If you’re an award-winning Gaza journalist, the Shin Bet has a message for you: get out and don’t come back. Inter-Press Service photographer Mohammed Omer just won the distinguished Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in London. He traveled to Jordan on his way home and stopped to coordinate his return with Israeli authorities. Once he was given proper approvals he went to the Allenby Bridge to cross into the Occupied Territory. Here is what happened:
Accompanied by Dutch diplomats, Omer passed through the Jordanian side of the border without incident. However, after arrival on the Israeli side, trouble began. He informed a female soldier that he was returning home to Gaza. He was repeatedly asked where Gaza was, and told that he had neither a permit nor any coordination to cross.
Omer explained that he did indeed have permission and coordination but was nevertheless taken to a room by Israel’s domestic intelligence agency the Shin Bet, where he was isolated for an hour and a half without explanation.
“Eventually I was asked whether I had a knife or gun on me even though I had already passed through the x-ray machine, had my luggage searched, and was in the company of Dutch diplomats,” Omer said.
His luggage was again searched, and security then proceeded to go through every document and paper he had on him, taking down the names and numbers of the European parliamentary officials he had met.
The Shin Bet officials then started to make fun of the European parliamentarians, and mocked Omer for being “the prize-winning journalist”.
The Gazan journalist was repeatedly asked why he was returning to “the hell of Gaza after we allowed you to leave.” To this he responded that he wanted to be a voice for the voiceless. He was told he was a “trouble-maker”.
The security men also demanded he show all the money he had on him, and particular attention was paid to the British pounds he was carrying. His Gellhorn prize money had been awarded in British pounds but he was not carrying the entire sum on him bodily, something the investigators refused to believe.
After being unable to produce the prize money, he was ordered to strip naked.
“At first I refused but then I had an M16 (gun) pointed in my face and my clothes were forcibly removed, even my underwear,” Omer said.
At this point Omer broke down and pleaded for an end to such treatment. He said he was told, “you haven’t seen anything yet.” Every cavity of his body was searched as one of the investigators pinned him down on the floor, placing his boot on Omer’s neck. Omer began vomiting, and fainted.
When he came round his eyelids were being forcibly opened and his eardrums probed by an Israeli military doctor, who was also armed. He was then dragged along the floor by his feet by the Shin Bet officials, with his head repeatedly banging on the floor, to a Palestinian ambulance which had been called.
“I eventually woke up in a Palestinian hospital with the doctors trying to reassure me,” Omer told IPS.
Reuters adds to the story that Omer’s ribs were broken during his manhandling.
This, of course, is not the first time that Palestinians accompanied by western diplomatic personnel have been roughed up. It’s not even the first time that western diplomatic personnel themselves have been roughed up by Israeli goons masquerading as representatives of the security apparatus. The last time something like this happened, the prime minister’s office was abject in apologizing and swearing something like this wouldn’t happen again. Well guess what–it has.
What’s the Israeli explanation? They have many, all of which appear lame:
A spokeswoman at the Israeli Foreign Press Association said she was unaware of the incident.
Lisa Dvir from the Israeli Airport Authority (IAA), the body responsible for controlling Israel’s borders, told IPS that the IAA was neither aware of Omer’s journalist credentials nor of his coordination.
“We would like to know who Omer spoke to in regard to receiving coordination to pass through Allenby. We offer journalists a special service when passing through our border crossings, and had we known about his arrival this would not have happened.
“I’m not aware of the events that followed his detention, and we are not responsible for the behaviour of the Shin Bet.”
So you have a rogue Shin Bet answerable to no one taking it upon itself to brutalize Palestinian journalists merely because they’ve distinguished themselves by winning an international journalism prize. Of course, what the Shin Bet really wants is for Gaza’s best journalists to leave Gaza and never return so there will be no one to report to the world on Israel’s behavior there. They’ve already prohibited Israeli journalists from reporting there. Much too uncomfortable to have Israelis knowing from their own journalists about the hell that Israel is making there.
One wonders whether the Shin Bet and CIA are sharing “interrogation techniques” in the hunt for dangerous “Islamist terrorists” like Mohammed Omer. I suppose Omer should be happy he didn’t receive the treatment recently accorded another Gaza photojournalist, Fadel Shana–a flechette blade to the neck courtesy of an IDF tank, severing his spinal cord and killing him instantly.
This story was also covered by Democracy Now. Thanks to reader Ellen Rosner for tipping me off to the story.