UPDATED: Mohammed Omer’s Allegations Raise Questions

Nov. 5, 2008 update follows.

July 22, 2008 – In April 2008, CAMERA detailed the falsehoods of Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian propagandist who is a regular contributor to the New Statesman, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and other radical or fringe publications and radio stations. Omer is now running the circuit with fresh allegations against Israeli security officials which they emphatically deny. Moreover, there are discrepancies in Omer’s own accounts of what happened. Yet, there are those who continue to accept Omer’s claims without reservation, pouncing on them as an opportunity to publicly condemn Israel.

Omer’s Allegations and Israel’s Denial

Although the details of his various accounts vary, Omer’s basic claim was that he was forcibly stripped, humiliated, and physically tortured by Israeli intelligence officers over a period of many hours at the Allenby crossing from Jordan to Israel after returning from abroad on June 26, 2008. As a result, he claims, he lost consciousness and was hospitalized with broken bones and a nervous breakdown.

The Israeli security forces have issued an outright denial of Omer’s allegations. They state that “due to suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile elements and had been asked by them to deliver items to Judea and Samaria,” they searched both him and his bags, and that “in contradiction to his claims, at no time was the complainant subjected to either physical or mental violence.”

Omer’s Differing Accounts

There are differences in Omer’s own accounts involving the number and identity of the Israeli agents involved in the abuse, the overall time frame, the sequence of events and the elaborateness of the details.

IPS, June 28, 2008:

One of the first accounts of Omer’s alleged torture was published on June 28 by Mel Frykberg of InterPressService (IPS), a news service whose self-declared mission is to “give voice to the voiceless” and for which Mohammed Omer is the “Gaza correspondent.”

According to this account, Omer reaches the Allenby border crossing after receiving the “requisite coordination and security clearance from the Israelis to return to Gaza.” The trouble reportedly begins only after he reaches the Israeli side of the crossing, where he is made to wait an hour and a half without explanation. He is then taken to another room, searched, mocked and forcibly stripped at gunpoint. Afterwards, Israeli intelligence officials pin him on the floor with a boot on his neck as they search “every cavity of his body” until he finally vomits and passes out. When he comes to, an armed Israeli doctor is probing his ears and eyes. His feet are seized and he is dragged across the floor by Israeli intelligence (Shin Bet) officials to a waiting ambulance. He finally awakens in a Palestinian hospital with doctors trying to reassure him. He eventually returns to Gaza. At the time the article, he is planning to check himself into a hospital for further examination.

In this account, Omer passes out while he is prone and being searched. He is reportedly unconscious for much of the time and thus provides no details about the number or identity of the officers, or his transfer to the hospital.

The Peoples Voice, July 1, 2008:

A subsequent account, given several days later from his hospital bed in Gaza was published on the anti-establishment Web site peoplesvoice.org on July 1st. This version, as told to Khalid Amayreh, is more elaborate and differs in the sequence of events. (It should be noted that many of his colleagues view Amayreh as a mouthpiece for Hamas rather than a genuine journalist.) 

Contrary to the earlier account, in this one, Omer is made to wait for an hour and a half before he even reaches the Israeli side of the crossing. Once there, he is mocked, told he does not have the proper documentation, and is taken to a room where he is made to wait another hour and a half before being forced to strip with an M-16 rifle pointed at his face. Omer claims this is “to punish [him]for being a successful journalist and especially for exposing Israeli barbarianism to the people of Europe.” (He provides a verbatim conversation between him and his interrogators, presenting himself in a heroic light as he repeats to his interrogaters, “I am a voice for the voiceless.”) He is then taken to another room where he is kicked and shoved for more than10 minutes before losing consciousness for 90 minutes. (This version suggests that the interrogation went on for about five hours, and that he was unconscious for one and half hours of that time.)

In this account, he loses consciousness after being kicked and shoved but before lying on the ground or being searched. The body search begins once he is unconscious, but he is nevertheless able to remember details of torture that take place during his unconscious state. For example, he is aware of one Shin Bet officer standing on his neck while another pierces his eyes and his ears. He also remembers at some point being dragged on the floor by his feet, his head banging against the floor.

Here, there are two main interrogators – and he refers to one by first name, Avi– who force him to strip in one room plus an additional two who torture him in a different room. He is eventually transferred to a third room where an armed doctor examines him and administers an EKG. An unidentified person calls for an ambulance.

Contrary to the earlier IPS version where Omer is dragged by his feet to the ambulance and only comes to in the Palestinian hospital, in this account he is apparently conscious enough to recall that Israeli officials do not allow the Palestinian ambulance to leave until he signs a form confirming that he was not maltreated. Omer is also aware of Israeli intelligence officials inserting a tracking device into his cellular phone. He is not, however, sufficiently conscious to sign the paper. Nevertheless, even in this version, he does finally reach the Jericho Government Hospital where he is assured that he is fine, although he checks himself into the Gaza European Hospital several days later.

