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Gaza Journalist Describes 33 Harrowing Days in Israeli Custody

World Press Freedom Day 2024


 

Diaa Al-Kahlout, pictured after his return to Gaza after more than a month in Israeli detention, said he was interrogated over his journalism by Israel's army and security service. Credit: Courtesy of Diaa Al-Kahlout

NEW YORK, May 1 2024 (IPS) - Diaa Al-Kahlout, the veteran Gaza bureau chief for the Qatari-funded London-based newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, had been covering the Israel-Gaza war for two months when he became part of the news.

On December 7, Al-Kahlout was detained along with members of his family by Israeli forces in a mass arrest in Beit Lahya in northern Gaza. Over 33 days in Israeli custody, he said he was interrogated about his journalism and subjected to physical and psychological mistreatment.

Al-Kahlout is one of more than two dozen Palestinian journalists arrested by Israel since it launched a widespread bombardment of Gaza following the Hamas October 7 raid on Israel. After his release, Al-Kahlout made the “unbearable” decision to leave Gaza for Egypt, from where he spoke to CPJ about his experience covering the war, his detention, and the journalism environment in Gaza. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you manage to report at the beginning of the war, before your arrest?

For the first time, I faced problems covering a war. I had prepared my home for emergencies and wars, like installing solar power, allowing me to work normally in such situations. I lived in a relatively safe area in Beit Lahya. By the third or fourth day of the war, I started losing my journalistic tools like electricity, my phone, and laptop and primarily relied on my mobile phone.

We had to buy an Israeli SIM card at a very high price because everyone needed it. This was the first time this happened in any war, but despite this, I continued to work day and night for 61 days, despite the difficult conditions — and this was before being arrested.

At the start, there were many journalists in the north, but in the second month of the war, I became one of the important sources. I was shooting videos and sending them for publication without compensation; I was helping everyone, including major channels. People in Gaza were very cooperative because they knew I was a journalist, so they gave me priority to charge my phone so my coverage could continue.

You manage a team of journalists. How did the hardships you describe affect that?

My colleagues are also my friends, as we have a personal relationship from years of working and collaborating on coverage from Gaza. Within days, communication with them was almost completely cut off. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play my usual role in assigning tasks, editing stories, and verifying the materials [and had to leave this to colleagues in regional offices].

With great difficulty, we managed to continue our work, although there was no problem finding stories. As a journalist in Gaza now, you find stories everywhere you go, and a thousand stories can be told in a thousand ways.

After about two months of covering the war, Israel detained you for 33 days. What happened?

At about 7 or 8 a.m. on December 7, 2023, the Israeli army ordered all the men in our area to come down from their houses and gather in a nearby area. They stripped us of our clothes, leaving us only in our underwear in the cold, handcuffed us from behind, and blindfolded us. Even so, we were not afraid at all. We are civilians and were taken out of our homes.

A video image shown by the BBC on December 8 depicts the mass arrest of Palestinians from Beit Lahya in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces told the BBC that “IDF fighters and Shin Bet officers detained and interrogated hundreds of terror suspects” on December 7. (Screenshot: Video obtained by BBC)

We stayed at Zikim base [in Israel], where we were interrogated and I was asked about my journalistic work. I was interrogated twice, once by the Israeli army and once by the Shin Bet [Israeli security service]. In the latter, the interrogator asked me about a report published in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed in 2018 about a failed Israeli unit operation in Gaza. [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed published several reports about the botched Israeli operation.]

I was blindfolded and forced to sit in a squatting position on a sand hill, with the soldier behind me continuing to hit me. During the interrogation, they also asked why I was in contact with leaders in Hamas.

I answered that I speak with various personalities due to my work and request statements for publication. Their response was, “You’re a terrorist, you son of a dog,” and they started mocking and bullying me, then put tape around my mouth because I was arguing with them.

After about 12 hours, we were moved by a bus to the Sde Teiman military base belonging to the Israeli army. I stayed in this detention center, moving between several barracks, for 33 days. They assigned me the number 059889. Of course, no one called us by our names, we all had numbers called out in Hebrew, which we do not speak.

Every day in detention, they would separate us and move us between barracks. The food consisted of moldy bread. I spent almost the entire time in a squatting position on my knees, which caused me inflammation and severe pain. When I was arrested, my weight was 130 kilograms [286 pounds], and I lost 45 kilograms [99 pounds] in detention.

During the detention period, I was interrogated three times in the same manner, focusing on [my work with] Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and on Al-Jazeera [where I did not work] with questions about why I was in contact with Palestinian leaders in Gaza, and about my sources that I relied on to publish my journalistic reports in the newspaper.

I told them I was a known journalist, that leaders would send us reports for publication, and that we did not publish everything we received but only what we could verify.

I was subjected to torture called “ghosting” daily, which involves being handcuffed with the hands upward or behind the back while blindfolded, in addition to significant psychological torture alongside physical torture. Even going to the bathroom was on their schedule.

Twenty days after my detention, a new person was detained and told me about the statements issued about me [by my outlet and rights groups] — and I learned that these statements were issued the same days I was tortured.

