Abu Salmiya claims he was put through 'severe torture'

PM says ‘grave mistake’ to free Gaza hospital head; panel to oversee future releases

Prison service rejects claim of overcrowding, releases video of Abu Salmiya’s cell; Shin Bet chief reportedly sent letter to ministers warning full prisons were ‘ticking time bomb’

Shifa Hospital director Mohammed Abu Salmiya makes a statement after his release from Israeli prison alongside other detainees, at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, July 1, 2024. (Bashar TALEB / AFP)
Shifa Hospital director Mohammed Abu Salmiya makes a statement after his release from Israeli prison alongside other detainees, at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, July 1, 2024. (Bashar TALEB / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday criticized the decision to release the head of Gaza’s largest hospital from Israel prison as a “grave mistake,” while he sought to deflect blame over the move.

With security officials and elected leaders continuing to trade recriminations over the release of Mohammad Abu Salmiya, Netanyahu ordered the creation of an interagency body to oversee future decisions to release detainees following their interrogations.

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.

But on Monday, he was back in Gaza, and pictures of him being greeted upon his return sparked an angry flurry of accusations and counterclaims over his release, which the Shin Bet said it had approved, due to a lack of space in prisons for the thousands of detainees rounded up by Israel in the Strip.

In a statement Monday night, Netanyahu stressed that the decision to release Abu Salmiya was made without the knowledge of political leaders or the heads of the security agencies.

“The release of the director of Shifa Hospital is a grave mistake and a moral failure,” he said. “The place of this man, under whose responsibility our abductees were murdered and held, is in prison.”

Channel 13 news however reported that Netanyahu was updated about the expected release as early as Thursday, saying he asked a National Security Council representative about it during a cabinet meeting. The National Security Council official in turn reportedly said staff work was being done on the matter.

In response to the report, Netanyahu’s office denied a final decision about releasing the prisoners had been made when he discussed it last week and again insisted he was kept in the dark.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 24, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The statement from Netanyahu also said representatives from the Defense Ministry, IDF, Shin Bet, and National Security Council would form a body to approve the release of detainees whose interrogations had been completed.

It did not specify whether the body would be limited to detainees captured from Gaza.

The premier said he would meet with Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar on Tuesday to receive the findings of a probe into the decision to release Abu Salmiya, along with 55 other Palestinian detainees.

Palestinians inspect the damage outside Gaza’s Shifa Hospital after the Israeli military withdrew from the complex housing the hospital on April 1, 2024. (AFP)

Netanyahu said earlier that the High Court was at least partially responsible for the release; opposition leaders said the government had failed and should go home; and the Shin Bet said it had been warning for a year that there were not enough cells to hold suspects, but that National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and others in the government had ignored its concerns.

Rejecting claims by the Shin Bet that prisons were overcrowded, the Israel Prison Service released footage from inside the cell it claimed had held Abu Salmiya, where prison guards were seen at the entrance of the cell aiming guns and pepper spray at eight prisoners who were kneeling on the other side of the amply sized room.

“The footage of the detention cell of the Shifa Hospital director shows that the detainee was held in prison and was not released because of an “overcrowded prison,” the IPS said in a statement.

“He has a bed and there are other detainees together with him in the cell, so the whole claim that he was released due to a lack of prison space is fundamentally unfounded,” the statement read, adding that the service does not decide which prisoners to release.

The IPS said that, since October 7, it has accelerated the construction of extra space in prison, adding 2,500 spots for security prisoners, while 936 new places are to be added in the coming months. A further 1,200 spots will be built by the end of the year, as part of an emergency construction project.

But according to Channel 12 news, the Shin Bet director warned just five days ago that overflowing prisons would become a “ticking time bomb,” and that Israel would be forced to release security prisoners.

“The physical and mental living conditions may lead to acts of violence inside the jails and prisons, and some inmates are already planning acts of violence and revenge,” Bar wrote in a letter sent to the prime minister, defense minister, national security minister, national security adviser, Netanyahu’s military secretary, the head of the IPS, and the attorney general, the report said.

According to Bar’s letter, conditions for prisoners were worsening, as jails were only meant to handle 14,000 prisoners, but were holding 21,000.

This undated photo taken in the winter 2023 and provided by Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower group of former Israeli soldiers, shows blindfolded Palestinians captured in the Gaza Strip in a detention facility on the Sde Teiman military base in southern Israel. (Breaking The Silence via AP)

“The prison crisis has negative strategic consequences for Israel, first and foremost in terms of international legitimacy for the continuation of the war. This is a danger for the future of the country’s security,” he reportedly wrote, adding that poor conditions for prisoners could be considered crimes under international law, and would harm Israel’s ability to defend itself against potential arrest warrants served by the International Criminal Court.

The Shin Bet refused to comment on the reported letter.

Ben Gvir earlier blamed Bar for the release of the prisoners, calling it an act of “security recklessness” and demanding he be ousted.

Officials from Netanyahu’s office told the Ynet news site that, due to the court-ordered closing of the Sde Teiman detention camp, the National Security Council suggested the IDF and Shin Bet draw up a list of prisoners it could free to make room in other facilities. The council also requested the High Court give a three-day extension to solve issues surrounding the closing of Sde Teiman.

File – IDF soldiers stand by a truck packed with bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainees, in Gaza, December 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod, Haaretz, File)

Nonetheless, the prisoners were released on Monday, without verifying their identities, the report said.

Last month, state attorneys told the High Court of Justice that inmates held at Sde Teiman, which opened after October 7, would be gradually transported to permanent holding facilities after rights groups claimed there had been abuse of inmates.

Following his release from custody, Abu Salmiya said Monday that he and other prisoners were put through “severe torture” in Israeli prisons, repeating claims made by other Gazans who have been detained and then released.

“Several inmates died in interrogation centers and were deprived of food and medicine,” charged Abu Salmiya, who said he still had a broken thumb.

“For two months, no prisoner ate more than a loaf of bread a day,” he claimed. “Detainees were subjected to physical and psychological humiliation.”

Shifa Hospital director Mohammed Abu Salmiya is welcomed by relatives after his release from Israeli prison alongside other detainees, at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip July 1, 2024. (Bashar TALEB / AFP)

The medical chief said no charge had ever been made against him.

The military has denied that widespread abuse of prisoners has taken place and said that any allegations would be investigated.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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