Family of Palestinian American grandfather killed by Israel wants US probe

Man and woman sit on chairs on a paved area surrounded by trees in the evening

A family photograph shows Omar Assad, left, and his wife Nazmieh sharing a meal on the patio of their home in the occupied West Bank village of Jiljilya in 2019.

The family of a Palestinian American grandfather who was fatally attacked by Israeli soldiers in January is asking the Biden administration to launch an investigation.

“A United States citizen demands justice from his grave,” Stanley Cohen, the lawyer for the family of Omar Assad, wrote to US Attorney General Merrick Garland last month.

A copy of the 11-page document was obtained by The Electronic Intifada. It provides moving details about Assad’s life and harrowing death in the early morning hours of 12 January on a street in Jiljilya, the quiet West Bank village north of Ramallah where he was born.

It lays out the devastating impact of the crime on Assad’s wife Nazmieh, their seven US-born adult children, 17 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and their communities in Palestine and the United States.

About 10 years ago, Assad and his wife decided to build a new house in Jiljilya. This was their reward after four decades of hard work in the United States, where they raised a family and operated several small grocery stores in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It would be the perfect way for them to enjoy their senior years close to family and community in their homeland.

But rather than the quiet retirement they hoped for, their journey ended in horror.

“Our lives are dark now,” says Hala, one of the couple’s five daughters, herself a widow with two children of her own. “My dad used to call me more than my mom did, just to chat and talk about life, checking if I need something,” she is quoted saying in the letter.

“Hearing his voice, his jokes, or his opinions or whatever he had to say or not say, it was fulfilling. I don’t have that now.”

“My life changed a lot, every day I wake up thinking I won’t see my dad again,” says Hani, the couple’s son who lives in Virginia. “I never thought my dad would get killed by a whole bunch of Israeli soldiers.”

A typical night out

On that fateful night, Assad had been at a cousin’s house, enjoying a typical gathering with extended family, eating, drinking coffee, watching TV, playing cards and talking.

He left his relative’s house after midnight to drive the short distance home. On his way, he was stopped by Israeli soldiers. Nazmieh believes her husband would only have carried his American driver’s license, having left his US passport at their house.

Even after a decade in the West Bank, the couple still had no ID cards, which have to be approved by Israeli occupation authorities.

What happened next has been pieced together from eyewitness accounts and physical evidence. Not everything is known, but “several things are clear,” according to Cohen’s letter.

“Omar was dragged from the car by the IDF [Israeli army] with such force that one of his shoes was wrenched from his foot and remained in the car,” Cohen writes. “He was handcuffed with zip-ties, hands behind his back, his mouth covered with tape and his eyes were blindfolded or covered with a bag.”

“By the position of his body, it is known that he was dragged from his car across many yards of distance and forced to march or walk, his hands tied and his mouth covered, making breathing difficult,” the lawyer states.

Based on eyewitness accounts, The Washington Post reported that Assad was taken to a construction site where other Palestinians were also being detained.

They saw an Israeli soldier go and check on Assad who “was lying motionless on the paving stones of an unfinished house” and then, according to the Post, the soldiers left “almost immediately.”

“When the IDF soldiers realized Omar Assad had died in their custody,” Cohen writes, they “hastily snuck away in the night.”

One of the other villagers who had been detained at the site went over to Assad and “pulled away a coat that had been draped over his head and a red scarf tied around his eyes, and checked for a pulse in his neck,” the Post reported.

But he felt none. Efforts by a local doctor to resuscitate Assad were unsuccessful.

“They tortured him”

Assad, who was 78, was overweight and not in ideal health, according to family. In 2014, he required quadruple bypass heart surgery, but he nonetheless returned to the active social life he loved.

As The Washington Post reported, an autopsy found Assad died after “a stress-induced heart attack probably brought on by being bound and gagged and held in a cold construction site.”

The examination also “found evidence that Assad had been tightly bound and blindfolded, with abrasions on his wrists and bleeding on the insides of his eyelids.”

Now, Omar Assad’s devastated family must try to live with the aftermath.

“It’s very hard to think about what happened to him in his last moments,” Noha, Assad’s youngest daughter, says. “They tortured him, what they did to him haunts me all the time when I am awake and when I am asleep.”

“I’m struggling to think about his last moments, he was all alone,” she adds.

No escape from apartheid

Nazmieh and Omar Assad’s original intention was not to move permanently to Jiljilya.

They had hoped to move back and forth between Palestine, where they would avoid the harsh Midwestern winters, and Milwaukee, where they could spend time with children and grandchildren.

But because they were Palestinians, Israel’s apartheid system granted them no right to live freely in their homeland.

Unlike Jews from anywhere in the world who can just move to Israel or the occupied West Bank, Palestinians must wait for Israeli occupation authorities to approve an ID card even in order to live in their native village.

And that privilege is only available to those like the Assads who have a US or other passport. Millions of stateless Palestinian refugees cannot dream even of visiting their homeland.

The couple were free to leave the West Bank at any time, but without the Israeli-issued IDs, there was never a guarantee that Israel would allow them to re-enter. So they ended up selling their house and two grocery stores in Wisconsin and staying in Jiljilya.

Over the years, visits from their children were few and far between: Cohen’s letter details the harassment members of the family faced when visiting the West Bank – the type of racist, mistreatment to which Israel routinely subjects Palestinian Americans.

None of this has changed after Omar Assad’s death.

“Nazmieh can’t even leave this place of sorrow and agony, and return to her beloved Milwaukee,” writes Cohen.

The lack of an ID card means that if Nazmieh returns to the US to be close to her children, “she might never again see the house she built with Omar, the last home they shared together as husband and wife.”

Sham investigation

Israel initially lied about the circumstances of Assad’s death: The army claimed that “a Palestinian was apprehended after resisting a check, and he was released later that night.”

