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Mohammed Omer: 'Why Did They Treat Me Like That?'
He has already seen everything. At 24, he has already been documenting the horrors of his city, Rafah, for six years. He photographs and writes, seeking to be a voice for those who are voiceless, as he puts it. On his Web site Rafah Today (www.rafahtoday.org) -- like that of USA Today or Israel Today, only from Rafah - he paints a picture for readers around the world of the horrors of his city, the most afflicted of all cities in the anguished Gaza Strip, in strong and shocking colors. You will see there demolished houses and crushed bodies, tanks shelling people's homes and lost children. He also writes for various publications abroad, including The Washington Report, several papers in Europe and, primarily, in Scandinavia, as well as for the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.
He has already seen everything, including the demolition of his own family's home and the death of his young brother who was killed by seven bullets that pierced his body. Now he has suffered a breakdown. It wasn't the destruction or the killing, but the relatively slight humiliation he experienced last week on the Allenby Bridge, when returning from a speaking tour in several European capitals, including London, where he was awarded the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, that broke him both mentally and physically.
It was very tough to leave Gaza, but returning was far more difficult. This week, two days after he came home, he was hospitalized in the European Hospital in Khan Yunis, suffering from respiratory and other problems, including chest and stomach pain, and also apparently from a nervous breakdown spurred by the treatment he received at Allenby, which was in such sharp contrast to what he experienced in Europe.
Such is the story of the courageous journalist and photographer Mohammed Omer, who was allowed to leave Gaza for a moment, but collapsed after returning home. A journey on the London-Rafah Express.
We met in early June in Sweden, where Omer spoke before members of Reporters Without Borders and a Swedish-Palestinian solidarity organization. A young, ordinary-looking man with two small suitcases filled with alarming pictures and horrifying footage from Rafah, he shocked his listeners. One could see, for example, Israel Defense Forces soldiers firing indiscriminately at unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, including many children, killing and wounding dozens. You will never see such pictures here.
Omer arrived in Stockholm from Amsterdam, and continued from there to Greece, France and finally England, where he received the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize, which until now has been awarded to outstanding British journalists.
Only after the intervention of Hans van Baalen, chairman of the committee on foreign affairs in the Dutch parliament, and of award-winning Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger, did Israel originally allow Omer to leave Gaza. The condition was that a car from the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv would take him straight to the Allenby Bridge, thus guaranteeing a check by Israeli security. In any case, on June 2 his private siege was broken, and Omer went out into the world. What is denied to all of Gaza's residents was granted to him. A local miracle.
At the awards ceremony he described the taxi that took him to the Erez border crossing: It smelled of falafel because due to the fuel shortage in Gaza, the driver had filled his tank with used cooking oil. Omer declared that he was receiving the prize in the name of 1.5 million voiceless people.
Last Saturday afternoon, he phoned me from Rafah. His voice was weak and broken, he barely spoke. It was impossible to recognize the vigorous and ambitious young man I had met in Stockholm a few weeks previously. Later that day he was hospitalized.
Mohammed Omer was born in Khan Yunis in 1984. His father, a resident of the "Block O" refugee camp in Rafah, was employed for years in Tel Aviv restaurants. At the age of 17, Omer began working as a journalist and photographer. "That was not at all my intention. Life pushed me into becoming a journalist," he says. "I'm not complaining, it's fine to be a journalist, but I had planned to be a translator."
While still a young man, he borrowed a camera from a friend and went out to document an Israeli bulldozer demolishing his neighbors' house. He took one photo, screwed up courage and moved closer to the bulldozer, shot a second, and with the third he was almost killed: The bulldozer nearly buried him alive. "That's how I began to photograph what nobody else can photograph. 'Block O' is a place where photographers came and went, and I stayed."
In the wake of the photos came accompanying texts: Omer began to publish a newsletter that documented what was happening in his city. In 2002, he established the Rafah Today Web site. Omer is actually his father's first name; Mohammed Omer is his pen name. He prefers to conceal his real last name, one reason being that there are seven Palestinians with that name who have been killed, he says.
In March 2003, he returned home from school and was shocked to discover that his family's home had been totally demolished by the IDF; that day it had destroyed several dozen homes in the neighborhood. All of his meager belongings, including his negatives and archives, were trampled by the IDF bulldozer. "What I still have," he explains today, "is a bag and my ID card."
During that particularly cold month, the family went to live in a Red Cross tent, then later rented an apartment in a neighborhood in eastern Gaza, until receiving a substitute home from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in the Bader refugee camp in Rafah. In October 2003 his brother Husam, then 17, was killed by IDF forces on his way home from school. Their father sat in Israeli prisons for 11 years.
