More on the Shin Bet’s torture of Gaza photojournalist, Mohammed Omer, winner of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Journalism Award. As I wrote in an earlier post, Omer attempted to return from Europe after receiving his award via the Allenby Bridge. He was detained and tortured by Shin Bet personnel as described by John Pilger’s piece in The Guardian.
Here is Mohammed’s own account of the experience which I quote in order to show the “human” qualities of the average Shin Bet agent:
[The Shin Bet agent demanded] ‘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.’
…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…
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…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.’
…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?’
At this point in the interrogation Mohammed’s body begins to give way:
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…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…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.
…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.
Later in his narrative Mohammed reveals that the lead Shin Bet interrogator demanded that he (who was barely conscious) sign a waiver indemnifying the Israeli authorities should anything happen to him once he left the Shin Bet’s custody. The Palestinian EMT argued that his patient couldn’t sign anything since he was barely conscious. Then the EMT mentioned that he wished to contact the Dutch embassy staff waiting for Mohammed on the Palestinian side of the Bridge. This seemed to exercise the Shin Bet agent, who warned him not to do so.
The waiver demand reminded me of the Chinese authorities who demand that the families of executed prisoners pay the state for the cost of killing them. I love authoritarian systems which both want to torture you AND demand that you give them plausible deniability should their heinous acts become known to the world at large. Alas, you can’t have it both way, Shin Bet. If you want to torture, the world will make you pay a price as you have here.
I’m pleased to report that despite his savage treatment, the 24 year-old journalist has bounced back and will not be deterred:
The Israelis were trying to punish me for the work I am doing and getting the message out,” Omer told IPS from his bed in the European Hospital in Gaza. “But they won’t break me. As soon as I am better, and my limbs are working properly, I will be back on the beat and reporting what is happening. They have made me more determined than ever.”
The purpose of the Shin Bet is to protect Israel’s security. This is a legitimate cause. But what purpose is served by torturing young Palestinian journalists merely because the world recognizes the value of their reporting? Do its agents believe they can somehow win the battle against Hamas and Gaza simply by preventing all journalists from reporting from there? As I wrote earlier, they’ve already arranged for no Israeli journalists to be able to work there. They can’t do that for foreign journalists. And it’s equally difficult to prevent native Palestinian journalists from doing their work. But that doesn’t seem to prevent the security services from trying as in cases like this.
Mohammed Omer’s treatment is shameful. It should embarrass Israelis, it should even embarrass a reasonably enlightened intelligence operative of which there may be a few in the Shin Bet service.
Is the way it intends to ensure Israeli security by degrading people like Omer, trampling both upon their bodies and their culture? All that they have proved is that the Israeli state they represent can be brutal and bestial, and for no legitimate reason.
Mohammed’s treatment was relatively mild compared to the suffering of other Palestinian journalists, five of whom have been killed by Israel over the past ten years. But when Israelis remonstrate about Palestinian terror attacks like the one against Jerusalem earlier this week, they should reflect on this story. Such crazed behavior as exemplified by the bulldozer driver who killed three Israeli civilians doesn’t spring from nowhere. It is enmeshed with the hatred spewed by these Shin Bet agents. Both sides are engaged in a terrible dance of hate and death. Neither side is blameless.
Thank you for posting this, Richard, even though it makes me sick to read it.
It is unthinkable that Jews could treat human beings in such a manner. Security is one thing; torture and humiliation when the person in question has no information to offer is quite another.
I agree that we cannot make the Palestinians love us, but it does not serve us to give them more reasons to hate us. That should go double for journalists.
It’s good to know Mohammed Omer is recovering physically from this appalling ordeal. Other, deeper scars left by it will take much longer to heal – if at all.
The following was part of a post in which I referred to the bulldozer attack in Jerusalem and its aftermath. I think the same might very well be true of this incident. A pattern seems to be emerging that may have unforeseen consequences for Israelis, consequences for which no amount of PR can hope to compensate.
“There is some danger in that for Israelis – and Jews in general. If the world ever comes to believe that Israel is no more competent than the rest of us to deal effectively with these matters, then it may start to revise its estimation of the people as a whole. One of the unstated tenets of world opinion is that Jewish intellect and learning are vital ingredients in the advancement of so many forms of human activity. This has certainly been the case in the past. Once this perception goes into reverse, it may be difficult to stop. The world may then decide it can get along well enough without the Jews. Whether the Jews can get along without the world is, however, far less debatable.
So, guys, these are big problems; they demand big solutions. What’s being offered at present is much too small; it’s unworthy of Jews and Gentiles alike. We should be able to do better than this. Because if we can’t, we all know how this will end. It will not end well – and we will only have ourselves to blame.”
But what can be done to respond to these and so many other examples of human stupidity and callousness? Whatever the answer, its arrival needs to be soon, before the ‘pattern’ becomes fully formed. Any later – and then that may be too late.