On the 32nd day, the chief prison officer, prison officials, and Shin Bet came with prisoners from a prison in the Negev [in southern Israel]. They started calling out numbers, and the last name — or rather, number — on the list was mine. They gave us medicine to relax our bodies from the exhaustion of detention, and if they found anyone called out was injured or sick, they would not release them.

On the 33rd day, we were transferred to a bus that roamed around before they removed the blindfolds and unshackled us, and I found myself in front of the Kerem Shalom crossing [into Gaza].

Detention left its mark on me, both psychologically and health-wise. The most significant issue I face is with my vision, as I cannot see well due to being blindfolded for 33 consecutive days and nights. My vision was excellent before my arrest. In detention, we were beaten and “ghosted” if any part of our eyes showed.

I have severe chest inflammation and acute vertebral inflammation, resulting in leg pain, in addition to malnutrition, and lack of sleep. Before my travel, the cracks in my skin caused by detention conditions resulted in pus and severe pain. In addition to the bruises still on my body, I can’t sleep or rest normally since my release.

I behave as if I were still in prison; even my sleep was affected by the prison experience and what I suffered. I would sleep in the same position we were forced into during detention.

After my release, I stayed in the journalists’ tent [a designated area for the press] in [the southern Gaza city of] Rafah for two months, where I tried to get back to work and to make sure my family is okay, but that was hindered by the blackouts and the lack of journalistic devices.

I was hoping to get back to the north to my family, but day after day I lost hope that the war would end and I decided to leave for Egypt, which happened on March 10, and my family joined me on March 13. They arrived tired and sick, and we began the journey of treatment.

[Editor’s note: CPJ could not independently verify Al-Kahlout’s description of torture, but it is in line with human rights groups’ descriptions of the treatment of some Palestinians in Israeli custody. Reached by CPJ’s New York headquarters about Al-Kahlout’s allegations of mistreatment, the Israeli military’s North America spokesperson said: “The individuals detained are treated in accordance with international law. The IDF has never, and will never, deliberately target journalists. The IDF protocols are to treat detainees with dignity. Incidents in which the guidelines were not followed will be looked into.” CPJ in New York also emailed the Shin Bet about Al-Kahlout’s interrogation over a 2018 article, but did not immediately receive a reply.]

Have you returned to work? What are your plans?

Mentally, I am not capable of resuming work. I am still pursuing treatments and medications, and monitoring my health condition and that of my family. I don’t even have the basic work tools like a laptop.

We are currently waiting for visa procedures and to travel to [the Qatari capital of] Doha. But Doha will also be unknown to us. I hope my family and I can adapt to the new situation. My media institution supported me, but the situation in Gaza and the constant worry for the rest of my family in Beit Lahya kept me in perpetual terror. I feel anxious and tired.

I lost all my possessions; my house and my family’s house were destroyed, I lost my new car, and my small piece of land. Suddenly, we lost everything.

How do you compare covering this war to previous ones?

From the first day, it has been impossible to comprehensively cover the war. We lost our main sources of information [as blackouts hindered reporting and official sources became harder to reach] and no one can document all this destruction.

Unfortunately, there is a significant lack of information and an inability to grasp the extent of the bombing and strikes happening in Gaza. This has prevented journalists from fully performing their jobs.

Dozens of very important stories of victims have been missed amid the killings and madness. The truth is, that the outside world sees only 10% of the actual reality in Gaza, and what we see is unimaginable. As journalists, we should simply apologize because we can’t cover everything. I used to be able to get all the news, and today, many significant stories haven’t been covered.

Given the scale of the genocide, the lack of empathy has been striking. I’ve been working in journalism since 2004 and have never seen this level of destruction in any war I covered, and I have covered all the wars on Gaza since then.

In the past, we treated the killing of five people as a massacre, but today in Gaza, a massacre means 100 and more. People have become numbers and we don’t know the details of their stories, that is if we even know of their deaths.

Unfortunately, the absence of the internet and the lack of quick alternatives pose a real dilemma, and a journalist who loses his equipment cannot replace it. Almost all press offices were lost, and hospitals have become the main headquarters for journalists.

Journalists in Gaza have found no respect. Amid all these difficulties in covering and reporting events, there was another challenge: trying to survive, securing food and drink, and protecting the family. Moving even an inch in Gaza now is madness.

The Palestinian journalists couldn’t fully deliver the picture due to the massive bombings and communication blackouts that stopped stories from getting out. What was shared were just bits of breaking news, and the deeper stories were lost or silenced because journalists were targeted, there was no security, and essential supplies like electricity and the internet, and work tools like laptops were missing.

The people of Gaza and the journalists there suffered injustice in this coverage, which was made worse by the absence of foreign journalists who could have helped complete the story.

Doja Daoud is CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa representative. Before joining CPJ in March 2022, Daoud worked for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Araby al-Jadeed as a writer and news editor focusing on press freedom and media monitoring. She also contributed to Lebanese news outlets and co-founded Alternative Press Syndicate, a local union group for journalists.

IPS UN Bureau

 


  
 
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