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“Terrorized”: Gaza Poet Mosab Abu Toha on Being Stripped, Jailed & Beaten by Israeli Forces

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We speak with celebrated Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha for his first interview after he was jailed and beaten by Israeli forces, when he was detained at a checkpoint in Gaza while heading to Rafah with his family. He was rounded up with scores of other Palestinians. “I felt humiliated. I felt terrified and terrorized by this army because they were ordering us to do everything at gunpoint,” says Toha, now in Cairo. He calls on Western leaders to stop supporting the violence against Palestinians. “If you can’t stop the war, if you can’t stop the carnage, the genocide, just stop financing it.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has invoked Article 99 of the U.N. Charter for the first time in decades to press the Security Council to support a ceasefire in Gaza as Israel intensifies its assault, which began two months ago today, on October 7th, after Hamas attacked Israel.

In a letter, Guterres wrote, quote, “Amid constant bombardment by the Israel Defense Forces, and without shelter or the essentials to survive, I expect public order to completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions,” he wrote.

He went on to write, quote, “We are facing a severe risk of collapse of the humanitarian system. The situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region. Such an outcome must be avoided at all cost.”

We begin today’s show with the celebrated Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha, who was recently jailed and beaten by Israeli forces. He was detained at a checkpoint in Gaza as he was headed toward Rafah with his family. He was rounded up with scores of other Palestinians. After he was released from an Israeli jail two days later, Abu Toha posted a message on social media, writing, quote, “I’m safe but still have pain in nose and teeth after being beaten by Israeli army. I gave them all my family’s passports, including my American son’s but they didn’t return anything. Also my clothes & my chlidren’s were taken and not returned to me. No wallet, money, credit cards,” he wrote.

AMY GOODMAN: Mosab Abu Toha’s detention sparked global outcry from the literary community and beyond. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Progressive and other publications. He founded the Edward Said Library in Gaza. His first book of poetry, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, won the American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The poetry collection was published by City Lights Books.

On Sunday, Mosab Abu Toha managed to leave Gaza with his wife and three children through the Rafah border. He joins us now from Cairo, Egypt, for his first interview since he was jailed.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mosab. Thank you so much for being with us. I’m sorry for all you have gone through. Can you describe what happened, where you were detained, where you were jailed, what happened to you when you were in Israeli prison?

MOSAB ABU TOHA: Thank you so much for having me.

I made it from the north of Gaza to the south of Gaza, but I was jailed by the Israeli army. I was trying to cross and reach the Rafah border crossing. Our names were listed by the American — by the Department of State, because my youngest son, 3 years and a half, was born in America. He’s an American citizen. So I was trying to cross from the north of Gaza, where I spent the past two months, I would say, to the south of Gaza, where Rafah is, and where we were advised to go. But at the checkpoint, I was picked by the Israeli army, along with about 200 other people. I was picked by the Israeli soldier. He called me by describing me. He said, “The man with the black backpack and the red-haired boy, put the boy down and let him go, and come to me.” So, I mean, I took our passports, my son’s and also my wife’s and two other children, thinking that I would show the passports and also my American son to them, so that they would just let us go. But I was surprised, because he ordered me, very aggressively, to put the son down and come to join the queue of other people who were kidnapped with me.

I mean, there was a young — a younger man. He was so scared, and he said, “I wanted my mother. I want to be with my mom. Oh, my mom, come help me,” etc. I tried to calm him down, telling him, “Oh, don’t worry. Maybe they are going to ask us some question, and then we would go.” But that was not the case.

I was then summoned by another Israeli soldier who was sitting next to another soldier who was pointing his gun at us. They asked us to recite our names and our ID numbers, and then I was led to another Israeli Jeep, in front of whom — I mean, there were three Israelis soldiers — I was forced to take off all my clothes. I just took off my pants and my shirt, etc., and I kept my boxer shorts on. But I was surprised when they asked me to just also take off my boxer shorts. So I was naked. And I felt humiliated. I felt terrified and terrorized by this army, because they were ordering us to do everything at gunpoint. And then I was beaten in my face. I was beaten in my stomach. And I still have pain in my face.

