Palestinian Journalist Abused, Stripped
Editor’s Note: Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer recently traveled to Europe where he received an award given to reporters engaged in coverage of dangerous conflicts. However, Omer found the risk of returning to Gaza through Israel a hazard that he had not anticipated.
Below is a commentary expressing the outrage of two of Omer’s colleagues at the radio program, “Flashpoints,” followed by an interview with Omer about his ordeal:
The U.S.-supported occupation violence against Palestine continues unchecked. The failure of major Western politicians and the Big Press to cover the story has given Israel an absolute free hand to prosecute its program of ethnic cleansing.
It is nearly impossible these days to get substantial, unbiased information out on punishing Israeli policies. The few reporters who have chosen to take on the story head-on oftentimes risk their life and their limbs to do their work.
A week ago Thursday, the Israeli occupation violence hit close to home as award-winning reporter and Flashpoints correspondent Mohammed Omer was detained and tortured trying to return back to his home in Gaza through Jordan.
Mohammed Omer was returning home from Europe with great pride, having been distinguished with the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. The prize is given every year with great fanfare to frontline reporters who take great risks to report their stories.
Omer, who is also the recipient of the New America Media's Best Youth Voice Award, was detained on his way back from Europe, trying to cross back home into the Gaza Strip via Jordan and the West Bank.
Omer, knowing the dangers he would face going back to Gaza, had the assistance of the Dutch diplomatic core in the West Bank to escort him back through Israel into the northern Gaza Strip's Erez crossing.
But even this proved to be a worthless effort – at the Allenby crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank, Omer was detained, humiliated, interrogated, beaten and tortured, according to Omer, by Israeli Shin Bet agents.
What follows is a Flashpoints interview with Mohammed Omer from his hospital bed in central Gaza, where he was finally transported after he received critical wounds, including fractured ribs and an injured trachea, from the Israeli forces.
The interview was broadcast on Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoints show on Monday, June 30.
Omer is a featured and regular correspondent for Flashpoints and a working colleague at Inter Press Service with Flashpoints Senior Producer Nora Barrows-Friedman, who herself has returned from Gaza and the West Bank.
Flashpoints: Mohammed, if you could tell us where you are and what happened to you on Thursday (June 26).
Mohammed Omer: I am in hospital in Gaza. I have difficulty breathing. And I have also difficulty swallowing in addition to some damage on my larynx. As I started to approach the terminal of Allenby bridge, the Israeli soldiers stopped me and they say that I have no permission.
When I give my passport to the passport control, they say that I have no permit to go into Gaza, back to my own home. They ask me to sit for one hour and a half. After that, they rechecked my bags, my suitcases, and everything, making fun of me, making fun of everything I got, making fun of my life, and saying that I am a crazy man to come to Gaza. I have been to France, Sweden, Greece, England, and to Holland, and I decided to come back to the hell of Gaza.
They told me, “The Shevak is unfit to me. There is no electricity there. How come you go there? There is no life, there is no security, there is no food, there is no cooking gas, there is no cooking oil, there is nothing. You’d better go out back.”
And I told them that I want to be the voice for the voiceless, and I want to get the message out from the Gaza Strip to the world. Then he said to me, “Okay. Then you should suffer.” I said, “No, I should tell the truth.”
He said to me, “Okay, how much money you have?” I said, “I have a lot, leftover money. Some euros, some Jordanian dinars, some shekels. I have also some English pounds.” He said, “I want you to put all the money on the table, English pounds. I want all the English pounds.” He said to me, “That’s all? Four hundred eighty? You are a liar. You have more.” I said, “No.”
He takes me inside the room and force me to take off my clothes, my t-shirt, my jeans, my shoes, my socks. And then he said to me that I have to take off my underwear. I said, “No, I’m not going to take it off. I’m a journalist and the Dutch embassy escort is waiting for me outside. Call them and tell them that Mohammed is here, and tell them that you want me to take off all my clothes.”
Then he start shouting at me, and he puts his hand on his gun, saying, “Mohammed, take off your clothes now.” I said no. He put his gun again, and then he lean into my knees, he take off my clothes. So then I start to be completely naked. He said to me, “Move right, move left.” I said, “No, I can’t move right, I can’t move left. I wear my clothes.”
And then he asked me to go outside with him while he checked my bags, every piece of paper. He was collecting all the information, the letters that my readership had written, my papers, my documents, the business cards from all the people that I met in the House of Commons, the Swedish parliament and the Greek parliament, and other journalists around the world. He was making fun of the people that I met.
The Israeli agent kept looking at my papers. Every detail that he find, he just put it in a blue box. The soldier is asking me, “Mohammed, why do you bring the perfumes?” I said that I got these perfumes as a gift for the people that I love. He said to me, “Do you have love in your culture?” I said, “Of course.”
He saw a trophy from other journalists in Greece. He asks me, “Where is this trophy from?” I said, “Greece.” He said, “Mohammed, you know that Greece is not a friend of Israel? It’s a friend of the Palestinians.” I said, “I don’t care. It is none of my business.”
I collapsed on the ground, on the floor, started vomiting everywhere. One soldier was putting his shoes in my head, and on my neck. One other was using his nails to torture me under my eyes, another one under my ears. Another one who caused me all the pain, he used his fingers, and he put them in the holes between my body, my neck, and my chest, trying to grab me from my bones. I was unconscious, afraid, and totally scared. I throw [up] more, making all the area, vomiting everywhere.
Then they dragged me out by my feet. They dragged me into somewhere else, some few meters. One hour and thirty minutes as I estimate, I kept lying down on the floor. After that, they transfer me into a clinic for the Israeli army.
And then from there, they found out that my situation was not getting any better. They call Jericho Hospital and they send me an ambulance after spending more than four hours under torture simply because I win an international prize and because I choose to be a voice for the voiceless.
From there, I called the Dutch embassy and had one of the ambulance crews talk to them. They commented that they are waiting at the crossing and Israel say that we haven’t seen Mohammed yet. And then, the embassy came to pick me up from the hospital, transfer me here, to Gaza.
And there I am, laid up at the … hospital. I can hardly breathe, I can hardly, I cannot swallow at all. I have a fracture in my chest and I can’t wait for the days to retire as a war correspondent.
Flashpoints: Mohammed, you’re 24 years old. You have your entire life ahead of you. You’ve just won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for journalism. You were awarded it along with our good friend and special correspondent, Dahr Jamail. In any other country in the world, you would be treated as someone of the utmost importance and with pride and honor.
But because you are a Palestinian journalist from Gaza, trying to get home after winning this award, after speaking to many European parliaments, you are now suffering and you’re in the hospital. Is there anything that you would want to say, maybe to the Committee to Protect Journalists or to the Israeli government right now?
Mohammed Omer: If I want the message, it should go first to the Israeli secret police. I tell them, before I’m Palestinian, I’m a human being. And they should judge me and they [should] treat me as a human being, as a human being that deserves to live in dignity and be well treated.
I feel sorry that they treat me badly. They torture me. I was hoping that they would make it easy for me because I’m getting the truth out of Gaza. But obviously, as someone told me, they don’t want me back in Gaza because the Israeli agent said to me, “If I knew that you would be coming back to Gaza, I wouldn’t have let you out in the first place.”
For the Committee of Journalists’ Protection, I appeal to them to protect the rights of journalists. We are being abused, we are being tortured, arrested, and some are even killed. And no one cares. We are all human beings. Enough is enough.
It’s time to move, to protect freedom of expression, to protect journalists simply because they are telling the truth and getting the message across. We are not with any party of this conflict. We are just reporting the truth as it is. And we will continue to do so.
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