From triumph to torture
Israel's treatment of an award-winning young Palestinian journalist is part of
a terrible pattern
o The Guardian,
o Wednesday July 2, 2008
Two weeks ago, I presented a young Palestinian, Mohammed Omer, with the 2008
Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Awarded in memory of the great US war
correspondent, the prize goes to journalists who expose establishment
propaganda, or "official drivel", as Gellhorn called it. Mohammed
shares the prize of £5,000 with Dahr Jamail. At 24, he is the youngest winner.
His citation reads: "Every day, he reports from a war zone, where he is
also a prisoner. His homeland, Gaza, is surrounded, starved, attacked,
forgotten. He is a profoundly humane witness to one of the great injustices of
our time. He is the voice of the voiceless." The eldest of eight, Mohammed
has seen most of his siblings killed or wounded or maimed. An Israeli bulldozer
crushed his home while the family were inside, seriously injuring his mother.
And yet, says a former Dutch ambassador, Jan Wijenberg, "he is a
moderating voice, urging Palestinian youth not to court hatred but seek peace
Getting Mohammed to London to receive his prize was a major diplomatic
operation. Israel has perfidious control over Gaza's borders, and only with a
Dutch embassy escort was he allowed out. Last Thursday, on his return journey,
he was met at the Allenby Bridge crossing (to Jordan) by a Dutch official, who
waited outside the Israeli building, unaware Mohammed had been seized by Shin
Bet, Israel's infamous security organisation. Mohammed was told to turn off his
mobile and remove the battery. He asked if he could call his embassy escort and
was told forcefully he could not. A man stood over his luggage, picking through
his documents. "Where's the money?" he demanded. Mohammed produced
some US dollars. "Where is the English pound you have?"
"I realised," said Mohammed, "he was after the award stipend for
the Martha Gellhorn prize. I told him I didn't have it with me. 'You are
lying', he said. I was now surrounded by eight Shin Bet officers, all armed.
The man called Avi ordered me to take off my clothes. I had already been
through an x-ray machine. I stripped down to my underwear and was told to take
off everything. When I refused, Avi put his hand on his gun. I began to cry:
'Why are you treating me this way? I am a human being.' He said, 'This is
nothing compared with what you will see now.' He took his gun out, pressing it
to my head and with his full body weight pinning me on my side, he forcibly
removed my underwear. He then made me do a concocted sort of dance. Another
man, who was laughing, said, 'Why are you bringing perfumes?' I replied, 'They
are gifts for the people I love'. He said, 'Oh, do you have love in your culture?'
"As they ridiculed me, they took delight most in mocking letters I had
received from readers in England. I had now been without food and water and the
toilet for 12 hours, and having been made to stand, my legs buckled. I vomited
and passed out. All I remember is one of them gouging, scraping and clawing
with his nails at the tender flesh beneath my eyes. He scooped my head and dug
his fingers in near the auditory nerves between my head and eardrum. The pain
became sharper as he dug in two fingers at a time. Another man had his combat
boot on my neck, pressing into the hard floor. I lay there for over an hour.
The room became a menagerie of pain, sound and terror."
An ambulance was called and told to take Mohammed to a hospital, but only after
he had signed a statement indemnifying the Israelis from his suffering in their
custody. The Palestinian medic refused, courageously, and said he would contact
the Dutch embassy escort. Alarmed, the Israelis let the ambulance go. The
Israeli response has been the familiar line that Mohammed was
"suspected" of smuggling and "lost his balance" during a
"fair" interrogation, Reuters reported yesterday.
Israeli human rights groups have documented the routine torture of Palestinians
by Shin Bet agents with "beatings, painful binding, back bending, body
stretching and prolonged sleep deprivation". Amnesty has long reported the
widespread use of torture by Israel, whose victims emerge as mere shadows of
their former selves. Some never return. Israel is high in an international
league table for its murder of journalists, especially Palestinian journalists,
who receive barely a fraction of the kind of coverage given to the BBC's Alan
The Dutch government says it is shocked by Mohammed Omer's treatment. The former
ambassador Jan Wijenberg said: "This is by no means an isolated incident,
but part of a long-term strategy to demolish Palestinian social, economic and
cultural life ... I am aware of the possibility that Mohammed Omer might be
murdered by Israeli snipers or bomb attack in the near future."
While Mohammed was receiving his prize in London, the new Israeli ambassador to
Britain, Ron Proser, was publicly complaining that many Britons no longer
appreciated the uniqueness of Israel's democracy. Perhaps they do now.