As you may know, the IPS correspondent in Gaza, Mohammed Omer, was detained last Thursday by Israeli authorities on his return from Europe where he received the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism and went on a brief speaking tour. He is currently in a hospital back in Gaza recovering from the physical wounds incurred during his interrogation. His experience resulted in an official protest by the Dutch government and some attention in the British press, especially The Guardian and The Independent, as well as in the IPS cast itself. The Israeli government’s explanation Mohammed’s wounds, as recounted by IPS correspondent Mel Frykberg, seems somehow unconvincing, although hopefully a thorough investigation, as promised by Israeli’s ambassador to The Hague, will shed some additional light on the matter.
Earlier this week, colleagues sent me a lengthy — but quite eloquent — statement by Mohammed about his experience that, with his permission, I am posting on the blog. I found his thoughts about Shylock’s appeals in the “Merchant of Venice” to his Christian persecutors as Mohammed himself was undergoing what must have been a very traumatic and deeply disillusioning experience at the hands of his fellow human beings to be particularly compelling. You can judge for yourself.
“SUMMARY OF EVENTS IN THE DETENTION, INTEROGATION & TORTURE
OF PRIZE WINNING INTERNATIONAL JOURNALIST, AGE 24, GAZA NATIVE MOHAMMED OMER BY ISRAELI AUTHORITIES, JUNE 26-27, 2008.
Note: This is a compilation of his first hand account of the events of June 26 and June 27, 2008. On June 28th as this is being transcribed Omer is again in transit to a European hospital in Gaza due to chest pains and difficulty breathing and swallowing as a result of the following.
07:00, THURSDAY JUNE 26, 2008:
Mohammed Omer arrives at the Jordanian transit center to catch the bus which will take him across the border to the Israeli transit center at Allenby, just west of Amman Jordan in the Occupied West Bank. Omer was returning from a multi-country speaking tour on the situation in Gaza in Europe in addition to receiving the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism with co-recipient Dahr Jamal. Omer at age 24 is the youngest person in history to receive this prestigious award. He arrived in Amman from France Saturday June 21, 2008, eager to get home for his brother’s wedding next Thursday. Israeli authorities refused him transit forcing him to remain in limbo on a Jordanian transit visa for five days until word arrived he’d be allowed to go home.
Boarding the bus that crosses the border between the Occupied Territories and Jordan, the following transpired.
09:50, THURSDAY JUNE 26, 2008:
Mohammed Omer: “I arrived with others at the Israeli immigration terminal at Allenby around 9:50 AM, entering with the others on my transport, through luggage collection and security screening which leads into the holding area for passport control. As I stood in line to approach the passport agents, I believed everything to be okay and that I’d soon be home in Gaza. At this point a female Israeli soldier approached me and asked, ‘Where are you from?’ I replied, ‘Gaza’. She asked, ‘Where is that?’ and I answered in Hebrew, ‘Azzah’. She nodded, stating ‘Oh yes,’ before pausing and adding, ‘Actually, according to my computer, you don’t have an entry permit.’ Pointing to the rows of chairs facing the Passport agents she motioned me to have a seat and told me someone would call my name.
One hour and a half later , my name still had not been called. I watched as people with American and European passports easily traversed passport control and questioning as well as the VIP club members who simply show passports and pass. I continued to wait.
I was called by a blond haired man with green eyes, a Shin Bet agent, (hereafter referred to by the Israeli acronym Shabak), the internal Israeli intelligence division similar to the FBI or MI-5 in the US or Britain. In Hebrew he asked, ‘Efo Mokhammed?’
In English I replied, ‘Yes, I am Mohammed.’
He asked me to come to him and then asked where my bags were. I pointed to the holding area with my luggage, two pieces: an overnight backpack and a medium size suitcase. He asked if I brought anything illegal with me and responded of course not.
The blond Shabak then asked for my cell phone, telling me to turn it off and remove the battery. I asked if I could make a phone call quickly to let my Dutch Embassy escort, who was waiting on the other side of the terminal know what was happening. The shabak replied forcefully, ‘No! You can’t’.
This was my first indication this delay was not routine. Had it been, there would have been no issue with me informing my diplomatic escort of the situation.
Note: Absent a watch, wall clock or mobile phone, times can only be approximated from this point forward.
APPROXIMATELY 11:00, THURSDAY JUNE 26, 2008
I removed the battery from the cell phone as I have been asked and placed my luggage on the two metal tables as requested. He then asked me to leave my belongings and follow him. I recognized we were entering the Shin Bet offices at Allenby. Upon entering, he motioned for me to sit in a chair within a closed corridor. I could see nothing beyond the walls, only the cameras above my head watching me.
