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Palestinian American's family detained

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Images of dozens of Palestinian men in northern Gaza emerged online Thursday. They were stripped to their underwear, their hands bound behind their backs, their heads bowed. In one photo, armed Israeli soldiers stand over some men made to kneel in rows, blindfolded and near naked. More images came out over the weekend. Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari addressed the detentions in a press conference last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL HAGARI: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: He's saying, "whatever men are left in these northern Gaza areas are investigated for links to Hamas." "We arrest them all," he says, "and interrogate them." Arab and Muslim leaders have condemned Israel's actions, and human rights groups expressed concern that the way these detentions happened may violate international law.

Hani Almadhoun was shocked to see many of his own family among the detained. Almadhoun is a Palestinian American, a humanitarian, and he's based in D.C. In the pictures, he saw his brother, a shopkeeper who suffers from epilepsy; his 72-year-old father, a teacher; and his two nephews, Aboud, who's 27, and Omar, who is 13. Almadhoun also saw a lot of his cousins. His immediate family has all been released, but two relatives are still unaccounted for.

HANI ALMADHOUN: They're a horror show, you know? You see these, and you think, like, oh, they must be some bad people or, you know? And then you see your brother there just scared for his life, stripped close to naked, you know, in the blistering cold there, along with cousins and neighbors and friends you grew up with. And all of a sudden, it hits you, you know? You're - all of a sudden, you feel attacked.

FADEL: So if you could just walk me through it. You're looking at these images, and then you recognize your brother, then your nephew, then your cousins.

ALMADHOUN: So about 9:16 in the morning here, D.C. time, my sister tells me, Hani, call the Red Cross. They've taken your brother and your nephew. And I'm, like, oh, my gosh, this is too crazy. I mean, I go to my Telegram channel that delivers the news right away, and then I see this video, and I'm, like, wait. I slow it down. And then I say, yeah, this is my brother, Mahmoud. And I recognize the street. I know exactly where they held these folks.

I shared it in social media. And then an Israeli friend of mine who's a peace activist, he said, hey, look, they're saying in Hebrew, these are Hamas fighters surrendering, which makes it all worrisome, you know? I mean, I know my brother. He's - he can't run two meters, let alone to be a fighter, you know? He's just a shopkeeper in Gaza. And, you know, he's not in the best health condition. He's not a threat to anybody. And then Aboud - this is the young guy. You know, Aboud just tried to go to Greece, you know, almost drowned in the Mediterranean, was rescued by the Turkish coastal guard. So this is a guy who wants a better life, for sure, and then he couldn't get to it. His mom made him come to Gaza just two years ago. And then he's rounded up and, you know, stripped naked, humiliated, mocked by folks who feel to be feeling like - you know, taking revenge. I'm beginning to understand this war is not just on Hamas. This is just a much bigger war.

FADEL: I thought I saw that a 13-year-old was among them.

ALMADHOUN: Yeah. Omar is Mahmoud's son. So when he saw his dad humiliated and being dragged naked and, you know, all that, he followed the truck, and the Israeli soldiers took him in with them. I understand that they let him go, like, a few hours later.

FADEL: When we spoke, Almadhoun had no idea what happened to his family while they were detained. Later, though, he did speak to his dad and brother, and he sent me these updates. Almadhoun said his brother, along with some 200 men, were forced to strip. Their hands were bound. They were blindfolded, filmed, cussed at and taken to an unknown location where they were held for hours in just their underwear. Hani sent me this voice message.

ALMADHOUN: They keep them in the sand, and it's cold, and it's at night. Then around 2:30, they load him up again in the truck the same way. Then they dropped him off. They told him to walk to Kamal Adwan hospital. They did not give them their shoes, so remember, they're walking in the broken ground, rubble's all around. It's about a 2- to 3-mile hike. They did not have their clothes, and they kept them restrained - their arms. Anyway, he's a little bit bruised, scared and a little bit with a very bad case of cold. But, you know, he is back safe for now.

FADEL: The Israeli military told NPR they make detainees strip down to make sure they're not hiding weapons. The military says they give the clothes back when possible. But in Almadhoun's family's case, that didn't happen.

ALMADHOUN: How do you think a child will feel in a few years when they remember their dad being humiliated or their grandfather? And it's unfortunate because you feel like it's very personal, you know? I was too traumatized to look in the pictures closely to see, like, hey, where is my dad? But - you know, doesn't feel good 'cause, you know, we just lost my brother and his family two weeks ago, and we thought we've seen the worst, and this keeps happening.

FADEL: Wait, wait, wait. Hani, how many people have you lost? How many homes have your family lost? If you could just spell out...

ALMADHOUN: So, Leila, two weeks ago, an hour and a half before the truce, the Israelis destroyed my home, my - with my brother. We co-own this building. It's a four-story building. They brought it down. They killed my brother Majed, his wife Safa, his boys, Omar, Ali, and the girls, Riman and Siwar. One bomb killed a family of six and our adopted cat, Lucky. It took us six days to dig the bodies out of the rubble because they had to do it by hand and by shovels. Poor Safa. Before she was killed, she lost 12 family members, including her mom and dad. She grieved them for a month, and then the Israelis chose to bomb the house. There is no military target there. But, you know, that was a tough loss because, you know, I was close to my brother.

FADEL: Your family's in the north, and often what we hear from the Israeli military when we bring up things that are going on the north - well, we told everybody to leave, and we told everybody that if they're there when we come in, they'll be considered part of enemy combatants.

ALMADHOUN: That's just heartless and cruel because our family does not have a shelter in the south. My family was trying to evacuate. And that's more than 50% of the population of Gaza rounded up in 156 buildings. And we're talking about skin diseases. We're talking about diarrhea. You think it's safe for my family to go there? And then, you know, they've been shooting people who are going south, and, you know, a large chunk of the people who went south have actually been targeted and killed.

FADEL: You're an American. What do you want your government to do, to say in reaction to this?

ALMADHOUN: Literally, I've texted somebody in the White House about the coordinates of my family. They've called me to give condolences, and the same person got on TV and said, we're not for the cease-fire. And it's, like, you know - it's - maybe they're doing these condolences for their personal lives 'cause they want to think they're good people at the end of the day. What's happening in Gaza - nobody's going to have glory from that - not the Israelis, not the Americans who are sitting in the front seat with this madness that's unfolding in Gaza.

FADEL: After we spoke to Hani Almadhoun, we reached out to the State Department about these detentions. A spokesperson said they're urging Israel to clarify the circumstances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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