Tuesday, July 15, 2008
By Sarah Price
The last words in his acceptance speech were, I can’t wait for the day I retire as a war correspondent. Then he came home to a whole new battle.
This was originally going to be a profile of young Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer, called “Gaza’s Best Hope.” I was going to write about his rise from the poverty-stricken refugee camps of the Gaza Strip to international readership and acclaim; the murder and maiming of family members and demolition of his home by the Israel Occupation Forces that have only served to fuel the fire of his mission: to get the word out about the truth of life in Occupied Palestine; and of his peaceful nature, despite years of tragic loss – his own and that of his homeland. He wants peace on both sides, and admonishes violence toward Israeli citizens as much as he does that toward Palestinians. He made a choice, in his words, “not to pick up a gun, but to pick up a camera,” because he knew the only solution was to document the truth of what is going on, and he has done so diligently for the last seven years.
But since the events of June 26, 2008, the focus has changed.
Mohammed had been working constantly through fear, fatigue, and close calls on his own life to keep up with his reports about the siege for the number of publications for whom he writes: The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA) in Washington, DC, New Statesman in the UK, Inter Press Service (IPS) in Italy, and several publications throughout Europe, for whom his articles are translated into various languages, as well as maintaining his own website, RafahToday.org, named for his hometown, located on the Egyptian border. He also regularly works to help patients who can’t get the treatment they need in Gaza, to get out and get what they need from Israeli hospitals – an almost impossible feat that he attempts for one patient after another, taking each case personally. He supports his parents and six siblings, and has done so since the beginning of his father’s 12-year imprisonment in an Israeli jail. He found work in a factory, which he would do every day after school, and late into the night. He would come home around 11pm, exhausted from school and work, sleep until about 5am, and get up and do it all again, still barely making enough to feed his family. And he was six years old.
The three-week whirlwind tour of Europe was a great success. The opportunity to meet and speak with so many government and press representatives energized him, and gave him new contacts and notes for future articles. In his acceptance speech on June 16, he thanked his supporters, but said that he looked forward to the day that he could retire as a war correspondent.
Mohammed with co-recipient Dahr Jamail (left) and John Pilger in London, June 16 (Photo: Paul de Rooij)
In trying to get him permission to leave, they had been careful to do everything correctly, so that getting back in would not be a problem. He was trying to get back to Gaza for his brother Fadi’s wedding, and expected to be home on Sunday, June 22. But upon his arrival in Amman, Jordan, he received the news that Israel was not granting him re-entry. Between Saturday, June 21, and Wednesday, June 25, the Dutch Foreign Ministry worked frantically to convince Israeli officials to let him cross back home to Gaza. John Pilger urged Mohammed to go to the press, but he preferred to handle it diplomatically, and failing that, would go public. But he wanted to see if they could do it quietly first. He was concerned about his status, because upon returning from his US tour in December 2006, he had been stuck in Cairo, trying to get back in, for three weeks, and he had already met people in Jordan who had been stranded there for months. But he hoped that since he had more diplomatic help this time, it wouldn’t take too long. On Wednesday, they finally got word that he would be allowed back in the next day. “Why can’t I go today?” he asked. “We don’t know,” was the response. “They just said tomorrow.” The answer made him suspicious and nervous.
He passed through the Jordan side of the Allenby Bridge crossing early the next morning, but when he came to the Israeli side, there was trouble right away. He gave his passport to the woman at passport control and she asked where he was going. When he answered, “Gaza,” she asked “what?” in Hebrew several times as he tried to make her understand. Finally, he answered her in Hebrew, “Azzah.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Actually, according to my computer, you have no coordination.”
He did have coordination, he protested, but she told him to wait at the side, where he stayed for the next 90 minutes, until someone came to get him and told him to bring his bags. He had been through x-ray by this time, and his bags had already been searched and were ready to be picked up. He was made to wait at the Shin Bet office, and could see that there were two cameras on him, on either side. Then he saw two Palestinian men coming out from other offices and they were dressing themselves. He knew then that these were rooms for strip-searching, and that he was probably in trouble.
