Israel’s Treatment of Gaza Detainees Raises Alarm

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Cold, almost naked and surrounded by Israeli soldiers with M16 assault rifles, Ayman Lubbad knelt among dozens of Palestinian men and boys who had just been forced from their homes in northern Gaza.

It was early December and photographs and videos taken at the time showed him and other detainees in the street, wearing only underwear and lined up in rows, surrounded by Israeli forces. In one video, a soldier yelled at them over a megaphone: “We’re occupying all of Gaza. Is that what you wanted? You want Hamas with you? Don’t tell me you’re not Hamas.”

The detainees, some barefoot with their hands on their heads, shouted objections. “I’m a day laborer,” one man shouted.

“Shut up,” the soldier yelled back.

Palestinian detainees from Gaza have been stripped, beaten, interrogated and held incommunicado over the past three months, according to accounts by nearly a dozen of the detainees or their relatives interviewed by The New York Times. Organizations representing Palestinian prisoners and detainees gave similar accounts in a report, accusing Israel of both indiscriminate detention of civilians and demeaning treatment of detainees.

Israeli forces who invaded Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack have detained men, women and children by the thousands.

Some were ordered out of their houses and seized while others were taken as they fled their neighborhoods on foot with their families, trying to reach safer areas after the Israeli authorities ordered them to leave.

Photographs taken by Gaza journalists have shown newly released detainees being treated in hospitals, the skin around their wrists worn down with deep cuts from the tight restraints Israeli forces kept on them, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The United Nations human rights office said last week that Israel’s treatment of Gazan detainees might amount to torture. It estimated that thousands had been detained and held in “horrific” conditions before being released, sometimes with no clothes on, only diapers.

In a statement in response to questions from The Times, the Israeli military said it detains people suspected of involvement in terrorist activity and releases those who are cleared. It said the Israeli authorities were treating detainees in accordance with international law and defended forcing men and boys to strip, saying this was to “ensure that they are not concealing explosive vests or other weaponry.”

“Detainees are given back their clothes when it’s possible,” the military added.

Human rights defenders say Israel’s detention and demeaning treatment of Palestinians in Gaza could violate international laws of war.

“Since the beginning of the Israeli bombardment and ground invasion in Gaza, the Israeli Army arrested hundreds of Palestinians in a barbaric and unprecedented manner and has published pictures and videos showing the inhumane treatment of detainees,” said a recent report by several Palestinian rights groups, including the Palestinian Prisoners’ Commission and Addameer.

“So far, Israel has concealed the fate of detainees from Gaza, has not disclosed their numbers, and prevented lawyers and the Red Cross from visiting detainees,” the report added.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Hisham Mhanna, said his organization received daily reports from families in Gaza about detained family members. The organization is working on some 4,000 cases of Palestinians from Gaza who had vanished, nearly half believed to be detained by the Israeli military, he said.

The group has been seeking information about the conditions and whereabouts of detainees and pushing for visits. But only in a handful of cases has it even received proof of life, Mr. Mhanna said.

Brian Finucane, an analyst at the research organization International Crisis Group and a former legal adviser to the State Department, said international law set “a very high bar” to detain noncombatants and required that they be treated humanely.

During the first month of the war, Israel warned those who did not flee areas under evacuation orders that they “may be considered a partner in a terrorist organization.” Last month, an Israeli government spokesman, Eylon Levy, said Israeli forces were detaining “military-age men” in those areas.

Hamas was estimated to have 20,000 to 40,000 fighters before the war, according to American and other Western analysts, among a population of more than two million people in Gaza.

“The presumption that military-aged males are combatants is troubling,” Mr. Finucane said.

Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories, said in October that designating civilians who did not evacuate as accomplices to terrorism was not only a threat of collective punishment, but could constitute ethnic cleansing.

Photos and videos taken by Israeli soldiers and Israeli journalists embedded with the military have shown Palestinians with hands bound behind their backs, sometimes blindfolded and in underwear, kneeling outdoors in winter.

