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‘They wanted to humiliate us’ – Palestinian women allege abuse by Israelis

Nabela was detained by Israeli forces (AP)
Nabela was detained by Israeli forces (AP)

Palestinians in Gaza returning from wartime detention in Israeli custody are reporting physical abuse and medical neglect inside Israel’s network of prisons.

They say beatings and aggressive strip searches are common, prison conditions are grim, and access to lawyers is limited.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been detained, including women.

A new report from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) found that many are being held as “unlawful combatants”, without charge or trial and often without knowing the evidence against them.

Israel’s military is investigating some 11 Palestinian deaths in Israeli custody since the start of the war.

One woman, who gave her name as Nabela, thought a United Nations school in Gaza City would be a safe haven. Then, the Israeli army arrived.

She said soldiers stormed the place, ordering men to undress and hauling women to a mosque for strip searches.

This was the beginning of six weeks in Israeli custody that she says included repeated beatings and interrogations.

The 39-year-old from Gaza City said: “The soldiers were very harsh – they beat us and screamed at us in Hebrew.

“If we raised our heads or uttered any words, they beat us on the head.”

It is not known how many Palestinian women or minors have been detained by the Israelis.

Nabela said she was shuttled between facilities inside Israel in a co-ed group before arriving at Damon Prison in the north, where she estimated there were at least 100 women.

Rights groups say Israel is “disappearing” Gaza Palestinians – detaining them without charge or trial and not disclosing to family or lawyers where they are being held.

Israel’s prison service says all “basic rights required are fully applied by professionally trained prison guards”.

A wrecked cityscape in Gaza
Palestinians walk through the destruction from the Israeli offensive in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (AP)

Israel declared war after Hamas-led militants killed about 1,200 people and took roughly 250 others hostage on October 7.

Since then, ground troops have arrested hundreds of Palestinians to search for suspected militants and gather intelligence. Images of blindfolded men kneeling, heads bowed and hands bound, have sparked worldwide outrage.

In northern Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, troops rounded up dozens at a time from UN schools and hospitals, including medical personnel.

The military said it makes detainees undress to search for explosives, bringing detainees into Israel before releasing them back into Gaza if they are deemed innocent.

For Nabela, that process took 47 days.

Despite Israeli evacuation orders, Nabela and her family had decided not to leave Gaza City, believing nowhere in Gaza was safe. Troops entered the school where they sheltered on December 24.

“I was terrified, imagining they wanted to execute us and bury us there,” she said.

Forces separated Nabela from her 13-year-old daughter and four-year-old son and loaded her onto a truck bound for a facility in southern Israel. According to the PHRI, all detainees in Gaza are first brought to the Sde Teiman military base.

Israeli APC
An Israeli armoured personnel carrier on manoeuvres near the Gaza Strip border (AP)

“We were freezing and forced to remain on our knees on the ground,” Nabela told The Associated Press from a school-turned-shelter in Rafah where she is staying with other recently-released female detainees.

“Loud music, shouting and intimidation – they wanted to humiliate us. We were handcuffed, blindfolded, and our feet were tied in chains.”

Moved between several prisons, Nabela said she was subjected to repeated strip searches and interrogations at gunpoint.

Asked about her connection to Hamas and knowledge of the militants’ extensive underground tunnel network, she maintained her innocence, telling interrogators she was a housewife and her husband worked for Hamas’ rival, the Palestinian Authority.

One woman detained from Gaza told the AP that during a medical check before she was moved to Damon Prison, Israeli forces ordered her to kiss an Israeli flag. When she refused, a soldier grabbed her by the hair, smashing her face into a wall, she said.

In a report by PHRI, former detainees from Gaza alleged similar mistreatment.

One man said he was urinated on by guards at Ketziot Prison in southern Israel, and witnessed strip searches where guards forced naked detainees to stand close to each other and inserted search devices into their buttocks.

PHRI described Israel’s prisons, also housing Palestinians from the West Bank and east Jerusalem held on security-related charges, as “an apparatus of retribution and revenge”.

It alleged the prison service and military “have been granted free rein to act however they see fit”.

At the beginning of the war, prisons entered “lockdown mode”, confining detainees to their cells for two weeks, the report said.

Under wartime emergency measures, Israel’s parliament in October suspended normal cell capacity requirements. Since then, inmates have slept on mattresses in overcrowded cells.

Phone privileges have been completely suspended, the report said. At some facilities, security wings were disconnected from electricity and water, plunging detainees into darkness for most of the day and rendering showers and sinks unusable.

During eight days at an unknown facility in southern Israel, Nabela said she did not shower and had no access to menstrual pads or toiletries. Food was scarce. Once, Nabela said, guards threw down the detainees’ meals and told them to eat from the floor.

Gaza wreckage
More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed (AP)

The military said each detainee receives clothing, blankets and a mattress. It denied that cells were overcrowded, saying detainees had sufficient access to toilets, food, water and medical care.

“The violent and antagonistic treatment of detainees described in the allegations is prohibited,” the military said in response to an AP request for comment. “Cases of inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with.”

It referred questions about Ketziot and Damon prisons to the Israeli Prison Service, which did not comment on the allegations beyond saying it was uninvolved in the arrests and interrogation of Palestinians from Gaza.

An official document obtained by the AP, laying out operations at the Sde Teiman military medical facility, specified that so-called unlawful combatants should be treated handcuffed and blindfolded.

The military said the handcuffing of detainees was “done in accordance with their assessed level of danger and medical state”. Israel’s health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Eleven Palestinian detainees have died in Israeli custody since October 7, according to the advocacy group the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, with the most recent death taking place this week.

At least five had chronic health conditions, which the PHRI says raises concerns that they died because of medical neglect.

The Israeli military said it would examine the deaths.

Nabela’s fortunes improved when she arrived at Damon. There, she met Palestinian women detained from the West Bank.

She said the women were kind. She had electricity and warm showers. Nabela’s interrogator wondered aloud why she had been detained.

A month and a half after her arrest, a prison administrator announced Nabela would be released with about 20 other women. Israeli buses brought them to a Gaza crossing, where they made their way to UN shelters in the southern city of Rafah, full of displaced Palestinians. She cannot travel to Gaza City, where her family remains.

Nabela, whose face was bruised, recalled one of her final interrogations. She had begun to weep, and her interrogator told her: “Don’t cry about it. You’re better living here than Gaza.”