A celebrated Palestinian poet and essayist who founded the Gaza Strip’s first English-language library was released by Israel on Tuesday, two days after he was detained as his family was fleeing to southern Gaza on foot.
The poet, Mosab Abu Toha, was taken to a detention center in the Negev desert in southern Israel, said Diana Buttu, a family friend who spoke to him soon after he was released in Gaza at the same spot where he was first detained. She said he was likely freed because of public pressure, including from publications like The New Yorker magazine, which Mr. Abu Toha has contributed to, and the free speech organization PEN America.
“He was interrogated and he was actually beaten,” Ms. Buttu said. “They hit him in the stomach. They hit him in the face several times.”
The Israeli military confirmed that he was among several civilians taken in for questioning and he was then released. It did not immediately comment on the allegations that he had been beaten.
Dozens of other families who have arrived in central and southern Gaza have reported that their sons, husbands and fathers, who they said had no connection to armed Palestinian groups, have vanished after being stopped by Israel’s military along the evacuation route for those fleeing northern Gaza.
The Israeli military said it had apprehended 300 people during the ground invasion that began more than three weeks ago and said that they were connected to armed groups, adding that they “were brought into Israeli territory for further interrogations.” Those interrogations had led Israeli forces to the locations of underground tunnels, warehouses and weapons in Gaza, according to the military.
Mr. Abu Toha told Ms. Buttu that he was taken on Sunday along with more than 100 other Palestinians in Israeli military vehicles and driven into southern Israel, all while they were blindfolded. He did not see anyone else being released at the same time as he was, Ms. Buttu said.
“As he was leaving, the Israelis were bringing more people in,” she added.
After his release, he had to make his way down south along the evacuation road until he reached the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, Ms. Buttu said. He roamed the streets until he saw someone he recognized and asked about his family, who arrived in the town on Sunday.
Mr. Abu Toha, 31, his wife, three children and his brother-in-law had left a school where they were sheltering in northern Gaza on Sunday and joined thousands of others walking south with what few possessions they could carry, according to his wife, Maram Abu Toha, and her brother, Ibrahim May.
The family was on a State Department evacuation list and they were making their way to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in southern Gaza on Sunday when Mr. Abu Toha was taken, the relatives said. But when he was released on Tuesday, the Israelis had taken his and his family’s passports, Ms. Buttu said.
Israeli forces have taken over much of northern Gaza and ordered residents to move south as part of an air and land assault that followed the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that controls Gaza. Of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents, more than half have been displaced since the start of the war, according to the United Nations.
Human rights organizations say they are trying to ascertain how many Palestinians from Gaza have been detained and where they are being held.
“Reports of Israel detaining scores of those fleeing raises further serious concerns,” said Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director. “Civilians may only be detained when absolutely necessary for imperative reasons of security.”
Recounting the events of Sunday when her husband was detained, Ms. Abu Toha said that as the family walked past Israeli troops and tanks, soldiers called out to dozens of the men and ordered them to approach for questioning. Their families were forced to keep walking, she added, echoing similar accounts by other Palestinian families.
When they called on Mr. Abu Toha, he was carrying his 3-year-old son Mustafa, his wife said.
“I was in front of him by three meters and they told him, drop the kid and come toward the military,” Ms. Abu Toha said. “Mustafa was calling out to his dad.”
She ran back to get her son, she said, risking being shot by Israeli soldiers.
“Walk quickly or else I will shoot you,” she said a soldier yelled at her. “And then really, as we walked a bit, he started shooting on the road and the wall.”
The Israeli military did not respond to questions about reports that it was shooting at or toward evacuees.
Mr. Abu Toha’s family had no information about his whereabouts since he vanished on Sunday and was not even certain that he had been detained until they saw him on Tuesday.
In 2017, Mr. Abu Toha opened the English-language Edward Said Library in northern Gaza.