Israeli soldiers seized Tamam al-Aswad after their tanks crashed through the walls of a Gaza City school where she was sheltering in December, later imprisoning her for weeks in Israel where she says she was insulted and mistreated.
Aswad says she was freed on Thursday at the Kerem Shalom crossing point from Israel into Gaza and has been unable to contact her family after last seeing them at the moment of her arrest.
Israel’s military did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Aswad’s detention and allegations of mistreatment. It has previously said it detains Palestinians in accordance with international law and its protocols are to treat prisoners with dignity.
“Two tanks entered the school. I was watching from a hole in the wall and I saw them entering homes and blowing them up. I heard women’s voices from inside those homes. It was terrifying,” she said.
Aswad is one of many Palestinians that Israel has detained during its four-month-old assault on Gaza, an offensive that has led to massive devastation across much of the tiny, crowded enclave, pushing most of its inhabitants from their homes.
Palestinian health authorities say nearly 28,000 people have been killed in the war.
Israel says it wants to crush the group Hamas which rampaged across the border on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages according to Israeli tallies.
Israel has won control of much of northern and central Gaza, areas it told civilians to leave early in the conflict and says it has killed about 10,000 of the group’s fighters, though Hamas disputes that.
When Israeli forces entered the Omar Ibn al-Aas school in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan district where Aswad was sheltering on Dec. 14, they lined up the men and ordered them to strip before taking the women to the side, she said.
They assembled captives at the al-Taqwa mosque nearby. “They were interrogating me, asking ‘which faction do you belong to?'” she said. Aswad said she told them she was only a housewife and had not harmed anybody.
“They told me: ‘You are a threat to Israel’s security. You will be detained for five years’,” she said. She was then handcuffed and blindfolded and put on a bus with other detainees, she said.
During the drive, the soldiers insulted her and other detainees, she said. She was told to keep her head bent over and despite this being very uncomfortable, they hit her on the head, arm or neck if she tried to lift her head. The same was done to others on the bus, she said.
The first place where they were held for several days “was bitterly cold”, Aswad said. She was then blindfolded again, handcuffed and shackled, and transferred to Damon Prison in Haifa, she said.
Israel has not said how many people it has detained during its military operations in Gaza. Rights groups have estimated that the number is in the thousands.
“It was forbidden to raise your head even if your neck or back hurt. It was forbidden to say anything even if you were in pain,” she said.
In detention, she said soldiers ordered her over to a wall where there was an Israeli flag. “The soldier said to me ‘kiss the flag, kiss the flag’,” she said. When she refused, he banged her head into the wall and then hit her on the back, she said.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm any of the allegations.
Eventually a soldier told the detainees “all the women of Gaza will return to their homes”, she said. Her return was “an indescribable joy”, but it is incomplete. She is now in Rafah in the south and believes her husband and children are still in Gaza City, where much of the worst fighting has happened.
“God willing, we will reach each other,” she said.
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