Middle East

Gaza workers expelled from Israel accuse Israeli authorities of abuse, including beatings

By Ivana Kottasová, Abeer Salman, Hassan Eslayeh, Celine Alkhaldi, Nada Bashir and Kareem Khadder, CNN. Video by William Bonnett.

Jerusalem and Gaza CNN  — 

Palestinian workers who were expelled back to Gaza from Israel last week have accused Israeli authorities of “torture,” alleging they were stripped naked, held in cages, viciously beaten and, according to one worker’s account, subjected to electric shocks.

“They broke us and beat us with batons and metal sticks… they humiliated us… they have made us starve without food or water,” Muqbel Abdullah Al Radia, another of the workers, told CNN.

CNN spoke to Abdullah Al Radia and eight other men who returned to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Israel on Friday. Al Radia, who is from Beit Lahiya, a village in northern Gaza, told CNN he was working in Israel  – one of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza with permits to do so – when the war started.

Most workers from Gaza work in construction or agriculture. They tend to spend weeks away from home, rather than commuting, which is why so many were in Israel when Hamas launched its terror attack on Saturday October 7.

Al Radia said that right after the war started, he and some of the other Gazan workers fled to Rahat, a predominantly Arab Bedouin city in southern Israel, where he says they were turned over to the Israeli army by local residents.

“(The military) took our phones and money, we couldn’t communicate with our families, we were given food on the floor in plastic bags,” he said.

When the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel was first launched, Israeli media reported of initial fears that Hamas militants were among the workers with permits, although an Israeli security official later told CNN the men were detained for being in Israel illegally after their work permits were revoked, not for suspected terror activity.

The security official said that in some cases, their detention was also for their own protection, as they were at risk of violence from Israeli communities.

Six human rights organizations in Israel have filed a petition to Israel’s High Court arguing these detentions were “without legal authority and without legal grounds.”

Gisha, an Israeli not-for-profit organization focused on protecting the freedom of movement of Palestinians and one of the groups behind the petition, said in a statement last week that it had “reason to believe that the holding conditions in these facilities were extremely dire, and that detainees were subjected to extensive physical violence and psychological abuse, as well as being held in inhumane conditions.”

Mahmoud Abu Darabeh was among the Gazan workers returned to the enclave on Friday.

Many of the workers say they had no idea where they were taken. According to the Palestinian Prisoners Society, a human rights organization based in the occupied West Bank, many were held in two detention centers: one in Ofer near Ramallah and one in Salem near Jenin.

Another worker from Beit Lahiya, Mahmoud Abu Darabeh, also described beatings by what he says were Israeli forces.

Abu Darabeh said he was detained on the second day of the war. “They put us in cages like dogs, beatings, insults, they didn’t care whether people are ill or not, some of us were injured, their feet got rotten because they didn’t get any medical treatment,” he said.

The men faced daily interrogations from the Israeli authorities asking about their homes and family members, Abu Darabeh said.

“If you happen to have a relative that is a police officer of Hamas you get beaten. I know people whose rib cage was completely broken, some people died of torture,” he told CNN.

He also described how some of the workers died during detention and while crossing into Gaza.

“Some people died on the way here because they were beaten and subjected to electric shocks,” Abu Darabeh said. He said he personally witnessed others who were detained with him being shocked.

An Israeli security official told CNN that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was aware of several incidents of “abuse” of Gazan workers by IDF soldiers.

“There have been cases of abuse towards the detainees outside of the official detention facilities. These cases were treated very seriously, and they were dealt with disciplinary measures,” the official said through a translator, saying that to their knowledge, four soldiers were removed from the IDF following incidents of abuse and two soldiers were put in military prison for their conduct.

When asked if any of the detainees died as a result of abuse, the official said that they were aware of two deaths of Gazan workers who were detained, but said these deaths were the result of chronic, long-term health issues these workers had before entering Israel, not the result of abuse.

The official said that, to his knowledge, these abuses did not include electric shocks.

Palestinian labourers, who were in Israel during the Hamas October 7 attack, arrive at the Rafah border after being sent back by Israel to the strip, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 3, 2023. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

CNN has reviewed some of the videos showing the alleged abuses and cannot independently verify them. They show people being detained, with their hands and feet tied, sitting in the sun, and being kicked and dragged around. One video shows a bus full of people who have been blindfolded, their hands tied.

The security official who spoke to CNN about these allegations said the IDF was investigating these videos and confirmed two – one showing IDF soldiers kicking a detained person and one showing a large group of detainees tied, blindfolded and humiliated – were genuine. The official said soldiers who took part in these videos were punished by the IDF.

“The conduct of the force that emerges from the footage is deplorable and does not comply with the army’s orders,” the IDF said in a statement emailed to CNN. It added that several soldiers and reserve soldiers shown in some of these videos have been suspended.

‘They tied our arms, blindfolded us’

The men CNN spoke to were among thousands of laborers from the Gaza Strip who were working in Israel with special permits when Hamas launched its brutal terror attack on the country, killing 1,400 people and kidnapping about 240.

In response to the attacks, Israel began an unrelenting bombing campaign on Gaza, while the country’s defense minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” on the enclave.

