Courageous, foolhardy, naked: The Slovakian professor who walked bare into Gaza to ‘save’ 3 kids he’d never met
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After all the Jews killed in the Holocaust, 'at least I would have saved three'

Courageous, foolhardy, naked: The Slovakian professor who walked bare into Gaza to ‘save’ 3 kids he’d never met

Ilias Miroslav put his life on the line and entered the Hamas-run enclave on a personal mission to 'rescue' youngsters who may not even have wanted to leave. What on earth did he think he was doing?

Credit: Giulio Raccichini
Credit: Giulio Raccichini

One sunny spring day in 2014, at the fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, a middle-aged Slovakian chemistry professor stripped himself naked. Only a small Slovakian flag covered his private parts. In his backpack, he had an invitation to work temporarily at a Gazan university. Using wire cutters he’d purchased in his hometown, he cut the fence and entered the no man’s land known as the “killing zone,” where Israeli soldiers are trained to shoot suspected attackers infiltrating Israel from Gaza.

At that moment, recalls Ilias Miroslav, a slightly balding Christian Zionist and expert in relativistic quantum chemistry, he “felt the peace of God.”

Miroslav was entering Gaza on a mission he’d set himself — to “rescue” three Jewish/Muslim children he had never met. His escapade would yield insights into Hamas’s security apparatuses and its prisons. It would show the lengths to which an individual, inspired by religious principles, can go, at potential risk to others, and great potential risk to himself. It would also end in failure.

The Times of Israel was contacted by Miroslav several months ago. He was anxious to tell his story, hoping it would revive interest in the case. We were gradually able to establish the veracity of much, though not all, of it.

Key elements of the bizarre saga have been confirmed by several of the people involved and by official documents. These documents include a statement from the Slovakian foreign ministry about Miroslav’s eventual extraction from Gaza and an email from the Israeli Foreign Ministry about his 10-year ban from the Jewish state. However, no official sources would discuss, much less vouch for, his account of what played out from the moment Miroslav arrived at the Gaza border by bus on June 10, 2014, until his exit from Hamas’s al-Katiba prison on July 17, 2014. He entered Gaza. He was extracted from Gaza a little over five weeks later. What happened in the interim, as set out below, is Miroslav’s narrative.

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Dr. Ilias Miroslav sits at a cafe in Limenaria, Greece in 2015. (Credit: courtesy)

A complicated romance

Ilias Miroslav’s improbable Gaza escapade has its origins in the fallout from an Arab-Jewish love affair.

In 1999, Jewish-Israeli Galit Popok, then a 17-year-old immigrant from Russia, married Rami Qedra, a 21-year-old Muslim-Palestinian from Gaza. They met and fell in love in Upper Nazareth, the town in northern Israel where Popok lived and where Qedra worked illegally, and Popok converted to Islam. They continued to live in the town after their wedding. But a few years and a few children later, Rami was deported back to Gaza, and Popok and the children followed him, to Beit Lahiya, in the north of the Strip.

Over seven years, the couple had six children together, four girls and two boys.

One day in September 2006, while her husband was at work, Popok fled the Strip. It was, she told The Times of Israel, a spur-of-the-moment decision. She took the two boys, Mahmoud (now named Maor) and Daniel, and one of the four girls, Tamam (now Tami), with her, leaving behind their month-old twin girls and their eldest daughter, who was six.

She left, Popok told the Times of Israel, because Gaza was “too difficult” for her to live in. She only took three of her children, Popok added, because the others needed medical care and she “really didn’t understand what I was doing at the time.” She hoped — and still does — to be reunited with the three girls she left behind, she said. She and Qedra did not divorce, and they remained in contact.

Photo of Galit Popok and her former husband Rami Qedra along with two of their children (Credit: YouTube screenshot)
Galit Popok and her husband Rami Qedra along with two of their children (YouTube screenshot from l’histoire tragique de Galit Popok)

But a little over two years later, in January 2009, Qedra was killed — the innocent victim, Popok told Israeli media, of an Israeli airstrike during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead conflict with Hamas, hit when out shopping at a local supermarket.