APPROXIMATELY 12:30 , THURSDAY JUNE 26, 2008
After what seemed to be one hour and thirty minutes, both doors at the end of the corridor opened. I watched as one of the Palestinian passengers exited securing his belt to his trousers. A second man followed behind and was struggling to put on his T-shirt. Immediately I realized I was not in a good place. The rooms from which they exited must be used for strip searching. Suddenly, I became nervous, but stayed calm with all the soldiers.
A uniformed shabak officer with police clothes, referred to as Avi by his co-workers told me to come with him. My luggage had been brought and he proceeded to empty each of all contents, manually checking every item from underwear to the gifts of perfume I’d purchased for friends and family. He then tossed the gifts to the other side of the table. Shortly thereafter, a well built muscular blond man in his forties joined Avi while green eyes from earlier entered the room to supervise. Green eyes began what soon became apparent to me to be an interrogation.
‘What is this?’ he says pointing to what is obviously clothing. ‘What is this?’, ‘What is this?’ he continues to pepper in elementary English as each item is removed from my luggage. Avi now moves to my backpack, (overnight bag) containing my documents, letters from readers throughout Europe, copies of e-mails, my articles, my journalist notebooks and the business cards of members of parliament in Greece and Sweden as well as those of members in the House of Commons in England in addition to cards from various business people I met throughout Europe. All of my records, contacts and correspondence of my 3-week trip, not to mention all of my notes for future stories the intelligence orders examined. They then collected all of my documents and dumped them into a blue box adding my cell phone and the memory cards storing all of the photographs from my trip and the presentations I made to the governments of The Netherlands, France, Sweden, Greece and in the United Kingdom.
They were looking for something specific but I wouldn’t know what until green eyes demanded, ‘Where is the money, Mohammed?’
What money I thought. Of course I had money on me. I was traveling.
Confused, I replied I had some money from various nations but not much. He commanded I place all currency on the table, which I did. It amounted to the equivalent of about four hundred pounds–roughly $800 USD. For a moment I was relieved, thinking this was just a typical shakedown. I’d lose the cash with me, but that would be about it.
However, my traveling money failed to suffice. Dissatisfied, he pressed, ‘Where is the English pound and how much you have?’
I realized he was after the award stipend for the Martha Gellhorn Prize from the UK and I told him I did not have it with me. I’d arranged for a bank transfer rather than carry it with me. Visibly irritated the intelligence agent continued to press for money.
Around me, its filled with hall room filled with more intelligence officers, bringing the total Israeli personnel, most well armed in the room to eight: eight Israelis and me. At this point I realized this wasn’t a simple shakedown.
Dissatisfied that larger sums of money failed to materialize, green eyes accused me of lying. I again repeated the prize money went to bank draft and I already had shown him all the cash I had on me. Avi interjected, ordering me to empty my pockets, which I already had. Seeing they had tapped out, he escorted me into another room, this one empty.
‘OK take off your clothes’ Avi the intelligence officer ordered.
I asked why. A simple pat-down would have disclosed any money belts or weapons; besides, I had already gone through an x-ray machine before entering the passport holding area.
He repeated the order.
Removing all but my underwear, I stood before Avi. In an increasingly belligerent tone he ordered, ‘take off everything’.
‘I am not taking off my underwear,’ I stated. Again he ordered me to remove my underwear.
At this point I informed him that an escort from the Dutch embassy was currently waiting for me on the other side of the interrogation center and that I was under diplomatic transit.
He replied he knew that thus indicating he didn’t care and again insisted I strip. Again I refused. There was no reason for me to do so.
At this point he placed his hand on his hip revolver and I became quite frightened. Tears welled in my eyes and I began crying, ‘Why are you treating me this way?’ I asked attempting to maintain my composure. ‘I am human being.’
For a moment I flashed on the scene in the Oscar winning film, The Pianist where the Jewish man, being humiliated by a Nazi quoted Shakespeare, invoking his faith in place of written words, ‘Doth a Jew not have eyes?’ the old man queried, attempting to appeal to the humanity buried somewhere in the soul of his oppressor. Finding myself confronting the same racism and disdain I wanted to ask Avi, ‘Doth a Palestinian not have eyes?’
Like the Nazi, would his indoctrination inoculate him from empathy as well? Likely, I reasoned, it would.
Avi smirked, half chuckling as he informed me, ‘This is nothing compared to what you will see now.’
