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Elderly Palestinian American man found dead after being detained by Israeli troops

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An 80-year-old Palestinian American died of a heart attack in the occupied West Bank after Israeli troops detained him this week. Israel says it's investigating, and the U.S. State Department has taken an interest in the case. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Omar As'ad lived in Milwaukee for decades. His family says he ran a supermarket there and moved back to the West Bank 10 years ago. At night, he'd meet with his family.

ABD ALELAH AS'AD: He's an old man. We go every day and night to stay with him.

ESTRIN: His cousin Abd Alelah As'ad says on Tuesday night, they lit a fireplace, played cards. Then Omar drove home around 3 a.m. On his way, Israeli soldiers stopped him. He says neighbors watched Omar yell at the soldiers in English, and then soldiers dragged him to a construction site nearby.

ASAD: They hit him.

ESTRIN: He says his cousin was detained there with four other villagers, who told them they were all blindfolded, gagged, handcuffed with plastic zip ties. And Omar As'ad died. Palestinian health officials say he suffered a heart attack. He had a history of heart disease.

ASAD: He's 80 years old. To make like this is - this is very bad.

ESTRIN: The villagers told him when soldiers saw the man died in their custody, they cut all the men's handcuffs and left. Israeli military spokesman Amnon Shefler read a statement about what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMNON SHEFLER: The Israel Defense Forces operated to thwart terrorist activity in the area of Jaljulia.

ESTRIN: He said the elderly Palestinian was apprehended...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEFLER: After resisting a check and he was released later that night.

ESTRIN: He would not say on the record if the Palestinian man was alive when the soldiers released him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEFLER: The Israel Defense Forces will investigate this event in a thorough and professional manner, acting in line with our values and protocols.

ESTRIN: State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters the U.S. asked Israel for clarification about what happened to As'ad, a U.S. citizen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NED PRICE: As you may have seen, the Israeli Defense Forces have indicated there is an ongoing investigation into the matter, and we support a thorough investigation into the circumstances of this incident.

ESTRIN: Violence in the West Bank has increased recently, including a fatal Palestinian shooting of an Israeli and Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians and their property. Overnight Israeli arrest raids are common. Just last week, Israel says troops came under fire and killed a Palestinian assailant. Abd Alelah As'ad says his elderly cousin was a homebody who played cards at night and did not deserve to die yesterday. He says Palestinians need the conflict to end.

ASAD: We need to go to Israel and to talk to Israel. We need peace. We need peace. We need peace together.

ESTRIN: There have been no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since the Obama administration's efforts failed in 2014, and the Biden administration says conditions are not ripe for peace talks now.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAREPUSHER'S "TOMMIB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.