A young blond Shin Bet agent told him to come with him, collecting his bags from the holding area, where they had been searched already, and demanded his cell phone. Mohammed was going through the Allenby Bridge crossing under diplomatic escort from the Dutch embassy, as he had left, and asked if could call his escorts to let them know what was happening. The young man barked at him that no, he could not.
After a few minutes, another agent, an investigator in his forties referred to as “Avi” by the other agents, entered and started going through all his belongings, along with another interrogator who had joined him. After searching through everything and dumping all his notes, cell phone, and memory cards into a box, they demanded to know where the money was. He wasn’t sure what they meant, but told them what traveling money he had on him – various amounts in British pounds, Euros, Israeli shekels, and Jordanian dinars. They demanded he put it all on the table, which he did, thinking maybe this was a shakedown – they would take the money he had and then let him go. But they were still dissatisfied. They asked again about the English pounds he had, and he realized then that they were looking for the prize money. The Martha Gellhorn Prize, since it was shared, would come out to roughly $5000 USD. But he had felt it safer to have it transferred to his bank, rather than carry it with him. When he told them this, he said, they were visibly irate and called him a liar.
By this point, the room had filled with more agents and he was outnumbered eight-to-one. They were angry and wanted money he didn’t have. And they were armed. When he repeated that he had shown them everything he had on him, Avi escorted him to an empty room.
“Take off your clothes,” he ordered him. Mohammed refused. He had already been through x-ray, and a pat-down would have revealed anything he might have been hiding.
“Take off your clothes,” he demanded again. So, he stripped down to his underwear.
“Take off everything,” he pressed.
Mohammed refused again. “I am a journalist,” he said, “and I have an escort from the Dutch embassy waiting for me. Call them and tell them what’s happening and that you want me to take off my clothes.”
Avi retorted that he knew all this, and insisted again that he take off his underwear. By this time, Mohammed was frightened. “Why are you treating me this way?” he asked.
“This is nothing compared to what you will see now,” Avi replied, putting his hand on his revolver, pressing his weight against Mohammed’s hip and forcibly pulling it off. He then patted his body down, “up one side and down the other,” Mohammed said later, and he was subjected to a cavity search. He then demanded he move to the left and right, in some kind of dance. When Mohammed refused, Avi pulled him left and right.
He had held his composure as long as he could, and started to cry. Avi backed off at that point.
“He looked satisfied,” he said. “He just wanted to humiliate me. He didn’t care about what I had. The intention was not to bring me to Gaza.”
He ordered him to get dressed and come back into the other room, where another of the intelligence officers was still going through his belongings.
The agent shook his head at Mohammed. “You are a crazy man,” he said. “I can’t understand why someone who has traveled to Sweden, Holland, Greece, London and Paris is coming back to Gaza. Gaza is a dirty place with dirty people. I thought the dream of those people is to leave Gaza and live in Europe. Why do you want to go to Gaza? There’s nothing in Gaza – no food, no fuel, no clean water. There is darkness. Go live in Paris; it’s beautiful there. Or do you like to be around the Hamas system in Gaza?”
Goading him, and not really looking for a response, he continued: “Aren't you ashamed to have your name and reputation associated with such a dirty place as Gaza?”
Mohammed answered, “No, I want to be there because I want to be a voice for the voiceless. I want to get the truth out. I have no affiliation with Hamas; I don’t even think they like me.”
“Then you choose to suffer.”
“No,” Mohammed said, “I choose to tell the truth.”
They continued to go through his luggage, taunting him about various items he had come home with:
“What are the perfumes for?”
“My friends and family, people I love.”
“Oh, you have love in your culture?”
“What is this?” they asked, referring to a trophy he was given by the Greek Union of Journalists. When he told them, Avi replied that Greece was not a friend of Israel, only of the Palestinians.
“I don’t know,” Mohammed responded, wondering how Greece would feel about that, “it’s not my business.”
He had been standing for quite some time by then and had been without food, water, or a toilet for several hours. The stress and abuse caused him to feel faint, and he vomited and collapsed. A doctor said later that he had suffered a nervous breakdown. He was unconscious for nearly an hour and a half on the floor, he estimates, but could hear what they were saying, and feel what they were doing to him.
“They didn’t believe I had really passed out,” he said, “so they were out to make me react to their pressure.”