With that the intelligence officer unholstered his weapon, pressing it to my head and with his full body weight pinning me on my side, he forcibly removed my underwear. Completely naked, I stood before him as he proceeded to feel me up one side and down the other. He knew I had nothing on. The x-ray would have shown such and once people pass through the first security check, no one is allowed to leave the area, even to go have a smoke, get food or drink.
Avi then proceeded to demand I do a concocted sort of dance, ordering me to move to the right and the side. When I refused, he forced me under his own power to move side to side. Terrified now, I started to cry. Backing off, he ordered me to get dressed and follow him.
Returning to the room with my luggage, the blond intelligence officer initiated a discreet form of psyops as he proceeded to dissect my belongings. ‘You are a crazy man,’ he said nonchalantly, shaking his head side-to-side signifying disgust.
‘Is there anyone who is Gazan who would go to France, see Paris and then come back to Gaza where there is no food, no fuel, no clean water? Where there is darkness?’
As he spoke his tone dispensed words in slices of condescension.
‘Or do you like to be around the Hamas system in Gaza?” he accused, not looking for an answer or giving me the freedom or ability to respond.
Goading, he continued. ‘Aren’t you ashamed to have your name and reputation associated with such a dirty place as Gaza?’
Finally I responded. ‘Returning home is my choice. I want to be a voice for those who have no voice and get the truth out about Gaza to the world,” I stated forcibly, adding, ‘I have no affiliation with the Hamas. I don’t even think they like me.’
The fact is, politicians rarely have an affinity for those charged with overseeing their actions in the press.
Patronizing, he continued in less than optimal English, ‘You speak well English, where did you study?’
‘Islamic University in Gaza’, I replied. Peripherally I watched as the other agents seemed to be reveling in ransacking my belongings with total disregard for order and fragility. Patiently I requested they repack the items once they finished checking them. Avi barked at me, telling me to shut up and not interfere.
Angered, I replied, ‘I am a journalist and I’m not accustomed to shutting up. I am asking please…’
‘You don’t touch anything,’ he bellowed.
Dropping my arms in a motion of acquiescence, I relented, replying, ‘All right.’
My protests seemed to encourage their zeal for exploit and further invasion of my privacy. I watched helplessly as Avi and another young man proceeded to open the designer perfumes I’d purchased in Europe.
‘Why the perfumes,’ the blond interrogator asked.
‘They are gifts for the people I love,’ I replied.
He retrieved and held up the European chocolates. Motioning to them, I added, ‘And the chocolate is for a pregnant woman in Gaza who has always dreamed of eating European chocolates.’
Superciliously he replied, ‘Oh, do you have love in your culture?’
Back to Shakespeare, ‘Doth a Palestinian not have ears? Are we not human?’ The callous and racist nature of his taunt aggravated. Beginning to lose my patience, realizing his attempts to infuriate me by sliding through insults in the guise of questions, I countered that of course we have love in our culture.
At this moment he spied the visitor’s pass I used to record my segment with BBC World Service Radio. ‘Oh,’ he quipped mockingly. ‘You were also on the BBC World Service as well’.
I answered affirmative and he continued, ‘I see that you have been everywhere for the past three weeks.’
None of this questioning seemed productive and I wasn’t sure where this was going. The man is fully aware I am a journalist, under escort with embassy personnel from a country Israel considers a good ally. He is fully aware of what I write and where I’ve been. Before him rests the data and I was not afraid of what he would discover because I had nothing to hide from him. However increasingly I felt alarmed. What fed my anxiety originated with the others in the room, armed men looking at me with increasing disdain. I knew enough about the inner workings of Israeli intelligence that each of these men had a specific task. In time each would take his turn; this interrogation would not pass for some time. With so many in the room, I could only guess what each was empowered to deploy. Three had engaged me. That left five to go.
The insolent nature of his questions with their inferences of disrespect escalated. Extracting a trophy presented to me by journalists in Greece as a commendation and acknowledgement of the danger all journalists in war zones face, he pointed to the writing.
‘What is this and what language is that?’
Greek, as ancient as Hebrew and Arabic is quite easy to spot. Either this man was an idiot, and I didn’t think that. Or he was attempting to further rack me.
I responded that the language was Greek and that the trophy was presented to me by the Union of Greek Journalists.
‘Greece?’ He responded arrogantly. ‘Don’t you know that Greece is not a friend of Israel?’
I simply replied, ‘I don’t care,’ which I didn’t, wondering how Grecian government would respond to such an accusation.
