Dozens of patients stand in line for hours outside the pharmacy booth in the Kuwaiti Hospital compound. They all start out by asking the pharmacist the same question: is my medication available? The answer for most is no.
Amid the long lines of the elderly, the ill, and mothers carrying their children, a man appearing to be middle-aged leaning on a young boy arrives, speaking in a loud voice and asking to be allowed to jump the line — he’s just been released from prison, and can barely stand.
“I spent sixty days of constant beating and humiliation,” he says. “They just released me, and I need to just get my medicine. Please let me take it without having to wait any longer.”
Everyone lets him through, allowing him to collect his medications from the booth and leave.
I stand beside him in the hospital courtyard, asking him how he came to be arrested by the Israeli army — and how he was eventually released.
Haytham al-Hilou, 56, was displaced from Beit Hanoun to southern Gaza on October 27 of last year. He says that on his journey south, he was made to pass through a mechanized checkpoint that the Israeli army had set up at the Netzarim junction on Salah al-Din Street. When he passed through the metal doors and the Israeli cameras picked up his image, Israeli soldiers called out his name through a microphone, instructing him to step aside. Al-Hilou was sent to an Israeli detention center, where he would endure sixty days of torture and humiliation interspersed with interrogations for any piece of information that might be of use to the army in identifying and reaching specific targets.
“When I reached the detention point, the soldiers ordered me to take off all my clothes,” he says. “They told us to go wait in a ditch dug by the army a distance away from the checkpoint.”
When he slid down into the ditch, he noticed it was already occupied by dozens of Palestinians who had also been detained, all of them naked and blindfolded. Not much time had passed before soldiers arrived and blindfolded him as well.
Haytham had been fleeing south with his wife and five children, and when he was arrested, there was no one left to look after them. Al-Hilou says his family suffered immensely during his period of imprisonment, struggling to find any shelter that would take them in.
“When I was released, I found my family homeless and in the streets,” he continues. “No shelter, no food, no drink. Every drop of water and piece of bread that they managed to find was after a long period of suffering.”
He says it was a miracle that he found his family alive at all, especially since all his children were very young, including his three daughters and two young boys.
When he was first arrested, he didn’t know where he was being taken. After a long journey, he found himself in Ofer Prison, outside of Ramallah in the West Bank.
At Ofer, he was interrogated and subjected to physical and psychological torture. Israeli intelligence officers denied him food for long periods, holding interrogation sessions for hours on end. They would ask him about the hiding places of Hamas leaders like Yahya Sinwar and demand to know whether there were openings to tunnels inside his home. He kept repeating the same answer.
I am a normal civilian. I am uninvolved in any military activity.
The interrogators would beat him severely and often. As an older man with graying hair, a short frame, and a fragile build, he was unable to endure what had become standard treatment by the Shin Bet.
And the questions would continue. Where are the Hamas leaders? Where are they hiding?
His answers turned into shouts at one point. I don’t know! I don’t know! I am not a Hamas member! I have nothing to do with resistance. I have nothing to do with military activity. I don’t know where the Hamas leaders are, I don’t know anything about them. Civilians don’t know these things, only leaders do. Normal people don’t know who they are. They’re always in hiding.
Despite all this, al-Hilou is grateful that he was eventually released and allowed to return home and that he is now in his family’s arms.
He says that prison during the war is different than in any other period. Prisoners from Gaza are worried about their families, wondering whether they’ve been able to find shelter, whether they were able to secure food, or whether they were dead or alive.
Haytham maintains that there was no reason for his arrest, and no evidence pointed to his involvement in any resistance or military activity. He does mention that between the ages of 17 and 20, he engaged in public activities that supported the resistance but which were not military by any stretch.
“Maybe Israel wanted to punish me for my youth, years that are behind me and well in the past,” he speculates.
In those youthful years, the activities showing support for the resistance that he and his friends had participated in were not at all uncommon. After all, who, in all of Palestine, doesn’t support resistance against the occupation?
