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Renowned Palestinian-American Poet Released After Israel Arrest in Gaza

12:00 Nov 21 2023 Rafa Crossing (رَفَح)

Renowned Palestinian-American Poet Released After Israel Arrest in Gaza Renowned Palestinian-American Poet Released After Israel Arrest in Gaza
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Gazan-American poet Mosab Abu Toha was arrested along with other Gazans on his way to the Rafah border crossing with his family, on their way to the U.S. Published by Haaretz

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, November 21, 2023. Credit: Leo Correa/AP Published by Haaretz
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Gazan-American poet Mosab Abu Toha was arrested along with other Gazans on his way to the Rafah border crossing with his family, on their way to the U.S.

by Amira Hass for Haaretz
Nov 21, 2023 8:57 pm IST

On November 6, The New Yorker published a poem by the Gazan poet Mosab Abu Toha called “Obit.” This is how it opens:

“To the shadow I had left alone before I / crossed the border, my shadow that stayed / lonely and hid in the dark of the night, / freezing where it was, never needing a visa.”

On November 18, as Abu Toha was on his way from the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip to the south, Israeli soldiers arrested him at the military checkpoint set up at the interchange southeast of Gaza City on Salah Al-Din Street.

On Monday, international media outlets reported the arrest of the 32-year-old poet, who regularly publishes articles and poets in the American press. He was released on Tuesday afternoon. His friends are convinced that the large publicity his arrest received and the protest of literary and media personalities enabled the unusual quick release.

Abu Toha, his wife, Maram, and their children had been on their way to the Rafah border crossing. Their youngest son, Mustafa, was born in the United States three and a half years ago while his father was a visiting poet at Harvard University’s Department of Comparative Literature. Mustafa’s U.S. citizenship made his immediate family members eligible to leave Gaza to go to the U.S.

On October 26, Abu Toha posted a letter from the U.S. State Department on his Facebook account, which said the government was trying to press for a solution to let Mustafa leave Gaza via the Rafah border crossing. Over the past few days, the family was led to understand that their departure from Gaza had been approved.

“Mosab was carrying Mustafa in his arms,” Maram managed to tell a family friend on Sunday evening when the phone network came on for a few minutes. As they moved south, they passed a surveillance checkpoint, a booth with a tracking system and a face-recognition camera. Soldiers who were behind a sand embankment “ordered Mosab to put Mustafa down on the ground and approach them, and since then, we don’t know where he is,” said his wife.

Haaretz could not reach him directly after his release. But he did call the same family friend and told her he had been taken to a detention facility in the Negev, interrogated at length and also beaten. He was not the only person to be detained: as his brother and wife already told, the soldiers arrested many men and some women who were in the same caravan of people fleeing the bombardments. Mosab abu Toha told that around 100 were arrested with him on the same day and around 105 more joined them the next day.

Gazans arrested in Israel after the massacre carried out by Hamas on October 7 have been detained at the Sde Teiman military base northwest of Be’er Sheva and a few improvised detention centers set up in Gaza. The assessment by organizations trying to determine the detainees’ location is that Sde Teiman mainly holds suspects in the October 7 attack and massacre, whereas the Gaza detention centers hold those arrested since the outbreak of the war. When a more extensive interrogation is deemed necessary, the detainees in Gaza are moved to Israel, they believe.

At this stage, NGOs and detainees’ families don’t know whether those detained in Gaza are later transferred to Sde Teiman and, if so, according to which criteria. When a Palestinian whose father and brothers were arrested by soldiers in their Gaza home investigated, he found they were detained in an improvised military base built inside a school in Gaza. He wrote on Facebook that several dozen people were detained in the school, strengthening estimations by some NGO members that it’s not the only detention facility established by the military in northern Gaza.

During the second intifada’s military raids in the cities of the West Bank, the military detained thousands who had no links to armed groups. In previous wars in Gaza, too, hundreds of Gazans who weren’t involved in the fighting were also detained.

Abu Toha was born in the Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza to a family originally from Jaffa. In 2019, he initiated the establishment of Gaza’s Edward Said Library. With the help of donations and his own money, he bought English books for its two branches in Gaza City and Beit Lahia. His first poetry collection was published in the U.S. last year. The collection, “Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza,” which he wrote in English, won several awards, most recently on November 3.

On October 10, he published an article in The Washington Post in which he wrote: “The images of dozens of Israeli casualties and prisoners haunt me. How did the militants cross such a closely monitored border? How could they kill all these soldiers and take so many others as prisoners? You can only assume that Israel will kill hundreds, even thousands, of civilians in Gaza. I’ve never felt so terrified.”

In an article in The New Yorker on October 20, he described how his family had been forced to leave its home in Beit Lahia after warplanes dropped flyers ordering residents to leave the area. They moved into the home of relatives in the Jabalya refugee camp. In another New Yorker article, published in early November, he wrote about the bombed-out empty family home in Beit Lahia: “There is nothing to indicate that the house had four floors.”

His articles and posts all describe the Israeli bombardments he witnessed or from which he happened to be saved and the dozens of victims, including relatives and neighbors. In his October 10 Washington Post article, he wrote, “In the days ahead, I know that we will hear more bombs falling. We will wait in dread and think: ‘Is it my turn this time?’ When we see the flash of the explosion, we know that we’ve been spared, because if you’re hit you only see death. It was someone else’s turn.” In early November, he wrote: “I’m being killed every day with my people. The only two things I can do are panic and breathe. There is no hope here.”

Brief Facebook posts have also conveyed his growing despair. On November 15, he wrote: “We don’t have any access to food or clean water. Winter is coming and we don’t have enough clothes. Kids are suffering. We are suffering. The army is now at Al-Shifa Hospital. More death, more destruction. Who can stop this? Please stop it now.”

In September 2021, three of his poems were translated from English into Hebrew by Maya Klein and published in the periodical Hamussach literary supplement of the National Library of Israel’s website. One of them, “Leaving Childhood Behind,” opens with these words: “When I left, I left my childhood in the drawer”. Its concluding lines are: “The hovering warplanes echoed across the heaven / My tired parents strolled behind, / my father clutching to his chest / the keys to our house and to the stable. // We arrived at a rescue station / News of ceaseless strikes roared on the radio / I hated death, but I hated life, too / when we had to walk to our prolonged death / reciting our never-ending ode.”

The spokesperson of the U.S. Embassy in Israel neither confirmed nor denied that Abu Toha’s family was on the list of those eligible to exit through Rafah. She didn’t mention his or his family’s names in her reply to Haaretz. “We continue to work in partnership with Egypt and Israel toward safe passage for more U.S. citizens, their immediate family members, and U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents,” read the reply.

The spokeswoman explained the process thus: “We are providing information to our partners for U.S. citizens and their immediate family members, as well as U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents with whom we are in contact and who have indicated to us their desire to depart Gaza. In doing so, we have made a request that those individuals whose names we have provided be permitted to cross, but the final decision is made by the entities controlling the border crossing.”

She also replied, “The Palestinian General Authority for Crossings and Borders shares approved departure lists for the Rafah crossing publicly on their Facebook page,” adding that “U.S. embassies and consulates are not notified of the arrests or detentions of non-U.S. citizens.”

On Monday, the spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces didn’t directly answer Haaretz’s queries about Abu Toha’s arrest, the location of his detention, or the existence of a prison facility inside the Gaza Strip. On Tuesday, after Abu Toha was released, the spokesperson sent a new response, claiming that “certain intelligence indications” brought to the arrest of some civilians, including Abu Toha. “Following a questioning, it was decided to release him”.
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