The quest to find Palestinians forcibly disappeared by Israel

The vast majority of the forcibly disappeared include children below the legal age, young people aged 18 to 35, and the elderly. [Getty]

A group of Palestinian lawyers started an initiative earlier in June to track and defend what is estimated to be thousands of individuals forcibly disappeared by Israel from the besieged coastal enclave since the beginning of the war

Since its launch, the “Legal Representation for the Prisoners Kidnapped from the Gaza Strip since October 7th” received an estimated 1,500 cases, the initiative’s founder Ahmed Bassiouny told The New Arab

“Through a registration link, families of abductees individually proceed with power of attorney procedures,” said Bassiouny, who is originally from Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip.

“Lawyers can then know the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared within a short period, depending on the response of the Israeli authorities,” he added.

To date, it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared Palestinians, including women and children, whose whereabouts remain unknown to their families.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in an 8 April report that it has helped 1,720 cases out of 7,751 requests it had received from “family members seeking to clarify the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones through existing channels and additional emergency hotlines in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.” The organisation is also “engaged with 5,541 families of 7,088 Palestinians reported missing in Gaza to collect relevant information to help us clarify the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones,” the statement said.

In November, Bassiouny’s 15-year-old nephew Ismail Al-Seefy became one of those thousands, after he was arrested by Israeli soldiers and forcibly disappeared. Bassiouny recalled how months of attempting to locate Al-Seefy’s whereabouts while navigating Israel’s recurring attacks on Jabalia amounted to nothing.

Managing to finally exit the war-wrecked enclave in April, he contacted lawyer Marah Amara from Nazareth in northern Israel from Qatar and provided her with a power of attorney. A few days later, he learned that his nephew was detained in Megiddo prison.

“This was when it became clear to me the effectiveness of individual power of attorneys for each one of the disappeared,” he told TNA, and he sought to offer other families the same. 

How it’s done

According to Bassiouny, “families use the form to create an electronic power of attorney and an electronic signature for the family member who has been forcibly disappeared from the Gaza Strip, for a lawyer to pursue the case with the Israeli authorities.”

These requests are then handled by four lawyers in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, including Amara, Nadia Daqqa and Khaled Mahagna, who then embark on their hunt for the missing individuals. 

Bassiouny explained that the need for this initiative stemmed from his realisation that local human rights institutions are “failing to fulfil their entrusted tasks, despite the availability of several routes to find out the fate of the forcibly disappeared, which they do not follow for reasons related to lack of interest or funding.”

Deputy General Director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental human rights organisation, Samir Zaqout debunked the claim of the lack of interest of local organisations in pursuing the forcibly disappeared. 

“Efforts have been exhausted by local organisations and UN bodies to locate missing individuals since the beginning of the war. Our reports were integral to the case of South Africa against Israel in the ICJ,” Zaqout stressed, adding, “We are dealing with an occupation force that deems Gazans as anything but humans, and that refuses to provide any information about the forcibly disappeared.”

The inhumane mistreatment of thousands of prisoners from Gaza by Israel came to the fore last month following a CNN report that disclosed the details of the abuse they’re subjected to in the unofficial prison of Sde Teiman.

“Israel has effectively neutralised all international institutions as well, leaving no one willing to follow up on the cases of the forcibly disappeared,” Bassiouny told TNA.

Bassiouny noted that, while the initiative attempts to bridge a gap left by local institutions, there are many hurdles it cannot solve without these institutions’ support and available resources. 

“There are thousands of forcibly disappeared people from Gaza, but the number of participating lawyers is limited, not exceeding four, along with support from HaMoked and Adalah rights organisations. These thousands require individual powers of attorney to locate them. There is also the difficulty of compiling names and communicating with the families of the forcibly disappeared due to poor communication infrastructure and outages in Gaza,” Bassiouny said.

TNA attempted to reach out to Palestinian lawyers who hold Israeli citizenship involved in the initiative, but they declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the matter. 

New channel for families

Nisreen Dohan is overcome with fear whenever she remembers that her eldest son, Youssef, 21, may be exposed to harm. She lacks any official information about his fate since the Israeli army arrested him last November at a military checkpoint near Hamad Town, northwest of Khan Younis.

The grieving mother often flips through pictures of her son, who studies computer engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza, on her mobile phone. She remembers his last moments before the Israeli army stormed their residential area without warning, forcing residents to evacuate. During the evacuation, Israeli forces arrested some of them, including her son.

Upon the son’s disappearance, Dohan’s husband registered all the information, including his age and ID number, with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other local organisations, but to no avail. Over the past months, Dohan and her husband approached lawyers who could provide information about their son, and the initiative launched by Bassiouny is one of them, in an attempt to receive any information, however small, about their son.

Dohan, 40, cries intensely whenever she hears about the killing of a Palestinian inside Israeli prisons without the announcement of their name, fuelling her fears that it might be her son. She became certain that Palestinian detainees were subject to severe forms of torture, according to accounts she heard from those who were recently released.

The vast majority of the forcibly disappeared include children below the legal age, young people aged 18 to 35, and the elderly. Most of them were arrested at Israeli military checkpoints separating the north and south of the Gaza Strip, or during the detention of those trapped in shelter centres, medical personnel, and individuals who refused to be displaced from their homes, according to Bassiouny. 

“My son is a civilian Palestinian citizen who has no connection to any political activities and was arrested while pushing his grandmother’s stroller, who is unable to walk, through the checkpoint. The mere failure to provide any information about him constitutes a real crime and increases my concerns about the possibility of him being subjected to widespread torture like the rest of the forcibly disappeared,” Dohan concluded. 

This article was published in collaboration with Egab.

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