Israel releases Gaza hospital chief, held without charge for 7 months

Israel on Monday released the head of the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital after more than seven months in detention, Palestinian health officials said, a decision that prompted immediate protests in Israel, although no charges were made public against him.

Mohammad Abu Salmiya, director of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, was arrested in late November while taking part in an attempt to evacuate patients from the hospital, which was under siege by the Israeli army at the time. The army said he was detained for questioning about Hamas operations at the hospital.

The reaction to Dr. Abu Salmiya’s release has underscored divergent views of the war both inside and outside Israel. Human rights groups have said his continued detention without charge was a sign of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are held for long periods without charge or trial, while some Israeli officials on Monday denounced the decision to release him as an example of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mishandling of the war.

Speaking at a press conference at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis after his release, a visibly weak Dr Abu Salmiya said he had been released and was returning to Gaza along with 50 other Palestinian detainees, including other doctors and members of the Health Ministry staff.

“We were subjected to extreme torture,” he said, adding that his finger had been broken and he had been repeatedly beaten on the head. The Israeli Prison Service, which runs the Nafha prison where he was last held, said in a statement that it was unaware of Dr. Abu Salmiya's claims and that “all prisoners are being held according to the law.”

The reaction to Dr. Abu Salmiya's release also highlighted the rifts between Israel's security forces and the country's political class. The Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, said in a statement that the government had failed to meet its request for additional space in detention centers so that more “terrorists in Israel and the Gaza Strip” could be arrested. As a result, the Shin Bet said, it and the military were required to release a number of detainees who posed “less danger,” to free up “places of detention” for new detainees.

Mr Netanyahu’s office deflected responsibility in a statement, calling the doctor’s release “a grave mistake and a moral failure” carried out “without the knowledge of state decision-makers”. It said the prime minister had ordered an investigation into the matter “so that such a mistake is not repeated”.

The Israel Prison Service said in a statement that the decision was made by the Israeli military and the Shin Bet, but the military said the prisoner was not in its custody.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister, called the doctor’s release “security negligence” and blamed the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and the head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar. Mr Gallant’s office responded with a statement saying the release of the detainees “is not subject to the defense minister’s approval.”

Benny Gantz, the opposition leader in parliament who quit Netanyahu’s war cabinet last month, accused the government of moral failure and said Netanyahu’s failure to take any responsibility for the move was further evidence of his inability to lead the country.

Israeli politicians, both inside and outside the ruling coalition, and the security services have become increasingly outspoken in publicly criticizing the government's conduct of the war and its lack of post-war planning.

Dr. Abu Salmiya’s release came amid signs of the militants’ continued ability to operate in Gaza. At least 20 rockets were fired from southern Gaza into Israel on Monday morning, the Israeli military said, one of the largest barrages from the territory in months. The military said many of the rockets were intercepted, while others fell in Israeli border communities, although no injuries were reported. The military said it fired artillery in response, hitting the sources of the incoming rockets.

Mr Netanyahu has signalled that the most intense fighting may be winding down, although that leaves open the possibility that the war will continue, at a lower volume, for a long time. “We are advancing towards the end of the phase of eliminating the terrorist army of Hamas; we will continue to strike at its remnants,” he said in a statement.

More than 9,600 Palestinians detained under Israel’s military and national security laws are being held in Israeli prisons, the highest figure in more than a decade, according to HaMoked, an Israeli human rights group. It says many detainees are being held without charge and have been abused in custody.

According to Israeli authorities, of the approximately 4,000 people detained in Gaza from October 7 to the end of May, approximately 1,500 have been released and returned to the enclave.

Dr. Abu Salmiya was arrested in November while traveling with a United Nations ambulance convoy evacuating patients from Al-Shifa hospital to the southern Gaza Strip and was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, Gaza's Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

At the time, the Israeli military said he was brought in for questioning “following evidence showing that Al-Shifa Hospital, under his direct management, served as a command and control center for Hamas,” a charge Hamas and hospital officials denied. An Israeli military spokesman told reporters at the time that Dr. Abu Salmiya had not been charged and that the military was not suggesting he was affiliated with Hamas.

Dr Abu Salmiya told reporters on Monday that despite having been subjected to three or four court proceedings, no charges have ever been brought against him.

The Israeli raid on Al-Shifa has become a symbol of the war, and many Gazans see Israel’s targeting of medical institutions as a sign of contempt for Palestinian life. The detention of Dr. Abu Salmiya has reinforced this view.

For Israelis, the hospital was an example of Hamas's exploitation of civilian infrastructure (and civilians) as shields for its military operations.

The Israeli military later released some evidence to support its claim that Hamas operated inside the Shifa compound, including showing reporters a fortified tunnel built beneath its grounds. A New York Times investigation suggested that Hamas had used the site as a shelter and stored weapons there. The Israeli military, however, struggled to substantiate its claim that Hamas maintained a command and control center beneath the hospital compound.

After the initial raid on Al-Shifa in November, Israeli troops withdrew from the area. But in late March, after the army said remnants of Hamas’s military wing had regrouped there, Israeli forces returned to the hospital, sparking two weeks of fighting in which they said they killed about 200 Palestinians and arrested hundreds more.

The fighting severely damaged several of the hospital's main buildings. Bodies were left strewn in and around the compound, according to a doctor there and a spokesman for the Palestinian Civil Defense.

Gaza's Health Ministry said in a statement Monday that Dr. Abu Salmiya was released along with Dr. Issam Abu Ajwa, a surgeon at Al-Shifa. The statement called for the release of all other detained health workers from Gaza who had been “arrested and mistreated simply because they were treating the sick and wounded.”

At least 310 health workers in Gaza have been held by Israeli forces since the start of the war, the Health Ministry said Sunday. It did not say how many had been released.

The number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons has increased since the October 7 Hamas attack and subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza. Israeli troops have arrested hundreds of people in Gaza as they search for fighters, the army said, while security forces in the occupied West Bank have waged a crackdown they say is aimed at rooting out militants.

Human rights groups say arrests are often arbitrary and conditions in which Palestinians are held can be inhumane. Israel says the Palestinians it detains, including senior militants convicted of brutal attacks, are treated in accordance with international standards.

The report was provided by Myra Novec, Abu Bakr Bashir, Gabby Sobelman, Patrick Kingsley, Bilal Shabair AND Aaron Boxer.

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