Award-winning Palestinian journalist returns to face Israeli 'torture'

Award-winning Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer was hospitalized last week after he was stopped by Israeli security agents at the Allenby Bridge border crossing with Jordan. Omer was returning to Gaza from accepting the 2008 Martha Gellhorn award in London. He spoke to MENASSAT's Ola al-Madhoun from his hospital bed in the Gaza Strip.
hospital mohammed omar
Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer in his hospital bed at the European Hospital in the Gaza Strip. © Ola Al-Madhoun

GAZA, July 1, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The winner of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, Mohammed Omer, had to jump through diplomatic hoops to secure an exit from his home in Gaza to travel to the U.K. to accept his award in May.

After weeks of diplomatic and administrative wrangling, the Dutch government ultimately secured Omer's safe passage, arranging for his transportation both exiting and returning to Gaza.

But if his exit from Gaza was merely fraught with additional red tape, his re-entry into the West Bank from Jordan at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge border crossing ended with Omer being hospitalized with broken ribs. The journalist says he was first strip-searched, then physically abused by Israeli security officials at the border.

"They asked me, 'Oh you’re Mohammed who won that prize?'" Omer told MENSSAT from his hospital bed at the European Hospital in the Khan Yunis refugee camp near his Rafah home..

Since the incident, which occurred on June 26, there has been widespread condemnation of the Israeli security agents' conduct.

Organizations like Reporters Without Borders have urged the Israeli authorities to investigate and accept responsibility for the human rights abuse.

Omer's account

Israel has denied Omer's allegations, saying, "At the end of the search, he lost his balance and fell, for some reason unknown to us. A team of medics, an ambulance and a paramedic were summoned and he was transferred for treatment to Jericho."

According to Omer's account, he was accompanied on the Jordanian side by Dutch diplomats, and passed without incident. He said that the problem began when an Israeli border guard at the Allenby Bridge told Omer that he had no permit to cross to the Gaza Strip.

"After telling me this, she [the Israeli soldier] confiscated my passport and kept me waiting for an hour and a half. Then, another soldier came who searched me from head-to-toe before handing me over to yet another set of Israeli intelligence officers."

Omer's luggage was repeatedly searched, and he said they took down names of all of the European MP's Omer had met during his trip to Europe and the United States. He told MENASSAT that everything he brought back – "interviews with MP's, business cards, personal belongings, and gifts for family and friends" – was destroyed.


"The intelligence agents were not satisfied with the mockery and humiliation, nor were they satisfied with my answers to the questions they were asking me," Omer said.

In an interview with Inter Press Service (IPS), Omer, himself an IPS correspondent, said that he was repeatedly asked by the Israeli security agents why he wanted to return to "the hell of Gaza" after they had allowed him to leave.

"To give a voice to the voiceless," was his response, something that had become a familiar refrain on Omer's blog, Rafah Today.

"So they forced me to take off all my clothes during the physical search and kept me in my underwear," he said, adding that they eventually forced him at gunpoint to remove his his underwear as well.

"One soldier threatened to shoot me and put his gun in my face, while another stepped on my neck with his boots while I was completely naked after he ordered me to lay on the ground. The others were making fun of me and the prize I won."

In several interviews conducted since the June 26 incident, Omer has said that he couldn't control himself facing what he said was imminent "torture," and he fainted on the floor while one of his interrogators stepped on his neck.

"I completely lost consciousness. I was hearing the voices of the investigators around me. I felt they were torturing me. They kicked my face, my ears and my chest thinking I was faking fainting and I was fully awake. I tried to shout to ask them to stop. I tried to make them hear my voice, but there was no use. I even lost my ability to talk," he told MENASSAT.

'Voice to the voiceless'

An Israeli security official admitted only that a body search and an examination of Omer's belongings were indeed carried out "because of the suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile elements and had been asked by them to smuggle something in."

But Omer contends that what he endured was due to the growing influence of his reporting.

Omer began reporting at the age of 17. In 2005, he started a blog called Rafa Today where he faithfully charted the daily suffering of Gazans living under crippling economic sanctions and the constant threat of Israeli military incursions.

His blog and subsequent reporting for outlets like Inter Press Service, Electronic Intifada, and The New Statesman brought the situation of Palestinians living in Gaza to the attention of a number of diplomats in the U.K. and in the European parliament.

"After seeing these [personal] accounts and pictures in my blog and elsewhere, some European MP's sent objection letters to their Israeli embassies denouncing what was happening in Gaza," Omer told MENASSAT.

"I think that annoyed the Israeli occupation authorities and what pushed them to approve the Dutch embassy effort [to help me leave] Gaza was that they didn't want me to return to the Palestinian territories."

Ultimately, the Dutch embassy assisted Omer's transfer from a hospital in the West Bank town of Jericho to a hospital in Gaza.

Israel has drawn much criticism for recent incidents involving its treatment of the media. On April 15, an Israeli tank killed Reuters' Palestinian cameraman Fadel Shana’s during a day when the Israeli military killed 20 Palestinians. It occurred during a month-long military offensive that claimed the lives of over 130 Gazans, including dozens of civilians.

An Israeli investigation into the matter has been launched but the results have yet to be released.

Meanwhile, Omer remains in hospital after officials there confirmed that he suffered a nervous breakdown and that his ribs had been broken during the incident.

Read more:


Giving voice to the voiceless in Gaza
Posted on 06/12/2008 - 16:06
24-year old Mohammed Omer from Rafah is the youngest recipient ever of the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. MENASSAT caught up with the young journalist and blogger during a trip to Sweden. Mohammen by Lattuf 

From IPS:

Israelis Assault Award Winning IPS Journalist


Israel denies mistreating Gaza reporter