Palestinian-US woman held for supporting Hamas freed on bail to West Bank home

IDF court rules social media posts by New Orleans resident Samaher Esmail, which included images of terror leaders, ‘constituted incitement and support of an illegal organization’

This undated family photo shows Samaher Esmail, a Palestinian-American from Louisiana who is being tried in Israeli military court for incitement, pictured on a family trip to Turkey. (Family handout via AP)
This undated family photo shows Samaher Esmail, a Palestinian-American from Louisiana who is being tried in Israeli military court for incitement, pictured on a family trip to Turkey. (Family handout via AP)

A US citizen who was taken from her home and detained by Israeli authorities for over three weeks was released on bail Thursday to wait out the remainder of her trial in the West Bank.

Samaher Esmail, a 46-year-old mother of Palestinian origin and resident of New Orleans, had been in the West bank for under three months when she was charged with incitement for several photos and messages she posted to social media. Some of them involved images of top Hamas terror leaders, including a notorious bomb-maker who orchestrated suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis in the 1990s, but did not explicitly call for violence.

Esmail is now allowed to return to her West Bank village. She will only be able to go back to the US once her trial concludes, which could take months, and only if she is found not guilty.

That a US citizen is being tried in military court — a legal system for West Bank Palestinians separate from the Israeli civilian courts — has drawn widespread criticism. Israel says it provides due process and largely imprisons those who threaten its security. Palestinians and human rights groups charge the system is awash in violations of due process and almost always renders guilty verdicts, with 95 percent of military court hearings ending in convictions, according to Israeli watchdog Military Court Watch.

Esmail’s representatives and family celebrated Thursday’s decision to release her on bail but expressed dismay at what they perceive as a tepid US government response to the incarceration of an American by Israel.

“We’re ecstatic because we feel like this rarely happens,” said Esmail’s son, Suliman Hamed, who lives in New Orleans. “I feel like because of all the media coverage they may have done it fairly this time around. I really thought I might never see her again.”

A video of Esmail being taken out of her house by Israeli forces on February 6 provoked outrage on social media. Esmail’s lawyer charges that Israeli forces beat her during the arrest, did not give her time to put on her hijab and her Israeli interrogator did not ask properly if Esmail wanted an attorney present.

A video posted to social media purporting to show Samaher Esmail being detained by Israeli forces at her home in the West Bank on February 6, 2024. (Screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Little was known publicly about her whereabouts, the charges against her, or her condition.

She was not able to see a lawyer until four days after her arrest, according to court documents from her initial hearing. Esmail reportedly did not have access to her medications for at least the first six days of her detention and fainted in prison, according to a letter written to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken by Jonathan Franks, a crisis management consultant who represents Americans detained abroad and is working for Esmail’s family. A consular officer did not visit Esmail until 14 days after her arrest, Franks said Thursday.

“I was extremely frustrated, given the issue of her potentially having been abused in custody, that it took 14 days to get a consular officer to see her,” said Franks, who flew from the US to attend Thursday’s hearing. “I would like to see a public statement from the embassy that it’s our expectation that Americans are not going to be put through these military commissions. And I don’t think that that’s too much to ask of a friend.”

The judge ruled Thursday at Ofer prison that the military court did not have jurisdiction to prosecute Esmail for posts she made while in the US, but charged her with incitement for posts she made while in the West Bank. Esmail attended the hearing remotely, via video conference from Damon prison.

Three of the posts involved a figure resembling Abu Obeida, the spokesman of Hamas’ armed wing. Under two of the images was the inscription “Victory or death of the Saints, God willing,” according to court documents. Esmail also changed her profile picture to a masked man resembling Obeida twirling a ball on his finger, emblazoned with US and Israeli flags.

She also posted a photo of Yahya Ayyash against the backdrop of the al-Aqsa mosque. Nicknamed the Engineer, Ayyash was known for both developing Hamas’s use of suicide bombings and building many of the explosives used in attacks that took the lives of dozens of Israelis in the early and mid-1990s. He was killed by Israel in 1996.

None of the posts in question received more than 11 likes.

“The posts constituted incitement and support of an illegal organization, and are therefore not protected speech,” the judge said Thursday.

Abu Obeida, the spokesman of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, gives a video statement on July 23, 2019. (Screen capture/ Facebook/ File)

The court’s decision means that Esmail will have to remain in the West Bank until the legal proceedings against her are complete. During that time, Esmail is barred from posting publicly on social media. Her next trial at a military court is set for March 31, according to Franks.

In the meantime, her family is worried that she will not have access to adequate cancer treatment in the West Bank and that Israel may arrest her again.

Thursday’s hearings followed a previous military court hearing six days after her arrest in which the military judge assigned to her case openly questioned the wisdom of prosecuting an American citizen and wondered if the court had jurisdiction, according to case files obtained by The Associated Press.

“It is not wise to file an indictment against her based on the allegations,” the judge said at the time. “In the substantial sense, nor even in the political sense (in its international sense).”

Despite the judge’s recommendation that Esmail be released on bail, the military prosecutor filed an indictment — leading to Thursday’s hearing.

An Israeli army vehicle drives outside the Ofer military prison in the West Bank in November 2023. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

The case comes at a time of tension between the US and Israel over the war in Gaza, which erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacres, which saw thousands of terrorists burst across the border, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping another 253, mostly civilians.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched a wide-scale military offensive that Gaza health authorities say has claimed over 30,000 lives. The figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Since that day, Israel has clamped down on online speech perceived to glorify Hamas or the Palestinian cause. Rights groups say Palestinians have been arrested by Israeli authorities, fired by Israeli employers and expelled from Israeli schools for speech deemed incendiary.

Hamed, Esmail’s son, said the family was disappointed that the embassy did not send a high-ranking official to attend Thursday’s hearing, despite the family’s representatives asking them to.

The US Embassy did not have an immediate comment.

Esmail’s family said she often traveled back and forth between the West Bank and the US, where she manages a family-owned grocery store in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna and worked as a tutor at a nearby high school. She was in the West Bank to see relatives and to testify at a hearing about a previous encounter with Israeli forces where she was beaten, her representatives said.

“It’s clear why they’re holding her,” said Hamed. “They’re trying to use her as an example and to intimidate Palestinians. Cases like these have people deleting their social media, and canceling their trips to Palestine. They’re trying to silence us.”

Since October 7, IDF troops have arrested some 3,400 wanted Palestinians across the West Bank, including more than 1,500 affiliated with Hamas. Even before then, tensions were elevated in the West Bank, with Israeli forces carrying out nightly raids in the northern West Bank against increasingly emboldened Palestinian terror groups.

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