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Sexual abuse and beatings: A Palestinian mother's ordeal in Israeli custody

A woman abducted by Israeli forces from a school in Gaza recalls her harrowing experience in detention
A Palestinian woman stands at the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, 14 December 2023 (Retuers/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
By Ahmed Aziz in Gaza, occupied Palestine

Editor's note: This article contains distressing details.

Sexual abuse, beatings, yelling, deprivation of food, lack of medical care and psychological torment. 

This was life in Israeli detention for Amena Hussain*.

The Palestinian mother of three was abducted by Israeli forces from her place of refuge in the war-torn Gaza Strip in late December.

For over 40 days, she was held in unimaginable conditions.

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She is one of hundreds of Palestinian women, girls, men and elders who have been arbitrarily detained by invading Israeli troops throughout the ongoing assault.

They are held incommunicado, with Israeli soldiers taking them to unknown locations and providing no information about their whereabouts.

Hussain was one of the lucky few who made it out. The following account is based on an interview she gave to Middle East Eye, in which she recalls her harrowing experience in Israeli detention. 

Night raid 

Hussain lived in Gaza City with her two daughters, aged 13 and 12, and her son, aged six. 

Four days after the war started on 7 October, her sister joined them in the house after her home was bombed. 

For nearly a month, they lived under the horrifying sounds of relentless nearby air strikes. 

The city, home to nearly one million people before the war, had come under a bombing campaign seen as among the most destructive in recent history, proportionally causing more damage than that of the Allied bombing of Germany in World War Two. 

Desperate for a sense of safety, Hussain left with her three children to take shelter at a school in Gaza. 

But that wasn't enough. 

"The army kept obsessively calling my mobile phone and asking everyone to leave the school," Hussain told MEE. 

"I gathered my children and went seeking refuge at a school in the central Gaza Strip in the Nuseirat area, but it was so unbelievably crowded that we couldn't find a place to stand up, let alone, sit or sleep. I ended up walking around the schools looking for a safe place for my children until we found a school to stay in at the al-Bureij refugee camp," she said.

"I stayed there for the next eight days. On the ninth day, the school was bombed by the Israeli army, although they knew it was sheltering displaced women, children and entire families. Thank God my children and I survived the bombing. Next, I sought shelter at another school."

Palestinian take refuge at a UN school in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, on 24 February 2024 (Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Reuters)
Palestinians take refuge at a UN school in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, on 24 February 2024 (Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Reuters)

Displaced multiple times in less than two months, Hussain was relieved to finally find a suitable shelter in the central Gaza Strip. 

But her worst nightmare hadn't started yet. Less than a month after arriving at the latest school, which MEE is not naming to protect the identity of Hussain, Israeli troops arrived. 

"They viciously broke in at 2:30 after midnight, ordering everyone to leave the school. They attacked everyone. The soldiers took the boys out and stripped them naked. They dragged all the men out with their boxers. We stayed like this until 10:00 in the morning. 

"At around 3pm, the soldiers told the women to take their children and leave, ordering them to head south. Speaking through a microphone, they said each woman could take only one bag and her children. I tried to gather all the food cans I could and take the most necessary things for our survival and leave."

As women began to exit the school, some of them were stopped. Hussain was among them. 

"The soldiers asked for my ID and took me along with nine other women. I didn't know any of them, as they were from al-Bureij while I am from Gaza. A masked man pointed at me and the soldier called my name and asked me to enter a tent, claiming there's a doctor there who wishes to speak briefly.”"

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To comfort her children, Hussain said she was going to get them food and water from the tent. 

But when she entered, an Israeli female officer was waiting for her inside. There were no doctors. 

"Remove everything," the officer said, speaking in Arabic.

Undressed down to her knickers, Hussain was searched from head to toe.
"When she didn't find anything, she asked me to dress up and I thought I was being released, when suddenly I felt the soldier behind me sticking a gun to my back and screaming at me to walk. 'Where am I going?' I asked the soldier, and he replied by telling me to shut up and continue walking until he put me inside a big van with other women inside," Hussain said.

