Hospital official is one of 55 Palestinian detainees freed

Ministers trade blame with Shin Bet after Shifa Hospital director is released to Gaza

Abu Salmiya, said to have let Hamas abuse Gaza City hospital, freed due to lack of prison space; father of hostage slain there laments further ‘abandonment’; PM blames High Court

Director of Shifa Hospital, Mohammad Abu Salmiya, speaks after his release by Israel, July 1, 2024 (Video screenshot)
Director of Shifa Hospital, Mohammad Abu Salmiya, speaks after his release by Israel, July 1, 2024 (Video screenshot)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Monday demanded the ousting of Shin Bet director Ronen Bar, after Israel released the director of Shifa Hospital from jail, reportedly along with some 55 other Palestinian detainees, and sent him back to the Gaza Strip.

Shifa director Mohammad Abu Salmiya was arrested by IDF troops in November on suspicion of having allowed Hamas to use the Gaza City hospital as a center of operations. He was detained and taken for questioning by the Shin Bet as he was attempting to evacuate to the south of the Strip via an IDF-operated humanitarian corridor.

Amid political furor over Abu Salmiya’s release, ministers and senior security officials traded blame and sought to avoid responsibility. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the High Court was at least partially responsible, opposition leaders said the government had failed and should go home, and the Shin Bet said it has been warning for a year that there were not enough cells to hold suspects, and that Ben Gvir and others in government had ignored its concerns.

After videos of Abu Salmiya being greeted upon his return to Gaza were posted on social media, Ben Gvir took to X, claiming that the decision to free the hospital director “along with dozens of terrorists” was an act of “security recklessness.”

“It’s time the prime minister stops [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant and the Shin Bet chief from carrying out independent policies contradicting the positions of the cabinet,” Ben Gvir stormed.

In leaked screenshots that the Kan public broadcaster said were taken from a ministerial instant messaging group, Ben Gvir appeared to further tear into Bar, proclaiming that it was “time to send the Shin Bet head packing.”

“He does whatever he wants, and Gallant is fully behind him. They don’t give a damn about the cabinet and the government,” Ben Gvir continued. “He conducts independent policy, does what he wants, and in meetings, he becomes a welfare officer for terrorists.”

Israel regularly returns Gazan detainees to the Strip after determining that they are not suspected of terror activity.

Far-right Settlements Minister Orit Strock chimed in amid Ben Gvir’s tirade, asking repeatedly what authority Bar had to make such a decision.

Both Gallant and Netanyahu were quick to distance themselves from the release of the Palestinian detainees.

“The authority for incarcerating security prisoners and their release is under the Shin Bet and the Israel Prison Service, and is not subject to the approval of the defense minister,” Gallant’s office said.

The Shin Bet is under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Office, while the IPS is under Ben Gvir’s National Security Ministry.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a ceremony for the new Israel Prison Service chief at the National Security Ministry in Jerusalem. May 27, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s office said that “the decision to release the prisoners followed discussions at the High Court on a petition against the detention of prisoners at the Sde Teiman detention facility.” (Abu Salmiya was not being held at Sde Teiman, but at Nafha Prison, according to the Israel Prison’s Service.)

“The identity of the released prisoners is determined independently by security officials based on their professional opinions,” the statement continued, adding that Netanyahu had ordered an immediate investigation into the matter.

Responding to the uproar, the Shin Bet said that it had been forced to send prisoners back to the Gaza Strip due to a lack of space in Israeli jails and that it planned to phase out the use of the Sde Teiman detention facility.

The agency said that a decision had been made recently to only hold Palestinian detainees at Sde Teiman for short periods, and as such, it and the IDF were required to release dozens of detainees from prisons to make room for more significant terror suspects.

“For about a year now, the Shin Bet has been warning in every possible forum… about the incarceration crisis and the obligation to increase the number of [cells], in light of the need to arrest terrorists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” the agency said in a statement

“The incarceration crisis leads to daily cancellation of arrests of suspects involved in terror activities, and to direct harm to the security of the country,” the Shin Bet continued, claiming that overnight, several planned arrests of wanted Palestinians, including some who were planning terror attacks, had been canceled.

“Unfortunately, these requests… which were forwarded to all the relevant parties, chief among them the national security minister, which is responsible for this, were of no use, and in practice, the number of [cells] did not increase as needed,” it said, referring to Ben Gvir.

The Shin Bet added that it was against releasing West Bank Palestinian detainees, due to “immediate” fears they would return to carrying out attacks, as well as members of Hamas’s elite Nukhba force and other Gazan terrorists involved in the fighting and attacking civilians.

As such, and in accordance with “the state’s need as determined by the National Security Council,” it was decided to release several detainees who did not pose a significant threat, the agency said, adding that the release was carried out after “examining the perceived danger of all the detainees.”

