Palestinian paramedic recounts torture during 17 days of detention by Israeli army

Abdul Karim Abu Ghali and his colleagues were slapped, kicked and prodded with rifle butts during interrogation

Palestinian paramedic Abdul Karim Abu Ghali says he was tortured by the Israeli army
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On December 2, Palestinian paramedic Abdul Karim Abu Ghali was in an ambulance with three of his colleagues on a mission to evacuate patients from Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza.

Although a permit to travel north from the southern city of Khan Younis, passing through Gaza city en route, was pre-approved by the Israeli military, it did not spare him 17 days of detention.

Days after his release, the paramedic told The National the harrowing details of his unlawful captivity amid a continuing war that has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians in 12 weeks of relentless bombing and fighting.

“When we reached a military checkpoint south of Gaza city, the soldiers kept us waiting,” Mr Abu Ghali told The National.

Waiting at checkpoints was a familiar procedure to him, as he had already made the same trip six times before, transporting wounded Palestinians from the north to the south.

“But that time, they asked us to get out of the vehicle; this was unusual,” said the 31-year-old. “That moment was the start of over two weeks of torture and humiliation.”

Mr Abu Ghali, father of four, all under seven years old, recounted the humiliation of being forced to strip down to his underwear.

“The physical assault was severe,” he said. “We were slapped, kicked and prodded with rifle butts during interrogation at the checkpoint.”

Throughout the six hours it took to transport them to Israel, Mr Abu Ghali and his other three paramedic colleagues were kept blindfolded and almost naked.

They were then given T-shirts and pants to wear in the cold.

“During the interrogation, a uniformed Israeli soldier stepped on my head with his military boots, pressing it with a vengeance against hard, sharp rocks. For a moment, I thought I had gone blind,” said Mr Abu Ghali.

The Israeli military has not commented on the paramedics' arrest.

Earlier this month, Palestinian rights groups said Israeli troops have arrested hundreds, possibly thousands, of men and children in Gaza, as they hunt down suspected members of Hamas, the militant group that governed the territory before Israel launched its military offensive on October 7.

The Israeli detentions gained attention after images began circulating on social media showing soldiers rounding up blindfolded men in their underwear in the streets of Gaza.

Israel says it wants to eradicate Hamas after gunmen from the group killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians in an attack on southern Israel that day and took about 240 hostage.

The Israeli campaign against the Gaza Strip, by air, land and sea, has devastated the territory and displaced most of its population. Most Gazans have fled to the south after being warned by the military that the north was no longer safe for them.

Paramedics in the besieged territory have been paying a heavy price.

A December 13 situation report by the UN’s humanitarian aid agency OCHA said at least 300 Palestinian health workers, including first responders and paramedics like Mr Abu Ghali, have been killed in this war.

UK-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians says that this is more than the total number of health worker deaths recorded across all countries in conflict last year and in any single year since 2016.

Less than a week after Mr Abu Ghali’s arrest, a UN expert condemned the “unrelenting war” on Gaza’s health system amid air strikes on hospitals and assaults on health workers.

“The practice of medicine is under attack,” said Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN special rapporteur on the right to health. “I cannot fathom what my Gazan colleagues are enduring. They are working while their colleagues and loved ones are under attack."

After 17 days of detention, the soldiers replaced the metal handcuffs with plastic zip cuffs and put the paramedic on a bus along with tens of other detainees. They were released later at the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south.

Afterwards, the military took off their blindfolds and instructed them to walk straight without turning around.

“They wanted to break us, but those 17 days of detention only increased my resolve and conviction that saving lives is my mission,” said Mr Abu Ghali, who resumed his duties as a paramedic in Khan Younis just two days after his release.

While he was fortunate enough to be released, his 46-year-old colleague, Anis Al Astal, is still in captivity.

Volunteer paramedic in Gaza says he hasn't been home since the start of the war

Volunteer paramedic in Gaza says he hasn't been home since the start of the war

Gripped with fear and anxiety, Mr Al Astal’s wife, Wafaa, is sheltering with her five children at Al Mawasi, a narrow agricultural and fishing area on the Gaza coast near Khan Younis.

“The last time we spoke on the phone was right before he was detained at the checkpoint,” she told The National. “I wanted him to come home, but he insisted on completing his mission.”

The World Health Organisation said that as of December 22, nine out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are partially functional, all located in the south. These hospitals operate at three times their capacity while facing critical shortages of basic supplies and fuel.

Meanwhile, northern Gaza is left without a functional hospital.

“I don’t know where he is or how he’s doing. Was he tortured like his colleagues?” asked Wafaa.

This story was produced in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: December 25, 2023, 1:12 PM