The death of an inconvenient Palestinian

Last month, an elderly Palestinian man’s death in Israeli custody unexpectedly became an inconvenience to a few powerful people and governments.

Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint
Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint to stop volunteers who came to help farmers pick the olive harvest. [Ibrahim Husseini/Al Jazeera]

Omar Abdulmajeed Asaad was the inconvenient Palestinian.

Like so many other Palestinians, Asaad was, in effect, killed by Israeli soldiers because he was a Palestinian. Young or old. Women, men or children. It does not matter. Asaad’s life was snuffed out because, it bears repeating, he was a Palestinian.

As it happens, Asaad was old. He was 78 years old. For much of his life he lived in Jiljilya, a town a little northeast of Ramallah in the West Bank. That is where he died.

Asaad was married. He had a family whom he loved and who loved him in equal measure. He spent his work life selling groceries. Retired, he liked to play cards with friends.

That is what he was doing with his cousins in the early hours of January 12 less than a mile from his home. He lived a quiet life enjoying simple things that gave him peace and pleasure.

On his drive home, Asaad was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a “checkpoint” because he was a Palestinian. The Israeli soldiers had no cause or right to stop Asaad. They did because they had guns.

Asaad insisted that he was not a troublemaker. He was, of course, telling the truth. He was an old man just trying to get home after a late night of playing cards with friends.

Predictably, the Israeli soldiers did not believe him because he was a Palestinian with no ID. So, they dragged Asaad from his car, blindfolded him, put a gag over his mouth and tied his hands tight with plastic zip ties.

Then, Israeli soldiers marched Asaad – bound, gagged and blindfolded – to a nearby construction site and dumped him on the cold stone pavers.

Two other Palestinians who had been stopped earlier because they were Palestinians were there, as well. They saw what the Israeli soldiers did to Asaad.

Soon, Asaad was still. One Israeli soldier squatted to check on Asaad. The soldier got up, spoke to the other soldiers. They left. Quickly.

Asaad was dead.

There was an Israeli medic close by. But the Israeli soldiers who had bound, gagged and blindfolded Asaad and left him to die did not call for help because he was a Palestinian. Worthless and disposable. Like cowards, they fled to save themselves.

The Israeli soldiers would say later that they thought Asaad had dozed off on a chair. That was a lie. An autopsy revealed that Asaad had died of a “stress-induced heart attack” triggered by “violence”. He died alone. His head resting against stone pavers.

Within minutes, a Palestinian doctor arrived. Asaad’s face was blue and his wrists were bruised. There was bleeding inside Asaad’s eyes. His clothes were caked in dirt. He tried breathing life into Asaad. It was no use. The doctor reckons that Asaad had stopped breathing 15 to 20 minutes before he reached him.

Asaad’s foul death would be a scarcely noticed footnote amid the outrageous inventory of death and despair Palestinians have had to endure for generations because they are Palestinians if not for one detail: he was an American.

That is what made Asaad and the brutish manner of his death so inconvenient to a few powerful people and governments.

I suspect that the Israeli soldiers who bound, gagged and blindfolded Asaad were confident that they – like all the other Israeli soldiers who have caused the deaths of Palestinian children, women and men – would happily get away with it. What did it matter that another worthless, disposable Palestinian had died. No one, outside his family and friends, would care. Certainly not the “international community”. He was a Palestinian. He was a nobody. Worse, he was nothing.

I suspect the Israeli government and most Israelis could not have cared less that another Palestinian had died while in Israeli “custody.” Again, what did it matter that another worthless, disposable Palestinian had died. No one, outside his family and friends, would care. Certainly not the “international community.” He was a Palestinian. He was a nobody. Worse, he was nothing.

Anyway, the old man deserved to die because he “refused to co-operate”. The soldiers were doing their duty. Israeli soldiers are heroes, not killers. Anyone who says otherwise is an Israel-hating anti-Semite.

It should have worked because it has worked so often before.

Except that this Palestinian had built a life and family in America. He became an American. He was the American “dream” – a successful businessman borne of hard, honest work. Asaad spent years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The mid-west. America’s “heartland”. He ran a grocery store there, before returning late in life to the place where he was born.

That Asaad carried an American passport could mean trouble: trouble for the Israeli soldiers who bound, gagged and blindfolded Asaad and left him dead for no other reason than he was a Palestinian; trouble for the Israeli government that relies on the US to have its back whenever it steals the homes and land of Palestinians or jails, tortures, bombs and kills them with impunity; trouble for the US government that had to account, finally and grudgingly, for the death of an American while in its special ally’s sullied “hands”.

A US Senator and Congresswoman demanded answers. They also demanded that the “investigation” into Asaad’s death not be left to Israel since it has a history of exonerating its own. And, for once, the ugly death of a Palestinian got big play in some US media only because he was an American. Usually, dead Palestinians do not, as you and I know, merit that kind of attention.

Still, at first, Israel’s soldiers concocted a flimsy cover story. They said Asaad did not look ill when they left. They said he did not cry out or clutch his chest. Otherwise, they would have helped. He had simply fallen asleep, they said.

Israel’s lies would have prevailed if Asaad had not been a US citizen.

You and I know that, too.

Now Israel admits that its “heroes” lied. It says that Asaad’s death was the result of “moral failure and poor decision-making”.

Stopping an old man from going home then gagging him, tying him up and blindfolding him before dumping him at a construction site to die a sudden, lonely and painful death is, I agree, a “moral failure”. It is not “poor decision-making”. It is a crime.

Two Israeli soldiers responsible for Asaad’s death have lost their “commands” – temporarily. Another has been “reprimanded”.

So what?

You and I know that once the how, where and why of Asaad’s death is forgotten by powerful people and governments, the “disciplined” Israeli soldiers will likely get their commands back. They may even, in time, be promoted.

In announcing the fleeting “discipline”, an Israeli official told reporters that the soldiers “seemed to have no reason to the way they acted with [Asaad]”.

That made me chuckle. It is no mystery. The Israeli soldiers “acted” as they did not only because they could, but because they saw Asaad as a worthless, disposable Palestinian. A nobody whose life and death did not matter to them or the government or people they serve.

For too many Israelis – in and out of uniforms – Palestinians’ lives have never mattered and they never will.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.