Reporters Without Borders, July 1, 2008:

This organization issued an immediate condemnation of “abusive behaviour by Israeli security agents towards Palestinian journalists moving around the Territories or returning from visits abroad” based on what Mohammed Omer reported to them.

In this version, Omer loses consciousness after being hit in the face and chest repeatedly, resulting in broken ribs and bruises to the body.

John Pilger, The Guardian, July 2, 2008:

The notoriously unreliable John Pilger, who has gone on record to dismiss the notion of journalistic accountability (see “Palestine is the Issue“)  repeats Omer’s charges for the Guardian in an article published on July 2. These charges are even more elaborate than those reported by Khalid Amayreh in The People’s Voice account.

In this version, the number of torturers has apparently increased to eight – “all of them armed” – and there are additional details of the humiliation meted out by the officers, contradicting some of the earlier accounts. This time, the gun is not pointed at Omer’s face, as it was in the version told by Khalid Amayreh; it is pressed against his head. And this time, not only is Omer forcibly stripped but he is made to do “a concocted dance” while naked.

Here, Omer vomits and passes out as a result of weakness, having being deprived of toilet, food and water for 12 hours. This all happens before the search allegedly begins. In Pilger’s account, there is no Israeli doctor and no EKG. There is also nothing about the Jericho doctors who have assured Omer that he is fine. Also differing from the previous accounts is the person who is asked to sign the document. Here the Palestinian ambulance driver is the one who is asked and “courageously” refuses to sign “a statement indemnifying the Israelis from [Omer’s] suffering in their custody.” The driver then threatens to call the Dutch embassy escort who had traveled with Omer earlier. According to Pilger, Israeli security officers finally allow the ambulance to depart only because they are “alarmed” at the driver’s threat.

Interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, July 7, 2008:

Perhaps the most elaborate account of Omer’s suffering comes in a July 7th interview with Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Pacifica Radio’s “progressive” radio show Democracy Now. Although the interview took place more than a week after the event and after he was released from the Gaza hospital, Mohammed Omer is able to describe the minutiae of the “physical and psychological abuse” he allegedly suffered at the hands of the Israelis. In this version, there are lengthy conversations between Omer and his interrogators which he is able to repeat verbatim. He collapses and passes out during the interrogation, after which he starts vomiting for an estimated hour and a half. And despite the fact that, according to his own words, he “was unconscious for most of that time,” he is able to remember how long he vomited and the verbal humiliation by Israeli officials, as well as the minute details of the torture.

Here, Omer’s Israeli abusers include the armed doctor. Rather than being dragged by his feet to the ambulance or awakening in the Palestinian hospital, as in previous accounts, Omer describes being put in a wheelchair and taken to the Israeli doctor who tortures him just like his previous Israeli torturers. In fact, Omer recalls that the doctor may have been “the same one who was doing the job before.” He apparently does not realize the contradiction in his words when he claims he heard Israeli soldiers call for an ambulance “after they realized that I am not conscious for some time.”

The ambulance account is also somewhat different than the previous accounts, embellished with additional details. Here, not only does Omer recall that he is the one who is ordered to sign a paper, but he even remembers the identity and name of the Israeli agent who orders him to do so. It is Avi, the person allegedly responsible for forcibly stripping Omer earlier. But even though Omer identifies the Israeli officer by name, he asserts he was “unconscious” at the time. In this account, the ambulance driver and a paramedic inform the Israeli officer, Avi, that Omer is unconscious and threaten to inform the Dutch embassy of the goings on. Avi warns them to say nothing. There is no mention here of the doctors at the Jericho hospital assuring him he is fine. Instead, Omer reports that the Jericho doctors call the Dutch embassy to transfer him to Gaza, and to the Gaza European hospital where he stays for “many days.”

The Contradictions

1) Omer lost consciousness

a. before being pinned to the ground because he was kicked and shoved (Khalid Amayreh)

b. before being pinned to the ground because he was punched in the face and chest (Reporters Without Borders)

c. before being pinned to the ground because he was deprived of toilet, food and water for 12 hours (John Pilger)

d. after he was pinned down and searched (IPS)

2) Omer was in a state of unconsciousness for

a. almost the entire time with little recall (IPS)

b. most of the time with recall of details (Amy Goodman)

c. 90 minutes – less than a third of the time (Khalid Amayreh)

3) Omer was forcibly stripped

a. by one Israeli agent who looks menacingly at him, places his hand on his revolver and pulls down Omer’s underwear (Amy Goodman)

b. by two Israeli agents, one of whom removes his underwear while the other points an M-16 rifle at his face (Khalid Amayreh)

c. by one Israeli agent who simultaneously presses a gun against his head, pins him to the side with his full body weight and removes his underwear (John Pilger)

