Family members told The Washington Post they saw relatives with no ties to Hamas or armed groups led away by Israeli soldiers at gunpoint and have heard nothing from them since.
Mahmoud Almadhoun, his 13-year-old son, 72-year-old father and several other relatives were detained Thursday. That morning, Israeli tanks rolled by their family home in Beit Lahia in Gaza’s smoldering north. Soldiers ordered them and dozens of other men out.
In a widely shared video, Almadhoun, 33, is seen in his underwear on the ground in a line of men. They sat for hours, he told The Post on Saturday, before soldiers tied their hands and loaded them into trucks. They drove by burning cars to a beach somewhere between Beit Lahia and inside Israel. Almadhoun feared he would not return. “None of the people they detained were Hamas or any kind of fighters,” he said.
Israeli forces say they’re looking for members of Hamas and participants in the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, when fighters streamed out of Gaza to kill 1,200 people and take another 240 hostage. Israel responded with a military campaign the commanders say is aimed eradicating the militant group as a political and military force in Gaza. It has killed more than 17,000 people in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
But Israeli authorities have not said how many people they’ve detained, the legal grounds or where they’re being held, including whether in Gaza or in Israel. The Israel Defense Forces referred questions to the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. The Shin Bet did not respond to requests for comment.
Yasser Alyan told The Post that he last saw 20-year-old Ahmed Al-Lahman, whom he described as a surrogate son, on Nov. 20 as they walked south. The family was fleeing Beit Lahia along Salah al-Din Road, the route Israel had told people to take.
What happened next followed what has emerged as a pattern. When the family reached the Netzarim checkpoint, the site of an old Israeli settlement, soldiers called Lahman over. Alyan hasn’t seen him since.
The family waited for hours, Alyan said, until Israeli soldiers shot in their direction and warned them to leave. A relative who was detained with Lahman, but released that day, told Alyan that they were made to strip to their underwear and pass before what appeared to be a facial recognition scanner, he said.
Lahman, an amateur singer, “had no connection to any organizations or political orientations at all, so we are shocked and surprised by his arrest,” Alyan said. He and his wife contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross repeatedly. The organization said it had no information.
The ICRC received more than 3,000 reports of missing Gazans between Oct. 7 and Nov. 29, spokeswoman Sarah Davies said. She could not specify how many involved detentions.
The video of Almadhoun, among images first shared by Israeli media, suggest the scale and conditions of some arrests.
Israeli media outlets reported without citing sources that the videos showed members of Hamas. Friends and family of several of those pictured told The Post that their loved ones were taken from their homes and had no connection to Hamas or any armed group.
Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Friday that the people in the images are “military age men” found in “Hamas strongholds” and “areas where civilians were supposed to have evacuated.”
“Those individuals will be questioned and we will work out who indeed was a Hamas terrorist and who was not,” he said.
Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari said Friday that the military had detained more than 200 suspects over the previous 48 hours in Gaza and referred dozens to questioning.
Hani Almadhoun, the Washington-based director of philanthropy at UNRWA USA, told The Post he was shocked when he saw his brother Mahmoud, 32, in the video.
Another brother was killed in an airstrike Nov. 24, just before the start of a week-long humanitarian truce.
Mahmoud Almadhoun said at the beach soldiers cursed at them, scanned them with what appeared to be facial recognition equipment and left them in their underwear, exposed to the elements. When they asked for food or water, soldiers would kick or curse at them, he said.
Sometime after midnight, soldiers transported him and other men closer to Beit Lahia and left them to walk back barefoot.
Two college-aged distinct cousins did not return, Hani Almadhoun said.
The Gaza Health Ministry says Israel has detained 31 medical workers — doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers — whose whereabouts remain unknown. The most prominent detainee is al-Shifa Hospital Director Mohamed Abu Salmiya, who the IDF says allowed Hamas to use bunkers underneath the hospital as a command center. The ministry and medical staff deny the accusation.
Hana Herbst, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Prisons Authority, said she could not comment on specific cases.
International law allows military forces to detain combatants. But they may arrest or detain civilians only “if it’s absolutely necessary,” said Omar Shakir, the Human Rights Watch director for Israel and Palestine. Civilians must be charged within 48 hours and allowed to challenge their detention, among other protections, he said, or released.
“You have to have a very high bar if you are going to detain civilians,” Shakir said. “It can’t just be, ‘Well anyone could attack us any time.’”
“Israel’s abusive and discriminatory detention practices over decades of occupation raise significant doubt if detention is meeting those standards,” he said.
Israel’s Unlawful Combatants Law asserts the authority to put Palestinians from Gaza in what is effectively administrative detention, a form of incarceration without charge or trial that authorities can renew indefinitely, Shakir said.
Israel’s Prisons Authority said this month that 260 Gazans were being held under the law as of Dec. 1. It was unclear which cases it was counting.
The Shin Bet is holding an unknown number of militants arrested in Israel during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. Israeli forces in Gaza have since arrested more combatants in its war. Hundreds of Gazan workers stranded in Israel were also imprisoned.
Jessica Montell, the executive director of the Israeli rights group Hamoked, said the organization has received more than 115 calls from family members of people who were detained at the Netzarim checkpoint. In only two cases has the person has been released.
“The question is, where is everyone else?” she said. “Where physically are they and what legal status are they?”
At least 16 female detainees from Gaza have been incarcerated in Israel. Since Oct. 7, authorities have denied Palestinian prisoners access to lawyers or the ICRC, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society.
Teacher Khawla Salem, 40, says her 19-year-old daughter, Aseel, is one of those prisoners.
Salem, her husband and three children on Nov. 22 left their home in the Jabalya refugee camp, where her 16-year-old son had been killed in a strike, and headed south to Khan Younis. As they approached the Netzarim checkpoint, Salem said, soldiers stopped the group and told them to appear before what appeared to be a facial recognition scanner. Snipers and tanks surrounded them.
Aseel and 9-year-old Mays were summoned to metal trailers. The soldiers, Mays told The Post, wanted her identification card, asked about her school and insulted her sister. Aseel pleaded with the soldiers to release Mays.
Mays was released after four hours. But she had no word of Aseel, who walks with a limp. As Salem waited, other women told her detainees were interrogated, strip-searched and beaten.
Lama Khatour, a Palestinian from the West Bank, was detained at Damon prison in northern Israel when Gazan women in distinct brown uniforms with no headscarves arrived. Through the walls, she learned their names. One was Aseel.
Khatour, who was released last month in the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, said the women had little food and slept on the floor. Several said they had been beaten. One was breastfeeding.
“There were no clear charges against them,” Khatour said. “They told us that the goal was to collect as much information as possible about their families and their surroundings.”
Harb reported from London.