My Ordeal as a Captive in Israel

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On April 26, I embarked along with another American physician on what was supposed to be an 8-day medical fact-finding mission to the West Bank and Gaza on behalf of International Medical Corps (IMC), a Los Angeles-based American medical relief organization working in some 20 countries worldwide.

We toured such areas as the devastated Jenin refugee camp and its clinic, operated by the United Nations, which was not spared from the widespread looting and vandalism by invading Israeli soldiers.  We visited hospitals in the area, where we were told of severely restricted access to emergency medical care for sick and wounded residents because Israeli tanks and troops prevented the movement of ambulances.  I was so shocked by the enormity of the devastation that I sent out an e-mail commentary the next day to friends and family that was subsequently widely circulated on the internet.

While I toured the Palestinian areas on behalf of IMC, Dalell Mohmed, a friend and fellow co-founder of a new American charity, Kinder USA (Kids in Need of Development, Education, and Relief), also traveled to the region independently to implement relief projects for Palestinian families.  Dalell and I were both detained on May 5:  she in her hotel restaurant at gunpoint and I at Ben Gurion Airport as I tried to return home. Our laptop computers, cameras, videotapes, research notes, and documents were confiscated.

What ensued was part Orwellian, part Kafkaesque, and part really bad “B movie”.  I was detained in a jail near Tel Aviv for a total of 15 days; Ms. Mohmed was held for 8 days.  For most of my detention, I was held in a small, crowded cell housing up to 13 inmates.  I was denied access to an attorney for four days, and I was forced to attend court hearings conducted in Hebrew with little or no translation of the proceedings.  For most of the first week, I was on a hunger strike to protest my unjust detention.  When I complained about the conditions to visiting US consular officials, I was punished by being moved to a dark, tomb-like, 2 x 2.5 meter dungeon with no windows, poor ventilation, and plenty of cockroaches.

While I was not physically tortured, my interrogators assured me that such practices continued to be used against “really bad people.”  Instead, my interrogators used intense psychological pressure, lies, threats, and the fact that I was very sleep deprived to try to force me to confess to allegations that were simply not true.

The Israelis wildly alleged that we were guilty of transferring money to sponsor suicide bombings.  (Ironically, the last opinion piece I had authored before my trip condemned suicide bombings). Yet they never charged or indicted us, nor did they provide any evidence to support their claims.  I believe that media reports here in the United States linking our detention to past humanitarian work with the Holy Land Foundation (whose assets were frozen by the Bush Administration last December) were largely inaccurate.  Here in the United States-and even in Israel-no former employees or officers of that foundation have been arrested or charged with any crimes.

After widespread publicity generated by family members, friends, patients, and community activists, several Congresspersons including my representative, Christopher Cox (R-CA), and Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), and the office of California Senator Dianne Feinstein intervened to persuade our State Department to press Israel for my release.  In addition, Jesse Jackson’s announced intention to travel to Israel to secure my release undoubtedly played an important role.  I am truly grateful for these actions on my behalf.  However, I feel strongly that the State Department should have been more proactive in coming to the aid of us and other American humanitarian workers unjustly detained in Israel.  What I find especially troubling is the thought that had we been relief workers detained in Afghanistan or China, the response of the State Department would have been much more vigorous.

The proof of our innocence–our vindication–is the fact that the Israeli authorities ultimately were forced to set us free without charges.  Since our release, however, the Israeli government has refused to comment on our detention-or to apologize for our mistreatment and expulsion.

The Israeli government’s real purpose in detaining me was twofold.  First, Israel hoped to censor any criticism regarding its military actions in the Palestinian areas, especially vis-é-vis the Jenin refugee camp.  I learned that my Shin Bet interrogators were aware of my e-mailed comments regarding Jenin when one of them admitted to reading them online.

I also believe that they detained Ms. Mohmed and me as part of a deliberate campaign to sabotage humanitarian efforts on behalf of Palestinian civilians, especially those from American relief organizations.  In this case, they hoped to thwart the nascent efforts of two American organizations.  In recent months, numerous international aid and human rights agencies (including the Red Cross and United Nations) have complained bitterly as Israel has stepped up its efforts to block humanitarian aid for Palestinians.  By denying access to humanitarian relief workers at the airport or borders–or by arresting and deporting them (as in our case and others)–Israeli officials are actively working to intimidate and discourage other relief agencies from seeking to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians.

Actions by Israel such as our detention and subsequent deportation without cause do not serve the interests of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  On the contrary, depriving Palestinians of legitimate humanitarian and medical aid only serves to foster the climate of humiliation, hatred, and helplessness that contributes to the perpetual cycle of violence in the region.  In this context, it is clearly in Israel’s best interests, too, to facilitate rather than hinder humanitarian aid to the current generation of Palestinian children, who (along with their Israeli counterparts) may hold the keys to a just peace that continues to elude their parents.

Dr. Riad Z. Abdelkarim is a physician in Anaheim, CA, and a founder of Kinder USA (Kids in Need of Development, Education, and Relief), a new American non-profit organization working on behalf of Palestinian children.  He was born, raised, and educated in the United States.  He writes the monthly “Islam in America” column for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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