Before the October 7 attacks, about 18,000 Gazans had permits that allowed them to cross into Israel for work – where wages can be as much as ten times higher than in Gaza.

All of them would have been subjected to a rigorous security clearing process by the Israeli authorities before being issued the permit.

Immediately after the attack, Israel also revoked the Gazan workers’ permits, which made it illegal for them to stay in the country. Since returning to Gaza was not a possibility, many tried to flee to the occupied West Bank.

“They suspended our permissions, we tried to go to the West Bank, they detained us and put us in places where we never knew where we were,” one of the workers told CNN adding: “They tied our arms, blindfolded us, and put us on buses, they were gathering 200 to 300 of us between metal fences, beating and investigating us day and night,” one man, who didn’t disclose his name, told CNN.

Several of the workers told CNN they were blindfolded and handcuffed for long periods of time. Some said they were held in a fenced-off area outside, which they said meant it was boiling hot during the day and very cold at night.

The security official said that at the beginning, some of the facilities didn’t have shade, but added this was rectified within a few days. The official said detainees were only restrained when in transit.

11/03/2023, Gaza, Palestine. Thousands of Palestinian workers, who had been deported by Israel, made their return to the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Gaza. Israeli forces left them 2 kilometers away from the border crossing, and these workers undertook a two-kilometer walk to reenter Gaza. It's worth noting that Israeli authorities had confiscated all the workers' money and cell phones on November 3, 2023. (Photo by Mohammed Zaanoun / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED ZAANOUN/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

When crossing into Gaza on Friday, many of the men appeared deeply emotional. When interviewed by CNN, most were too scared to share their personal details, fearing persecution.

One man, from the Al-Maghazi refugee camp, sobbed as he described how they were packed into metal cages and deprived of sleep, a known form of torture.

“Every now and then, they came to us and asked us to stand up. Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up,” he said. “In one place, we were around 150 people in a metal cage. It smelled very bad, I think it was used for chickens or rabbits before,” he added.

Another worker from Al-Zaytun Quarter in Gaza City also told CNN he and other detainees were made to stand up and sit down repeatedly.

“They beat us and stole our money, and they took our clothes off and kept us naked,

I was only in my underwear for more than 20 days,” he said.

‘Dehumanization and insults’

Amani Sarahneh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Prisoners Society, said some of these men were detained on the way to the West Bank while some were detained in the West Bank.

The men tried to reach the occupied West Bank because once Israel revoked their permits, they were in legal limbo – their stay in Israel became illegal, but there was no clear way back to Gaza with border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian side closed. While they also need permits for the West Bank, it was safer for them to be in a territory that is under Palestinian control, they believed.

Sarahneh told CNN the organization does not know how many men were held despite repeated attempts to get information from the Israeli authorities.

Sarahneh told CNN many of the workers recounted similar experiences.

“Most of the testimonies were about being starved, being continuously beaten during the day, handcuffed, isolated from their surroundings,” she said, adding that videos showing Palestinian prisoners being treated violently and in an inhumane manner have surfaced online.

“They didn’t do anything wrong; they were not charged with anything … yet many of them were interrogated and systematically tortured, abused, brutally beaten, they faced all kind of dehumanization and insults,” she added.

Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, an NGO, said the October 7 attacks by Hamas have led to a huge spike of aggression towards Palestinians.

She told CNN “the dehumanization of Palestinians is coming from the very top,” with public figures referring to Palestinians “not as human beings.”

She said that this rhetoric and the anger over the crimes of Hamas trickles down to the individual soldiers, who then treat any Palestinian with rage.

Sadot said that long-term experience with the way the IDF generally handles cases of abuse is not convincing.

“We’ve been investigating this for so many years – the military enforcement system works as a whitewash mechanism with almost no indictments,” she said.  “So they will say ‘those are the exception, not the rule,’ but if the impunity for soldiers continues – and not just the soldiers but also the policy itself – when no one’s being held accountable, of course, things will just continue,” she added.

Mohamed Atallah shows a list of his possessions he says were confiscated and not returned by Israeli authorities.

Exhausted and injured, but overjoyed to be back

CNN footage of the workers crossing into Gaza on Friday, the first time any of them were allowed in, shows dozens of men walking into the enclave on foot.

Some are elderly, visibly exhausted, and drenched in sweat, while others appear to be injured.

At least three have deep, visible cuts on their wrists which appear to have been caused by hand ties.

Most of the men are not carrying any personal belongings apart from the clothes they are wearing.

One man, 58-year-old Mohamed Atallah, was wearing a plastic number tag on his wrist.

He showed CNN a prison inventory of his confiscated belongings which he said were never returned.

Some of the workers returning to Gaza on Friday told CNN the Israeli authorities loaded them onto buses which took them to the crossing into Gaza, where they’d been dropped off.

They were then forced to walk for “about three hours” to cross into the enclave, several of them told CNN.

Once they entered the Gaza Strip, some of the workers fell on their knees and started to pray, the CNN footage shows.

They touched the ground with their foreheads, thanking God to be back in Gaza – the place that has become a hell on earth since they last left it.

“We were dying, I swear. Every day was like a death sentence,” Bilal Aysha told CNN. “Thank God I am back here. May God make everyone happy again,” he said.

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