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IDF troops held elderly Palestinian bound and gagged for over an hour — report

Omar As’ad, 78, a US citizen, died shortly after being detained by soldiers during West Bank raid; probe said to find soldiers did not check on his welfare before freeing him

Omar As'ad. (Courtesy)
Omar As'ad. (Courtesy)

An elderly Palestinian man who died of an apparent heart attack after being detained by Israeli soldiers was held bound, gagged, and blindfolded for more than an hour, according to a report Sunday.

Israel has come under pressure to investigate the death of Omar As’ad, 78, a US citizen, who was found with a zip-tie around one of his hands and a blindfold over his eyes, shortly after Israel Defense Forces troops concluded an arrest raid in the central West Bank village of Jiljilya earlier this month.

Citing details from the Military Police questioning of five soldiers from the religious “Netzah Yehuda” battalion involved, investigators found that As’ad was ordered held, along with a number of other Palestinians, to prevent them from alerting the targets of the raid that troops were operating in the area, Haaretz reported.

They said that As’ad had approached the soldiers who were manning a temporary roadblock and shouted at them. They said they restrained him and blindfolded and gagged him. He was held that way for more than an hour, the investigation found.

According to the report, investigators believe that gagging him made it difficult for him to breathe or to ask the soldiers for help. They also believe that his situation was made worse by the near-freezing temperatures at the time, and that he may also have suffered from hypothermia.

The report said it was not yet clear who ordered that he be held.

The investigation further found that when As’ad was released, soldiers did not check on his condition or see whether he needed medical assistance, the report said.

A military lawyer representing the soldiers told Haaretz: “The soldiers were engaged in an operational activity to foil terror. The Palestinian was detained during the operation according to procedures due to his behavior that was endangering the force and he was released at the end of the operation in a satisfactory condition that did not require medical attention. The cause of his death is unconnected to the behavior of the military force.”

Illustrative: One of five Netzah Yehuda soldiers convicted of beating two Palestinian detainees arrives for a court hearing at the Jaffa Military Court, on January 10, 2019. (Flash90)

Soldiers in the religious Netzah Yehuda Battalion of the Kfir Infantry Brigade, which operates in the West Bank, have been at the center of several controversies connected to right-wing extremism and violence against Palestinians.

Soldiers from the battalion have been convicted in the past of torturing and abusing Palestinian prisoners.

As’ad’s family told The Times of Israel last week that As’ad was returning late at night from a card game with friends.

According to his family, they learned As’ad had been found around 3:30 a.m. He was 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 tried 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. He had previously undergone open-heart surgery and was in poor health, according to his family.

Palestinian relatives carry the body of Omar As’ad, at his funeral; As’ad was found dead after being detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, in Jiljilya village in the West Bank, on January 13, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

At the time, the military confirmed that As’ad had been arrested that 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,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the Knesset last week.

“I don’t know of other armies that undertake investigations in each individual case. That is what we continue to do going forward, as well,” Gantz added.

Abd al-Ilah, who said he spoke with Palestinians detained at the scene with Omar, claimed 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 said they had little faith in the military’s ability to get to the bottom of the incident on its own. They demanded that the United States put pressure on Israel to investigate As’ad’s death.

Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of Omar As’ad, 80, who was found dead after being detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, in Jiljilya, a village in the West Bank, on January 13, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

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 army declined to comment further, saying the incident was being investigated.

As’ad lived in the US for over four decades, managing a number of grocery stores.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on 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.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report

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