There then ensued a child custody battle between Popok and her husband’s family in Gaza, as detailed in a Newsweek article, with the former in-laws insisting on holding on to the three children she had left in the Strip — Yasmine, now 16, and the 10-year-old twins Sulaima and Dalia.

All of which is what brought Ilias Miroslav to the Gaza border on June 10, 2014.

During a visit to Israel in 2009, he had read Israeli press reports about Popok’s struggle to be reunited with the rest of her family, her publicized pleas for her children in Gaza to rejoin her and their siblings, and was seized with the determination to get into the Strip and “rescue” the three girls.

Whether they wanted to leave behind their Gaza home, Miroslav did not know. Indeed, Yasmine told Newsweek last year she would never live among “the killers” of her father.

But Miroslav’s mind was made up. “My forefathers in Slovakia sent a lot of Jews to the death camps [during the Holocaust]. My nation did a lot of wrong things to them. Now is the time of restoration. I wanted to do something great to restore our reputation,” Miroslav told the Times of Israel earnestly in one of numerous recent telephone and email exchanges.

“For all the Jews killed, at least I would have saved three.”

But why these three? Why was he so affected by Popok’s story?

“Galit’s case is special. Her kids are in enemy territory. And as I found out, nobody from the Jewish side could help her. I felt that, as a foreigner, I have some potential to help her by getting into Gaza, where Jews cannot enter.”

The Shin Bet says thanks, but no thanks

Miroslav was born on April 7, 1975, in Bojnice, Slovakia, a tiny historic town marked by a picturesque medieval castle. A chemist at Matej Bel University, in the central Slovak town of Banská Bystrica, he married in 2010, but has no children. He describes his work as “​theoretical chemistry: studying molecules with a computer.”

Since 2006, he has been a pro-Israel activist in Slovakia, attending rallies in support of the Jewish state. After learning of Popok’s story in 2009, his attachment to Israel grew more personal.

Miroslav stands with three of Galit Popok's children in a photograph taken in 2011, when the chemistry professor visited her home. (Credit: courtesy)
Miroslav stands with three of Galit Popok’s children in a photograph taken in 2011, when the chemistry professor visited her home. (Courtesy)

In 2010, he sent Popok a small donation — 50 euros; she sent him her address in Israel. In the summer of 2011, he visited her, and met Tami, Maor and Daniel. In the wake of that interaction, he set his heart on rescuing her three other children from the Hamas-run Strip.

He applied to COGAT, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, for permission to cross into Gaza, explaining that he hoped to bring out Popok’s three girls. The application was rejected, as were three further applications over the next two years.

Changing tack, Miroslav used his academic contacts in 2013 to secure an invitation to work temporarily at a university in Gaza. His plan was to pretend to be a pro-Palestinian activist, while secretly working to get the children out of Gaza.

Invitation in hand, Miroslav says he approached the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, and offered to extract Popok’s children. The Shin Bet rejected the idea, he says. Undeterred, he decided nonetheless to venture into Gaza, on his own, with his wire-cutters.

Popok told The Times of Israel she always opposed the idea. Nonetheless, she recorded a video message on his cellphone for him to show her daughters, should he reach them.

Standoff in the killing zone

Miroslav got off the bus near Kibbutz Mefalsim. It was around noon, sunny, he recalls. He made his way to an observation post, and looked out toward Gaza. “Two IDF vehicles passed along the road near the fence. When they had disappeared, I took the opportunity and started approaching the fence. First, I walked slowly. I passed a concrete pillbox on my left; nobody shouted at me to stop.” He kept walking.

En route, he took off his clothes and put them into a plastic bag and into his backpack. He had read somewhere online that soldiers are less likely to shoot a naked target. He took out his wire-cutters, cut through the fence, and stopped. “I just stood beyond the fence.” He waited. And waited some more.

Nothing happened, so he used the time to slather himself with sunblock. He didn’t want to get sunburned.

