Israeli political cops beat prize-winning Gazan journalist

by John Catalinotto

He writes and speaks in vivid language, bringing to life the daily sufferings of an oppressed nation under siege by a vicious occupying power. Other top journalists call him the “voice of the voiceless.” He is insulted and brutalized by a repressive police force in an attempt to humiliate and break him.

That description may fit the young Mumia Abu-Jamal, before he became the most-published U.S. political prisoner, writing and speaking from death row. But it’s also a description of the 24-year-old prize-winning journalist and Gaza-strip resident Mohammed Omer, whose own ordeal at the hands of Israeli border police has exposed their daily brutality.

Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer

Omer, whose brother was gunned down by the Israeli Army, has been reporting and documenting daily life in Rafah, Gaza, for six years now with skill and accuracy. His description of his own recent beating by Israeli police illustrates how he pays attention to detail, reports all the relevant facts and brings the events to life before the reader’s eyes, ears and imagination. On top of that, he lives daily the dangerous life of a Palestinian in Gaza, where few independent foreign journalists can get by Israeli checkpoints.

The young reporter only recently was able to leave Gaza for a few weeks to tour Europe and receive the Martha Gellhorn Prize after international pressure on the Israeli state to let him go. According to the Gellhorn Web site, this prize “is awarded to a journalist whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts, that exposes establishment propaganda, or ‘official drivel,’ as Martha Gellhorn called it.”

Omer and Dahr Jamail, whose reporting from Iraq many Workers World readers may be familiar with, received the prize for 2007 this June. Both these reporters had to overcome mountains of “official drivel.”

“Every day, he reports from a war zone, where he is also a prisoner,” read the statement giving Omer the award. “His homeland, Gaza, is surrounded, starved, attacked, forgotten. He is a profoundly humane witness to one of the great injustices of our time. He is the voice of the voiceless.”

Israelis punish reporter

What he wrote counted enough that the Israeli political police, Shin Bet, made sure Omer was punished when he tried to return to Gaza in late June. Eight of the cops forced him to undress, strip-searched and beat him. In a July 7 phone interview from Gaza broadcast on Pacifica’s Democracy Now! program, Omer described a small part of this experience:

“I fainted and—on the ground. And I started vomiting everywhere. And then the soldiers, they started gathering around me. I estimate nearly one hour and a half vomiting on the ground. … I was unconscious for most of the time, but I can remember one of the things that they were doing to me. He was using his nail fingers and pinching me all the way, trying to cause me pain under my eyes and under the soft part of my eye. I thought what these people are doing is basically they are trying to torture me. … [A]nd then one other of them who tried to—who put his shoes on my neck. I could feel actually the outline of his shoes on my neck, moving right and left.”

Omer wound up at the hospital in Jericho that day, and now he vows to continue his reporting from Gaza. “The Israelis were trying to punish me for the work I am doing and getting the message out,” Omer told his main employer, Inter Press Service, from his bed in the European Hospital in Gaza. “But they won’t break me. … They have made me more determined than ever.”

The Israeli police agents treat many ordinary Palestinians trying to cross the border with the same vicious cruelty they showed to Omer. In his case, since officials of the Netherlands’ Embassy were waiting for him and he had just won a journalism award, it meant they were willing to flout all international norms and risk broad exposure of their police-state style handling of Palestinians.

What they obviously had no fear of risking was Israel’s close ties with U.S. imperialism, Washington’s funding and its diplomatic support as well as friendly handling by the U.S. corporate media.

In the U.S., both major parties—the Republicans and the Democrats—have made it clear through their national leaders and their candidates in the upcoming election that they will maintain the close relationship between U.S. imperialism and the Israeli settler state in carrying out Middle East policy. This up-front pledge of support strengthens the most reactionary Israeli politicians and generals as well as the most aggressive elements in U.S. ruling circles. It can lead not only to police state tactics against Palestinians and repression of journalists, but to new military adventures.

E-mail: jcat@workers.org