4) The Israeli doctor he is taken to

a. administers an EKG (Khalid Amayreh)

b. probes his eyes and ears (IPS)

c. is really the same agent who was involved in his earlier torture. He now suddenly pinches and tortures him again (Amy Goodman)

5) Omer is taken to the doctor and/or ambulance

a. by being dragged on the floor (IPS)

b. in a wheelchair (Amy Goodman)

6) In his state of unconsciousness, Omer

a. does not remember being transferred by ambulance to the Jericho hospital (version told to IPS)

b. remembers being asked to sign a document in the ambulance but refusing because he is unconscious (Khalid Amayreh, Amy Goodman)

c. is not asked to sign a document; it is the ambulance driver who is asked to sign a document (John Pilger)

Additional questions raised:

1) How is Omer able to provide such detail – verbatim conversation and details of torture– if he was, by his own admission, “unconscious”?

2) The Palestinian doctors at the Jericho hospital do an examination on him after the alleged torture and find no physical problems. They do not rule out a nervous breakdown. Doctors at the Gaza hospital however report that, Omer has broken ribs. Why this discrepancy? Were the Gazan doctors lying and if not, when were Omer’s ribs broken? 

Denial by the Israeli Government Press Office

According to the statement from the Israeli government press office regarding Mohamed Omer’s complaints:

The Complainant’s grievances were investigated and found to be without foundation. At no time was the Complainant subjected to either physical or mental violence; he was treated fairly. We can only regret that his allegations received publicity and a platform without being properly investigated.

Noting that Omer’s complaint filed with the IDF Spokesperson differed from the accounts he gave to the media:

The investigation revealed that the search of [Omer’s] baggage was conducted in the presence of four people and not eight, as he noted. The search was conducted, according to regulations, in a public place and in the view and presence of the Complainant.

The body search, which took several minutes, took place in the presence of two security personnel (a policeman and an ISA official) and was conducted according to the relevant regulations. The Complainant’s claims to the effect that he was threatened at gunpoint are baseless.

Regarding the Complainant’s collapse, as it were, it should be noted that the paramedic who attended to him found no evidence of a physical cause of collapse. The Complainant’s behavior raises doubts as to the sincerity of the situation. In any event, the Complainant was sent to an infirmary and an ambulance was ordered for him.

As to the Complainant’s allegation that he was compelled to stand on his feet for twelve hours, we point out that according to our records, the Complainant arrived at the Allenby Crossing at approximately 11:00, and the entire incident ended at approximately 14:00. Thus, this claim is also baseless.

The results of the Israeli investigation and the discrepancies within and between Omer’s own accounts raise major questions about Omer’s reliablity. Is Omer using the media as a platform to disseminate his anti-Israel propaganda once more? Is this another Mohammed Al Dura libel? (See Backgrounder: Mohammed Al Dura) Or is Mohammed Omer incoherent and contradictory because he has suffered a nervous breakdown? Whatever the case may be, it is clear the Omer’s allegations cannot be taken at face value.

Litmus Test of Media’s Reliability: Who and How Have Omer’s Questionable Allegations Been Reported?

The global news agency, Reuters, rushed to report Mohammed Omer’s allegations before Israel investigated or issued its denial. The June 30th article by Nidal al Mughrabi, reported Omer’s claim at face value, stating that “Israeli government spokesman declined immediate comment.” Mughrabi concluded by citing doctors in Gaza saying that “[Omer] had suffered a nervous breakdown and that several of his ribs had been broken.” Mughrabi neglected to inform readers that doctors in Jericho had found no physical injuries.

In contrast, the Associated Press reported Omer’s allegations a week later, balancing them against Israel’s denial. The July 7th AP report by Karin Laub noted that “Dr. Diaa Husseini, who examined Omer at the hospital, said the journalist had no signs of physical injury. He said Omer had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by emotional stress and was given stomach medication and released after two hours.”

The fringe-leftist American Pacifica radio eagerly accepted Omer’s story, even though Israel had already denied it. Pacifica’s Amy Goodman, producer and host of Democracy Now, frequently seeks out virulently anti-Israel guests to malign and condemn its policies regardless of the accuracy of their charges. Omer, with his tale of Israeli wrongdoing fit the bill perfectly. The report was aired on July 7, after Israel had issued its denial. And while Goodman did briefly mention Israel’s denial of the Omer’s allegations, she did so in a dismissive manner, following up with a long, supportive interview with Omer that left no doubt about which side she supports.

In the UK, John Pilger immediately jumped on Omer’s story, using it as background for his own anti-Israel diatribe.

The London Independent’s Donald Macintyre was somewhat more circumspect even though he rushed to report Omer’s allegations. In a July 2 feature entitled “Award-winning Palestinian reporter ‘abused’ by Israeli security officers” written before Israel’s official response, Macintyre attributed the charges against Israel to claims by Omer and concluded by mentioning that “Reuters quoted an unnamed Israeli security official yesterday as denying that Mr Omer had been mistreated.”