Still nobody seemed to have noticed him. So he yelled, in English. “Hey, Israeli soldiers, where are you! Free Gaza! End the Gaza siege!”

The Israeli border fence near the Gaza Strip, August 10, 2014 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
The Israeli border fence near the Gaza Strip, August 10, 2014 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Swiftly, two IDF jeeps drove up to the fence. The soldiers took positions behind their vehicle and aimed their guns at him. They fired warning shots into the air.

Miroslav carefully took his phone from his backpack and called an Israeli liaison officer at the Erez Border Crossing with whom he had been contact in the course of his rejected requests to enter Gaza legally. First the Israeli officer berated the professor. Then he contacted the soldiers who had their guns pointed at Miroslav, and had them lower their weapons.

Since Miroslav had crossed beyond Israel’s border and posed no threat, the soldiers did nothing further. Standing in no-man’s-land, bare-bodied in the sun, he was free to choose: go back to Israel or on toward Gaza.

Taking only his phone and the Gaza university invitation letter, he left his backpack, with his clothes in it, leaning against the Israeli side of the fence near the opening he’d made. Also inside was a letter he’d written to the IDF (to show soldiers if he was stopped at the Israeli side of the border) and photos of the children he hoped to save. He didn’t want Hamas to see those; they would have blown his cover as a pro-Palestinian activist.

“I am not yelling, Allahu akbar,” Miroslav called out to the bemused soldiers. “I yell, Great is the God of Israel!”

And he walked off into the Strip.

In Hamas jail

 

The first Gazan to spot the professor was a shepherd. The shepherd made a phone call, and a few minutes later a cop dressed in civilian clothes showed up.

Miroslav says a car was dispatched and he was taken to the police station in Beit Hanoun, a drive of just a few minutes. The car seats had been covered in plastic; perhaps to protect them from the professor’s naked body. At the station, he was given some clothes. He gave his Slovakian flag to someone. A gift he said, from a pro-Palestinian activist.

From the police station, Miroslav was taken to a prison in Gaza City, and that’s where things swiftly went wrong. There he met his principal interrogator, a fluent English speaker he called “Beautiful Abu”: “He was smart, perfectly dressed, wore nice shoes and a nice shirt, and a fashionable watch.”

His expectation, says Miroslav, was that he would be released after questioning — free to go teach at the university, appreciated as a pro-Palestinian academic who had breached the Israeli blockade on Gaza, “naked through the fence.”

The interrogator forced Miroslav to give up the password to his email, he says; he doesn’t elaborate, but stresses he wasn’t tortured or hurt — not then, nor at any other time in Gaza. In the Slovak’s inbox, the many pro-Israel documents were immediately noted; he hadn’t taken the precaution of clearing out his email.

Much worse, he says, a Hamas policeman then returned from the border fence with Miroslav’s backpack. Miroslav says he does not understand how this could have happened: Why did Israeli soldiers allow a Gazan to take his things? He has no answer.

Hamas police emptied out the contents of his bag on a table. They now had the photos of Popok’s children and his letter to the IDF. And his passport, and 1,646 shekels, and various other belongings. With the exception of his English and Slovakian bibles, he would never see any of these again. (A few months later he sent a letter to the Gaza Interior Ministry asking for them back, but never got a reply.)

Miroslav's letter to the Gazan interior ministry. (Courtesy)
Miroslav’s letter to the Gazan Interior Ministry. (Credit: Courtesy)

His cellphone also contained the video message from Popok. In the short clip, seen by The Times of Israel, Popok appears flanked by two of her children in Israel, telling her girls in Gaza not to be afraid. “This man is coming to help you,” she assures them in fluent Arabic.

His flimsy claim to be a pro-Palestinian advocate thoroughly debunked, Miroslav still insisted he’d come to work at the university, but acknowledged a secondary mission: to “rescue” Popok’s children.

