A celebrated Palestinian poet and author, Mosab Abu Toha, has been arrested by Israeli forces while trying to leave Gaza, according to his friends and family.
Abu Toha had been told by US officials that he and his family would be able to cross into Egypt, as one of his children is an American citizen. They were on the way from north to south Gaza, heading for the Rafah crossing point on Sunday, when he was arrested along with other Palestinian men at an Israeli military checkpoint.
“The army took Mosab when he arrived at the checkpoint, leaving from the north to the south, as the army had ordered. The American embassy sent him and his family to go through the Rafah crossing,” the poet’s brother, Hamza, said on social media. “We have heard nothing from him.”
A friend of Abu Toha, Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and a former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said: “His son, who was born in America, was cleared to be evacuated a couple of weeks ago, but Mosab’s name was not on the list.”
“Eventually, they got his name and his wife’s name and the other kids on the list, and they were waiting to get out when it was safe,” Buttu said. “They were trying to evacuate from the north to the south, when they were stopped at a checkpoint with a lot of others. They were told to lift their arms to show they didn’t have anything. Mosab was ordered to put his son down and then the army grabbed him, along with a lot of other men, 200, his wife said. His wife has not heard from him since.”
Neither the US state department nor the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), responded to requests for comment.
Abu Toha had been writing in the New Yorker magazine about his experiences under bombardment in Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza. A collection of his poetry published in English in the US was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle award and won an American Book award this year.
“He’s one of our most prolific writers,” Buttu said. “To be so widely published at such a young age and to have got all these awards and acclaim for his writing, it shows you just how powerful a writer he is.”
“He’s an incredible poet,” Laura Albast, a Palestinian journalist, editor and friend of Abu Toha, said. “The poetry he writes is very accessible, but it’s also a representation of what happens to us, describing how he rode his bike to try to reach home while the bombs were falling.”
Abu Toha and his family had taken refuge in Jabalia, where they heard their home in Beit Lahia had been bombed. In a New Yorker article published on 6 November, he described cycling to the house to try to salvage something from his small book collection.
“I hope to at least find a copy of my own poetry book, maybe near my neighbor’s olive tree, but there is nothing but debris. Nothing but the smell of explosions,” he wrote.
“Now I sit in my temporary house in the Jabalia camp, waiting for a ceasefire. I feel like I am in a cage. I’m being killed every day with my people. The only two things I can do are panic and breathe. There is no hope here.”
“His whereabouts are now unknown,” the New Yorker reported on its website on Monday night, saying it joined other organisations in calling for his safe return.