And later, I realized they were taking us to Bir As-Saba, or Be’er Sheva, about two hours away from Gaza, without knowing what they were going to do to us. I had little clothes to warm my body during the cold weather. And so, I mean, they took me for interrogation, and I did tell them all my story. And I wasn’t aware that the whole world, especially in America, were just writing about me and asking for my release. I think this was one reason — I mean, I didn’t do anything in my life; I didn’t harm any person, although I lived under occupation all my life. And I was wounded when I was 16. I got a piece of shrapnel just a few centimeters away from my windpipe, so I was harmed. My house was bombed. But I myself didn’t harm anyone. But I was harmed again. And I am still harmed by the fact that my family and my neighbors are still in Gaza. And the last time I was in touch with my mother and my sisters and also my brothers and their children was five days ago, the same day I left Gaza. So I have no single piece of news whether they are alive or dead.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Mosab, I’d like to ask you — I mean, of course, you mentioned very soon after you arrived in Egypt that you remain very, very concerned because your parents and your siblings are in Gaza. You have not been able to reach them for five days. Are you able to reach others in Gaza? I’d just like to read very briefly what a leading military analyst from the U.S. has said, drawing an analogy between the Second World War’s bombardment of German cities like Dresden and Cologne and the contemporary present bombardment of Gaza by Israel. This is Robert Pape, writing, “Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne — some of the world’s heaviest-ever bombings are remembered by their place names. Gaza will also go down as a place name denoting one of history’s heaviest conventional bombing campaigns.” So, Mosab, if you could talk about that and what you know now about what’s going on in Gaza since you left?

MOSAB ABU TOHA: Well, I mean, the situation, I think, is different than the other place names that you mentioned. For your information and your respected audience, I still have friends whose houses were bombed a few weeks ago and whose bodies are still not retrieved. And I wrote in one of my posts that not only are Gazans, are we and Gazans concerned about being killed under the rubble of our house, but also of being — maybe of being alive under the rubble and no one coming to rescue us. So, there are no fire trucks. There are no civil defense staff. There is no fuel. There are no equipment — there is no equipment to retrieve the bodies of those who might be still alive under the bombing of their house — after the bombing of their houses. So I don’t think Gaza could be compared to any other place on Earth.

And now with social media and all the world watching us, I mean, it’s different from maybe Second World War. I mean, people would hear the news of the bombing of a house or something maybe later. But people are just watching us live, and no one can step in to stop their carnage, the genocide that is committed against my family, my neighbors, my friends, my students, my fellow writers and artists.

So, during the truce a few weeks ago — I think two weeks ago there was the truce. I was in Deir al-Balah in the second — in the other half of the Gaza Strip, while my brother Hamza, who is a father of three children and whose wife is pregnant and is about to give birth — so, that’s another issue that no one talks about, I mean, the reality and the circumstances with which women in Gaza are living. I mean, they are talking about sexual violence against Israeli women, but no one talks about the violence against our lives. No one talks about pregnant women. No one talks about women themselves buried under the rubble with their families. So, this is not called violence? So, you just care about sexual violence? That’s all you care about? [inaudible] how this world is really thinking.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mosab, so, could you talk about that? Could you say —

MOSAB ABU TOHA: And this needs to stop. And you need to —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mosab, I was saying —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — if you could elaborate on that?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: What the situation of Palestinian women, in particular, as you pointed out, Palestinian women who are pregnant, given what the situation in hospitals is? You’ve said a little bit about this in the past. If you could elaborate?

MOSAB ABU TOHA: Well, I mean, you know, women, just like other women in the world — I mean, women in Gaza have their own needs. I men, there are no clean bathrooms. There are no clean toilets. And they need their own things. You know, when a woman gets the period, I mean, there are no — you know, there are no stuff for them to take care of their bodies. And there are also the other pregnant women. So, many hospitals in Gaza are out of service right now, not only for the wounded but also for pregnant women. No one talks about this. You need to talk about this. Where can my sister-in-law, my brother’s wife, where can she give birth? And is there enough clothes for the newborn baby? So, you don’t care about this violence committed against parents? How they are going to manage their lives? No one talks about this.

This is violence in itself, not only killing us, but about — so it’s also about the lack of water, the lack of food. You know, so, before the start of this carnage, we used to buy 25 kilo of wheat flour for 40 shekels, which is about $12. Yesterday, my wife’s uncle messaged me, and he said, “I paid 500 shekels,” which is about $130. So he paid $130 to get 25 kilograms of flour wheat — wheat flour — and if you could find it, of course, because there is lack in respect to wheat flour and other basic things. But so, if he had the money to buy it, there are other people who have not been able to get any money because they are jobless. Most people in Gaza depend on daily jobs — farmers, sellers, etc. So, there are — the majority of people in Gaza don’t have money, so they are sometimes begging other people to give them money. So, no one talks about this. They are just talking about sexual violence, about October 7th. But this has been going on, even before October 7th, by the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Mosab Abu Toha, we are reporting on everything, the horrific stories we’re hearing from October 7th, but also what happened before October 7th to Palestinians and after. And I wanted to get your response to the World Health Organization calling the assault on Gaza humanity’s “darkest hour.” The U.N.'s top humanitarian relief coordinator said Israel's attack on southern Gaza has been as devastating as in the north, with the apocalyptic conditions preventing the delivery of aid, some 85% of the population now displaced. And particularly, if you could talk about your conversations with doctors and nurses in Gaza? You tweeted, “Just imagine yourself as a father watching your child not only having his/her leg amputated, but also dying of pain. Do you still feel you are a father? That there are still humans in the world?” Talk about the hospitals.

