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.