“I naively assumed I’d be released after interrogations, but it did not happen, unfortunately. They found the letter to IDF, so I confessed my intention to get the kids,” Miroslav says. “Without anything connected with the kids, I believe, they would have released me as a ‘pro-Palestinian hero’. I would have stayed at the university and tried to reach the kids.”

His interrogator pushed Miroslav for more information, even offering to bring him a lawyer from Israel.

The Slovak then made a me-for-them proposal. He was emphatically not a spy, he stressed to Beautiful Abu, but he would falsely admit to being one if, in return for his capture and whatever Hamas chose to do with him next, Popok’s children would be allowed to cross into Israel.

The Hamas officer declined the offer.

Miroslav spent the next 10 days in solitary confinement at the Gaza City jail. When he was allowed out, to mix with the other inmates, he was given back his Bibles.

A little over two weeks after that, he and some other prisoners were loaded into a truck, had their heads covered, and were transferred to the al-Katiba prison, also in Gaza City, which is protected by the International Red Cross. The next day, July 8, 2014, war erupted between Hamas and Israel.

The chemistry professor spent the next week and a half at al-Katiba, kept in a large cell with 20 other prisoners. He slept on a bed made of blankets and on a pillow given to him by another inmate. He passed the time, as did the others, by watching Hamas’s al-Aqsa satellite TV station.

They could all hear the war being waged around them: the sonic boom of Israeli jets, airstrikes, the sounds of Hamas rockets being launched at Israel. The walls of the prison shook, often, with each explosion nearby.

Image from Miroslav’s notebook while he was in Al-Katiba Prison, in the Gaza Strip. (Credit: courtesy)
Image from Miroslav’s notebook while he was in Al-Katiba Prison, in the Gaza Strip. (Credit: courtesy)

The prison Miroslav was first held in, he was told, was destroyed during the early days of the war. The transfer to the new prison had saved his life.

While at al-Katiba, Miroslav struck up a friendship with an inmate who helped him learn some Arabic. This “brave” young man, he says, was imprisoned for trying to organize Arab Spring events in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Slovakian government — possibly alerted by the Red Cross — was working to get him out. On July 17, even as the military conflict raged on, he says, his captors handed him over to members of an international human rights organization, who drove him out of Gaza and directly to Ben Gurion Airport for a flight to Slovakia. (This organization does not confirm or deny its role in the saga, citing a need for “confidentiality and bilateral dialogue on humanitarian issues.”)

Thirty-seven days after entering Gaza, Miroslav was flying home. He had not come close to completing his mission, but he’d certainly tried. Not long after that, he was informed via email by an Israeli diplomat that he is persona non grata in Israel for ten years.

Miroslav made one last Hail Mary attempt to “rescue” Galit’s children. He recorded a plea to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He has not heard back.

‘I didn’t really think he’d do it’

Popok and Miroslav continue to maintain a “very good” connection and speak from time to time, Popok told The Times of Israel, in her first comments about Miroslav to the media.

A photo uploaded to Facebook in 2012 by Galit Popok. In the image, she stands with her youngest son in Israel, formerly named Mahmoud and now Maor. (Credit: courtesy)
A photo uploaded to Facebook in 2012 by Galit Popok. In the image, she stands with her youngest son in Israel, formerly named Mahmoud and now Maor. (Courtesy)

Explaining her opposition to his Gaza mission, she says she was concerned for his life. “I worried about him, and from the beginning I didn’t want him to do this. I didn’t want him to put his life in danger,” she said.

She didn’t actually think he’d go through with it, either. “I was sure he wasn’t going to do it, until he entered. When he did, I became very afraid for him,” she added.

These days, Popok said, her attempts to get her three girls out of Gaza have significantly slowed down. They’re there. She’s here. They are in touch, but that’s where things seem to have been left.

Back in 2011, she tried desperately, she said, to have the three included in the massively lopsided deal with Hamas that brought the kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit home from Gaza, in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.

Yasmine, the oldest of the three, will soon be married, Popok said.

“I really appreciate, not the way he did it, but the goal and will of the man,” she said of Miroslav’s foray into Hamas territory. “There aren’t many people like him.”

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