Then it held a week-long “internal” investigation which quickly resulted in a decision to “discipline” three officers.

The battalion commander received a reprimand and the platoon commander and company commander were removed from their positions and barred from command roles for two years.

At the same time, Israeli military police launched a separate investigation, whose “findings will be referred to the military court for review and possible further action,” according to The Washington Post.

In theory, this could result in criminal charges, but that is unlikely.

Israel’s military self-investigation system has long functioned as a “whitewash mechanism,” according to B’Tselem.

In 2016, the renowned Israeli human rights group announced it would stop cooperating with the system.

B’Tselem said 25 years of fruitlessly filing complaints on behalf of Palestinians “brought us to the realization that there is no longer any point in pursuing justice and defending human rights by working with a system whose real function is measured by its ability to continue to successfully cover up unlawful acts and protect perpetrators.”

In those vanishingly rare high-profile cases where a soldier is charged for killing or injuring a Palestinian, and then convicted, punishments are shockingly lenient.

B’Tselem has said that Israel’s “fig leaf” investigation system is designed, at most, to place blame on low-ranking individuals – something it also manages to avoid doing the vast majority of the time.

Since military investigators have no mandate to investigate the orders given to soldiers, the superiors who issue them or those responsible for policies, “senior military and government officials, including the Military Advocate General (MAG), are absolved in advance of any responsibility.”

And blaming low-ranking officers is exactly what Israel did in this case as well.

“The way in which this person was left in the field was grave and unethical,” Israeli army chief Aviv Kohavi said when the disciplinary measures were announced.

“I expect that every soldier and officer will know how to fight while also preserving human dignity and the ethics of the IDF.”

Kohavi “accepted the conclusions” of the internal investigation, according to an official statement, “and determined that the incident showed a clear lapse of moral judgment.”

Washington wants “criminal investigation”

These comments and the “punishments” were clearly aimed at heading off any possible pressure from Washington.

As B’Tselem put it in 2016, “the semblance of a functioning justice system allows Israeli officials to deny claims made both in Israel and abroad that Israel does not enforce the law on soldiers who harm Palestinians.”

Yet remarkably, in this case, the ruse was insufficient to entirely silence the US government.

After Kohavi’s statement, the State Department said that the administration remained “deeply concerned by the circumstances of the death” of Omar Assad.

“The United States expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price added. “We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government.”

But Omar Assad’s daughter Hala reminded the US government in a February op-ed in The Washington Post that Israel simply cannot be trusted to investigate itself.

“When the American activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by a soldier driving a military bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, the Israeli government promised a ‘thorough, credible and transparent’ investigation and then absolved the military and the soldiers involved,” Hala wrote.

And she noted that after Israeli commandos killed 18-year-old Turkish American Furkan Dogan aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010, the US failed to conduct any investigation, and once again, “Israel exonerated its soldiers.”

Beyond the specifics of these cases, Hala posed the fundamental question of why the US continues “to support a regime that keeps Palestinians behind a web of walls and checkpoints” and “brutalizes and kills them” under a system that is increasingly acknowledged to be apartheid.

Last week, the State Department urged an “immediate and thorough” investigation into the shocking killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a US citizen.

But there’s little reason to believe that this, too, is anything more than lip service – even though the evidence overwhelmingly points towards Israel being responsible.

No excuse not to act

Cohen’s letter acknowledges that Assad’s killing “may ultimately raise questions of jurisdiction,” but he argues that this should be no bar to the Department of Justice taking steps “to determine what happened and why to this dignified and peaceful United States citizen.”

The lawyer also notes that Attorney General Merrick Garland is deploying “teams of investigators and forensic experts” to collect evidence on alleged war crimes in Ukraine against people who are not even citizens of the United States.

Cohen observes, moreover, that the US, “whether by extradition or rendition, has been quick to prosecute terrorists who have attacked or murdered or conspired to harm Americans abroad.”

The soldiers who attacked Assad and left him dead were from the Netzah Yehuda battalion, a special unit made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews that is notorious even in Israel for its violence against Palestinians.

B’Tselem has warned that scapegoating this particular unit can serve to whitewash the systematic brutality of the entire Israeli occupation. There are nonetheless tools under US law that could be used to bring a measure of accountability.

The Biden administration could, for example, invoke the so-called Leahy Laws, which prohibit any US security assistance from going to any unit of a foreign country’s forces that has committed a “gross violation of human rights.”

That appears to be what two members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation are demanding.

In January, Senator Tammy Baldwin and Representative Gwen Moore wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking him to launch an investigation into whether the soldiers involved in Assad’s killing used equipment procured with US funding.

Aside from any US government funding, the Netzah Yehuda battalion “receives significant financial support” from Friends of Nahal Haredi, a US-based tax-exempt charitable organization, according to The Forward.

“As a Palestinian American, Mr. Assad deserves the full protections afforded US citizens living abroad and his family deserves answers,” the lawmakers wrote.

In her Washington Post op-ed, Hala, Omar Assad’s daughter, praised “the outpouring of support from our community in Wisconsin,” including the two lawmakers.

However, she charged that “the State Department’s response thus far has been grossly inadequate.”

“Its expressions of condolences ring hollow, and its requests that Israel investigate itself are futile,” she added, “as evidenced by the slaps on the wrist given to the three soldiers and Israel’s long history of failing to seriously investigate or punish crimes its soldiers commit against Palestinians.”

The family clearly hopes to keep the pressure on by asking the attorney general of the United States to order an investigation of Omar Assad’s death.

As their lawyer Stanley Cohen writes, “his family, generations of law-abiding, hard-working citizens of this country, proud Palestinian Americans, ask nothing of the Department of Justice but justice.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada.