Israel releases director of hospital it says was used as a Hamas base; he alleges abuse in custody

The decision to release Mohammed Abu Selmia, apparently taken in order to free up space in overcrowded detention centres, sparked uproar from across the political spectrum

Published - July 02, 2024 03:40 am IST - KHAN YOUNIS

This video grab shows Mohammed Abu Selmia, the director of Gaza’s main hospital, who was detained by Israeli forces in November, sitting with his family after his release, along with other detainees, at a hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip on Monday, July 1, 2024. Israel released the director of Gaza’s main hospital on Monday after holding him for seven months without charge or trial over allegations the facility had been used as a Hamas command center. He said he and other detainees were held under harsh conditions and tortured.

This video grab shows Mohammed Abu Selmia, the director of Gaza’s main hospital, who was detained by Israeli forces in November, sitting with his family after his release, along with other detainees, at a hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip on Monday, July 1, 2024. Israel released the director of Gaza’s main hospital on Monday after holding him for seven months without charge or trial over allegations the facility had been used as a Hamas command center. He said he and other detainees were held under harsh conditions and tortured. | Photo Credit: AP

Israel released the director of Gaza's main hospital on July 1 after holding him for seven months without charge or trial over allegations the facility had been used as a Hamas command centre. He said he and other detainees were held under harsh conditions and tortured.

The decision to release Mohammed Abu Selmia, apparently taken in order to free up space in overcrowded detention centres, sparked uproar from across the political spectrum, with government ministers and opposition leaders saying he should have remained behind bars.

They reiterated allegations that he had played a role in Hamas's alleged use of Shifa Hospital, which Israeli forces have raided twice since the start of the nearly nine-month war with Hamas. Abu Selmia and other health officials have repeatedly denied those accusations, and the fact that he was released without charge or trial was likely to raise further questions about them.

Abu Selmia was released back into Gaza along with 54 other Palestinian detainees, many of whom also alleged abuse. The allegations could not be independently confirmed but matched other accounts of Palestinians who have been held in Israeli custody.

“Our detainees have been subjected to all kinds of torture behind bars,” Abu Selmia said at a news conference after his release. “There was almost daily torture.” He said guards broke his finger and caused his head to bleed during beatings, in which they used batons and dogs.

He said the medical staff at different facilities where he was held had also taken part in the abuse “in violation of all laws.” He said some detainees had limbs amputated because of poor medical care.

There was no immediate response from the prison service, which has previously denied similar accusations.

Israeli forces raided Shifa Hospital in November, alleging that Hamas had created an elaborate command and control center inside the facility. Abu Selmia and other staff denied the allegations and accused Israel of recklessly endangering thousands of patients and displaced people who were sheltering there.

The military uncovered a tunnel beneath Shifa Hospital leading to a few rooms, as well as other evidence that militants had been present inside the medical center, but the evidence fell short of what it had claimed before the raid.

Abu Selmia was detained on Nov. 22 while escorting a U.N.-led evacuation of patients from the hospital. He said his detention was “politically motivated,” adding that he had been brought to court at least three times but was never charged or allowed to meet with lawyers.

Israel has since raided several other Gaza hospitals on similar allegations, forcing them to shut down or dramatically reduce services even as tens of thousands have been wounded in Israeli strikes or sickened in the harsh conditions of the war. The army raided Shifa a second time earlier this year, causing heavy destruction after saying that militants had regrouped there.

Hospitals can lose their protection under international law if combatants use them for military purposes.

The decision to release Abu Selmia drew harsh condemnations from government ministers and opposition leaders, as the various state organs responsible for detentions scrambled to shift blame.

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel's far-right national security minister who controls the country's police and prison service, said the release of Abu Selmia and the others constituted “security negligence" and blamed the Defense Ministry. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Abu Selmia's release was another sign of the government's “lawlessness and dysfunction.”

Gallant's office released a brief statement saying the incarceration and release of prisoners is the responsibility of the prison service and the Shin Bet internal security agency. The prison service said the decision was made by the Shin Bet and the army, and released a document ordering his release that was signed by an army reserve general.

The Shin Bet said the government had decided — against its advice — to release detainees who were determined to be less of a threat in order to free up space.

“Though the Shifa Hospital Chief passed the risk assessment compared to other detainees — the matter will be internally reviewed,” it said.

Since the start of the war, Israeli forces have detained thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, crowding military detention facilities and prisons. Many are being held without charge or trial in what is known as administrative detention.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 civilians and took another 250 hostage. The war has killed at least 37,900 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not say how many were civilians or fighters.

Most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, with many displaced multiple times. Israeli restrictions, ongoing fighting and the breakdown of public order have hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid, fueling widespread hunger and sparking fears of famine.

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