Behind me two men proceeded to ridicule and derisively provide an ever expanding lampoon of epitaphs on my belongings and correspondence, each becoming increasingly vile and profane. They seemed to delight most in mocking the letters from readers in England I had not had an opportunity to read. The stress of this coupled with the anxiety of not knowing and the assaults on my psychologically through innuendo and condescension increasingly taxed me physically as well as emotionally. Having been without facilities, food and water for nearly twelve hours, I began to feel faint. As the blond interrogator continued his verbal pummeling, my mind wandered and my consciousness played toward escape. I fought to remain coherent, but my body informed me it had other plans.
Stress had tied my stomach in knots and without warning I began to vomit all over the in the arrival hall. At the same time I felt my legs buckled from the strain of standing and I passed out. For some time my mind vacillated between conscious, semi-conscious and un. I could hear voices and then nothing.
I awoke on the floor to someone screaming, repeating my name over and over, ‘Mohkammed! Mokhammed! Mokhammed!’
As he screamed in my ears I felt his fingernails puncturing my skin, gouging, scraping and clawing at the tender flesh beneath my eyes. This was the intelligence officer’s method for gauging my level of consciousness. No smelling salts as is the civilized manner for reviving a person. Clawing at my eyes and tearing the skin on my face proved his manner of rendering aid.
Realizing I was again conscious thou barely the Israeli broadened his assault, scooping my head and digging his fingers in near the auditory nerves between my head and ear drum. Rather then render first aid, which is the protocol and international law in instances whether prisoners of war or civilians, the soldier broadened his assault. The pain became sharper as he dug is nails, two fingers at a time into my neck, grazing my carotid artery and again challenging my consciousness before pummeling my chest with his full weight and strength.
I estimate I lay on the floor approximately one hour and twenty minutes and I continued to vomit for what seemed like a half hour. Severely dehydrated, focusing took flight and the room became a menagerie of pain, sound and terror. The stench further exasperated and seemed to inflame my captors further. I couldn’t move, speak or shout. I felt tears fall and vomit, but my tongue seemed dislodged. Words would not come. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness again was the choleric incantation of my name in Hebrew, ‘Mohammed ata shome!’ demanding, ‘Mohammed do you hear?’
I could not answer and again my world fades to black.
Revived again I vaguely heard a woman with a Hebron Palestinian accent pleading somewhere out of my sight and my eyes closed.
‘Let this young man alone! Leave him!’ The Israelis ignored her. Frustrated she shouted, ‘May God punish you!’
Her pleas fell without sympathy, met with orders from Israeli soldiers telling her to leave. All around me I heard Israeli voices and then one placed his combat boot on my neck pressing into the hard floor. I remember choking, feeling the outline of his shoe and in my increasing delirium thought for a moment perhaps someone was rendering aid. Reality destroyed that hope. Around me, like men watching a sporting match I heard laughing and goading, a gang rape of verbal and physical violence meted by men entrenched in hatred and rage. As the beating, scratching and assaults continued, I was sure my body and face must look more like a football than a man. I again lost consciousness and awoke to find myself being dragged by my feet on my back through my vomit on the floor, my head bouncing on the pavement and body sweeping to-and-fro like a mop. Humanity or the capacity to be human seemed void within the souls in charge of my body. What causes men to hate so?
After my employment as a human mop, I was transferred to a wheelchair, thou my full faculties had yet to return. I did not realize yet that I had been transferred to a military clinic for Israeli soldiers. Later I would discover on my chest several stickers in Hebrew marking the place where the paddles from the defibulator interacted with my heart as the doctors attempted to revive me. Not getting the response they wanted, they forced my eyes open and still I did not awaken.
It was at the Israeli military clinic I began to awake and heard frantic Hebrew shouted from a number of people and a word I did know, ‘Ambulance’ in English. I felt someone force open my eyes and drop in some liquid into my eyes and nose. I could feel it and began to become aware of my surroundings. Soon I heard a man speaking reassuringly in Arabic, “We are the Palestinian Red Crescent Ambulance,’ he told me.
‘We were called by Israeli soldiers to pick up your body and get you to a hospital.’ He said around 1:30 or so, as I guess.
Behind him an Israeli soldier approached the ambulance insisting the EMT’s (Emergency Medical Technicians) would not be permitted to move me until I signed a paper. First of all, anything signed by a person incapacitated cannot be binding, thou this is a technicality often expunged from Israeli protocol. Fortunately, people were looking out for me. The driver asked the soldier what kind of paper and the soldier explained that it would indemnify the Israelis should anything happen once I was transferred into Palestinian custody. In other words, if I died or was permanently disabled as a result of Israel’s actions, Israel could not be held accountable. One would think I was in a third world dictatorship rather than the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’. One would think.
