Milwaukee’s Islamic community is mourning the death of a Palestinian-American man who lived much of his life in Milwaukee and was found dead Wednesday in the West Bank after being detained by Israeli soldiers.
In a Wednesday press conference, the U.S. State Department confirmed the man’s death, identifying him as Omar Assad, and voiced its support for a “thorough investigation into the circumstances” of his death. Assad, 78, was a United States citizen.
“Our family is devastated and heartbroken,” Hala Hamad, one of his daughters, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It leaves a hole in all of us. The pain of losing him is compounded because we know what he endured in his last hours.”
Assad lived in the U.S. for about 40 years. He spent most of that time in the Milwaukee area before returning to the West Bank in 2009, his younger brother Nawaff Assad told the Journal Sentinel.
Reuters and the Washington Post cited reports from Palestinian officials that Assad was returning to his home in the West Bank Wednesday after visiting relatives when Israeli soldiers stopped him, handcuffed him and led him away. His body was found shortly afterward with a plastic zip-tie still around one wrist, Reuters reported.
Assad’s family believes the Israeli soldiers are responsible for his death.
The Israeli military confirmed that Assad had been stopped and detained after he “resisted a check,” the Washington Post reported. The Post also cited an Israeli spokesperson as saying Assad was held for a short time and that he was alive when released.
It is unclear exactly how Assad died. Family members told the Journal Sentinel an autopsy was performed before his burial and that they are awaiting the results.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that U.S. officials had sought “clarification” about the incident from the Israeli government and that the Israeli Defense Forces pointed to an “ongoing investigation” into the matter.
But Hamad and other members of Assad’s family said the State Department’s response was “grossly inadequate.”
They are calling on the United States to conduct an independent investigation into Assad’s death, saying that the Israeli investigation is not reliable.
“It will either absolve itself of this crime or offer itself nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Hamad said.
Assad’s children — five daughters and two sons — all live in the United States and were not able to go to his funeral Thursday in the West Bank. In Islamic culture, it is important for the deceased to be buried as quickly as possible, Hamad said.
But on Thursday evening, most of Assad’s children and some of his siblings gathered with well over 100 other people at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s community center on West Layton Avenue to mourn his death, to pray and to console each other, the men in one room and the women in the next.
Nawaff, Assad’s brother, said the turnout and the outpouring of support made him feel better and eased the weight of his grief. The last time he saw his brother in person was in 2019, when he visited him in the West Bank for three months.
“He used to make us laugh. He’s a very outgoing person,” he said.
On Thursday, Nawaff sat at the start of a line of chairs in a large, open room of the community center. People entering the room would immediately greet him and the next family members in line, shaking their hands, embracing them, and offering their condolences. Tea and dates were passed around.
An imam with the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, Ziad Hamdan, offered a prayer.
Many of the Palestinians who live in the Milwaukee area are from the same village that Assad is from, Jiljiliya, in the occupied West Bank. His death — after an encounter with Israeli soldiers — hit home to them.
“This is a tragedy for not only a family, but the entire community and really a tragedy for everyone who believes in the right of innocent people to be able to live without being abused,” said Othman Atta, executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, and himself a Palestinian-American.
Atta criticized the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and questioned how a 78-year-old man could have posed any kind of threat. He urged everyone to contact their congressional representative and demand a full investigation into what happened.
“We want the Israeli government to be held accountable,” he said. “Why is this allowed to happen to a United States citizen?”
Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at email@example.com. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.