saying that the IDF is waiting for findings from its investigation. He said that Palestinian officials had denied a request that As’ad’s body be turned over to Israeli medical examiners.
As’ad’s family said Palestinian examiners performed an autopsy before they released his body to them for a funeral Thursday but have not shared the results.
“Why would they bother him?” asked Nazima Abdullah, 75, As’ad’s widow, speaking in the living room of their house on Friday. “He was an old man.”