The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Family of elderly Palestinian American who died after Israeli detention demands international inquiry

New details emerge suggesting Omar Assad lost consciousness while still being held by Israeli soldiers

Mourners attend the funeral of Palestinian American Omar Assad, 78, in the West Bank on Jan. 13. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)
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MILWAUKEE — The American family of a Palestinian American man who died last week after being detained by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank called for an international investigation Sunday, saying Israel could not be trusted to hold accountable troops who allegedly pulled the 78-year-old from his car and left him lying unresponsive on the ground.

“We want justice,” said Hala Hamad, 48, one of the daughters of the man who died, Omar Assad. “We want a thorough investigation from the U.S. government and the U.N. because [Israel] can’t investigate their own crimes.”

The Israeli military has said it is conducting its own investigation of the death of the former Milwaukee grocery store owner, who died early Wednesday after being stopped by Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian village of Jiljilya. A military official has said that Assad was detained after he resisted a roadside identification check and that he was alive when he was released soon after.

According to three Palestinian villagers who said they were on the scene, Assad was unresponsive when soldiers left him blindfolded and lying on his stomach on the ground. On Sunday, a Palestinian man who had been detained at the same time said Assad was not breathing when the soldiers departed, and a neighborhood doctor who reached Assad within minutes of being called to scene said his face was blue and he had apparently already been without oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on these latest accounts.

The U.S. State Department has asked Israel for “clarification” of the events surrounding Assad’s death. Palestinian officials said Monday the results of an autopsy would not be released for several days.

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Assad died in his childhood village in the central West Bank, where he and his wife of five decades, Nazima Abdullah, returned in 2010 after spending most of their lives in the American Midwest. After immigrating as newlyweds in 1967, Assad started and ran businesses in Wisconsin and Illinois, his family said. The couple raised seven children in the United States, five of whom gathered Sunday in Milwaukee at the house of daughter Noha Saleh, 36, to remember their father as devoted, sociable and a proud believer in the American Dream.

“The community and our family, everyone lost a generous, loving family man,” Hamad said an interview.

(American family members put his age at 78, two years younger than relatives in the West Bank initially said last week, and spelled his last name Assad, rather than As’ad as initially transliterated from Arabic by journalists.)

Assad had owned neighborhood grocery stores on Milwaukee’s South Side and around Chicago. He had an entrepreneurial mind-set, buying and selling stores at a rapid clip — he kept two main stores in Milwaukee for decades while flipping dozens of others through the years — even if his business instincts were not always great, his children said. They joked that his stores often prospered soon after he sold them.

But he was an unfailingly generous owner, they said, known for extending credit to customers who did not seem likely to pay up. “He never bothered to chase them down or anything like that, because he figured they needed it,” said daughter Haya Assad, 45.

Omar Assad had been unable to visit the United States in recent years because of the coronavirus pandemic, but he remained in almost daily contact with one or another of his children or 17 grandchildren, Hamad said. The calls sometimes stretched to two or three hours and usually included talk of food and love of family, relatives said.

His last call came the day before he died, when he asked his youngest daughter, Saleh, whether she approved of the batch of West Bank olives and olive oil he had shipped her. “I picked the best, the best kind of olives for you guys,” Assad said, his daughter recalled. “Do you want more? I will send you guys more. I will send you anything you need. Anything you need at all.”

One night later, Saleh’s sister in Arkansas called to say their father was dead.

“We were just shocked,” Saleh said quietly, tears forming in her eyes. She was joined by the five siblings who live in Milwaukee. As they spoke, some of Assad’s 17 grandchildren could be heard roughhousing in the upstairs bedrooms. He also leaves behind three great-grandchildren.

While aware of the tensions between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, family members were surprised that the deadly encounter had occurred in the parents’ quiet village. The hillside community is home to many Palestinians who have returned from the United States and Brazil and retired, like Assad, to large houses built with their overseas earnings.

“You’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery, honestly, than in getting stopped in our village,” said son Hadi Assad, 41. “We never thought in a million years that something like this could happen there.”

Omar Assad had suffered from heart problems that necessitated quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2014, his family said. But he emerged spry and active, returning to a vibrant social life, often playing cards with relatives well into the early morning hours.

On the night he died, he had dropped his wife off at home and returned to socialize at a cousin’s house, his family said. He was driving home from another late night when stopped about 3 a.m., they said.

A villager watching from a neighboring house described seeing soldiers pull Assad from his car by his coat and march him forcibly toward a nearby under-construction house.

Another villager, Abdulaziz Hamouda, 56, said he was stopped at the same spot by Israeli soldiers about a half-hour later and taken to the same construction site. Hamouda and his passenger, Mraweh Abdulrahman, said they were held in a courtyard with at least two others they could see in the darkness.

The men were all ordered to sit or kneel on the ground. After his eyes adjusted, Abdulrahman has said, he noticed Assad lying motionless about 10 feet away. The soldiers left the scene shortly after one of them seemed to squat and check on the moving body, Abdulrahman has said.

Contacted Sunday, Hamouda confirmed Abdulrahman’s account. When the soldiers left, Hamouda said, he joined his friend at Assad’s side. “The man was dead,” Hamouda said.

Islam Abu Zaher is a physician who was working the overnight shift at the Arab Medical Center just yards from the construction site. He responded to a call from the site shortly after 4 a.m.

“I was there within two minutes,” he said. “He had no pulse, no breathing. His face was blue. In my medical experience, he had been without oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes.”

The U.S. Embassy in Israel repeated Monday that it expects Israel to carry out a “thorough investigation” of the death. “We are deeply concerned by media reports of the circumstances surrounding Mr. As’ad’s death and are gathering additional information about the incident,” the embassy said in an emailed statement sent by a spokesperson.

Hendrix reported from Jerusalem and Berger from Jaffa, Israel. Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.