To hell and back: Gaza's workers return to war-torn enclave after arrest, interrogation and torture
On November 3, hundreds of disorientated, exhausted and abused Gazan workers, stripped of their belongings, were dropped off at the Karem Abu Salem goods crossing into the south of the blockaded Gaza Strip, currently under the most brutal bombing campaign in its history.
The Israeli army had carried out the return of these workers in a demeaning fashion, dropping them at a commercial crossing point designated for the passage of goods and fuel, not people, and via which they would need to walk a considerable distance to enter the besieged enclave.
To hell and back
Over the previous three weeks, those returning had been rounded up inside Israel (where they were working), arrested and detained in Israeli prisons. They had also been subjected to interrogations, torture and savage threats. Some did not survive, and many are still missing.
"Even if the onslaught ends, and the Israeli occupation once more allows workers to return, I will never apply for a work permit in the occupied lands [Israel] again, no matter what, even if that means dying from hunger"
All this without having committed any crime.
"Even if the onslaught ends, and the Israeli occupation once more allows workers to return, I will never apply for a work permit in the occupied lands [Israel] again, no matter what, even if that means dying from hunger," vowed Aziz al-Najjar (48), a Gazan worker who returned that day.
The background: Cancelling Gaza workers' permits
In the immediate aftermath of the Al-Aqsa Flood operation launched by Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, on October 7, 2023, the Israeli government decided to terminate the employment of thousands of workers from the Gaza Strip, who were at that time working inside Israel.
This was done by ordering their employers to withdraw their legally-obtained permits which had now been rendered invalid. Many of these workers were subsequently arrested from the streets or from their workplaces.
A recent history of Gazans working in Israel
Most of these workers had been granted work permits by Israel over a year and a half ago.
This followed a series of agreements aiming to achieve a long-term truce between the Israeli government and the Palestinian resistance factions in the besieged Gaza Strip, where unemployment rates had soared to nearly 50 percent in early 2021.
During the last year and a half, strict security measures have been carried out on those applying for permits, including intensive security checks on all their documents, which were submitted through the Palestinian Chambers of Commerce, and the Palestinian Civil Affairs Directorate who coordinated with the Israeli authorities.
Stringent background checks were required to prove they had no links to Hamas or any other political or resistance faction. Many of the permits applied for were rejected on security grounds.
However, today, the Israeli Security Cabinet has decided to return all Gazan workers to Gaza and ban them from ever returning. This applies to those currently inside Israel, and also in the occupied West Bank.
"Most of these workers had been granted work permits by Israel over a year and a half ago"
Gaza workers hiding in West Bank in fear of arrest
An estimated 3,200 Gazan workers have been sent back into Gaza out of a total of around 18,500 workers, according to data held by the Palestinian civil administration in the besieged enclave.
Many of the remainder are still in cities in the West Bank, a large number of whom are keeping a low profile, sleeping in halls and sports centres, fearful of attempting a return to the Gaza Strip, because of the chance of arrest and interrogation by the Israeli army.
Theft, arrest, and abuse
Emad Mohamed (53), from Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, is a builder who had a construction job in Haifa. He says that on the third day of the Israeli assault, on October 10, the work coordinator suddenly withdrew all the permits from the Gazan workers employed on the site.
A few days later, following coordination with the employer, the workers were taken and handed over to the police station in Shefa-Amr, a city in Israel's northern district, where they spent one night.
Emad explains to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition: "They took away all the workers' belongings – from money and phones to even clothes.
"At noon [the next day], they took us in armoured prison cars, handcuffed and with our legs tied, to a place we later learned was Ofer Prison which is near Ramallah. We were taken out of the armoured car, and they switched the iron handcuffs with plastic ones, blindfolded us, and took us into the prison grounds where they left us in the open."
He says they were detained in "an enclosure of stone blocks which formed a closed prison with no roof, and the space was around 1,000 metres squared. [This space] was enclosed by an internal fence around three metres high, and there were three tents inside it. They gave us mattresses and blankets to lay on the ground, and after an hour they started taking us one by one for an interview with the intelligence officer. All the while we were continuously abused, while handcuffed and blindfolded."
Emad continues: "After a long wait, during which I could hear sounds of beating and yelling, my interrogation began. The officer turned a computer screen towards me and asked what I knew about the Strip […] and tried to bargain to get answers from me. However, I'm just a worker – I know nothing. So they started using intimidation tactics, threatening a dark future and returning me to the hell of the Strip. After half an hour they took me into the yard, blindfolded, and the soldiers beat me."