MOSAB ABU TOHA: Mm-hmm. So, the first hospital I was able to enter was Shuhada al-Aqsa Hospital, which is in Deir al-Balah. And I went there — I mean, I don’t like to go to hospitals, because, first of all, there is no space for me to enter. I mean, beds are full of patients and wounded people. And at the same time, the corridors, the inner hallways are just full of people lying there. I mean, wounded people are getting treated, getting surgeries while on the floor. So, but I had to go to the Shuhada al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al-Balah to get some treatment for my face and my bleeding nose. So, there are not enough doctors to treat the patients and the wounded people. And there are just bodies everywhere. People even — I mean, they would just go and bury people without their relatives around, because their relatives have died with them, which is really, really heartbreaking. And people are turned into numbers and names. They would just put a body in a piece of cloth and just write their names, and that’s it. They would just take them to the cemetery.

So I was able to talk to some doctors and nurses at the hospital. And I was shocked. I mean, I knew that there were not enough medications, but I was told by one nurse about the case of a child who had her leg amputated. And because there was no anesthesia, no painkillers, the child died while she was having her leg amputated. And I’m wondering, I mean: How would I feel as a father if my child had to have her leg or arm amputated, while she is watching her arm or leg amputated, and then she would continue to bleed, and then she would die because of the pain? And I’m asking all the people in the world just to put themselves in my place as a father. And I’m asking them: Are you really ready in the future when a Gazan child meets you maybe in the street or when you come visit Gaza or visit the cemeteries in Gaza? What would you say to this child? What have you done to protect his family? So, you are living in the Western world —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mosab, finally —

MOSAB ABU TOHA: — and you are, in some way or another, supporting Israel — yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: No, please go ahead. Finish.

MOSAB ABU TOHA: I mean, you are — in some way or another, you are supporting Israel, not — I mean, you know, you are paying taxes, which is going to — I mean, most of the taxes are going to Israel. And I’m really shocked by the American administration, and I hope that my voice would reach the American administration people. So, when October 7th happened, you went to Israel. You showed your support. You offered weapons, and you offered money. So you were able to do everything. But now you are asking Israel to protect — to minimize the casualties among the civilians. Can you do anything to protect the civilians? So, you are calling Israel to minimize the casualties, OK? So, what can you do as an American administration to force Israel to abide by the world law? Is it really hard for you to stop the carnage, to protect the civilian people, to protect hospitals, to protect shelters, UNRWA schools?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, finally, Mosab, what is your message to the U.S., to President Biden, and to European leaders?

MOSAB ABU TOHA: Well, I think if you can’t stop the war, if you can’t stop the carnage, the genocide, just stop financing it. Stop providing more weapons to Israel. Because these weapons are just killing children who are just like your other children. I mean, your children and you, as an American or a European parent, you could be born here in my place in Gaza. Your child could be living in an UNRWA school, in a shelter. They could be bombed in a classroom. Instead of studying and, you know, continuing education, your child could be just sheltering in a classroom with no teacher, with no books. They are just being educated how to survive, if they could.

AMY GOODMAN: Mosab, we just have 30 seconds, but were you ever told why you were jailed? You were jailed — I think that day about 200 Palestinians in Gaza were jailed. There was a great outcry for you. Do you know if the others were released?

MOSAB ABU TOHA: No. I mean, there are a few other people I knew by name because they are from the same town as me, from Beit Lahia. And now it’s — so, I was kidnapped on November 19th, and now today it’s December 7th. Until now, there are other people who are still detained by the Israeli army, and their families are just contacting me: “Did you — do you know anything about our…” I told them, “I just left. I was just released. I don’t have any news about your family.” So they are still kidnapped.

And the Israelis, by the way, accused me of being a Hamas member. You know, I mean, what a ridiculous accusation. I have been living in America for the past four years. And I’ve been hurt, you know, without — I asked them. I asked the Israeli captain if they have any photograph, if they have any satellite photo of me holding a weapon or being in any place that could cause any harm to you. And he slapped me in the face. He said, “You give me the proof!”

AMY GOODMAN: Mosab Abu Toha, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Palestinian poet and author, jailed by Israeli authorities as he and his family fled Gaza. His son is an American citizen. He is a columnist, a teacher, and founder of the Edward Said Library in Gaza, also author of the American Book Award-winning book of poetry, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza.

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