Israeli soldiers blindfolded and gagged elderly Palestinian American later found dead: Leaked report

JERUSALEM — A leaked summary of an Israeli investigation into the death of a Palestinian American in the West Bank after Israeli troops detained him this month suggested that no soldiers were likely to be prosecuted despite investigators confirming that the man was dragged from his car, blindfolded and handcuffed and then fell silent while being held at a construction site.

The leaks, reported Sunday by Ynet, the online service of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, included findings that the soldiers never sought medical aid for the man, 78-year-old Omar Assad, even though a military medic was at hand. Investigators were told by five soldiers that Assad was asleep, and they did not believe he was ill. Israel Defense Forces is currently conducting the investigation.

“We did not identify any signs of distress on him: a cry for help or, for example, the gripping of his hand to his chest,” the soldiers said, according to the report. According to the report, they also stated that Assad had been gagged at the time and his hands were tied.

But two witnesses who were detained at the same time have told The Washington Post that Assad was unconscious and not breathing when the soldiers left them in the courtyard of an under-construction house.

One of the detainees, Mraweh Abdulrahma, said he saw one soldier seem to squat on Assad and check his condition before consulting with other troops. Before the troops left, one soldier cut off one of the plastic ties that afflicted Assad’s wrists.

Assad, a former Milwaukee grocery store owner, suffered from a coronary condition. According to Islam Abu Zaher (a doctor who attempted to revive him on the spot almost immediately after soldiers had left), Assad died from an apparent heart attack. Assad’s face was blue when Zaher arrived, the doctor said, suggesting that he had been without oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes.

Palestinian officials said Sunday that they expect to release the results of an autopsy early next week.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the leaked summary but denied that any conclusions have been reached.

“It should be clarified that no decisions have yet been made regarding the investigation case,” the IDF said in a WhatsApp message Sunday.

The Ynet report said the final decision on any actions against the soldiers would be up to the chief military prosecutor. The leaked summary indicated that no soldiers or officers would be charged and they had not been suspended. Ynet didn’t say where it got the information.

“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 U.S. Embassy said last week in an emailed statement.

Military lawyers representing the soldiers said they were not responsible for Assad’s death, Ynet said.

“The Palestinian was lawfully detained during the operation in accordance with procedures,” they said, according to the report. “His death is not related to the conduct of the military force.”

But human rights groups condemned the suggestion that no military members would be held accountable. The Israeli group B’Tselem said the IDF probe was shaping up as a “whitewash.”

“The investigation will be over soon, the army will exonerate the soldiers and say their actions were in line with what’s expected,” B’Tselem said in a statement Sunday.

The Ynet report describes a late-night encounter that unfolded very much as the Palestinian witnesses described, except for the troops’ assertion that Assad was fine when they left.

The report said soldiers had set up two surprise checkpoints in Assad’s home village of Jiljilya, just north of Ramallah, stopping vehicles at random to find any weapons or Palestinians wanted for questioning.

The soldiers described stopping Assad, who his family said was returning from playing cards at a cousin’s house less than a mile from his home. He didn’t have his U.S. passport nor any other identification with him.

The soldiers said Assad “looked at least 20 years younger” than his age and that he protested loudly that he was not a terrorist, according to the report. Concerned that his shouts would tip off others to the presence of the roadblock, the report said, at least two soldiers “seized him by force and led him to the abandoned house, and even covered his mouth.”

They handcuffed and blindfolded Assad, the report said, and placed him on a chair. Assad, according to witnesses, was found lying on stones pavers.

At one point, Assad began to look a little “stoned” or confused, the soldiers told investigators, according to the report. The soldier in charge of guarding him referred to Assad as “the one falling asleep.”

The soldiers said they decided to leave after briefly interrogating the other Palestinian detainees, who turned out not to have weapons or outstanding warrants against them. According to reports, the soldiers tied a tie around one wrist of Assad and removed his blindfold before putting him on a chair.

But Abdulrahma and another detainee, Abdulaziz Hamouda, said Assad was lying on the ground when the Israeli team left. He was not breathing when they arrived at his side.

Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.


The caption to a photograph in an earlier version of this article misstated Omar Assad’s age. He was 78, not 80. This caption has been updated.

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