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Death of 80-year-old Palestinian American Retiree following Military Detention in West Bank—Will it Spur changes in Visa Waiver Program, Easing Transit through Israel to the Homeland?

posted on: Jan 19, 2022

Death of 80-year-old Palestinian American Retiree following Military Detention in West Bank—May it Help Humanize all Palestinians
Body of Palestinian American Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, 80-year-old retiree to West Bank village–he was detained by Israeli soldiers, supposedly released, but died of uncertain cause Photo Reuters

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

80-year-old Palestinian American, Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, a successful Milwaukee grocer, was detained by Israeli soldiers near his West Bank village, where he’d retired to. He died while either in custody or just after being released. His treatment demonstrates the typical mistreatment of Palestinian Americans visiting the occupied territories who, until recently, have had to transit via Jordan or Egypt.

Palestinian American retiree dies after Israeli detention near his West Bank village

Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad was driving back to his village Jiljila in the early morning when he was stopped by Israeli soldiers. Witnesses reported to the Washington Post that he was “unresponsive” when released. A question is, how can someone be unresponsive when released from a military stop? Abdalmajeed was found dead after he was detained and handcuffed by Israeli soldiers. When found, he still had the plastic handcuff on his wrist, was blindfolded, and left on the ground.

A witness to the detainment reported that Abdalmajeed had been left by the soldiers on paving stones in front of a house under construction. Another detainee checked on his neighbor and found him covered by a coat, his eyes still blindfolded, but with no pulse. A local doctor tried to resuscitate Abdalmajeed but could not do so.

Israel Defense Force soldiers who had detained Abdalmajeed said the detainee was alive when they left and a spokesman for the IDF indicated, “that failing to provide aid to a detainee known to be in medical distress is a violation of military protocols and potentially a prosecutable offense.” The U.S. State Department has demanded that Israel carry out a complete examination of As’ad’s death.

Abdalmajeed had been a former Milwaukee grocer with several stores to his credit, a father of five children—before retiring to the West Bank a decade ago. Retiring to the West Bank may not be the most familiar pattern for successful Palestinian Americans to follow, though it does happen. This is one example that may not bode well for the U.S.-West Bank retirement travel business. In any case, it did not go well for this retiree.

The cause of death of Abdalmajeed was linked to a history of cardiac and respiratory disease and ultimately a heart attack. The official cause is to be determined.

Death of 80-year-old Palestinian American Retiree following Military Detention in West Bank—May it Help Humanize all Palestinians
Mourned by his village, family, and friends, Palestinian American Omar Abdalmajeed As’as had been a successful owner of a Milwaukee area grocery chain Photo Reuters

U.S. and Israel discussing ease of entry for Palestinian-Americans prior to Abdalmajeed’s death

Ease of transit of U.S. citizens of Palestinian descent through Israeli airports to the occupied West Bank was a discussion already underway before the death of the Palestinian American retiree. It is called the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Even despite Covid conditions, travelers exiting Ben Gurion International Airport will be allowed to enter the country, including Palestinian Americans in transit to occupied territory of the West Bank.

Conversely, Israeli travelers to the U.S. have been impeded by the VWP but, according to the Times of Israel, it is because of “relatively high rejection rates, mainly because of recently discharged Israeli Defense Force soldiers looking to travel for extended periods of time, drawing the skepticism of US visa adjudicators.” Recent talks between President Biden and Prime Minister Neftali Bennett are leading to adding Israel to the VWP.

Death of 80-year-old Palestinian American Retiree following Military Detention in West Bank—May it Help Humanize all Palestinians
The Israeli Defense Force, which detained the Palestinian American retiree, is not known for its friendly treatment of Palestinians generally Photo Haaretz

In a tit-for-tat relationship, the U.S. and Israel are ironing out differences regarding VWP, using percentages of denials of visas as the framework. So, the visa waiver deal, according to a Reuters report included in Middle East Eye, has resulted in “permission for more Palestinian-American dual nationals to transit its territory as part of an emerging U.S. visa waiver deal for its citizens.”

The agreement means that the arduous journey of Palestinian-Americans returning to the West Bank will no longer have to come via Jordan or Egypt’s Sinai desert bordering Gaza. Rather, they can now come through airports at Tel Aviv and Eilat airports, which are both within a few hours of travel to the territories. Such a transit solution has been an American demand of Israel for many years. It may take another year to bring the agreement to a formal conclusion.

Why the Visa Waiver Program between the U.S. and Israel has been slow to begin

The ease of entry of Palestinian Americans and Arab Americans generally to Israel en route to the occupied territories is getting closer to the agreement between the U.S. and Israel. Israel is agreeing to the VWP for the simple reason that it will also permit Israeli citizens easier entry to the U.S.—namely without requiring a visa.

A recent article by eminent Arab American leader James Zogby has offered a rationale for the recent change in position by the Israeli government: “One key reason why this has never happened, despite continued pressure from Israel’s supporters in Washington, is because for any country to join the visa waiver program they must guarantee reciprocity — that is, it must ensure that it will treat all visiting Americans without discrimination and the USA must agree to do the same with regard to its citizens.”

Death of 80-year-old Palestinian American Retiree following Military Detention in West Bank—May it Help Humanize all Palestinians
King Hussain or Allenby Bridge from Jordan to the West Bank is one of two routes Palestinian Americans were forced to use in transit to the West Bank–now a more direct route from Israel is available Photo Times of Israel

Zogby further avows that Israel has engaged in “discriminatory treatment of US citizens of Arab descent who travel to the country.” He notes that one point of great concern has been the treatment of Arab Americans entering Israel. This has been a bone of contention for decades. On entry, they are selected out for special treatment, namely “hours of repeated harsh interrogation, downloading of information from their phones and laptops, and sometimes even strip searches.”

In the final analysis, Zogby claims that it is not just about visa waivers; it is about how seriously the U.S. government takes as its responsibility the protection of its citizens’ rights when abroad. He quotes the language in every U.S. citizen’s passport that invokes of every country the protection of American citizens.

Perhaps if those Israeli Defense Force soldiers patrolling that lonely, dark road in the occupied territories had only respected the rights of Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad, the 80-year-old retired Palestinian American, he might still be with us. And, in the future, they should treat not only Palestinian Americans with dignity but all Palestinian citizens.

• “Palestinian American who died after Israeli detention was unresponsive when released, witnesses say,” Washington Post, 1/15/2022
• “Israel to ease entry for Palestinian-Americans, officials say,” The Times of Israel, 12/26/2021
• “Israel to ease transit rules for Palestinian Americans as part of US visa waiver deal,” Middle East Eye, 1/4/2022
• “No visa waiver for Israel–Arab American rights are protected,” James Zogby, Pakistan Times, 1/11/2022

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, Department of State, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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