We go to Gaza to speak with award-winning Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer. The twenty-four-year-old journalist and photographer from Gaza was physically and psychologically abused by Israeli security officials late last month. Omer, who is a correspondent for the Inter Press Service, was on his way back home after receiving the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in London. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to award-winning Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer. The twenty-four-year-old journalist and photographer from Gaza was physically and psychologically abused by Israeli security officials late last month. He is a correspondent for the Inter Press Service, was on his way back home after receiving the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in London.
Mohammed Omer says he was interrogated, strip-searched and beaten by eight armed Shin Bet officials. He was hospitalized for a week after the ordeal. The Shin Bet security service issued a response, saying Omer “received decent treatment and no extraordinary measures were taken against him.”
At twenty-four, Omer has seen most of his family killed or wounded. He is the youngest winner of the Martha Gellhorn award, named after the famous US war correspondent, given to journalists who expose establishment propaganda. His award 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.”
Mohammed Omer joins me right now on the phone from Gaza. Welcome to Democracy Now!
MOHAMMED OMER: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened and when it happened? You were just coming back from London after receiving your award?
MOHAMMED OMER: Well, let me mention before I start that I’m also writing for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs in Washington, D.C.
When I was coming back from my award ceremony and also a speaking engagement, I was stopped for nearly one hour and a half before an Israeli Shin Bet officer came to me and started collecting my bags, which were securely checked already. I kept waiting for some time until they got my luggage and they started checking everything.
The Shabak officer just came to me and then said, “You are a crazy man.” And I just kept quiet and listened to what he’s going to say. And then he said, “Is there anyone who has been to the Netherlands, to France, to Sweden, to Greece and to the United Kingdom and come back to Gaza Strip? Gaza is a dirty place. Why do you come back to Gaza? Gaza is a dirty place, and the people there are dirty. Why do you come to live in such a place, where there is no electricity, there is no light, and there is darkness, and there is shortages of fuel, and there is lots of difficulties? Why don’t you live in France, instead?”
And I continued to explain to the Shabak officer that I choose to come, because I want to come back to Gaza and to be a voice for the voiceless. I want to be the person who gets the message out of the Gaza Strip and to help the world understand what’s going on. And then he answered me, “OK, Mohammed, then it’s your choice. You choose to suffer.” I said, “Not really. I don’t choose to suffer. I choose to tell the truth.”
Then he started to ask me how much money I have. I told him that I have Jordanian dinar, I have Israeli shekels, and I have euros, and I have also English pounds. He said, “Put all the money on the table here.” I put all the money on the table, and then he said to me, “How much English pounds do you have?” I said, “I have 480 pounds.” And then he said, “No, you have more.” And then I said, “No, I don’t.” Then he said, “You’re a liar.” I said, “I’m not a liar. All the money I have is here.” And then I understood what he’s asking about when he was stressing about the English pounds. Then I told him, “Well, if you are asking about the money that I won from the prize, the Martha Gellhorn Prize, then I don’t have them on me now, and they will be sent via bank.”
Avi took me inside a room, where he asked me — in an empty room, where he asked me, “Take off your clothes.” I told him, “I’m not going to take off my clothes, because I have the Dutch embassy waiting for me outside.” After some time, I had to take off my clothes. He said, “Take off your T-shirt.” I take it off. I took off my jeans. I took off my shoes and my socks. And then he’s coming to me — he’s getting closer to me, and then he says, “Take off your underwear.” I said, “I’m not going to take off my underwear. There is an embassy waiting outside for me.” He said, “I know that there is an embassy waiting for you. Take off your underwear.” I said, “I’m not going to take it off.” Then he was putting his hand on his revolver and kept looking at me. “Mohammed, take off your underwear,” he says. And then I said, “I’m not going to take it off, because this is a humiliation. You’re trying to humiliate me. It’s not security checking, because I went through the security system like anyone else, and you are treating me differently.” And then he said, “Take it off.” And then I said, “I’m not going to take it off.”