"He handcuffed me, hit me with his weapon and tried to hand me my ID. It was dark, I couldn't see anything and couldn't catch it. So, he hit me with his weapon again and gave it to me."

The van then set off for a long drive. 

Welcome to Israel 

After four or five hours, the van arrived at its destination. 

"I panicked, I felt that I was far away from my children," Hussain said. 

There, at a location undisclosed to her, she saw a group of Israeli men. One of them told the women:
"Welcome to Israel."

"Shocked and terrified at the idea that I was inside Israel, I started whaling and shouting: 'What about my children, what will happen to them, I can't leave them alone, they have no one.' I felt I was going crazy. They said my kids were fine, but I didn't believe them."

One of the women was released at that point, while the remaining nine, including Hussain, were taken to what appeared to be a detention facility.

There they saw a group of young Palestinian men, approximately 30 or 40, sitting in the cold and wearing nothing but a light lab coat.

'It was pure torture. She was very vindictive and extremely violent and resentful, as they all were'

- Amena Hussain

The women were offered blankets, but Hussain couldn't stand watching the men stripped of their clothes without offering some help.  

"I told the women we should share the blankets with the men. They were freezing in the blistering cold. I couldn't stand to see them like that. I thought about my children and worried about them." 

The two groups then began introducing themselves to each other, hoping to get any information about their families.

But after a short while, the women were taken out again, with handcuffs and numbered bracelets on their hands.

"They put us on a bus, forcing us to sit with our bodies bent down. If I moved my head or adjusted my body, a female soldier screamed and hit me with her weapon. She would curse me and kick me," Hussain told MEE.

"Then they transferred us to another bus, where I was finally given a sip of water. Just a sip of water. It was the first thing we had to eat or drink in 24 hours since they took us from the school. I suffer from diabetes and I have chronic blood pressure. I told the soldiers this throughout this time but they didn't care. 

"But when I finally had that sip of water, I quenched my thirst and fell asleep. Next thing I knew, it was daylight."

Naked searches 

After a long and exhausting day, the group of women arrived at what appeared to be another detention facility, where they spent the next 11 days. 

Hussain did not know for certain where she was or what the facility looked like because she was mostly blindfolded and heard only Hebrew in the vicinity, which she did not understand. 

Upon their arrival there, she was taken into a room and the blindfolds were removed. 

"I saw bright lights and a glass window that I suspect had surveillance cameras," she said. 

"The Israeli female soldiers started beating me and shouting at me to take off my clothes. I was surprised I was being asked to take off my clothes again. She stripped me down to my knickers. She kept spitting on me in the process," Hussain added.

"At every point during my detention, whenever we were transferred between locations, we were strip-searched. The officers would stick their hands in my chest and inside my trousers. They hit and kicked us and if we made any move or sound, they screamed at us to shut up."

When the soldiers were done searching Hussain in that room, they did not return her clothes to her. 
"I begged the female soldier to give me back my bra. I said I couldn't move without it but she kept screaming that I could not wear it. She threw me trousers and a T-shirt and said you can wear only these. She kept kicking me, hitting me with her baton as I dressed up."

Israeli soldiers stand by a truck packed with shirtless Palestinian detainees in the Gaza Strip 8 December 2023 (Reuters/Yossi Zeliger)
Israeli soldiers stand by a truck packed with shirtless Palestinian detainees in the Gaza Strip, 8 December 2023 (Reuters/Yossi Zeliger)

"It was pure torture. She was very vindictive and extremely violent and resentful, as they all were. They were abusing me by all means. It was shocking to see women abuse other women, other women who are their age or even older. How could they do that to us?"

Hussain was then taken to another room where she was to give information about what money and jewellery she had on. The $1,000 or so she had with her, along with her gold earrings, were taken from her there. She was then taken out, still being kicked and manhandled in the process by the soldiers. 

Then, she heard a voice that sounded like her daughter's. 

"I thought I heard my girls calling on me, so I started shouting back 'my baby, my baby', only to find out that it was not my daughter."

