JERUSALEM -- An autopsy has found that a 78-year-old Palestinian man who was pronounced dead shortly after being detained by Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank died of a heart attack caused by “external violence.”
The autopsy, undertaken by three Palestinian doctors, confirmed that Omar Asaad, who has U.S. citizenship, suffered from underlying health conditions. But it also found bruises on his head, redness on his wrists from being bound, and bleeding in his eyelids from being tightly blindfolded.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, concluded that the cause of death was a “sudden cessation of the heart muscle caused by psychological tension due to the external violence he was exposed to.”
Asaad was detained while returning home from a social gathering at around 3 a.m. on Jan. 12 by Israeli soldiers who had set up a flying checkpoint in his home village of Jiljiliya. It's a common occurrence in the West Bank, which has been under Israeli military rule since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war.
Palestinian witnesses say Asaad was roughed up before being bound and blindfolded, and then taken to an abandoned apartment complex nearby. Other Palestinians who were detained in the same building later that night said they didn't realize he was there until after the soldiers left, when they found him unconscious, lying face down on the ground, and called an ambulance.
The Israeli military has said he was detained after resisting an inspection and later released, implying he was alive. It's unclear when exactly he died. Initial reports said he was 80 years old.
The unit that detained Asaad, Netzah Yehuda, or “Judea Forever,” is a special unit for ultra-Orthodox Jewish soldiers. It was formed with the aim of integrating a segment of the population that does not normally do military service. But Israeli media have reported problems in the unit stemming from the hard-line ideology of many of the soldiers.
The U.S. Embassy said it has not yet seen a final report from the Israeli government and supports a “thorough investigation into the circumstances of the incident.” It said it was “deeply saddened” by Asaad's death and has been in close contact with his family to provide consular assistance.
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said Asaad's detention was “bizarre."
“This is a very small, quiet village,” said Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the group. "There was no reason at all to take an 80-year-old and to drag him and handcuff him. I have no idea why they did it.”
Israel says it thoroughly investigates incidents in which Palestinians are killed by Israeli troops. But rights groups say those investigations rarely lead to indictments or convictions, and that in many cases the army does not interview key witnesses or retrieve evidence.
Sadot said the fact that the military is still investigating more than two weeks after the incident, even with the added pressure of American scrutiny, indicates that any eventual conclusion will be another “whitewash."
“I don't know, but from our experience, it will lead to nothing," she said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report.