Arrested twice in the same day
There are endless stories of arbitrary incarcerations that have taken place at the numerous Israeli military checkpoints throughout the Gaza Strip, where the army maintains control. Some people were arrested once, twice, and even three times during their stay in Gaza City, having refused to leave as part of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the north. Eyad Eleywa is one of those residents. He is still in Gaza City, while several of his children chose to flee south, and are now in Rafah.
Eleywa resides in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood along with his wife, three of his children, his daughter-in-law, and a number of his other relatives who had fled from the areas north of Gaza City to the city itself. His son Muhammad lives in a tent in the neighborhood of Tal al-Sultan in Rafah. I get to see him every now and again. He recounts the time his father was most recently arrested in northern Gaza.
Muhammad’s father has already been arrested three times, and two of those arrests happened on the same day. Muhammad says that at the beginning of the ground operation in Gaza City, soldiers took his father from his home in Sheikh Radwan and ordered him to take off all his clothes before blindfolding him and leaving him out in the cold while conducting field interrogations.
Where are the tunnel openings? Where are the Hamas fighters? Who do you know who owns weapons in the city? The questions weren’t asked only once, and he was detained from the early morning until the late afternoon. When the soldiers were done with him, they dropped him off in al-Tuwan, far away from his home in Sheikh Radwan. They ordered the elderly man, naked and beaten, deprived of food and water for that entire period, to walk back.
On that same evening, as he returned home on foot, he was arrested a second time at another checkpoint in the area separating al-Tuwan from the al-Nasr neighborhood. He spent the entire night in Israeli custody and was released the following day.
“When they gather the detainees in one place, they line them up one by one and terrorize them,” Muhammad says, relaying his father’s account of his treatment while under arrest. “They move from one person to the next, telling each of them, ‘We’re going to send you to your God,’ and ‘We’re going to send you to heaven to marry the virgins.’”
Horror hidden from the world
Those who have gone through these ordeals and lived to tell the tale consider themselves lucky because they were eventually released and returned to their families. Countless others have effectively been disappeared, abducted one day at an army checkpoint and with no further news of their fate or whereabouts.
Every time I scroll through social media, I come across people posting about their missing family members, all of them saying that their loved ones were lost at an Israeli checkpoint. The Israeli army releases very little information about who it has arrested at these checkpoints. The arrested include doctors, journalists, patients, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and people from all walks of life. Their loved ones are constantly putting out announcements and calling on international bodies and human rights organizations to intervene and force Israel to reveal their loved ones’ whereabouts.
Eyewitnesses who were able to escape death and reach Rafah tell horrific stories of how Israeli soldiers used civilians, especially male adolescents, as human shields or worse. One eyewitness who preferred to remain anonymous relayed a harrowing story of how Israeli soldiers, upon discovering a tunnel opening in northern Gaza, strapped explosives to a young 17-year-old man’s chest, legs, and arms and forced him to go down into the tunnel, lowering him with a rope and fastening a camera to his head. They would give him orders to go left, right, or forward as they observed from a screen aboveground.
The eyewitness says that when the soldiers were fitting him with explosives, they were laughing and cracking jokes, boasting that they would “send him to his God piece by piece,” and that he would “meet the virgins in the tunnels.” The eyewitness says that this practice was common in Beit Hanoun, as the army made use of the agility of thin young men, unburdened by military gear, who could move around in small spaces. The eyewitness says that when soldiers noticed suspicious movements through the camera fastened to their captives, they would blow up the tunnel and the young man along with it. Whenever the tunnel was revealed to lead to a dead end or was discovered to be deserted, the young man would return unharmed, and the soldiers would remove the explosives from him.
While these harrowing details that continue to emerge from survivors are so horrific as to beggar belief, the reality is that the occupation has succeeded in isolating the Gaza Strip from the rest of the world and rendering the majority of the crimes of its troops on the ground invisible. Israel is systematically blocking foreign journalists from reaching Gaza, assassinating Palestinian journalists, and enforcing a total information blackout through the cutting off of electricity, internet, and telecommunications.
In other words, Israel’s blackout strategy has worked, even with all the gory images that still manage to make their way to your screens. The relative scale of the killing has prompted the world to recognize that a genocide is unfolding, but the horrific character of Israel’s crimes and the abject inhumanity of the army’s conduct still remain largely unknown to most of the world.