So he went down to my knees, where he pulled down my underwear to make me totally naked. I looked at him, and then I told him, “OK? So what are you trying to do here?” And he said, “Go right, go left.” I said, “I’m not going to move right or left. I’m totally naked.” And then he started humiliating me and laughing. And I continued explaining to him, “Why do you treat me that way? I’m a human being, and I don’t deserve this kind of treatment.” Then he said to me, “Well, still, you have seen nothing. You will see more.” He continued to interrogate me and to continue to search me, stripping and searching me while I was totally naked. And then he told me, “Go and get your clothes on.” I put my clothes on, and I went back to the hall where the travelers are coming.
And then I had all my clothes on, and I found the Shabak agents. They are checking everything. They have collected all the documents that I have in my suitcases. They’ve collected all the information — my cell phone, my memory cards, my business cards for parliament members I met in the Swedish parliament, in the Dutch parliament, in the Greek parliament, and also they have seen also the House of Commons parliament members that I met. And then he started on me, “Oh, you were even on the BBC World Service.” I said, “Of course, I was on the BBC World Service, talking about Gaza and the humanitarian situations there.” “You were at this parliament, at that parliament. You were speaking here, you were speaking there.” I said, “Of course,” because he can see all the people I met, he can see all the business cards that I have in there.
And then he said, “Then I have only one problem,” that I’m talking too much. I said, “Well, it’s my job to talk, and I want that, and it’s my choice. I want to get the message out.” Then he 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. If I knew that’s your dream, I thought” — he said, “I thought that your dream is like the other Gazans, young men who get out of Gaza and never come back again.” I told him, “Well, that’s not my dream. I want to come back, because Gaza is my home, and I want to be a voice for the voiceless.”
He continued to check everything and every detail, just checking my clothes and every detail, just collecting all the notebooks and all the information and all the brainstorming information and everything that I got from the parliament. He was making even fun of the parliament members that I met, including House of Commons. “Do you think those people are going to help you?” he asked. And then I tell him, “Well, I’m trying to get the message out. I’m not seeking for their help. I’m trying just to inform them about what’s happening in Gaza.”
He starts interrogating, and then he said, “Why do you bring all this perfumes?” I said to him, “Excuse me. Could you do me a favor? Once you check everything in this suitcases, could you please return it as it is? I don’t mind you checking it. No problem. But return it as it is.” And then he said to me in Hebrew, “Sheket,” which means “shut up.” And then I said, “Well, as a journalist, I’m not used to shut up, but I will have to keep it quiet at some point.” And then he said, “Why do you bring these perfumes for?” I said, “These perfumes are for friends and people I love, and they are just gifts for people that I like.” And then he said to me, “Oh, is love part of your culture, as well?” I said, “Of course.”
And then he continued interrogating, and he saw a trophy from the Union of Greek Journalists. I have received a trophy as a courageous journalist for 2008 from Gaza. And then he said, “What’s this?” I explained that it’s a trophy from the Union of Greek Journalists. And then he said to me, “Mohammed, you know that Greece is not a friend of Israel? You know that Greece is a friend of the Palestinians? Only the Palestinians and not Israel?” I said, “Well, I don’t really care. And that’s none of my business. It’s a country. I have received an invitation from the parliament in Greece, and I went there to speak after — or before I went to collect my prize.”
I collapsed during the interrogation. I fainted and — on the ground. And I started vomiting everywhere. And then the soldiers, they started gathering around me. I estimate nearly one hour and a half vomiting on the ground. And one of the Shabak officers — I was unconscious for most of the time, but I can remember one of the things that they were doing to me. He was using his nail fingers and pinching me all the way, trying to cause me pain under my eyes and under the soft part of my eye. I thought what these people are doing is basically they are trying to torture me. And one of them who was trying to do that, the same thing, pinching me using his nail fingers under my ears, and then one other of them who tried to — who put his shoes on my neck. I could feel actually the outline of his shoes on my neck, moving right and left.