Thou I could not see him; I recognized the voice of the soldier as Avi.
The EMT replied, ‘He’s unconscious. You can’t make him sign something he cannot read and we don’t know yet what you did to him during the interrogation.”
Avi asserted again that I sign this waiver before they’d allow me to be transferred and treated, something directly in contravention with international humanitarian law. The driver again intervened stating, ‘He can’t wake up. Let us call the Dutch embassy since they are waiting for him outside.’
Alarmed soldier shot back, ‘Don’t call the Dutch embassy! This is none of your business.’
Flustered by the thought of disclosure the soldier continued to insist. My guardian angel EMT informed me later that that the soldier insisted, ‘It’s not allowed for you to call anyone about his case or ask for accompaniment until he gets the medical treatment in the hospital.’
In other words, my tormentors wanted to make sure nobody knew what they had done to me. Nor did they want anyone with diplomatic caché to witness what happened to me. The Israelis needed plausible deniability and they were willing to extort and skirt international law if necessary.
I learn later my guardian on the ambulance was EMT Mahmoud Tarairah who accompanied me in the back of the bus (ambulance) to the hospital, rendering aid as needed. Mahmoud confided in me that he thought it was strange that the soldiers were insisting that I should not inform the Dutch Embassy, my escorts, that I was in hospital and why. His healthy skepticism saved me.
SOME HOURS LATER:
When I fully awoke and opened my eyes I found myself in a quiet cool place.
Pain seemed everywhere. I attempted to move my arm but the pain and IV prevented it. My vitals must have signaled the nurse’s station because a nurse quickly appeared at my bedside and soothingly reassured me, ‘You are here with us; we are Palestinian doctors.’
Groggy I asked, ‘Where am I?’
“Jericho hospital,” a doctor who joined him replied.
I mused quietly to myself that I had always wanted to visit Jericho. Until now I had been denied by the Occupation Forces for the all-encompassing ‘security reasons’. I had hoped my travel to be by car or bus rather than a gurney with a saline drip. I couldn’t help but chuckle internally at the irony. Chuckling audibly still was too painful. I then asked about my belongings: passport, phone and luggage.
The ambulance drivers were taking care of them for me I was told. Upon which I asked about the Dutch Embassy, insisting that I needed to call Wim and other Dutch friend as soon as possible, believing they had no idea what had happened to me.
A member of the hospital staff retrieved my bags and I riffled through realizing all of my careful packing had been reordered into chaos. I found my cell phone on one side and the battery on the other. When I tried to use it, my mobile acted strangely, dialing numbers on its own. I immediately shut it down and asked to borrow a phone. One of the EMT’s offered his, first calling Katja Shury-Zweers at the Dutch Embassy and informing her of my situation, prognosis and location. He then offered his phone to me so could contact others in Europe and the States.
As I dialed friends and colleagues the doctor came in to check my vitals and I informed him I was having difficulty breathing and that my chest, stomach and neck, especially the area where the Israeli intelligence officer dug his fingers into me; this region throbbed in pain.
The hospital is small and no enough rooms for me as doctor Diaa Al Husieni suggest empty rooms for more critical cases and all I wanted was to get home to my family and back to Gaza. As Dorothy stated in the Wizard of Oz, no matter what, there really is no place like home. Besides I knew the hospital was short on beds and now that I was stabilized, (or at least in my male mind believed so) it seemed selfish to occupy one that could be needed by others.
My treating physician Dr. Diaa Al Hussieni explained to me that the combination of high pressure, stress and exhaustion were the reasons my body gave out and what I experienced was a nervous breakdown. This is what caused the vomiting. Rest was required and I should seek medical attention in Gaza in addition to getting medication for the chest, stomach and neck pain. Given the shortages in Gaza of all medical supplies, I wasn’t sure if this would be possible. It turned out to be irrelevant. Due to the damage to my neck, I had difficulty swallowing anything. I wouldn’t be able to take medication even if I had it.
After a few more hours I got into fresh clothing and tried to walk out into the corridor and toilet. I found my legs didn’t always cooperate with my will. They seemed to have a mind of their own. It would be several days before they would cooperate with the upper half of my body. Nearly around 4 o’clock Lisa from The Netherlands Representative Office met me and accompanied me to a checkpoint in Jericho where we obtained a permit for me to travel through the Eretz crossing and for the first time in over a day, traveling in the Dutch diplomatic car, I began to feel safe. Mr. Robert van Embden and Mr. John van der Zande were waiting for me to assure my traversing of the Eretz checkpoint remains uneventful.”