Israel holding Palestinian who disappeared in Egypt

Palestinians hold a rally Monday in the West Bank city of Hebron to show solidarity with prisoners held by Israel.
(Abed al Hashlamoun / EPA)

JERUSALEM -- A Palestinian man who disappeared while visiting Egypt is being held in an Israeli jail on suspicion of security offenses, an Israeli court disclosed Wednesday.

The court in the southern city of Beersheva partially lifted a gag order, allowing Israeli media to report that Wael Abu Rida, a 35-year-old former policeman from the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, was taken into Israeli custody June 21. He was brought before a judge Wednesday and remanded in custody for a further eight days.

Israeli authorities said Abu Rida is a member of Al Aqsa Defenders, a Palestinian militant group that fires rockets at Israel. But at the request of Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, the court did not disclose other details about the case, including how Abu Rida wound up in an Israeli jail.


The Reuters news agency reported last month that Abu Rida had been staying near the Egyptian capital, Cairo, while seeking cancer treatment for his son.

According to the man’s wife, Amani, Abu Rida received a telephone call from an acquaintance asking to meet on the Egyptian side of Rafah, the Sinai Peninsula town that straddles the border with Gaza. She had not seen him since, she told Reuters.

The family later received word that Abu Rida was being held in Israel for “security related” issues; they said they knew of no ties he may have had to Palestinian militants.

Israeli media was until Wednesday barred from reporting on the case, although it was covered online by international news agencies and foreign bloggers not bound by the country’s gag orders.

American blogger Richard Silverstein, a frequent reporter on matters that are censored in Israel, launched a Facebook campaign called “Free Wael Abu Rida, Stop Mossad Kidnapping.”

“The Mossad breaches Egypt’s sovereignty -- and Morsi lets them,” Egyptian analyst Sherifa Zuhur wrote last month, underscoring the political sensitivity of the incident at a time when Egypt’s then-president, Mohamed Morsi, was facing major protests against his government. Morsi was overthrown last week by the Egyptian military.


It is not the first time that suspected Palestinian militants have disappeared while traveling abroad only to end up in Israeli custody.

Two years ago, Dirar Abu Sisi boarded a train in Ukraine but never reached his destination. Ten days later he turned up in an Israeli jail. Abu Sisi’s family said he was an engineer at Gaza’s only electrical power plant. Israel said he was a missile expert working for Hamas and indicted him on terrorism charges.

The disclosures about Abu Rida’s arrest came a day after court documents were released revealing that an Israeli citizen had also been secretly taken into custody.

Attorney Avidgor Feldman told local media that the man was a member of a security agency suspected of “sensational and shocking” offenses that could embarrass Israeli authorities.

There is mounting public anger in Israel over the practice of secret arrests and imprisonment of the country’s own citizens.

Feldman represented Australian-born Mossad agent Ben Zygier, who in 2010 committed suicide in a top-security section of Israel’s Ayalon prison, where he had been held for nearly a year for alleged security breaches that reportedly exposed spies in Lebanon.


Zygier was held in isolation, his identity kept from his security guards. His family and attorney had access to him, but a gag order banned Israeli media from reporting on the case until February, after it was disclosed by Australian media.

In a radio interview Tuesday, Feldman provided few details about the current case, saying he was sitting outdoors and could be taken into custody at any moment.

Responding to lawmakers’ demands for clarifications, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said Wednesday that “there are no disappeared prisoners in Israel.” Families were informed of their loved-ones’ incarceration, he said, but circumstances sometimes required that information be withheld from the public.

Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the allegations in the current case were “extremely severe,” but that Israel scrupulously “protects the rights of prisoners in accordance with the law.”


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