Israel Frees Gaza Hospital Chief Held Without Charges for 7 Months

Israel released the chief of the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital on Monday after more than seven months of detention, Palestinian health officials said, a move that drew an immediate outcry in Israel even though no charges against him have been made public.

Mohammad Abu Salmiya, the director of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, was taken into custody in late November as he took part in an effort to evacuate patients from the hospital, which at the time was under siege by the Israeli military. The military said he was taken for questioning about Hamas operations at the hospital.

Reaction to Dr. Abu Salmiya’s release underlined divergent views of the war both inside and outside Israel. Human rights groups said his prolonged detention without charge was a sign of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners, many of them held for long periods with no charges or trials, while some Israeli officials on Monday denounced the decision to release him as an example of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mismanagement of the war.

Speaking at a news conference at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis after his release, Dr. Abu Salmiya, visibly frail, said that he had been released and returned to Gaza along with nearly 50 other Palestinian detainees, including other doctors and health ministry staff members.

“We were subjected to extreme torture,” he said, adding that his finger had been broken and that he had been beaten over the head repeatedly. The Israeli Prison Service, which operates the Nafha Prison where he was last held, said in a statement that it was not aware of Dr. Abu Salmiya’s claims, and that “all prisoners are detained according to the law.”

The reaction to Dr. Abu Salmiya’s release also highlighted rifts between the Israeli 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 demand for additional space in detention centers so more “terrorists in Israel and the Gaza Strip” could be arrested. As a result, the Shin Bet said, it and the military had been required to release a certain number of detainees who posed “a lesser danger,” to free up “places of incarceration” 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 won’t happen again.”

The Israeli Prison Service said in a statement that the decision had been made by the Israeli military and the Shin Bet, but the military said the detainee had not been 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 chief of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar. Mr. Gallant’s office replied with a statement saying the release of detainees is “not subject to approval of the Minister of Defense.”

Benny Gantz, an opposition leader in Parliament who quit Mr. Netanyahu’s war cabinet last month, accused the government of a moral failing and said Mr. Netanyahu’s taking no responsibility for the move was additional evidence of his inability to lead.

Israeli politicians, both inside and outside the governing coalition, and the security services have become increasingly blunt in publicly criticizing the government’s conduct of the war and its lack of postwar planning.

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

Mr. Netanyahu signaled that the most intensive fighting may be winding down, though that leaves open the possibility that the war will continue, at lower volume, for a long time. “We are advancing to the end of the stage of eliminating Hamas’s terrorist army; we will continue striking 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 charges and have been abused while in custody.

Of about 4,000 people detained from Gaza from Oct. 7 through late May, about 1,500 have been released back to the enclave, according to Israeli authorities.

Dr. Abu Salmiya was detained in November while traveling with a United Nations ambulance convoy that was evacuating patients from Al-Shifa Hospital to southern Gaza, and was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, the Gaza health ministry and the Palestine Red Crescent Society said.

At the time, the Israeli military said that he had been taken for questioning “following evidence showing that Al-Shifa Hospital, under his direct management, served as a Hamas command-and-control center” — an accusation that Hamas and hospital officials have denied. A spokesman for the Israeli military 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 although he was brought into three or four court proceedings, no charges were ever leveled against him.

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

To 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 publicized some evidence to support its case that Hamas operated from within the Shifa complex, including by showing reporters a fortified tunnel constructed underneath its grounds. An investigation by The New York Times suggested that Hamas had used the site for cover and stored weapons there. The Israeli military, however, has struggled to prove its assertion that Hamas maintained a command-and-control center under the hospital complex.

After their initial raid of Al-Shifa in November, Israeli troops withdrew from the area. But in late March, after the military said that remnants of Hamas’s military wing had regrouped there, Israeli forces returned to the hospital, touching off two weeks of combat in which they said they killed around 200 Palestinians and arrested hundreds of others.

The fighting badly damaged many of the hospital’s main buildings. Bodies were left scattered in and around the complex, according to a doctor there and a spokesman for the Palestine Civil Defense.

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

At least 310 medical workers in Gaza have been detained by Israeli forces since the start of the war, the health ministry said on Sunday. It did not specify how many had been released.

The number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons has swelled since the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza. Israeli troops have arrested hundreds of people in Gaza as they search for fighters, the military said, while security forces in the occupied West Bank have conducted a crackdown that they say is intended to root out militants.

Rights groups say that the arrests are often arbitrary and that the conditions in which Palestinians are held can be inhumane. Israel says the imprisoned Palestinians — who include avowed senior militants convicted of brutal attacks — are treated in accordance with international standards.

Reporting was contributed by Myra Noveck, Abu Bakr Bashir, Gabby Sobelman, Patrick Kingsley, Bilal Shbair and Aaron Boxerman.

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