The abduction of a Palestinian-Egyptian from the Sinai on the eve of Egypt’s 3 July coup has highlighted the network of collaborators and agents working with Israel in the peninsula.
Wael Abu Rida crossed the Rafah border from Gaza into Egypt on 6 June with his family, including his one-year-old son, Mazen, who suffers from brain atrophy. The trip was nothing unusual, according to Wael’s wife, Amani Abdulrahman Abu Rida, who accompanied him.
She and other members of the Abu Rida family are refugees who were forced to flee Salama, east of the coastal Palestinian city of Jaffa, by advancing Zionist forces in April 1948.
The family spoke to the Electronic Intifada at their home in Khuzaa, an agricultural village outside Khan Younis in the southeastern Gaza Strip, close to the barrier wall erected by Israel.
“This was the fourth time he had gone to Egypt for treatment for his son,” Amani said. “We used to stay there fifteen or twenty days for treatment. Nothing had happened before.”
In retrospect, she said, strange things began to happen as soon as the family crossed the border.
“After we reached the Egyptian side of the crossing, a driver approached and insisted on taking us. It costs 450 Egyptian pounds [$65] to go to Cairo, but he offered to take us for 350. In the car, the driver started talking with Wael, saying he had heard of him.”
In a 19 July indictment this year, Israeli prosecutors alleged that Abu Rida belonged to a Hamas-aligned group called the al-Aqsa Defenders (“Gaza man charged with planning terror attacks,” Ynet, 19 July 2013).
His family denies this, saying he ended his last political ties with the al-Quds Brigades after Israel’s 2008-2009 attacks on the Gaza Strip.
Target for surveillance
Whatever his affiliations, Abu Rida remained a target for aggressive Israeli surveillance.
“Sometimes if he ate something unusual, or took Mazen to the doctor in Gaza, [Israeli forces] would send him a text message telling him they knew,” Amani said. “Other times they would call him to say they would capture him, rather than killing him and making him a martyr.
“He changed his [cellphone’s] SIM card more than twenty times. But they would always call him through the new one. He couldn’t escape their surveillance.”
Because of this attention, she said, Abu Rida left his home during Israeli raids to avoid possible attempts to capture him.
“During wars and incursions, he would leave the house. But the Israelis always said they wanted him as a prisoner, rather than a casualty. I think they wanted him as a source of information.”
In addition to committing alleged war crimes during an invasion of Khuzaa on 13 January 2009, Israeli forces often launch incursions into the village’s farmland in the “buffer zone” between Gaza and present-day Israel.
As Abu Rida and his family rode towards Cairo on 6 June, he and his driver “struck up a friendship,” Amani said. “The driver took Wael’s phone number and said he would call to invite him to his house in the Sinai. Then he called Wael every day while we were in Cairo.”
On 15 June, Abu Rida finally accepted the driver’s invitation to the Egyptian town of Rafah.
“The same day Wael left, he called to tell me me he was on his way back, saying he was near the al-Salam bridge [over the Suez canal, in Egypt],” Amani said. “After he had disappeared for a day, Wael again called, saying he would come the next day. I think his interrogators may have forced him to say that.
“The next day, and the day after that, he called again, each time saying he would come the following day. I felt something was wrong. I know that he was still in the Sinai, because he was calling from an Egyptian SIM card.”
By 20 June, the expected call came from a telephone number that was no longer recognizably Egyptian.
“When he called from a strange number at 1am, I started screaming at him, saying I wanted to know the truth and asking where he was. He began crying. He told me he had been captured by Bedouin gunmen,” Amani said.
“He had been taken to the driver’s house, where the driver told Wael he would invite some friends he should know. Three armed men came and invited him for a walk in the desert.
“The next day [21 June], the Israelis phoned me to say they had captured Wael and were interrogating him.”
Following a 30-day interrogation period, the Israeli Prison Service allowed Abu Rida a brief visit from his father, Hassan Fiheed Abu Rida, and son, Mazen.
“He told me the details in a very brief way,” Hassan said. “The Israelis surrounded us during the visit, and most of them know Arabic very well. He only told me he had been kidnapped.”