Still, the Shin Bet said that while Shifa director Abu Salmiya “meets all the requirements regarding the level of danger he poses,” it would investigate his release.

Hamas terrorists who were caught during the October 7 massacre and during the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, seen at a courtyard in a prison in southern Israel, February 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“For lack of any other option, without an immediate solution to the prison space crisis, arrests will continue to be canceled and detainees will continue to be released,” the agency added.

The Israel Prison Service hit back at the claims shortly after, saying that “due to false publications, we are forced to reveal the release order of the director of Shifa Hospital,” and publishing an image of the document signed by an IDF brigadier general in reserves.

“Contrary to the false claims that have been published in recent hours, those who made the decision to release the director of Shifa Hospital were the IDF and Shin Bet — not the IPS,” the service said.

“IPS does not make decisions on its own to release prisoners of any kind, and is only entrusted with incarceration of prisoners,” it said.

Hamas terrorists who were caught during the October 7 massacre and during the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip, seen at a courtyard in a prison in southern Israel, February 14, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“The director of the hospital was not released due to the incarceration crisis,” the IPS claimed, adding that he was released from Nafha Prison.

The government has repeatedly allocated funds in an attempt to add additional space for prisoners, most recently in April when a NIS 225 million ($60 million) budget cut intended to pay for expanding the prison system’s capacity went into effect across the government at Ben Gvir’s insistence.

In the leaked WhatsApp messages, Interior Minister Moshe Arbel challenged Ben Gvir, asking, “Where is your responsibility in this matter?” to which Ben Gvir retorted that the Israel Prison Service had “immediately added 500 spots” and is continuing to increase capacity.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi then interjected that “releasing terrorists due to ‘lack of space’ is nothing more than a lame excuse.”

The IDF has previously released video footage of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives detailing how they used Shifa Hospital as a base for terror operations, offering a glimpse into just how embedded the terror groups were in the medical facility.

One Hamas operative told interrogators at the time that he had been living in the hospital for months, and that the operatives don nurses’ uniforms in order to move around freely. A second said that the terror group used the medical residency department to store weapons, while the Islamic Jihad operatives preferred to store theirs in the maternity ward.

IDF troops operate in the area of Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, in a handout image published March 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The director of Shifa “is not a doctor, he is Doctor Mengele,” hawkish opposition lawmaker Avigdor Liberman charged, likening Abu Salmiya to the Nazi physician notorious for the twisted medical experiments he carried out on Auschwitz prisoners.

Gantz, Lapid and Sa’ar castigate the government

Avi Marciano, whose daughter Cpl. Noa Marciano was taken hostage from the Nahal Oz military base on October 7 and later murdered inside Shifa Hospital, slammed the government for what he said was yet another instance of neglect.

“Noa was abandoned before October 7 when they didn’t listen to her. She was abandoned on October 7 when they didn’t come to save her. She was abandoned after that when they didn’t do enough to return her home alive,” he wrote on Facebook. “And now, seven months after we buried her, the State of Israel decides to release those who are directly or indirectly responsible for her murder. I’m sorry, my girl, that you continue to be neglected.”

Also placing the blame for the hospital director’s release on the government rather than on the intelligence and security bodies, National Unity leader Benny Gantz and New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar roundly criticized their former coalition mates.

Israel “cannot continue waging war” in such a manner, Gantz charged. “A government that frees those who sheltered the murderers of October 7 and helped to hide our hostages made a moral and ethical operational error and thus is not fit to lead our existential war and needs to go home.”

Sa’ar declared that Israel was being run by a “failed government with two left hands,” and highlighted the seeming contradiction between Abu Salmiya’s release and the government’s stated goal of destroying Hamas’s governing and military capabilities.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid also joined the chorus of voices criticizing the government, claiming that the news of the hospital director’s release was “a direct continuation of the recklessness and dysfunction of the Israeli government, which is causing damage to the security of Israel’s citizens.

“The defense minister did not know, the public security minister was not involved,” he said, referring to Ben Gvir by the ministry’s previous title, which the ultranationalist politician demanded be altered at the start of his tenure.

There is “an exchange of accusations. Everything is leaked. This is what moral and functional disintegration looks like,” Lapid added.

Abu Salmiya, meanwhile, told reporters in Gaza that he was “surprised” that members of the Israeli government didn’t know he had left prison.

In a statement to local reporters, he said he had been released unconditionally without charges. He claimed that he was barred from meeting lawyers during his detention at the Sde Teiman facility in Israel, and that no international organization visited him or any of the other prisoners in jail.

Abu Salmiya further claimed that he had been subjected to torture and food deprivation and that prisoners did not receive medication. The Israel Prison Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gianluca Pacchiani contributed to this report.

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