Renowned Gaza surgeon killed in Israeli detention

The death of a leading Gaza surgeon has brought renewed attention to the widespread and systematic abuses endured by thousands of Palestinians in Israeli lockup.

Dr. Adnan al-Bursh, the 50-year-old head of orthopedics at Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital, was killed in Ofer Prison in the West Bank on 19 April, according to the Palestinian Authority. His death was first reported on Thursday after a released detainee said al-Bursh had been tortured and killed.

The Israel Prison Service issued a statement on 19 April saying that a detainee had died in Ofer prison but did not mention the detainee’s name or cause of death. A spokesperson for the prison service later confirmed to media that the statement had referred to al-Bursh.

The surgeon’s body is being held by Israel, four Palestinian human rights groups – Addameer, Al Mezan, Al-Haq and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – said on Friday.

The groups said that Israel released more than 60 Palestinian prisoners and detainees via the Kerem Shalom crossing, some of them displaying “visible signs of physical torture.”

Israeli authorities also transferred the body of 33-year-old Ismail Abdelbari Khader. Dr. Marwan al-Hams, the director of Al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza, said that Khader’s body bore “torture marks … on his wrists, as well as swelling in his shoulders, knees and chest.”

The human rights groups said that Khader’s body is the first Palestinian who died in Israeli custody to be returned to Gaza since 7 October, though the deaths of two other detainees from Gaza as a result of medical negligence or torture have been documented.

They include Majed Zaqoul, a 32-year-old laborer who was being held in Ofer Prison, and another individual “whose identity remains undisclosed as Israeli authorities refuse to provide any information,” according to the rights groups.

Sixteen Palestinians are confirmed to have died as a result of medical neglect or torture while in Israeli detention between 7 October 2023 and 22 April 2024.

The rights groups say “the actual number of Palestinians who have ‘died’ while in Israeli custody is much higher than the documented cases suggest.”

Palestinians released by Israel to Gaza have testified to witnessing “fellow detainees being beaten to death,” according to the rights groups, while Israel denies detainees access to lawyers and bans visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Israel refuses “to provide accurate and timely information on thousands of Gaza detainees, including their whereabouts,” the groups added.

Children forcibly disappeared

An unknown number of children are among those forcibly disappeared from Gaza.

Al Mezan, a human rights group based in Gaza, estimates that 3,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel in Gaza since the beginning of its ground offensive in late October.

Around half of them, including children, are being held under Israel’s Unlawful Combatants Law, according to Al Mezan.

Ayed Abu Eqtaish, a program director with Defense for Children International-Palestine, said that children from Gaza are “likely being tortured by Israeli forces at Israeli detention centers and military bases in southern Israel.”

Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, urged “the diplomatic community to intervene with concrete measures to protect Palestinians.”

“No Palestinian is safe under Israel’s occupation today,” she added, and demanded that UN member states take action.

“Deliberate assassination”

Israeli forces abducted Adnan al-Bursh at Al-Awda Hospital in Jabaliya, northern Gaza, in mid-December.

The Palestinian Authority Commission of Detainees Affairs and the Palestinian Prisoners Club said that the death of Dr. Bursh “is a deliberate assassination,” given the systematic targeting of doctors and the healthcare system in Gaza.

The two bodies pointed to the destruction of al-Shifa – Gaza’s largest hospital – “where hundreds of people have been killed and arrested.”

Al-Bursh remained on duty throughout the war until the moment of his arrest, moving from one hospital to another to treat injured people.

The last post he made on X shows a cartoon of a doctor wearing scrubs and a coat bearing the colors of the Palestinian flag. “We will die standing and we will not kneel,” al-Bursh stated in the post.

The four previously mentioned Palestinian human rights groups said that in addition to his role at al-Shifa, al-Bursh was the head of the medical department at the Palestinian Football Association and served on the board of the Palestinian Medical Council.

“Through his work, he has saved countless limbs of Palestinian patients injured during repeated Israeli assaults on Gaza and during the Great March of Return,” they said.

Israeli forces killed more than 200 Palestinians and maimed thousands more with live fire during the Great March of Return series of protests that began in early 2018 and were suspended in late 2019. More than 150 people lost limbs due to injuries sustained during the protests.

The loss of al-Bursh, who was a father of five children, the youngest aged 3, is a major blow to Gaza’s all but destroyed healthcare system.

Nearly 500 medical workers have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, according to the health ministry in Gaza, and another 1,500 were wounded and more than 300 are in Israeli custody.

Ghassan Abu Sitta, the British-Palestinian surgeon who was in Gaza during the first weeks of the ongoing genocide, said at the time of al-Bursh’s arrest Israel was rounding up doctors to create “a series of show trials aimed at maintaining the criminalization of the health system in Gaza.”

Israel has sought to portray Gaza’s hospitals as bases for armed resistance groups as it destroys the healthcare system in the territory.

Abu Sitta contends that the Israeli military made the health sector a primary target in order to facilitate a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.

Doctors targeted

Israel has systematically attacked medical professionals “with the aim of eliminating an entire generation of doctors,” according to Abu Sitta.

The Israeli objective, according to Abu Sitta, is that “even if you rebuilt hospitals, you wouldn’t be able to build the health sector,” thus making Gaza unlivable for its population of 2.3 million Palestinians.

Healthcare workers who remain in Israeli custody include Ahmad al-Kahlout, the director of Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza, who was also detained in December.

Soon after al-Kahlout’s arrest, Israeli authorities released a video purporting to show a confession made by the hospital director. In the four-minute video, al-Kahlout says the facility was used by Hamas as a base for its operations and employed members of the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Gaza’s health ministry accused Israel of extracting the purported confession “under the use of force, coercion, torture and intimidation.”

Muhammad Abu Salmiya, the director of al-Shifa hospital who was arrested by Israel in November, was reportedly tortured after refusing to appear in a coerced confession video. His hands and feet were reportedly broken, leaving him unable to walk and stand, Al-Araby al-Jadeed reported, citing the doctor’s family.

“To further humiliate him, they put a chain around his neck, forced him to move on all fours and eat food with his mouth from a bowl placed on the floor,” the publication reported.

Meanwhile, released detainees have said that Israel is abusing employees of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, in order to extract forced confessions.

Israel seeks to destroy UNRWA. The agency is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance in Gaza and also provides government-like services to millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

UNRWA staff released from Israeli detention told their employer that in addition to ill treatment that may amount to torture, they were “subjected to threats and coercion” and pressure during interrogations to incriminate the agency.

These “forced confessions against the agency [included] that the agency has affiliations with Hamas and that UNRWA staff took part in the 7 October attacks against Israel.”

UNRWA has collected information from hundreds of Palestinians who were detained in Gaza since the beginning of Israel’s ground operation in late October last year.

Israeli authorities subjected Palestinians – “men and women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities,” according to UNRWA – to ill treatment throughout their detention, including sexual abuse and threats of sexual violence.

UNRWA staff observed “signs of trauma and ill treatment” including dog bite wounds among the released detainees upon their arrival to Kerem Shalom checkpoint on the Gaza-Israel boundary. Many were transferred to hospitals in Gaza due to injury or illness.


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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.