Israel punishes officers in death of Palestinian-American

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FILE - Mourners pray by the body of 78-year-old Omar Assad, a Palestinian who has U.S. citizenship, during his funeral at a mosque, in the West Bank village of Jiljiliya, north of Ramallah, Jan. 13, 2022. Two members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation asked the Biden administration Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, to investigate how a Palestinian-American who lived in Milwaukee before moving back to his home village died at a West Bank checkpoint. Assad, 78, died after Israeli troops stopped him at a checkpoint in his native village of Jiljilya during the early morning hours of Jan. 12, according to family members and media reports. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File)

JERUSALEM – The Israeli military said Tuesday it would reprimand a senior officer and remove two others from leadership roles over the death of a 78-year-old Palestinian who was dragged from a car, bound and blindfolded after being stopped at a checkpoint.

In a rare statement acknowledging error, the army said the soldiers believed Omar Assad, who has U.S. citizenship, was asleep when they cut his zip-ties and left him face-down in an abandoned building where he had been detained with three other Palestinians last month. The other detainees said they did not know he was there until after the army left.

It's unclear when exactly Assad died. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead after the other detainees found him unconscious.

“The investigation concluded that the incident was a grave and unfortunate event, resulting from a moral failure and poor decision-making on the part of the soldiers,” the military said in a statement. A separate criminal investigation by the military police is still underway.

Assad, who lived in the U.S. for four decades, still has family living in the United States. Even after Israel announced the soldiers would be reprimanded and high-ranking leaders weighed in with criticism, the U.S. said Tuesday it remains concerned over his death.

“The United States expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case, and we welcome receiving additional information on these efforts as soon as possible,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in a statement.

Two members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation called on the Biden administration to investigate.

The Israeli military says it thoroughly investigates such incidents.

The military commander, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi called the soldiers' conduct “immoral and reprehensible,” and Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed sorrow over Assad's death.

But the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem pointed out that Israel rarely holds soldiers accountable for the deaths of Palestinians and said Assad's case likely got special attention because of U.S. pressure and his American citizenship.

“Investigations usually take years and usually close with nothing,” said Dror Sadot, the group's spokeswoman. “This is very unusual.”

Even in the most shocking cases — and those captured on video — soldiers often get relatively light sentences. Palestinians say they suffer systematic mistreatment living under military occupation. B'Tselem is tracking more than 30 open investigations into the killings of Palestinians in the West Bank, Sadot said.

A Palestinian autopsy said Assad died of a heart attack “caused by psychological tension due to the external violence he was exposed to.” It said he suffered from underlying health conditions but also found bruises on his head, redness on his wrists from being bound, and bleeding in his eyelids from being tightly blindfolded.

Assad was stopped at around 3 a.m. on Jan. 12 at a temporary checkpoint in his home village of Jiljiliya, in the occupied West Bank. The military said he did not have any form of ID and “refused to cooperate with the security check." Its investigation found there was no use of violence “apart from when (Assad) was apprehended after refusing to cooperate.”

It said the soldiers “did not identify signs of distress" when they released the detainees a half-hour later. They “assumed that (Assad) was asleep and did not try to wake him.”

The military said the commander of the battalion will be reprimanded and that the platoon commander and company commander will both be removed from their positions and barred from commanding roles for two years.

A cousin of Assad who lives in the West Bank said the army's response was “totally unacceptable" but that there was nothing the family could do unless Assad's relatives in the U.S. take further action. The cousin asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Assad was born in Jiljilya but spent about 40 years in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen before he returned in 2009 to retire with his wife, Nazmia, his family in the U.S. told The Associated Press. They spoke before the military released its findings.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinian Authority administers parts of the territory, but its 2.5 million residents live under Israeli military rule. Israeli soldiers often carry out nighttime raids, which they say are necessary for arresting Palestinian militants, and set up temporary checkpoints where Palestinians are stopped and searched.

Assad's nephew, Assad Assad, said his uncle and aunt left Jiljilya for Chicago in 1969 in hopes of finding better work. They moved to Milwaukee in 1974 and prospered, opening convenience stores and a restaurant, he said.

They were among dozens of Jiljilya residents who have returned to the village over the years to build retirement homes, Assad Assad said.

“They built mini-castles to retire in,” he said. “Very quiet, all you see is olive trees. At night, because we’re high in the mountains, you smell the orchards of oranges.”

Omar’s nephew and his son, Hane Assad, both described him as a philanthropist who was the life of the party. Hane Assad told the AP his father would often hand out money to the poor.

“He just loved everybody, no matter what race you were, what culture you came from,” he said.

His favorite dish was maqluba, a mix of rice and meat — and he loved playing cards, Assad Assad said. He was coming home from playing cards with a cousin when the soldiers stopped him, he said.

Hane Assad said his mother and father were set to visit him at his home in Chesapeake, Virginia, before his father died. Assad said his father was too old and weak to fight anyone, let alone a group of soldiers.

“He was very weak,” Hane Assad said. “He walked with a cane."

Assad said he’s always afraid when he returns to Jiljilya because the Israelis who operate the checkpoints are rude and disrespectful. He said he was once detained for four hours on the way to his grandmother’s funeral. The troops laugh at his American citizenship, he said.

“Every time we got stopped, Dad would say, ‘Whatever they ask for, give it to them. Just be calm,'” Hane Assad said. “I can’t believe they did that to my dad. Almost an 80-year-old man. All the soldiers there couldn’t handle him? This is uncalled for. You don’t treat no elderly person like that.”

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Associated Press writers Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Israel and Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.