UNITED NATIONS - A new United Nations report on the human rights situation in Palestinian territories blasts the Israeli government for its heavy-handed treatment of journalists reporting on the military occupation.
The 20-page report, which will go before the 63rd sessions of the General Assembly currently underway, singles out the mistreatment of award-winning Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer who was stripped, interrogated, kicked and beaten up when he returned from Europe to his home town in the occupied territory of Gaza last June.
A stringer for Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, Omer, 24, was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism for "displaying courage and ability in covering war zones".
The U.N. report, by Richard Falk, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, says that Omer was convinced the brutal assault on his person was carried out by personnel from Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency.
The security agents "were fully aware that he had received the Gellhorn Prize while abroad, and were attempting to confiscate the award money, but were frustrated because it has been deposited in a bank account and was unavailable."
When he left Gaza for Europe to pick up his prize, he was assured of the benefit of a Dutch diplomatic escort on his return.
But the escort arrived late at the Allenby Bridge border, where he was interrogated and beaten up and lost consciousness.
According to Omer's testimony, he was forced to strip by an Israeli officer wearing a police uniform. He was pinned down on the floor with a boot on the neck. He says he collapsed during interrogation, and when he came round his eyelids were being forcibly opened. He was then dragged along the floor by his feet by officials of Shin Bet.
Omer was taken by ambulance from the Allenby crossing to the Jericho hospital in Palestinian territory in the West Bank. From there he was transferred to Gaza after a few hours.
A note from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) denies Omer's account of physical abuse in Israeli custody. "In contradiction to his claims, at no time was the complainant subjected to either physical or mental violence."
But an ambulance report of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society says: "We note finger signs on the neck and chest." A report from the European Gaza Hospital of the Palestinian National Authority's Ministry of Health includes the following notation following examination of Omer: "Ecchymosis (discolouration caused by bleeding underneath, typically caused by bruising) at upper part of chest wall was found."
Following the assault, international press freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders called for an immediate and public investigation of Omer's treatment.
By private communication, Falk was assured by the Dutch Ambassador in Geneva that the incident is being taken "extremely seriously" and that an explanation is being sought from the government of Israel.
But at the time of the U.N. report, no response had been received to either request for an account and an explanation.
Falk says the unfortunate incident "cannot be discounted as an accident or an anomaly involving undisciplined Israeli security personnel."
"The treatment of Mr. Omer seems to have been motivated by Israeli anger over international recognition of his journalism describing the occupation of Gaza, his willingness to repeat his descriptions abroad and his dedication and intention to continue in the professional role of bearing witness to the excesses of the occupation."
Falk also points out that all Palestinians are subject to arbitrary harassment and abuse at borders and military checkpoints, "although the hostility towards journalists seems particularly severe."
During his time in Europe, Omer had also spoken before European parliamentary audiences, describing the suffering in Gaza caused by the Israeli siege, closures and fuel and food shortages.
"It should be noted," says Falk, "that Mr. Omer was not charged with any offence, nor was he carrying any prohibited materials."
His treatment, as described, appears to constitute a flagrant violation of article 3(1)(a)(c) of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits "outrages on personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment" of persons under military occupation.
Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Palestine Studies, told IPS: "Richard Falk is absolutely right."
She said other journalists have been killed or injured by Israeli security forces, even though they and their vehicles were clearly marked as "press".
But there are several particularly chilling aspects to Israel's assault against Mohammed Omer, she added.
"He had just been on a successful European speaking tour and received a prestigious award, and he was being met by European diplomats on his return home," she noted.
Through its actions, said Hijab, Israel was sending a message that no Palestinian, journalist or otherwise, is safe and that even European diplomats are no match for Israel.
"That is a very chilling message to a defenceless people," she added.
In his report, Falk also says that although the incident affected only one individual, it inevitably has "a chilling effect, and appears to be part of a broader pattern of Israeli punitive interference with independent journalistic reporting on the occupation."
Falk says the United Nations has a "clear responsibility and definite obligation to protect independent journalism, especially in war zones and areas under occupation, as part of its commitment to human rights and international law."
Asked if the United Nations is doing enough to protect reporters covering the occupied territories, Hijab told IPS: "The United Nations is not equipped to protect reporters covering the occupied territories, just as it is not equipped to protect civilians."
"The only possible protection would be for the U.S. and/or Europe to make it very clear to Israel that they do not condone its violations of international law," she added.