Israel releases Gaza hospital director who alleges abuse while in custody

Israel released the director of Gaza’s main hospital on Monday after detaining him without charge or trial for seven months over allegations that the facility had been used as a Hamas command center. He said he and other prisoners were held and tortured under harsh conditions.

The decision to release Mohammed Abu Salmiya, apparently taken to free up space in the overcrowded detention centers, sparked outrage across the political spectrum. Both government ministers and opposition leaders said he should have remained behind bars.

They reiterated allegations that he played a role in Hamas’s alleged use of Shifa Hospital, which Israeli forces have attacked twice since the start of the nearly nine-month war with Hamas. Abu Salmiya and other health officials have repeatedly denied those allegations, and his release without charge or trial is likely to raise further questions about them.

Dozens of detainees released

Abu Salmiya was released in Gaza along with 54 other Palestinian prisoners, many of whom also alleged abuse. The allegations could not be independently confirmed, but were consistent with other accounts of Palestinians held in Israeli custody.

“Our prisoners were subjected to all kinds of torture behind bars,” Abu Salmiya said at a news conference after his release. “There was torture almost every day.”

He said guards broke his finger and made his head bleed during beatings involving batons and dogs.

Abu Salmiya also said that medical staff at several facilities where he was held had also participated in the abuse “in violation of all laws,” and that some detainees had had their limbs amputated due to poor medical care.

There was no immediate comment from the prison service, which has previously denied similar allegations.

Israeli forces raided Shifa Hospital in November, claiming that Hamas had created a vast command and control center within the facility. Abu Selmia and other staff denied the allegations and accused Israel of recklessly endangering thousands of patients and displaced persons sheltering there.

A doctor in Gaza speaks into a microphone.
Mohammed Abu Salmiya talks to reporters outside Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, after his release on Monday. (Reuters)

The military discovered a tunnel beneath the Shifa hospital leading to some rooms, as well as other evidence that militants were present in the medical center, but the evidence fell short of what it had claimed before the raid.

Abu Salmiya was arrested on November 22 while supervising a UN-led evacuation of patients from the hospital. He said his detention was “politically motivated,” adding that he had been taken to court at least three times but was never charged or allowed to meet with lawyers.

Israel has since raided several other hospitals in Gaza on similar charges, forcing them to close or drastically limit services even as tens of thousands have been injured in Israeli attacks or sickened in the harsh conditions of the war. The army carried out a second raid in Shifa earlier this year, causing heavy destruction after it said militants had regrouped there.

Hospitals may lose their protection under international law if they are used by fighters for military purposes.

An aerial photo shows people walking along a road amid destroyed buildings.
This image shows the destruction in the area around Shifa Hospital in Gaza after the Israeli army withdrew from the complex housing the hospital on April 1. (AFP/Getty Images)

The decision to release Abu Salmiya drew harsh condemnation from ministers and opposition leaders, while the various state bodies responsible for the detentions rushed to shift blame.

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister who controls the country’s police and prison system, said the release of Abu Salmiya and the others constituted a “security negligence” and ordered the ministry of Defense to blame. Yair Lapid, an opposition leader, said Abu Salmiya’s release was a sign of the government’s “lawlessness and dysfunction.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s office issued a brief statement saying that the detention and release of prisoners is the responsibility of the Prison Service and Shin Bet’s Internal Security Service. The prison service said the decision was made by the Shin Bet and the military, and released a document ordering his release signed by an army reserve general.

The Shin Bet said the government had decided – against its advice – to release prisoners determined to be less of a threat in order to free up space.

“Although the chief of Shifa Hospital passed the risk assessment compared to other detainees, the matter will be investigated internally,” the report said.

WATCH | Israeli troops enter Al-Shifa hospital:

Israeli forces enter Al-Shifa hospital

A doctor at the Gaza City hospital called the situation “very frightening” as Israeli ground forces entered the health complex.

Since the start of the war, Israeli forces have detained thousands of Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, leaving military detention centers and prisons overcrowded. Many are held without charge or trial in what is known as administrative detention.

Israel launched its offensive after the October 7 Hamas attack, in which Palestinian militants killed about 1,200 civilians and took another 250 hostage. At least 37,900 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which did not say how many were civilians or fighters.

Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled their homes, with many displaced multiple times. Israeli restrictions, ongoing fighting and the breakdown of law and order have hampered the delivery of humanitarian aid, fueling widespread hunger and fears of famine.

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