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Top Gaza doctor accuses Israel of torturing prisoners after his prison release

TEL AVIV — One of Gaza’s top doctors accused Israel of abusing Palestinian prisoners hours after he was freed along with dozens of other detainees — a decision that sparked outrage and recriminations among right-wing lawmakers and Israel’s security establishment.

After more than seven months in Israeli detention without charge or trial, Dr. Muhammad Abu Salmiya, the director of Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital, was seen walking in the enclave along with 54 other freed Palestinians, many still wearing their gray prison uniforms. 

“When you seek treatment, you are tortured by the nurse and doctor, and this is against international conventions,” he told an NBC News crew in Gaza about his experiences in what he said was multiple Israeli prisons.  

“We have left the prisoners in a very difficult situation. What the prisoners are going through now has not happened in the history of the prisoner movement,” he added, surrounded by family, colleagues and well-wishers celebrating his return. 

Al-Shifa Hospital Director Released
Abu Salmiya was held for seven months before his release Monday.Bashar Taleb / AFP – Getty Images

In a separate statement by Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, Salmiya said the Palestinian prisoners had been assaulted and insulted. Conditions behind bars were “tragic,” he said, adding there was a lack of food and drink.  

The Israel Prison Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Asked about torture allegations in the past, a Prison Service spokesperson said that it “operates according to the provisions of the law” and that “all basic rights required are fully applied.”

Inside Israel, the rare prisoner release set off a wave of anger and finger-pointing even among officials and agencies who are responsible for detentions, exposing how the conduct of the war in Gaza has deepened divisions within Israeli officialdom.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the country’s ultranationalist minister of national security, blasted the decision to release the prisoners as “security negligence” and demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu block Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, from “conducting an independent policy contrary” to the government.

Benny Gantz, a former member of Netanyahu’s defunct war Cabinet and one of his key rivals, said the mass release included militants who helped execute Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and led to more than 240 people being taken hostage. 

Calling it “a moral and ethical operational error,” he said in a statement on Telegram that “whoever made the decision lacked judgment — and should be fired today.”

The Prison Service has not said in response to requests whether anyone suspected of involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks was freed.

The medical facility, the largest in the Gaza Strip, was reduced to rubble after an Israeli operation in March, the WHO said.
A devastated building at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City last month. Oman Al-Qatta / AFP – Getty Images

In a statement, Gallant attributed the decision to the Shin Bet and the Prison Service, which is under the authority of Ben Gvir, the national security minister. 

Netanyahu’s office, meanwhile, called Salmiya’s release a “severe error and a moral failure.” In a statement, it said the decision to release him was made “without the knowledge of the political leadership or the heads of the organizations.” It added that Netanyahu had ordered “a thorough investigation into how this happened” and that Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar was expected to present the findings within the next 24 hours.

 The Shin Bet answered the scalding criticism by laying blame on what it called the Israeli government’s inability to relieve prison overcrowding.

“For about a year now, the General Security Service has been warning in every possible forum, in writing and orally, about the plight of incarceration and the obligation to increase the number of incarceration places,” the intelligence agency said in a statement. “Without an immediate solution to the shortage of places of confinement, arrests will continue to be canceled and detainees will continue to be released.”

For months, Israeli officials had described Al Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, as a hive of Hamas activity and a prime example of its use of civilian infrastructure as “human shields” to mask its operations.

Israel’s military attracted international criticism when it laid siege to the sprawling hospital complex in November. Hospital administrators and Hamas denied that the facility had hosted military operations, and Israel’s attempts to justify its attacks on the hospital were met with skepticism.

Hospitals can lose their protection under international law if combatants use them for military purposes.

Over the past few months, advocacy groups have drawn attention to the plight of Gaza’s medical workers. In a statement last week, the U.N. Human Rights Office decried the “reported killing of 500 health workers in Gaza” since Oct. 7. 

More than 37,900 people in Gaza have been killed since Israel launched its offensive following the Hamas attacks, according to the enclave’s Health Ministry, which said last week that 310 health workers had been detained.

The killings and arrests — doctors and nurses are often held for months without charge — have been a cause of outrage among Palestinian leaders. 

“Israeli ministers and the opposition must apologize to doctors and health workers for arresting, torturing, and abusing them in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” Mustafa Barghouthi, the secretary general of the West Bank-based National Initiative, said in a statement.

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