After that Emad says he was taken to the prison where he stayed for 18 days.
"The treatment was harsh. They offered us just enough food to keep us alive: a piece of bread with jam in the morning and evening, and ten spoonfuls of rice and five spoonfuls of cooked vegetables for lunch."
"I'm just a worker – I know nothing. So they started using intimidation tactics, threatening a dark future and of returning me to the hell of the Strip. After half an hour they took me into the yard, blindfolded, and the soldiers beat me"
The 18 days passed by in this way, he says, after which everyone was transported by bus to the Karem Abu Salem crossing, where they were left without their belongings, and without knowing anything. They weren't given any information about their families nor even about the war which had been unleashed on Gaza during their absence. Many of them were suffering from serious injuries following the abuse received, and some of their wounds had become infected.
Stealing from Gazan workers
Hundreds of workers entered the Gaza Strip after their money and phones had been seized, as well as their entry permits. Some even had their IDs taken, says Suleiman Abu Omran (50), another worker from Gaza who had received a permit to work in Israel.
"I had around 9,000 shekels ($2,400) with me and was planning to buy a gift for my wife. She had sold her gold for me to be able to afford the work permit in the occupied interior [Israel], which cost me nearly 3,000 shekels ($800). They seized the money of all those who were working with me in the facility on the outskirts of occupied Yaffa city – these people were carrying amounts ranging from 6,000-20,000 shekels, which was the result of a full month’s work."
Palestinians forcibly displaced from north Gaza describe 'journey of fear and death' https://t.co/iDhbYP35B1— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 13, 2023
Torturing workers and leaving the sick to die
Abu Omran was tortured using what he described as an "electric iron chair" four times.
"We returned to Gaza with no money, with not even our mobile phones, or IDs. The Occupation's treatment [of us] was clearly revenge. We had a sick young man from Jabalia camp with us. He showed them where surgical operations had been performed on his torso, but they left him with no treatment until he died."
This chilling testimony has been attested to by others. Workers were not the only Gazans rounded up following October 7 – those who had received medical permits for treatment inside Israel were also detained, wrote journalist Ruwaida Amer in an Al Jazeera report on November 3.
Used as a means of revenge
Abu Omran also says that some of the detainees were stripped naked and left there for long periods. He says that although some of the detainees were screaming from the pain they were in, the Israeli soldiers would deliberately hit them in the painful areas.
"We have always been discriminated against from the beginning. They granted us a permit named "economic needs" - so we wouldn't have any rights or compensation inside [Israel]. They also tampered with some of the permits, before deciding to cancel them all. They used us as a means of revenge," he says.
On November 5, the Commission of Detainees' Affairs and the Palestinian Prisoners' Club announced the death of prisoner Majed Ahmad Zaqoul (32), a worker from Gaza, in Ofer Prison. He had been detained at the beginning of Israel's assault, and Israel initially covered up his killing, before announcing it in Israeli media.
According to Israel's authorities, since October 7, four Palestinian detainees have died in Israeli detention facilities. Two were Gazan workers, who had been held incommunicado by the Israeli army in military detention centres.
"On 5 November, the Commission of Detainees' Affairs and the Palestinian Prisoners' Club announced the death of prisoner Majed Ahmad Zaqoul (32), a worker from Gaza, in Ofer Prison"
Worker Aziz, who is from Khuza'a, a town east of Khan Younis, says most of the workers were crying with joy at finally returning to Gaza.
He says that he had fallen prostrate to the ground, and couldn't stop repeating, "Thank God, thank God" - he doesn't know how many times.
"At the beginning of the assault," explains Aziz, "we were working as usual, we'd entered [Israel] just a week before, and none of us had any issues, we were all working legally."
He says this is contrary to rumours spread by Israel, accusing those arrested of having violated the law or having been working without permits.
"On October 10, employers were notified that all permits had been withdrawn from the people of Gaza. I was arrested along with a group of labourers from the eastern areas of Khan Younis. We were tortured and harassed to extract any information. Some of us were accused of being informants, but all of this was baseless."
He continues his harrowing account: "One of my friends, Fuad al-Taweel, was working with me in one of the facilities near Afula city. He called his family as soon as we got through the crossing, only to discover that his son Ahmed (25) was among the martyrs of the Israeli bombardment and that his family had fled [their home]. Many of the workers who contacted their families as soon as they were back in Gaza found out that their families are now displaced, and that some of their relatives have become martyrs."
This is an edited translation with additional reporting. To read the original article click here.
This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org