The BBC published an online article on July 1 entitled “Israel denies injuring reporter” which included detailed quotes by Omer as well as a denial by an unidentified Israeli official. The article also noted that Gazan “hospital doctors have diagnosed several broken ribs” but made no mention of the Jericho doctors that found nothing wrong with Omer physically. There does not seem to be any follow-up informing readers of Israel’s official response.

Within Israel, Omer depended on his trusted ally, Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz, to disseminate his allegations. In “Why Do They Treat Me Like That?” Levy repeated Omer’s unsubstantiated claims as fact, embellishing them with an emotive account of Omer’s many other grievances.

Perhaps most surprising was a report by Matt Gutman for Public Radio International’s “The World.” Aired on July 3, the report that included Mohammed Omer’s own description of his “abuse” as well as Israel’s Aryeh Mekel saying that they would be investigating. There is still no record on the PRI Web site of an update or correction.

Based on Omer’s complaint and without investigating further, Reporters without Borders were quick to “condemn abusive behaviour by Israeli security agents towards Palestinian journalists moving around the Territories or returning from visits abroad.” 

One might have expected an organization of journalists to exhibit a little more caution in issuing condemnations before thoroughly investigating the matter. But one would be wrong.  Based on the above, there are too many journalists who are either overly intent on furthering their own political agenda or who are just too reckless in their rush to scoop the others. Both types of journalists would benefit from exercising more caution when reporting such defamatory allegations.

UPDATE: Nov. 5, 2008   Questions Raised about Los Angeles Times Article on Omer

For no obvious reason*, LA Times reporter Ashraf Khalil has decided to revisit Mohammed Omer’s torture claims of more than four months ago in an  article (“Questions Persist About Palestinian’s Encounter at Border Crossing“) published on Nov. 3 in the Los Angeles Times.

Khalil gives Omer’s allegations a boost by obscuring key information about the latter’s original diagnosis, while referring to a “medical report” which was hitherto unmentioned in previous interviews and articles about Omer’s alleged torture and injury.

Khalil makes no mention of the fact that Dr. Diaa Husseini, who examined Omer shortly after the alleged incident, stated that there were no signs of physical injury. Instead, Khalil suggests while the doctor could not determine the cause of Omer’s collapse, “the medical report” provides more information. He states:

The doctor in Jericho couldn’t determine why Omer had collapsed, but the medical report notes that the patient “has severe pain in the chest, neck, back and right [testicle],” and adds, “We note finger signs on the neck and chest.” 

An image of the never-before mentioned “medical report” can now be found on Ashraf Khalil’s “Babylon and Beyond” entry on the LA Times blog.  It is not, as Khalil implies, a report from the Jericho hospital doctors, but an ambulance report, curiously written in English—not in Arabic as one might expect—supposedly by the Palestinian EMT’s who picked him up. (In addition to “severe pain” and “finger signs,” the report also mentions “vomiting,” “sweating,” “hyperthermia”–i.e. fever, which would seem more indicative of an infectious process or of food poisoning than of physical abuse, as well as “neurosis.”)

Moreover, the doctor, the articles and the interviews at the time made no mention of an ambulance record that showed any visible signs of injury.  In fact, after leaving the hospital and arriving back in Gaza, Omer gave several interviews from his home in which he said that the doctors in the Jericho hospital assured him he was fine and never mentioned any report that might shed light on his allegations.  Instead, he complained of stomach and chest pains.  

In a face-to-face interview on June 28 with Swedish journalist Jan Andersson, Omer recounted his tale with large gesticulations (which would be extremely difficult and painful if he had indeed broken his ribs, as was later reported), showing no bruises or obvious signs of physical injury. Only two days after returning to Gaza did Omer check himself into the hospital.

Khalil attempts to explain away the obvious weakness of Omer’s allegations by saying that “no one thought to take any pictures of [Omer’s] bruises until six days later — at which point the marks had faded.”  In fact, neither the doctor who examined him within hours of the alleged abuse, nor the journalist who saw him two days later witnessed any marks or bruises on Omer. The only notes of  marks or “signs” of abuse is in the medical report that Khalil has managed to produce.

This raises questions about 1) how the “medical report” mysteriously materialized in clearly written English, 2) where and when Khalil obtained it, 3) why it includes symptoms that were not previously reported, and 4) why it contradicts the findings of the examining doctor. 

*Noting that the presumptive trigger for the LA Times‘s article is a call by Richard Falk—the UN Human Rights Council’s “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestinian territories occupied since 1967″—for an investigation of  Omer’s claims, HonestReporting.com demonstrates that Falk is hardly an objective observer.  

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