Omer began to share a room with one of his brothers, who complained about the phone calls in the middle of the night and about the noise of the computer used by his journalist-brother. "You chose to be a journalist, and I want to sleep," said the brother. Mohammed used all his savings to build a room on the roof, to allow him work in quiet during the stormy Rafah nights. This is where he still lives and works. The last two stories he wrote before going to Europe were about the shortage of cooking oil in Gaza and about the children on both sides of his city, who have never met each other.
Omer traveled to Europe in high spirits. He met with many MPs and journalists; the presence of a young journalist who had managed to come directly from besieged Gaza aroused interest everywhere. His personal charm and his good English also helped. After the ceremony in London, he was supposed to return home. He flew via Paris to Amman. There the members of the Dutch embassy in Tel Aviv informed him that there were problems "coordinating" his return. MP van Baalen was once again forced to intervene and in the end informed him last Tuesday that on Thursday he would be allowed to cross. Says Omer: "I asked: 'Why not tomorrow?' I found that suspicious. I was afraid."
Last Thursday he crossed the bridge and at 9:30 A.M. arrived on the Israeli side. A car from the Dutch embassy was waiting for him. The policewoman at the border crossing asked him where he was headed and he said "Gaza," in English. "That's the place that causes problems," she said. "I didn't argue with her," says Omer. A few seconds later she said he had no permit and told him to wait. After over an hour the authorities called him.
Over the phone from his room in the hospital, he describes what happened; it is evident that he has been traumatized. The security people took apart all his belongings, asked where the prize money was, and couldn't understand why he was returning to Gaza. "Mohammed, are you crazy?" asked one. "Why did you leave Paris? Did you leave Paris to return to Gaza? You could have lived better in Paris. You are choosing to suffer." Omer replied that he has chosen to document suffering, not to suffer.
The searches and questioning lasted for hours; he was treated like every Palestinian, a suspicious object, unless proven otherwise. After Europe, which had showered him with a prize, honor and prestige, this was apparently particularly harrowing.
Then he was forced to strip. He agreed to take everything off except his underpants, but says the interrogator pulled them off by force, pressing a gun to his body. He will never forget that humiliation. He broke into tears, fell onto the floor, partly unconscious, and began to vomit. He says the security guards hurt him, putting a foot on his neck and sticking their hands under his eyes and behind his ears. "I felt like an African under apartheid," he explains. Afterward he asked his interrogator: "Why are you treating me like this?" The reply was: "Wait, you haven't seen anything yet." He says he was dragged on the floor of the terminal, while a female traveler shouted at the security guards: "Why are you doing that to him? Leave him alone!"
After hours of waiting, interrogation and delay, Omer finally found himself in a Palestinian ambulance that took him to the hospital in Jericho. After he calmed down somewhat he was taken in the Dutch embassy car to the Erez crossing and from there he arrived home late in the evening, exhausted and in shock. Two days later he felt ill and was rushed to the European Hospital, where he was kept for observation.
Asked to respond to what happened to Omer at the Allenby Bridge, the authorities provided two statements. From the Shin Bet security service: "After [Omer's] arrival at the Allenby Bridge, a careful search was made of his person and his luggage, due to the suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile entities [i.e., enemies of the state], who had requested that he bring something in with him. The search was done by a policeman with the assistance of security agents, according to the procedures usually used at the border crossings. It should be stressed that during the body search, the person in question received decent treatment and no extraordinary measures were taken against him. After the body search, a search was conducted of his belongings, after which the person in question lost his balance and fell for some unknown reason. Paramedics were called to the scene, as was an ambulance. He was taken for medical care to Jericho."
From the Israel Airports Authority (IAA), which is in charge of the Allenby crossing: "In response to your request to look into the incident at the bridge, a comprehensive investigation was launched. It emerges that the entry of Mr. Mohammed Omer was not coordinated with the relevant authorities at the crossing. Mr. Omer was examined by the members of the state security services working at the crossing, according to proper procedure and to the laws of the State of Israel. The security check to which you refer does not fall within the bounds of responsibility of the IAA, which operates the crossing."
"I'm emotionally destroyed," he told me this week over the phone. "I have nightmares. I have never experienced such humiliation. They stripped me and made fun of me. Maybe it's so hard for me because I'm a person who is familiar with basic human rights. After all, if I weren't a Palestinian, if I had only had a different passport, they would never have done that to me.