In one video taken at a stadium in Gaza City, dozens of males wearing only underwear are lined up or marched across the field surrounded by Israeli soldiers. Some of the men were gray-haired and several were young boys.

Women and girls were also present, but they remained clothed.

One detainee was Hadeel al-Dahdouh, 22, who appeared in another photo published last month in the back of truck bed packed with almost naked men. In the image, her eyes were covered by a white blindfold and her head scarf had been removed.

She and her husband, Rushdi al-Thatha, both from Gaza City in the north, were taken together on Dec. 5, Mr. al-Thatha, 31, said.

“They would hit us on our heads with their weapons,” said Mr. al-Thatha, one of a number of detainees who described being beaten by Israeli soldiers. “They would hit my wife like they hit me,” he said. “They would yell ‘Shut up!’ and curse at her.”

Mr. al-Thatha said he was released after 25 days. Ms. al-Dahdouh is still missing.

On the day when Mr. Lubbad was detained, Dec. 7, he was at his parents’ house with his wife, he said. She had given birth weeks earlier to their third child. They could hear gunfire and tanks in the streets and then an Israeli soldier yelled on a megaphone for all men to come out and surrender.

As soon as he walked out, arms up, he said, he was confronted by a soldier who ordered him to kneel and strip. In the December chill, he was kept on his knees in the back row of a line of Palestinian men and some boys — all in their underwear, some barefoot.

Mr. Lubbad, himself a human rights worker with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said his detention lasted a week. In the first moments, he said, he told himself he would do whatever the soldiers ordered.

“We didn’t know what awaits us,” he said.

His hands were tied with rope that immediately began digging into his skin, he said. The detainees were forced into trucks, blindfolded and hands restrained, still in their underwear, as soldiers hit them, Mr. Lubbad said.

They were then driven for hours into Israel.

Only when they arrived at a prison in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva were they given clothes — gray tracksuits. Each person was given a number on a blue tag and guards called them by their numbers, not names.

Mr. Lubbad was held in a large barrack for three days. From 5 a.m. to midnight, all of the dozens of detainees were forced to sit on their knees in a position he described as agonizing. Anyone who tried to shift would be punished, Mr. Lubbad said.

He was not interrogated until days later, he said, after being taken to another detention facility in Jerusalem.

The interrogator asked him where he was on Oct. 7 and whether he had any information on members of Hamas, the armed group that controls Gaza, or Islamic Jihad, a smaller armed faction, he said. He was asked about tunnels and Hamas positions.

When he repeatedly answered that he didn’t know anything and spent much of his time either at work or at home, the interrogator grew angry and hit him under his eye, he said, then put his blindfold back — tying it painfully tight.

He was detained for several more days, but not interrogated again.

Early on Dec. 14, Mr. Lubbad said, he was among busloads of detainees driven to Gaza’s southern border and told to start walking.

Several other detainees gave similar accounts.

Majdi al-Darini, a 50-year-old father of four and retired civil servant, said he was held for 40 days with his hands restrained nearly the entire time. The restraints cut into his wrists, leaving wounds that eventually became infected. A video of Mr. al-Darini after he was released shows scabs around his wrists.

“All the while, your hands are tied and your eyes are blindfolded and you are on your knees,” he said. “And you’re not allowed to move right or left.”

He said he was detained in mid-November as he and his family were walking south, after leaving their homes in northern Gaza in response to an evacuation order.

“They treated us like animals,” he said. “They would hit us with sticks and hurl curses at us.”

Mr. al-Thatha, the man who was detained with his wife, said that 25 days into his ordeal, a prison guard came to his barracks and asked him: “‘Can you run?’”

He didn’t understand the question.

Hours later at about 2 a.m., he said, his name was called and he was put on a bus to the Kerem Shalom border crossing from Israel into Gaza. As he got off the bus, he said, a soldier warned them that there was a sniper watching and ordered them to run for 10 minutes.

“We ran for 10 minutes without turning our heads,” he said.

Ameera Harouda, Hiba Yazbek and Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting.

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