One agent dug his nails into the skin under his eyes and behind his ears, pinching him. Another pressed his shoe hard enough against his neck, that Mohammed could feel the outline of it. Another used two fingers to press into the space between his neck and chest, cutting off his airway. Mohammed remembers feeling himself choking. The damage to his trachea was so severe that even weeks later, he could not swallow anything but liquids. Finally, another pressed his hands into his chest with all the weight of his body, which eventually resulted in several fractured ribs, and breathing problems. They also continued to taunt him, saying, “Come on, Mohammed, we’re going to take you to Rafah now!,” expecting that would cause him to suddenly recover.
They eventually realized the severity of the situation and began to panic, calling for an ambulance, and an Israeli doctor checked his heart and performed an EKG. He was still unconscious in the ambulance, but Shin Bet agents continued trying to revive him – calling his name, forcing open his eyes, and spraying a sort of smelling salts into his face. But the efforts were not out of concern for his health: they needed him to sign a waiver, releasing them from all responsibility. Fortunately, the Palestinian ambulance driver, Mahmoud Taraira, intervened. He cannot sign that, he protested, he’s unconscious. He added that anything signed in that state of mind is non-binding.
They finally made it to the Palestinian doctors in Jericho, who were reassuring him he would be OK now.
At last able to call his escorts, after at least five hours, he found his cell phone amongst his belongings, but then he noticed his mobile was acting strangely – it was dialing numbers and sending messages by itself. The agents had told him earlier to give it to them and take out the battery. He believes that they used that opportunity to put something in it to track him. For days, it would only work off and on. Sometimes people could get through, others times, not at all. So he borrowed a phone and called the Dutch embassy to come get him. He arrived home safely, but by the next day, he was back in the hospital with breathing problems and chest pains. Due to the damage to his trachea, he couldn’t swallow, and spent six days in European Hospital in Khan Younis, being fed and medicated through an IV drip.
He discovered later that although all the money had been returned, an expensive watch and some other items had not.
In his bed at European Hospital in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip (Reuters)
Israel’s immediate responses ranged from being completely unaware of the incident to washing their hands of the actions of Shin Bet.
Lisa Dvir, from the Israeli Airport Authority (IAA), the body responsible for controlling Israel’s borders, told IPS, “We would like to know who Omer spoke to in regard to receiving coordination to pass through Allenby. We offer journalists a special service when passing through our border crossings, and had we known about his arrival this would not have happened.”
The truth is that Palestinian journalists have been targeted for some time.
Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana, 23, had shown up at the site of an air strike on April 16, 2008, to film the outcome of the incident, when he was killed by an Israeli tank shell, filled with small metal darts called flechettes, in full view of the soldiers operating the tank. His car was clearly marked “TV” and “Press,” as was his bullet-proof vest. The blast also injured his soundman, and killed two children in the area instantly, and two more from their injuries days later. He was filming the tank when they fired at him. The tape from his destroyed camera shows the shell coming at him.
Al-Aqsa TV cameraman Imad Ghanem, 21, was shot while he filmed a clash between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers on July 5, 2007. As he fell to the ground, he held up his camera to show he was unarmed, but a tape filmed by a colleague shows that he continued to be fired upon. He survived, but lost both legs.
On July 8, 2006, photojournalist Mohammed al Zanoun, 20, was shot by a helicopter as he documented Israeli attacks in Gaza City. As paramedics rushed to save him, he pleaded with them to save the camera, so that what he saw would be documented. He has sustained permanent damage to his head and chest.
Omer had recently reported, after Shana’s death, that “journalists have long been targeted in the region. Since September 2000, Israeli forces have killed nine journalists, and have wounded at least 170 others.”
The news of Mohammed’s attack started to spread on Friday, June 27, as friends and colleagues were in touch with him from his hospital bed.
Hans van Baalen, a member of the Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Dutch parliament, who had been personally responsible for arranging his exit from Gaza both for this European tour and his previous one, in June 2007, said, “I cannot understand it because Israel wanted him to travel through Israel. The Dutch embassy escorted him a year ago and this time, so they should have known he is decent journalist and should have treated him in a decent way, they should also treat other innocent Palestinians and other travelers decently. But this did not happen.”
He filed a protest with the Israeli government and asked that Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Verhagen do the same, demanding “an investigation with public conclusions.”
