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Israel deports thousands of Palestinian workers back to Gaza’s war zone

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Friday deported thousands of Palestinian workers from the Gaza Strip back to the besieged territory, Palestinian authorities said, capping what many described as harrowing weeks trapped in legal limbo since their detention when the Israel-Hamas war erupted.

Some workers, streaming by foot through an Israeli crossing that had been sealed shut since Hamas unleashed its brutal attack on southern Israel Oct. 7, told of violent mistreatment by Israeli authorities in detention centers. The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations.

“We sacrificed and they treated us like livestock over there,” one of the workers, Wael al-Sajda, said from the border, pointing to his ankle fitted with an identification bracelet.

Al-Sajda was among the roughly 18,000 Palestinians from Gaza allowed to work in menial jobs in Israel. The permits have been coveted in Gaza, which has an unemployment rate approaching 50%. Israel began issuing the permits in recent years, a measure it thought helped stabilize Gaza and moderate Hamas, despite a broader blockade aimed at weakening the Islamic militant group.

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Late Thursday, Israel announced it was revoking the workers’ permits and would deport them.

Israel had said little about the workers since the Oct. 7 attack, in which Hamas militants stormed across the border and killed some 1,400 people and kidnapped 240 others.

The workers sent home on Friday talked about a massive roundup and being placed in Israeli prisons. Some returned with bruises and other wounds from what they said was abuse at the hands of Israeli authorities. Others returned psychologically scarred.

At least one, 61-year-old Mansour Warsh Agha, returned in a body bag.

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“We just want answers about what happened. But Mansour has been killed so we don’t know if we’ll ever get them,” said Basim Abu Samara, the 24-year-old nephew of Warsh Agha, who had worked as a date farmer in Israel. His body was delivered to his family at Kerem Shalom crossing Friday.

The Warsh Agha family had last heard from Mansour on Oct. 7. They eventually learned he had been scooped up at the Qalandiya checkpoint on the edge of Jerusalem, joining other workers in an attempt to flee to the West Bank as the military shut down the crossings.

Those who were arrested were sent to the Anatot and Ofer military prisons in the West Bank. There, workers said, they were blindfolded, interrogated, beaten repeatedly and deprived of water and food for extended periods.

“For three days, we remained handcuffed and blindfolded,” said al-Sajda, the Palestinian worker returned to Gaza Friday. “They would put us under the sun for two, three or four hours, with no water, food or anything.”

The ailing 61-year-old farmer, Warsh Agha, was released in bad shape and later died, laborers told his relatives in the northern city of Beit Lahiya. His body bore signs of severe beating, said his nephew, but hospitals in Gaza were too overwhelmed with the war-wounded to perform an autopsy or issue a medical report, his family said.

Israeli rights groups say Israel detained the workers without charge, due process or legal representation at a fraught time while their families in Gaza endured Israel’s devastating bombardment. Over 9,000 Palestinians have died in the fighting, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

“They had valid permits to be in Israel and work there,” said Miriam Marmur, public advocacy director at Gisha, an Israeli rights group that promotes freedom of movement for Palestinians. “They suddenly lost their status. They were in danger from anyone — army, police, any random Israeli who sees them.”

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The scope of Israel’s round-up remains unclear. As many as 10,000 deported Palestinians crossed back into Gaza Friday, said Wael Abu Omar, the spokesperson of Gaza’s border crossings. Relieved families showered them with kisses at the Kerem Shalom border crossing in southern Gaza. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and Defense Ministry declined to provide an exact figure.

Because workers came in and out of Israel, it was not known how many laborers were in the country at the time of the attack. Some of the returnees speculated that others are still in detention or hiding from Israeli security forces.

Israel’s Justice Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. COGAT, the Israeli defense body that handles civilian affairs, including the workers’ permits, declined to comment. But Israeli officials confirmed to The Associated Press that thousands of workers were in Israel at the time of the Hamas attack and that a number of them had been detained.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified security issue, said there were no indications at this point that the workers had any role assisting Hamas in its onslaught.

The rights groups described a near-total blackout by Israel on the conditions and locations of the laborers.

“This situation is unprecedented, both in the scope of the arrests and in the lack of transparency,” said Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked, an Israeli group that provides legal aid for Palestinians. “Where are these people being held? On what legal grounds? We are waging a legal battle just to get answers to these very basic questions.”

Palestinian workers who were rounded up said Israeli soldiers confiscated their money and cellphones. On Friday, they said they never got their belongings back.

“They sent us back home with nothing,” said al-Sajda. “Nothing.”

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Goldenberg reported from Montreal, Canada.

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Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war