On 30 July, the Palestinian Authority’s ministry of prisoners’ affairs released a statement by Abu Rida.
“After spending a week in Cairo with my son, I received a phone call from a man, the taxi driver I recognized … [from] the Rafah crossing,” he stated. “The man invited me to visit his house in [the] Sinai desert and I accepted.
“I saw several people when I arrived his house. After I drank the juice, I went into deep sleep … there was a hypnotic pill in the sugar.
“When I woke up I … [found] myself in an Israeli investigation center … the driver was an Israeli spy.”
“No respect for sovereignty”
Abu Rida’s legal team at Gaza’s Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights declined to discuss the details of his capture or charges, but spoke broadly of the nature of his abduction.
“This shouldn’t be classified as a detention, but rather a kidnapping,” said Al-Mezan attorney Rami Shaqoura. “The fact that he was captured in Egypt shows that Israel has no respect for the sovereignty of other countries. This can’t even be called an arbitrary detention, since it happened in a territory outside Israeli control.”
He added that “there is a part of his case which Israel refuses to disclose.”
The Abu Rida family noted that Wael, the son of a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother, held Egyptian citizenship at the time of his abduction.
“Wael had been asked to come to Egypt to receive his Egyptian nationality card,” said his father, Hassan.
Egypt extended eligibility for its citizenship to children of Egyptian women married to Palestinians in May 2011, ending an exclusion imposed in 2004 (“Palestinians born to Egyptian mother to get Egyptian nationality,” Egypt Independent, 8 May 2011).
“Since he holds Egyptian nationality, can we deal with him as an Egyptian rather than a Palestinian?” Amani asked. “That might make it easier to release him.”
But amid the crisis engulfing Egypt, Wael’s case has received scant attention.
“From the moment we heard of Wael’s kidnapping, we started communicating with the Palestinian embassy in Cairo,” said Hatem al-Khor, Amani’s brother and Wael’s brother-in-law. “What happened in Egypt was an insult to Egyptian sovereignty and the Egyptian people.
“But this incident didn’t get any response from the Egyptian authorities. We also didn’t get any reaction from the Palestinian embassy. The media has focused on the political turmoil in Egypt. No one is paying attention to Wael.”
When Abu Rida was abducted, Amani said, he had all the family’s paperwork with him.
“The Israelis have all of Mazen’s medical reports and our passports. They are refusing to return them. This is our main problem. We need them back to continue Mazen’s treatment.
“After we lost our documents, we couldn’t return to Gaza formally. We were forced to come through the tunnels. Now Mazen’s situation in Egypt is very complicated.
“Because Egyptian records show he is still there, it will be hard for him to return for treatment. He is supposed to pursue his treatment in Israel, but I am not allowed to go with him.”
Like many spouses of Palestinian detainees from the Gaza Strip, Amani faces a ban on travel into Israel, imposed for unspecified security reasons, preventing both prison visits and medical treatment.
Three of the couple’s eight children, two daughters and a son, are also banned from prison visits. Israel currently prohibits children in the Gaza Strip aged ten or older from visiting detained parents.
The restriction continues part of a comprehensive ban on family visits from the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel in June 2007.
In the 31 years since completing its 1982 military withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, Israel has maintained a considerable degree of control over the area.
The 1979 Camp David accords imposed strict limitations on Egypt’s deployment of military and police forces in the region only by Israeli approval.
The abduction of Abu Rida was not Israel’s first attempt to capture Palestinians on Egyptian territory, according to many in the Gaza Strip.
“There have been numerous efforts by Israel to kidnap Palestinians in Egypt,” said Osama Wahidi, a spokesman for the Hussam Association, a Gaza-based society of current and former Palestinian detainees. “Most of them failed.”
But Abu Rida’s dual nationality, along with the brazenness of his kidnapping, could make his case particularly controversial at a time of heightened regional tension.
As well as trying to maintain hope that her husband will be released, Amani is attending to her family’s most urgent concerns.
“We want to recover our documents so our son can continue his treatment inside Israel,” she said. “We have a chance to find a cure. I don’t want to lose my son after losing my husband.”
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and tweets @jncatron.