JILJILYA, West Bank – Elderly Palestinian retiree Omar As’ad, 78, spent last Wednesday — his final night alive – playing cards with his friends and relatives in his quiet hometown of Jiljilya in the central West Bank.
His wife Nazmiya As’ad left early, at around 10 p.m. She awoke several hours later, in the dead of night, to a strange phone call from her daughter in the United States.
“She said: ‘Where’s Dad? Is he with you?’ I told her I didn’t know. She burst into tears,” said Nazmiya. Both Omar and Nazmiya are American citizens; the couple lived in Wisconsin for decades before returning to Jiljilya to live out their retirement.
Earlier, dozens of Israeli soldiers had entered the town on a nighttime patrol. As’ad was detained by troops as he drove back from his card game around 3 a.m. A Palestinian witness said he saw As’ad being dragged out of his car by soldiers.
Thirty minutes later, As’ad was lying in the rubble of an empty, half-built house, having suffered an apparent heart attack. A plastic zip-tie of a kind often used by Israeli forces was still knotted around his wrist.
According to his family, they learned As’ad had been found around 3:30 a.m. He had been held along with four other local Palestinians, all of whom were later released.
“He was rushed to the local clinic… The doctor was giving him oxygen and trying to resuscitate him. Then he looked at me and said ‘It’s over. He’s dead,’” said Omar’s cousin, fellow retiree Abd al-Ilah As’ad.
Palestinian officials later said As’ad died from a sudden heart attack following his detention. The 80-year-old Palestinian had undergone open-heart surgery and was in poor health, according to his family.
The Israeli military confirmed that As’ad had been arrested that fateful night, saying that he had “resisted a security inspection.” The army argued that As’ad had been released and was only subsequently found dead.
“This was an unfortunate incident… But it was only after he was released that he was found dead that morning. The incident is being investigated,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the Knesset on Monday night.
“I don’t know of other armies which undertake investigations in each individual case. That is what we continue to do going forward, as well,” Gantz added.
Abd al-Ilah, who says he spoke with Palestinians detained on the scene with Omar, claims that the soldiers were there when Omar died. He also said that Omar’s body was bruised from having been dragged and physically assaulted.
“[The other Palestinian detainees] told me the soldiers saw that he had died, checked his body, and fled the scene,” said Abd al-Ilah.
The As’ad family says they have little faith in the Israeli military’s ability to get to the bottom of the incident on its own. They demand that the United States put pressure on Israel to investigate As’ad’s death.
“I can’t try the Israelis. Israel won’t do anything. But America is the one who’s capable of making them — they’re the strong ones,” said the cousin, Abd al-Ilah.
Left-wing Israeli rights groups have been critical of Israeli military investigations in the past, which they say rarely result in indictments.
The As’ad family and other witnesses told The Times of Israel that they had yet to be contacted by military investigators.
The Israeli army declined to comment further, saying the incident was being investigated. Palestinians detained with Omar on the scene could not be reached for comment.
Omar hailed from the quiet, well-heeled town of Jiljilya in the central West Bank north of Ramallah. In 1969, as newlyweds, Omar and Nazmiya moved to the United States, where they spent over four decades managing a number of grocery stores.
“We were doing well there. We opened a few stores, and we raised our sons and daughters,” said Nazmiya.
But Nazmiya said she never really took to life in America. Her brother was killed during an armed robbery in a Chicago store, and once their children were all fully grown, the couple decided to return to their home village to live out their final years together.
“Everybody loved Omar. He was so generous, whenever he would see someone who needed help, he would reach out his hand. He would give money or whatever they needed,” Nazmiya said.
Their children, brothers, cousins – almost all are in the United States. Through a quirk of fate, around 70 percent of Jiljilya’s residents are American citizens, according to Mayor Fouad Qattum.
“It started perhaps in the 1950s – from marriage to marriage, many people became American citizens. There are maybe 700 residents here, and 4,000 in the United States,” Qattum said.
Many Jiljilya residents go back and forth between the West Bank and the American Midwest, managing shops in Illinois and Wisconsin. The ties have brought prosperity to the small town: the well-paved streets lead to beautiful two- and three-story homes perched on the hilltops.
“We live comfortably here. No one’s poor — only middle class and above,” agreed Abd al-Ilah.
The town is nestled in the rolling hills off Route 60, the West Bank’s main thoroughfare, well inside an enclave administered by the Palestinian Authority. Israeli troops conduct dozens of night raids across the West Bank every week, but rarely enter Jiljilya.
According to Qattum, the mayor, the last Palestinian to be killed by Israelis in town fell in the early 1990s, during the height of the First Intifada. Residents who work in Ramallah, the PA’s administrative seat, face no major Israeli checkpoints on their 15-minute drive into the city.
“There are no nearby settlements, there’s no friction. This is a quiet town with peaceable folks,” Qattum said.
The quiet Ramallah suburb’s sense of security was shattered after Omar As’ad’s death. At a mourners’ tent in the town center, Palestinian officials and local dignitaries paid their respects. An official from the US embassy in Jerusalem showed up to meet with the family.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters last Wednesday that Washington would ask for “clarification” from Israel over As’ad’s death. Several US representatives also condemned As’ad’s death and called for an investigation.
“We support a thorough investigation into the circumstances of this incident,” Price said.
Whatever happened that night, Omar As’ad is gone, leaving a hole in his family’s lives.
“Who will take care of me now? No one can, not as he did,” said Nazmiya. “He left our house, and it was as if nothing was wrong. And he came back dead.”