On June 16 I was the co-recipient of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism with Mohammed Omer in London. Omer is a 24 year-old Palestinian with whom I felt, and feel, honored to have shared this award. During my brief talk while accepting the award, I told the audience I could not think of anyone else I would rather share the award with. Omer’s work from his Gaza homeland has been a beacon of humanitarian reportage; his work serves as a model of peace and attempted reconciliation with Israel for the youth in his occupied territory.
Unlike me, Omer’s journey to London to receive the award was next to impossible. When I heard the news that I was a co-recipient, I simply booked my flight from San Francisco and boarded my plane. Omer — whose home has been crushed by an Israeli bulldozer and who has seen most of his seven siblings killed or maimed by the Israeli army which occupies his homeland — struggled even to get an exit visa. The veteran journalist John Pilger, who handed us each our award, described his journey: "Getting Mohammed to London to receive his prize was a major diplomatic operation. Israel has perfidious control over Gaza’s borders, and only with a Dutch embassy escort was he allowed out."
Then, after the ceremony, came our even more different return journeys. My biggest problem was an hour’s delay for the flight back to my home country — which last year gave Israel $2.38bn in military aid. And will again give that same amount for the coming fiscal year, along with an extra $150m. (As of July 2006 direct US aid to Israel had reached $108bn according to conservative estimates.)
Omer, on his return home last Thursday, was tortured by Israel’s security forces, Shin Bet. He was met by a Dutch official at the Allenby Bridge crossing (from Jordan to the West Bank) who was to ferry him back into Gaza. The official waited outside for Omer as he entered the Israeli building. Inside, Omer was told he was not allowed to call this embassy escort when he asked to do so; a Shin Bet officer searched his luggage and documents, and asked him for his English pounds.
Omer was surrounded by eight armed Shin Bet officers. This is how he described what happened next. "A man called Avi ordered me to take off my clothes. I had already been through an x-ray machine. I stripped down to my underwear and was told to take off everything. When I refused, Avi put his hand on his gun. I began to cry: ‘Why are you treating me this way? I am a human being.’ He said, ‘This is nothing compared with what you will see now.’ He took his gun out, pressing it to my head and with his full body weight pinning me on my side, he forcibly removed my underwear. He then made me do a concocted sort of dance. Another man, who was laughing, said: ‘Why are you bringing perfumes?’ I replied: ‘They are gifts for the people I love’. He said: ‘Oh, do you have love in your culture?’
"I had now been without food and water and the toilet for 12 hours and, having been made to stand, my legs buckled. I vomited and passed out. All I remember is one of them gouging, scraping and clawing with his nails at the tender flesh beneath my eyes. He scooped my head and dug his fingers in near the auditory nerves between my head and eardrum. The pain became sharper as he dug in two fingers at a time. Another man had his combat boot on my neck, pressing it into the hard floor. I lay there for over an hour. The room became a menagerie of pain, sound and terror."
Consider the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court has allowed the use of "moderate physical pressure" in the questioning of prisoners. Israel holds more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them under administrative detention (no charges filed, detention can be renewed every six months).
Now consider the fourth Geneva Convention (1949): "(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities…shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria."
"To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;…(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment…"
Former Dutch ambassador Jan Wijenberg said of what happened to Omer: "This is by no means an isolated incident, but part of a long-term strategy to demolish Palestinian social, economic and cultural life … I am aware of the possibility that Mohammed Omer might be murdered by Israeli snipers or bomb attack in the near future."
Janet McMahon, managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs with whom Omer files stories, just told me he is still in hospital. "He may go home, or have an operation. He’s still in a lot of pain — and it’s hard for him to swallow, or to breathe deeply. He’s being fed intravenously."
As Omer’s colleague, I cannot reconcile the disparity in our experiences. How can we reconcile something that is irreconcilable in the absence of all justice?