Hussain's testimony of the abuse she endured comes as UN experts only last week expressed concern over reports of sexual assault that Palestinian women and girls were subjected to by Israeli soldiers. 

"At least two female Palestinian detainees were reportedly raped while others were reportedly threatened with rape and sexual violence," the experts said. 

Female detainees were also being "subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, denied menstruation pads, food and medicine, and severely beaten". 

Cages and interrogations

Eventually, Hussain was taken into a small room along with the eight other women detained with her as well as four more. 

All 13 were put in a dark small room, which looked like a cage where animals are kept, according to Hussain. "There were thin mattresses in the cages with some blankets but no pillows. It was like sleeping on the cold floor. We were kept handcuffed the whole time," she said.

"The bathrooms were all filthy and we were afraid of getting sick just from using the bathroom. There was no running water. You walk around with a bottle of water that is for drinking and washing. 

"The girls tried to help and support one another. We wanted to pray but there was no water for pre-prayer ablution, so we used soil instead.

"For food, they brought a small amount each day which was barely enough for one person. We barely had any food. It was extremely difficult to manage without food and water, without clothes and blankets.

'My body was sick and exhausted. It was beaten and violated. I felt I was going to collapse' 

- Amena Hussain

"My body was sick and exhausted. It was beaten and violated. I felt I was going to collapse. I was worried sick about my children, wondering if they were safe, if they had food and water, if they were warm and had someone to care for them." 

The group of women spent 11 days in this facility, during which Hussain was taken for interrogation twice, an experience no less traumatising.

"They asked me many questions about my family, my husband and my siblings," Hussain recalled.  

"The soldiers kept threatening to hurt my children, shouting at me that if I don't tell the truth, they will torture and kill my kids. 

"They kept asking about my brothers and sisters. One of my brothers is a lawyer and two others are professors and one is a doctor and one barber. They are working people, they have no connection to anything else. They kept insisting that they were 'activists', and when I asked what they meant, they said I knew the answer. 

"During the interrogations, they tied me to a chair and a female soldier stood next to me, kicking me and shoving me with her weapon to answer properly. 

"They also asked about my social media accounts and I told them I only had Facebook. They threatened they would keep watching me on it."

After suffering in this undisclosed detention facility for 11 days, Hussain was then moved again, this time to a prison.

End of the road

By the time she arrived there, Hussain was exhausted, in pain and starving. She had not taken medication for her diabetes for days, and her health was getting worse. Her cellmates kept shouting for a doctor, who finally came and offered them a bit more food and some medication. 

They were then finally able to take a shower for the first time in weeks. 

"That was the best moment of my entire time there. I felt free for a brief moment."

Hussain was kept in this prison for 32 days. Food was given three times a day, but each meal was not enough for one person. Rice, when it was offered, was uncooked.

On the 42nd day, it was finally time to go home. 

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"Everything you have, papers or anything else, you cannot take it with you, leave everything here," a soldier told the group of women as they prepared to leave. 

"The soldiers stole everything from me. I didn't get back my cash or any of my belongings. They just gave me back my earrings in an envelope and stole all my money," Hussain said.  

But by this point, Hussain thought the worst part was behind her, only to be shocked that the way back was as traumatising as the way in.
"After a three-hour drive, we were taken to another big room. There, they removed my eye cover and I saw a group of Palestinian women naked. The female soldiers were kicking me and asking me to undress. I refused but she kept kicking and hitting me. The soldiers kept going in and out of the room, while we were undressed."

The group of women were finally able to dress up again ahead of their release. 

But just before they got on the bus, an Israeli journalist with a camera came to capture the scene, filming Hussain's face. 

"A soldier told me to say 'everything is fine' to the camera and I did. As soon as the journalist finished filming, I was pushed into the bus. We were dropped off at the Karem Abu Salem (Karem Shalom) crossing. I turned to the soldier and asked about my belongings and my money. He said: 'Run. Just run.'

"Then I ran, along with all the other women."

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee

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