Feb 2, 2022 - World

Blinken pressed Israel over Palestinian American man's death

Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of Omar Assad on Jan. 13. Photo: Jaafar/Ashityeh/AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian relatives mourn during the funeral of Omar Assad on Jan. 13. Photo: Jaafar/Ashityeh/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken raised concerns with Israel over the death of Omar Assad, a 78-year-old Palestinian American who died after Israeli soldiers detained him in the occupied West Bank last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told me.

Why it matters: The fact the issue was raised on such a high level shows that the Biden administration takes Assad's death seriously and that it has become a point of potential political tension between the U.S. and Israel.

Driving the news: Assad, who lived in Milwaukee before moving back to his home village, was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank on Jan. 12.

  • According to an Israeli military investigation into the incident, Israeli soldiers tied his hands and dragged him to a courtyard of a nearby building.
  • The investigation found that upon Assad's release, the soldiers did not identify signs of distress, but rather assessed he was asleep and did not try to wake him. Several hours later he was found dead. An autopsy showed he died of a stress-induced heart attack.
  • The IDF said in a statement 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 big picture: The Netzah Yehuda Battalion commander was reprimanded and two junior officers were dismissed over the incident.

  • The Netzah Yehuda was formed as a special military unit for ultra-Orthodox soldiers, but over the years, many soldiers from extreme right-wing settlements have joined its ranks. Soldiers from the battalion were involved in several incidents of violence against Palestinian detainees in the past.
  • A criminal investigation by the military police into the January incident is still ongoing.

Behind the scenes: The initial military investigation into the incident was concluded relatively quickly due to U.S. pressure, according to Israeli officials.

  • Israeli officials say they notified the State Department in advance of the publication of the findings.
  • Lapid said Blinken raised the issue and asked "legitimate questions" in a phone call they had on Monday, several hours before the conclusions of the investigation were published.

What they are saying: Assad’s death was “a very bad” incident, Lapid told me.

  • “It is something that cannot happen in a law-abiding democratic country," he said.
  • Lapid also condemned the violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, saying the settlers "should be treated as criminals and be thrown in jail."

What to watch: State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday the Biden administration took note of the IDF investigation findings and disciplinary measures but was still deeply concerned by the circumstances of Assad’s death.

  • “The U.S. expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case, and we welcome receiving additional information on these efforts as soon as possible," Price said.
  • "We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government," Price said.
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