I started vomiting again and again, especially after one of the soldiers, he had both his two fingers inside the hole between my neck and my chest. There is a little hole, and he put it all the way inside and tried to grab my bones, to grab me from my bones different times. That was the most painful thing. And then, other one who was trying to put his hands on my chest and all his weight on my chest. He was — it was actually meant to break me and to break my ribs, because he put all his weight. And the man who continued, or the soldier who continued to do — to put his feet and his shoes on my neck, that can’t be first aid at all. When I told the doctors here in Gaza what happened to me, they said that can’t be a first aid, and it can’t be something like that, that’s torture.
They continued to do that until one of the soldiers, he dragged me out from my feet, and my head on the ground, on the floor, and my back on the floor. He dragged me all the way, taking me into a few meters away, where they started to make fun, and they were joking. I could hear they were joking while I was lying down. At that moment, I felt how it feels for a black African man to be under the apartheid system. That’s what I felt at that moment. I was unconscious, on and off, and suddenly I found that they are taking me in a wheelchair, and they have said that I had nervous breakdown.
They take me to an army doctor. I could see the M-16 gun with the army doctor who tried to treat me. He tried to put — to install the heart machine to do heart test on my body. And then he suddenly — and still, there is one on the table while I was lying down. He is pinching me, trying to torture me in the same way. And I think he is also the same one who was doing the job before. They continued to do it. And after that, I heard the soldiers shouting at each other in Hebrew. And I could hear the English word more than one time, “ambulance, ambulance, ambulance,” after they realized that I am not conscious for some time.
And then they transfer me into a Palestinian ambulance for the Red Crescent, where I was taken from there into other place. And then, before the ambulance started to move, the ambulance driver and other paramedic, who was a Palestinian guy from Jericho, they had someone knocking at the door of the ambulance, and that is Shabak officer. I think it’s Avi, the same soldier who asked me to strip and to take off all my clothes. And then they say, “Mohammed, you have to sign on this.” I wasn’t really totally conscious to know what he wants me to sign on, but he wants me to sign on a paper showing that Shabak or Shin Bet Israel security is not responsible in what’s happening to me when I leave. I did not sign it, because I wasn’t conscious. And also, the other guys, the ambulance driver, they say, “Mohammed is unconscious, and he cannot at all do anything or sign any paper.”
It continued like that until the ambulance driver told them, “Should I tell the Dutch embassy? They are waiting outside. Should I tell them to follow us and to come to the hospital, tell them that Mohammed is inside the ambulance?” And he told him, “Listen, it’s none of your business. Don’t tell the Dutch that Mohammed is in this car. Just take him to the hospital, and that’s it. Don’t tell anybody about what happened.”
When I was transferred to the hospital, I found myself suddenly in a hospital surrounded by doctors, and that is — I asked him where I am. They say, “You are at Jericho hospital,” where I was — I called — the hospital called the embassy, and the embassy came from there to take me. And I was transferred from Jericho to Gaza, where I was transferred to the Gaza European hospital, where I spent many days, having nearly sixty days — six days it’s been since I was in the hospital.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, we just have two minutes, and I wanted to ask — John Pilger, who gave you the award, a well-known Australian journalist who lives in Britain, a filmmaker, wrote a piece about your treatment and said, “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.’" Again, that was the former Dutch ambassador who said this. Your final comments?
MOHAMMED OMER: Well, I think this is possible. Once Israel has killed our colleague, the Reuters cameraman, they can kill me. I thought that the fact that I’m being given this international prize was going to bring me protection, but who cares? Israel doesn’t care. Israel is trying to provoke the public opinion. They’re trying to provoke everybody and trying to torture people and to kill them. I mean, will Israel care to kill a journalist? Of course not. They have killed a family on the beach of Huda Ghaliya; eight family members were killed. They have killed five children who were collecting strawberries two years ago. And they continue to kill on a daily basis people from day to day. Will they care to kill Mohammed Omer? Of course not.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning Palestinian journalist, just won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism with Dahr Jamail in Britain. Mohammed Omer is the youngest winner of the award.