'They killed my father': Omar Assad died at the hands of Israeli soldiers. His family are still waiting for justice
In January, when Omar Assad was driving to his home in the occupied West Bank village of Jiljilya, where he had been spending his retirement for the past decade, he was unexpectedly stopped by Israeli soldiers.
Hours later, he was found dead.
His family, most of whom live in the United States, are demanding answers and an independent investigation for what appears to be a clear case of an unprovoked attack and the use of needless force. The case also raises questions about disparities in responses based on perpetrators and victims of such incidents.
"Omar Assad was driving to his home in the West Bank village of Jiljilya when he was unexpectedly stopped by Israeli soldiers. Hours later, he was found dead"
“The family of Omar deserves an independent investigation. The Israeli military doesn’t care for Palestinian lives. This is an ongoing issue,” Ayah Ziadeh, advocacy director for Americans for Justice in Palestine Action, tells The New Arab.
She notes that this comes at a time when Israel is trying to enter the visa waiver programme, and she believes this proves it shouldn’t happen.
“The Israeli government has long held discriminatory policies toward Palestinians travelling to Israel, even if they’re American. This further proves Israel needs to be held accountable,” says Ziadeh.
“It also shows that Israel doesn’t respect the United States, despite being big allies. They don’t even respect American citizens. At this point, there’s no denying it anymore.”
Despite what might appear to be a volatile area based on news reports, this particular part of the West Bank is generally not considered dangerous.
In fact, according to the family of Assad, there wouldn’t even be a reason to expect a checkpoint in that area, which is why he wouldn’t have thought it necessary to carry his personal documents.
In fact, his ID (and that of many other Palestinians who had relocated) had been revoked when he and his wife, Nazmieh, left for the US in 1969, and he was eventually issued a new document two weeks after his death.
The couple had chosen to retire there in 2009 in their home village, in part, because of its tranquillity, having lived there for years without having to show their identity cards.
Moreover, Omar Assad’s family couldn’t imagine him getting into an argument with a soldier that would lead to this treatment.
“I don’t understand why they’d do this to my father. He’s [almost] 80 years old. He’s harmless. He had no weapons on him,” Hadi Assad, his son, who had been speaking with her father several times a week, tells TNA.
“His health was great for someone that age. Seeing your parents live a long life is a blessing,” he says. “He wasn’t struggling with his health. He ate healthy. He’d go into town to get groceries. After his heart surgery, he was doing really well. They killed my father.”
From what the family has heard, Omar Assad mentioned to the Israeli soldiers who stopped him that he was a US citizen. Witnesses, neighbours whom they believe were too scared to intervene, confirmed that Omar Assad did not provoke the soldiers.
Since the incident, Omar Assad’s family has been pushing for an independent investigation, which would be an important step beyond Israel's own internal investigation.
The IDF website describes the actions of the soldiers that night as a "lapse in judgement."
The punishment, according to the site, is that the commander of the ‘Netzah Yehuda’ Battalion "will be reprimanded by the Head of the Central Command. In addition, the relevant platoon commander and company commander will both be removed from their positions and will not serve in commanding roles for two years."
"The family of Omar deserves an independent investigation. The Israeli military doesn't care for Palestinian lives. This is an ongoing issue"
So far, the Assads have been able to reach some US politicians, such as Rashida Tlaib, Betty McCullum, and Debbie Dingell, publicly stating their support with tweets.
They have also reached out to the State Department, which has said it expects a thorough criminal investigation, although it is unclear how far the US can push Israel on this case, given the two countries’ unusually close relationship.
“The official American response is that they’re seeking clarification. Privately, they’re probably having a more serious and concerned conversation,” Khaled Elgindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s programme on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian affairs told The New Arab.
“There’s no question the Israeli side wants this to go away.”
“It’s happened in the past,” he says, referring to the Israeli killing of American activist Rachel Corrie, whose death from a bulldozer destroying Palestinian homes received a muted response from the US and Israel.
“The comparison isn’t necessarily with the ID of the victim but with who does the killing,” he says.
For the Assad family, the only answer is accountability – for someone who had lived a good life and who still had some of his best years ahead of him.
“He wanted to live the last part of his life in peace. He had a young spirit. He’d say: Let’s go to Nablus. Even at that age, still wanted to live. They took it away from his kids and us,” his nephew, Assad Assad tells TNA.
He remembers his uncle’s playful and generous spirit. He came up with silly nicknames for people that were “spot on.” With his birthday falling on 25 December, he liked to joke that five billion people celebrated his birthday.
"To me, I'd always thought that since I'm a US citizen, to a certain degree, they'd have to be respectful and treat us equal. I don't think that's true anymore"
“How are kids going to see grandpa? They won’t know how funny he is,” his nephew asks.
Now, the Assad family’s lives will never be the same – not only because of losing Omar Assad, but also losing faith in a system they believed would safeguard their wellbeing as American citizens.
“I’m scared now. They could kill me, too,” says Hadi Assad. “To me, I’d always thought that since I’m a US citizen, to a certain degree, they’d have to be respectful and treat us equal. I don’t think that’s true anymore.”
He says, “I feel bad for everybody that lives there and what they go through. Now I feel their pain. Before, it wasn’t as intense, but now I know it and it’s just not right.”
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.
Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews