Palestinian detainee tells of animal attacks and suicide attempts in Israeli jail

Omar Assaf 'will never forget' brutal actions of guards at Ofer jail

Omar Assaf was one of thousands of Palestinians arrested by Israel after the outbreak of the Gaza war. Thomas Harding / The National
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

In the early hours of October 23, Omar Assaf and his wife were asleep at home in the occupied West Bank when someone hammered on the door, before Israeli soldiers poured inside.

The troops appeared bemused at the sight of the elderly Palestinian they had come to arrest. “How old are you?” one asked. Mr Assaf replied that he was 74.

“That’s older than my father," the soldier said.

“Is that against the law?” Mr Assaf responded. He had the foresight to slip his heart medication into his pocket, before a soldier tightened handcuffs around his wrists and placed a blindfold over his eyes.

Two weeks after the Hamas-led October 7 attack on Israel, thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank were rounded up and detained.

A prisoner called Lowah Raif was beaten to the point that blood started gushing out of the cells. I was taken to my lawyer and the blood was smeared 100 metres along the corridor
Omar Assaf

Mr Assaf was among the eldest of those arrested and his story of being incarcerated for six months without charge is a harrowing example of Israel's treatment of Palestinian detainees since the war in Gaza began.

He was arrested several times between 1978 and 1994, when the Oslo Accords were signed, spending eight years in jail as a member of the Marxist-orientated Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Since then, Mr Assaf, who has four adult children, worked as a librarian for 15 years at Birzeit University in Ramallah, before teaching Arabic literature and language at secondary school.

As bewildered as he was while trundling through Ramallah in the back of an Israeli army vehicle on October 23, he thought he had some idea of what lay ahead.

He was among 8,700 Palestinians arrested after the start of the war. The vast majority were given “administrative detention”, in which people are held without charge.

But 10 days into his detention, Mr Assaf was informed he had been accused of being a leader of the Hamas youth movement.

He recounted that moment with a charming, but slightly nervous, smile at his office in Ramallah.

Humiliating experience

The nervous grin managed to only slightly hide the challenges of the six months spent in Ofer jail, where he shared a cell of six bunks with 12 Palestinians.

“When I woke up to go to the bathroom in our cell at night, I would put my feet on my friends sleeping on the ground,” he said. “It was humiliating.”

The small amount of food they were given caused him to lose about a third of his weight, dropping 29kg.

Breakfast consisted of 50g of labneh and half a teaspoon of jam, followed by two tomatoes shared between the 12 cellmates. They were never given meat, fruit, tea or coffee.

Prisoners made to bark while attacked by dogs

If the cramped conditions at night were difficult to endure, the times when the Gaza detainees in Section 23, opposite his cell in Section 24, were visited by specialist guards were the most trying.

The Palestinian men, allegedly members of Hamas, were blindfolded and had restraints on their wrists and ankles throughout the day.

Sometimes the specialist guards would turn up with dogs. They made the detainees get on all fours and bark as the animals attacked them.

They would be hit frequently with batons and on occasion rubber bullets would be fired at them from a short distance.

The men were also forced to shout slogans in Hebrew to humiliate them, including “long live Israel” and “God damn Hamas”.

“They were ferocious and it was terrifying to watch,” Mr Assaf said. “On one occasion, a prisoner called Lowah Raif was beaten to the point that blood started gushing out of the cells. I was taken to my lawyer and the blood was smeared 100 metres along the corridor.

“This caused a lot of worry and I became even angrier at the Israelis who were oppressing people and torturing them this way. But I was incapable of doing anything about it except tell my lawyer.”

One incident that continues to give him nightmares was seeing an inmate from Bethlehem, pushed to the brink by constant worry for his young children, attempting suicide by jumping from a height. He survived but suffered severe injuries.

"I will never forget this sight," Mr Assaf said.

He suffered deep cuts in the back of his head when he fell at the jail. The wounds were closed with a medical stapler, but there was no anaesthesia.

The wounds became infected, causing swelling and severe headaches that lasted for two weeks. He said all his hair fell out and grew back grey. Images of Mr Assaf from his release in April show him with a full head of grey hair and a beard.

Unexpected release

Palestinians in administrative detention are required to have their incarceration reviewed every six months for a maximum of two years.

Mr Assaf was released on the first go. He said the authorities perhaps realised he was not a leader of a Hamas youth movement.

“I came out happy to be released, but very sad over two things,” he said. “One, about Gaza being destroyed and, second, over the ones that I left behind in jail.”

He found out he was arrested after being seen at a protest during the early days of the war where he called for Israel's attacks on the enclave to stop. “I told them this is freedom speech, but they said, 'We're at war and you shouldn't do this,'" he said.

Prison catastrophe

Before October 7, 5,300 Palestinians were held in Israeli prisons, but the number now stands at more than 10,000, Palestinian groups said. That figure includes 300 women and girls. At least 800 are children.

To date, 18 detainees have died in jail since October 7, but none of the bodies have been released by the authorities. There are reports of some having their hands amputated due to injuries sustained from extremely tight handcuffs.

The Red Cross and other aid agencies have not been granted access to the prisons.

“It is a catastrophe what is happening to the prisoners who are in a really dangerous place, fearing not only for their health but their lives,” Qadura Fares, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister for Detainees and Ex-Detainee Affairs, told The National.

The National has twice approached the Israeli Prison Service outlining the allegations made by Mr Assaf, but has not yet received a response.

Israel has "dramatically increased" its use of administrative detention against Palestinians in the West Bank, Amnesty International said in November.

It also warned of the torture and degrading treatment detainees faced in jail.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 4:45 PM