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Questions about Palestinian's charges

Journalist says he was abused at a checkpoint on returning to Gaza. An Israeli inquiry has ruled his claims false.

November 03, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Khalil is a Times staff writer.

Jerusalem — What exactly happened to Mohammed Omer?

The Gaza-based journalist walked into the Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and the Israeli-controlled West Bank one day early this summer. There, the 24-year-old says, he was sexually humiliated and physically assaulted by Israeli security -- while an escort from the Dutch Embassy waited for him outside.

The Israeli government released a statement soon afterward acknowledging that Omer and his luggage were searched "due to suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile elements." It denies that Omer was ever forcibly disrobed and states that "at no time was the complainant subjected to either physical or mental violence."

The report cites "doubts as to the sincerity of the situation" and concludes that all of Omer's claims in the June incident were "found to be without foundation."

The case, however, has endured and become an ongoing cause for international diplomats and activists. In a recent report to the United Nations Security Council, Richard Falk, the world body's special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, highlighted Omer's case and called for further investigation.

An attempt to unravel the facts only shines a light on the mutual distrust between Palestinians and Israelis, with Palestinians contending that an institutional bias prevents their claims from getting a proper hearing, and Israelis wary of those traveling from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Since the militant Islamic group took control of Gaza in June 2007, after a unity government with Fatah collapsed, Israel has virtually sealed the narrow coastal ribbon, preventing most Gazans from leaving. When Omer wanted to travel to Europe to accept a journalism award, the Dutch government provided the necessary diplomatic escort; it was on his return that the alleged abuse took place.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry and several Dutch lawmakers immediately urged an inquiry.

"We basically have two different accounts that contradict each other," said Rob Dekker, a spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry. "It would be good to have an independent investigation."

But the Israeli government says its internal investigation will suffice.

"As far as we are concerned, the case is closed," said Arye Mekel, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "They analyzed his complaints one by one and rejected them as false."

Omer alleges that Israeli security officers at Allenby forced him to strip naked and aggressively questioned and taunted him until he fainted under the stress. His memories from that point on are sketchy at best, but he recalls the officers digging their fingers into his neck and chest.

At some point, an ambulance was summoned from nearby Jericho. Paramedic Mahmoud Tararya arrived in a Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulance and said he found Omer semiconscious with bruises on his neck and chest. Tararya said Israeli security officers were asking Omer to sign "some sort of form written in Hebrew."

The paramedic said he intervened, separated Omer from the soldiers and loaded him into the ambulance, where he remained semiconscious for most of the trip to a hospital.

The doctor in Jericho couldn't determine why Omer had collapsed, but the medical report notes that the patient "has severe pain in the chest, neck, back and right [testicle]," and adds, "We note finger signs on the neck and chest."

Upon his return to Gaza, Omer was examined again. According to the medical report, it was discovered that he had a swollen vein in one of his testicles that would eventually require surgery. Omer says he doesn't remember a blow to his groin area, but speculates that it happened after he fainted.

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Cause celebre

Omer's work for the Rafah Today website and the independent news agency Inter Press Service had made him famous, particularly among critics of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories. He had just completed a tour in Europe where he had received the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, which rewards journalists whose "work has penetrated the established version of events" and which "exposes establishment propaganda," according to the award's website.

Mekel, the Israeli spokesman, said his office had been "bombarded by letters and e-mails" about the case.

Dekker, the Dutch spokesman, wouldn't comment on whether his government was satisfied with the Israeli inquiry, but he repeatedly stated his preference for an independent investigation. He also made it clear that his government would not challenge Israel by publicly making such a request.

"That's up to Israel," he said.

Omer's case is far from airtight. For starters, he says no one thought to take any pictures of his bruises until six days later -- at which point the marks had faded.

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Inquiry criticized

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