Mohammed Omer’s treatment at the hands of these Israeli intelligence officers is so mind-bogglingly sickening, it is hard to know what to say in response. The brutality and sadism at the heart of their behavior would appear to bespeak just plain ‘ol evil, the infliction of suffering on this defenseless man just for the sake of it. For it’s crucial to note that all the control and power resides on one side of the divide here, and to inflict suffering with the apparent smug glee evidenced in this account, wow, that’s scary and profoundly saddening stuff. Another part of the stomach-churning quality of the account–to engage in a little dime-store psychology–comes, I think, from a certain resentment one senses in this “interaction”. The fact that this Palestinian journalist has been recognized, honored and celebrated in the West. That celebration and recognition must really burn at the sensibility of his tormentors; it probably destabilizes their sense of what’s up and what’s down. The intelligence officers appear to need to remind Omer of his subjugated animal status in the eyes of the Israeli state. Even if the broader Western world chooses to treat him like a human being, Omer’s occupiers will quickly remind him of his ‘actual’ status.
Mary Hughes-Thompson says
ISRAEL DENIES MISTREATING MOHAMMED OMER
Israel responds to Palestinian journalist’s claim of
mistreatment. Grievances investigated, found to be without foundation.
(Communicated by the Israel Government Press Office; confirmed in an email from Andy Luterman, Acting Director, GPO News Dept)
(No mention of his broken ribs and damaged trachea, which can be verified with x-rays. And they say that he said he had been standing for 12 hours, which he did not say. He said he had been without food, water, or a toilet for that long, by way of explaining what else contributed to him passing out)
RESPONSE TO ALLEGATIONS REGARDING MOHAMMED OMER AL-MUGHAIER
In regard to recent media reports about Mohammed Omer al-Mughaier, security sources wish to state:
“Mr. Mohammed Omer al-Mughaier (hereinafter “the Complainant” ) arrived at the Allenby Crossing on Thursday, June 26, 2008. Due to suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile elements and had been asked by them to deliver items to Judea and Samaria, both he and his baggage were searched. In contradiction to his claims, at no time was the Complainant subjected to either physical or mental violence.
The investigation revealed that the search of his baggage was conducted in the presence of four people and not eight, as he noted. The search was conducted, according to regulations, in a public place and in the view and presence of the Complainant.
The body search, which took several minutes, took place in the presence of two security personnel (a policeman and an ISA official) and was conducted according to the relevant regulations. The Complainant’ s claims to the effect that he was threatened at gunpoint are baseless.
Regarding the Complainant’ s collapse, as it were, it should be noted that the paramedic who attended to him found no evidence of a physical cause of collapse. The Complainant’ s behavior raises doubts as to the sincerity of the situation. In any event, the Complainant was sent to an infirmary and an ambulance was ordered for him.
As to the Complainant’ s allegation that he was compelled to stand on his feet for twelve hours, we point out that according to our records, the Complainant arrived at the Allenby Crossing at approximately 11:00, and the entire incident ended at approximately 14:00. Thus, this claim is also baseless.
We should point out that there are numerous additional contradictions in the Complainant’ s allegations. For example, in the media he reported that he was humiliated, stripped and that a gun was held to his head. And yet, in his complaint filed with the IDF Spokesperson, the Complainant claimed that two uniformed personnel sprayed his face.
In conclusion, the Complainant’ s grievances were investigated and found to be without foundation. At no time was the Complainant subjected to either physical or mental violence; he was treated fairly. We can only regret that his allegations received publicity and a platform without being properly investigated. “
Surely a viewing of the video-tape relating to the whole incident would clear things up in no time at all.
What? No video surveillance? No even old-fashioned audio?
The professionalism of some of these guys does leave a lot to be desired.
I wonder why that is?
Mary Hughes-Thompson says
After receiving the first account of the iDF response, my source checked with the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) to make certain the release was authentic.
(“The Government Press Office (GPO) is an agency within the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) assigned with the responsibility of coordinating channels of communication between the Israeli government and the press corps. We issue press accreditation and are responsible for facilitating press coverage of key state functions and visits of foreign dignitaries. Our office is located at Beit Agron in Jerusalem (37 Hillel St) on the 2nd floor)”
Here’s the response:
“Yes, this is legitimate. How else may we help you?
Andy Luterman, Acting Director
GPO News Dept.”
I guess the only thing missing was the smiley face.
Mary Hughes-Thompson says
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
Here’s the latest from my contact:
“OK, this press release was sent out by the Israeli press office, but I spoke to the Dutch foreign ministry this morning, and they confronted the Israeli ambassador with it, and he says it is not the official report, and that should be submitted to them in the next few days. So, it’s from them, but it’s not what we’re waiting for.
The spokesman said he didn’t want to comment on this, because it wasn’t part of the investigation, but that he would talk to me again once the report had been released. So, I will let you all know as I find out more.”
(I guess it’s a matter of deciding which official is really official, since the other came from the Prime Minister’s office, was confirmed by his official press office, but apparently now is “not official.” I can hardly wait for the official official report)
Richard Silverstein says
@Mary Hughes-Thompson: These people don’t realize what a disservice they do to the truth AND Israel’s cause. “How can I help you?” he asks. I’d say by representing yr government in a more credible way for starters.
Richard Silverstein says
@Mary Hughes-Thompson: Based on what your contact wrote I think what’s going on is a battle of fiefdoms bet. Olmert’s office (who are clearly more than willing to be bald-faced liars) & Tzipi Livni’s foreign ministry domain (who maintains a more respectful relationship with the truth).
Farhad Malekafzali says
I just wanted to add to Ruth’s coment: Not even security considerations should be used to justify torture.