“We will monitor this,” he said. “If we don’t like [the results of the investigation], we will speak out.”
Harry Kney-Tal, the Israeli ambassador to the Netherlands, assured them that if the claims were accurate, that this act was not according to official procedure. In response to a claim reported by Reuters that an Israeli official said that no rules were breached and that Omer had fallen somehow on his own, breaking his ribs, Kney-Tal said that was not the official response, and that there was a full investigation in progress and he expected results shortly.
However, on July 9, The Israeli Government Press Office released a statement on the incident, discrediting Omer. In it, they claimed that he and his baggage were searched, “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.” (“Judea and Samaria” is a phrase commonly used by the Israeli right wing to dismiss the existence of the West Bank and to claim the area as exclusively Israeli), although he had been x-rayed and his baggage searched before the interrogation occurred. The press release went on to point out several points in Omer’s claim that they said contradicted their investigation, but it failed to cite the sources of their research, and often quoted him out of context.
When the Dutch Press Office became aware of the press release, they were surprised, said spokesman Robert Dekker, and they confronted Ambassador Kney-Tal about it. “He confirmed that this is not the official report, and that it is still expected in the next few days,” he said.
News of Omer’s attack spread quickly across the blogosphere and alternative news sources, as well as media outlets across the Middle East, but getting into the mainstream media in the West has been difficult. Concerned friends and colleagues deluged CNN, BBC and AP offices with requests that they cover the story, to no avail. When it was mentioned by the BBC and the New York Times, it was to say that Israel was denying the charges. But when Karin Laub, from the AP Jerusalem bureau published an article also disputing Omer’s claims, yet also failing to cite sources, it was the story that spread across American news websites. While she was interviewing him, Omer said later, she continually cut him off while he tried to give her his account of the incident, and although in her article she stated that strip-searching was not the norm in Israeli security procedure, when he was telling her about his, she said that that was normal.
More respected writers in the US have also had trouble getting the US press to pay attention.
“I've been following it closely, signing petitions, joining in protests,” said author and political activist Noam Chomsky. “I've brought it to the attention of the very few journalists with whom I still have contact. It will, I'm afraid, be very hard to get the US media to pay any attention, or even to believe the facts.”
Omer’s Martha Gellhorn Prize co-recipient Dahr Jamail has also faced difficulty in getting the news published.
“I'm doing all I can to get it out,” he said. “Nada in the US mainstream, which is no surprise. The only response I got was an email from someone at CBS asking to be removed from my dispatch list when I sent out the press release about his torture. Doing all I can....but of course we know that they will censor this the best they can.”
Omer’s editors at the Washington Report circulated a petition protesting the abuse, which they planned to hand-deliver in a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, garnered approximately 2500 signatures; Israeli civil rights group New Profile also circulated a petition calling for the just treatment of journalists, citing Omer as one of many recent abuses, which had an additional 1000, and British Member of Parliament Colin Breed brought a measure to the Parliament House Assembly, calling on an official criticism of Israel’s torture of Omer, and for Israel to compensate him for his medical costs.
But despite the efforts, Omer is not optimistic. They have committed one crime after another that they have not had to explain or pay for, he says, and he doesn’t believe his case will be any different.
In his article for the Guardian, John Pilger quoted former Dutch ambassador Jan Wijenberg, who 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."
Omer has no doubt that could happen, but is not letting it deter him.
"The Israelis were trying to punish me for the work I am doing and getting the message out," he told IPS from his hospital bed. "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."
Mother Teresa once said, “I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.” It would not be surprising if the same thought crossed Mohammed Omer’s mind once in a while. With his astonishing rise from poverty and tragedy to success and acclaim in his short 24 years, he may very well be Gaza’s best hope. Not merely because of his success, but because of what it took to get it – diligence, hard work, and a daily show of courage that most will never be forced to display; but above all, a belief in his fellow human beings that keeps him going – through the imprisonment of his father, the murder and maiming of his brothers, the demolition of his home and the loss of everything he had, and the brutal attempts to silence him. Gaza’s best hope is that there is still hope.
Barely out of the hospital, still on a liquid diet and unable to breathe comfortably yet, Mohammed is already hard at work, writing again.