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June 30, 2008

Israelis Assault Award-Winning Journalist


by Mel Frykberg

GAZA CITY - Mohammed Omer, Gaza correspondent for Inter Press Service (IPS) and joint winner of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, was strip-searched at gunpoint, assaulted and abused by Israeli security officials at the Allenby border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank on Thursday as he tried to return home to Gaza.

Omer, a resident of Rafah in the south of Gaza and recipient of the New America Media's Best Youth Voice award several years ago, was returning from London, where he had just collected his Gellhorn Prize, and several European capitals where he had speaking engagements, including a meeting with Greek parliamentarians.

Omer's trip was sponsored by the Washington Report, and the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv was responsible for coordinating with Israeli officials on Omer's travel plans and his security permit to leave Gaza.

Israel controls the borders of Gaza and severely restricts the entrance and exit of Gazans, allegedly on grounds of security. Human rights organizations accuse the Israelis of using security as a pretext to apply collective punishment indiscriminately.

While waiting in Amman on his way back, Omer eventually received the requisite coordination and security clearance from the Israelis to return to Gaza after this had initially been delayed by several days, he told IPS.

Accompanied by Dutch diplomats, Omer passed through the Jordanian side of the border without incident. However, after arrival on the Israeli side, trouble began. He informed a female soldier that he was returning home to Gaza. He was repeatedly asked where Gaza was and told that he had neither a permit nor any coordination to cross.

Omer explained that he did indeed have permission and coordination but was nevertheless taken to a room by Israel's domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, where he was isolated for an hour and a half without explanation.

"Eventually I was asked whether I had a knife or gun on me, even though I had already passed through the X-ray machine, had my luggage searched, and was in the company of Dutch diplomats," Omer said.

His luggage was again searched, and security then proceeded to go through every document and paper he had on him, taking down the names and numbers of the European parliamentary officials he had met.

The Shin Bet officials then started to make fun of the European parliamentarians and mocked Omer for being "the prize-winning journalist."

The Gazan journalist was repeatedly asked why he was returning to "the hell of Gaza after we allowed you to leave." To this he responded that he wanted to be a voice for the voiceless. He was told he was a "troublemaker."

The security men also demanded he show all the money he had on him, and particular attention was paid to the British pounds he was carrying. His Gellhorn Prize money had been awarded in British pounds, but he was not carrying the entire sum on his person, something the investigators refused to believe.

After being unable to produce the prize money, he was ordered to strip naked.

"At first I refused, but then I had an M-16 pointed in my face and my clothes were forcibly removed, even my underwear," Omer said.

At this point Omer broke down and pleaded for an end to such treatment. He said he was told "you haven't seen anything yet." Every cavity of his body was searched as one of the investigators pinned him down on the floor, placing his boot on Omer's neck. Omer began vomiting, then fainted.

When he came to, his eyelids were being forcibly opened and his eardrums probed by an Israeli military doctor, who was also armed. He was then dragged along the floor by his feet by the Shin Bet officials, with his head repeatedly banging on the floor, to a Palestinian ambulance which had been called.

"I eventually woke up in a Palestinian hospital with the doctors trying to reassure me," Omer told IPS.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry at the Hague told IPS that Foreign Minister Maxime Zerhagen spoke to the Israeli ambassador to The Netherlands and demanded an explanation.

The Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv has also raised the issue with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which in turn has promised to investigate the incident and get back to the Dutch officials.

Ahmed Dadou, spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry at the Hague, told IPS, "We are taking this whole incident very seriously, as we don't believe the behavior of the Israeli officials is in accordance with a modern democracy."

"We are further concerned about the mistreatment of an internationally renowned journalist trying to go about his daily business," added Dadou.

A spokeswoman at the Israeli Foreign Press Association said she was unaware of the incident.

Lisa Dvir from the Israeli Airport Authority (IAA), the body responsible for controlling Israel's borders, told IPS that the IAA was neither aware of Omer's journalist credentials nor of his coordination.

"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."

"I'm not aware of the events that followed his detention, and we are not responsible for the behavior of the Shin Bet."

In the meantime, Omer is still traumatized and in pain. "I'm struggling to breathe and have pain in my head and stomach, and will be going back to hospital for further medical examinations," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

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Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.

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