When you shoot the messenger

GAZA CITY (IPS) - The assault of IPS Gaza correspondent Mohammed Omer has left Israeli security personnel with a lot of explaining to do. And they are not doing a very good job of it.

Omer was abused and assaulted by Israeli security personnel at the Allenby border crossing into Israel from Jordan as he tried to return to his home last week in the Gaza Strip.

Omer was returning from Europe where he had addressed European parliamentarians on the situation on the ground in Gaza. In London he picked up a prize as joint winner of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism (along with IPS correspondent Dahr Jamail).

Omer, who also reports for The Washington Report, told IPS he was verbally abused, strip-searched at gunpoint and physically beaten. He was later hospitalized with broken ribs and related trauma.

Israeli officials denied to IPS in Jerusalem that the award-winning journalist had been mistreated. They said the Gazan journalist had “lost his balance” after being searched on “suspicion of smuggling in illegal items.”

The officials were unable to explain how Omer, who is still hospitalized and in severe pain, “lost his balance” and then broke his ribs and severely bruised his arm in the “fall.”

The Israeli officials could not explain what illegal items they suspected Omer could have smuggled in. He was assaulted after he had passed through the x-ray machine and his belongings had twice been searched. The officials said only that they would look into the matter further.

Omer’s situation is neither unique nor rare. Both Israeli and international human rights organizations have accused Israel of regularly mistreating and abusing Palestinians both at border crossings and during arrests.

Reporters Without Borders has “condemned abusive behavior by Israeli security agents towards Palestinian journalists moving around the territories or returning from visits abroad.”

The worldwide press freedom organization said it had “recorded five incidents of wrongful arrest in the past ten days. One journalist is still being held, while another needed hospital treatment after being subjected to brutality and humiliation at an Israeli checkpoint by members of Shin Bet [Israeli internal security service].”

But what made Omer a particular embarrassment to Israel’s slick PR machine was the media attention, both domestic and international, the issue attracted. The Guardian and The Independent in London were among several media publications that reported at length the treatment Omer had been given.

Furthermore, the involvement of the Dutch Foreign Ministry and its demand for an investigation placed additional heat on the Israeli government, which maintains good relations with the Netherlands.

While Israel has legitimate security concerns, arising now from rockets fired from Palestinian territories, a part of the Jewish state’s battle for survival is clearly the visible and widespread efforts it makes at winning the publicity war — winning the hearts and influencing the minds of the international public and more importantly their governments, especially in the US. The Israel lobby in the US is one of the most active such lobbies in the world.

To this end Israel does not look kindly on those organizations or individuals who show the Jewish state in a critical light. Israel recently barred a UN human rights delegation from visiting the Palestinian areas on a fact-finding mission, the leader of the group said on Tuesday.

“Israeli authorities did not allow us to visit the Palestinian territories,” said Prasad Kariyawasam, head of the UN panel, adding that “no reasons were given by Israel because they do not recognize our mandate.”

This was not the first UN mission to be barred by the Israeli government. Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University (and a US Jew) and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories was recently refused entry.

His predecessor, South African law professor John Dugard, a former anti-Apartheid activist, was also persona non grata. Dugard had drawn parallels between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the former Apartheid system in his native country.

Another South African anti-Apartheid activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu, was forced to enter Gaza from Egypt to conduct an investigation on behalf of the UN into the Israeli killing of a Palestinian family under questionable circumstances. He too was deemed a problem.

Omer clearly constitutes a threat to Israel’s public relations effort, going by his many vivid and revealing reports through IPS on the humanitarian and political situation on the Palestinian side — just the sort of remarkable work for which he won the award. Omer has been remarkably effective in giving a “voice to the voiceless,” his own mission, and that of IPS.

What Omer had to endure is a part of a wider and continuing pattern. Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem told IPS that all too regularly the Israeli security forces have been involved in the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians.

“Currently we have a petition before the Israeli Supreme Court requesting the security forces investigate the death of each and every Palestinian civilian, something which does not happen as Israel defines the current conflagration as one of armed conflict in which ‘collateral damage’ occurs,” B’Tselem director Jessica Montell told IPS.

Human rights activists also accuse Israel of encouraging an attitude of indemnity in its security forces by seldom bringing Israeli perpetrators of abuse against Palestinians to justice, or when they do, letting them off lightly in comparison with the punishment meted out to Palestinians who commit acts of violence against Israelis.

Over the last couple of years another Israeli human rights organization, Yesh Din, has helped Palestinian complainants to lay charges against Israeli settlers and military personnel in the West Bank. It escorts Palestinians to meetings that Yesh Din coordinates with the police and military because Palestinians are not allowed to enter Jewish settlements, where the police are based, or military bases, on their own.

“Conviction rates are around 10 percent of cases opened due to what we consider unprofessional investigations,” Lior Yavne, Yesh Din’s research director told IPS.

“In many instances the paperwork is either ‘lost,’ or the police or military personnel involved in the investigations claim they are ‘unable to identify the perpetrators,’” he added.

Israeli security personnel have enormous discretion when dealing with people passing through its borders, and because of the legitimate security threats, can abuse these powers with people who they consider to be either bad publicity or who simply happen to annoy them, according to a number of foreign journalists who have been subjected to this treatment.

The doctor treating Omer told him that the arm injuries sustained by Omer were similar to those he himself had sustained when he was interrogated by the Shin Bet ten years ago while in custody.

“The Israelis were trying to punish me for the work I am doing and getting the message out,” Omer told IPS from his bed in the European Hospital in Gaza. “But they won’t break me. As soon as I am better, and my limbs are working properly, I will be back on the beat and reporting what is happening. They have made me more determined than ever.”

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