Man, 78, died of stress-induced heart attack after Israeli detention, says autopsy

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<span>Photograph: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Postmortem says Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, a Palestinian-American, suffered internal bleeding in soldiers’ raid

A postmortem has confirmed that an elderly Palestinian-American man who died after being detained in an Israeli raid had a “stress-induced sudden cardiac arrest stemming from external violence”, after witnesses challenged soldiers’ accounts of events in the high-profile incident.

Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, 78, was detained in his village of Jiljilya, in the occupied West Bank, at an impromptu road checkpoint on 12 January and “apprehended after resisting a check”, according to an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) statement. He was handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded for between 20 minutes and an hour, and his body was discovered by local residents and others detained in the raid after the soldiers left.

A copy of the Palestinian justice ministry-commissioned autopsy, released on Wednesday and seen by the Guardian, said As’ad had internal bleeding in his eyelids as a result of pressure on his eyes, abrasions and bruises, and redness around the wrists as a result of being cuffed with zip ties. It also noted he had several pre-existing heart problems.

Palestinian officials previously alleged that As’ad had been beaten.

According to initial military investigation findings leaked to Israeli news outlets, the soldiers involved in the incident realised As’ad had gone quiet and thought he looked a little “stoned” before “falling asleep”. After the zip ties were cut, the soldiers left without checking his wellbeing, despite the fact a military medic was nearby, Haaretz reported.

In interviews, several witnesses said As’ad had clearly lost consciousness and stopped breathing before the soldiers left. They said he was left lying on the ground, rather than sitting in a chair, at the construction site where he was held.

A separate report on the Ynet news website on a leaked military summary of events suggested that none of the troops involved “would be indicted, nor have they been suspended.”

It quoted military lawyers representing the soldiers as saying As’ad had been “lawfully detained during the operation in accordance with procedures” and “his death is not related to the conduct of the military force”.

The IDF’s international spokesperson Lt Col Amnon Shefler said on Wednesday that he had no immediate comment on the autopsy’s findings. “The investigations are continuing. If we find wrongdoing then of course we will demand answers from the soldiers, and if needed they will be punished as according to our protocols and our values,” he said.

In a previous statement, the military said As’ad was alive when the soldiers released him, but that the military police criminal investigation division was reviewing the incident.

As’ad and his wife emigrated to the US in the 1970s, running a grocery store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before retiring and returning to the West Bank a decade ago.

The 78-year-old’s US citizenship means that his case has received more international attention than most violent incidents and civilian deaths related to Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. In 2021, security forces killed 41 Palestinians in the West Bank who were not involved in attacking or allegedly attacking Israelis, according to the human rights group B’Tselem.

The US state department has asked Israel for “clarification” on As’ad’s death, while his family and several members of Congress have demanded a US-led investigation.

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