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U.S. citizen in the occupied West Bank detained over alleged incitement

A U.S. citizen is being held in detention by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank over alleged “incitement on social media.” 

Samaher Esmail, 46, a Palestinian American who lives in New Orleans, had been staying at a home she owns in Silwad, near Ramallah, when she was arrested early Monday, her son Ibrahim Hamed said.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed her arrest, saying in a statement that it conducted an operation Monday in the Silwad area to arrest “wanted suspects.” Esmail had returned to the West Bank in November in part to attend a hearing with Israeli officials related to an encounter with Israeli forces in December 2022, Hamed said. 

Ibrahim Hamed with his mother, Samaher Esmail at an unknown date.
Ibrahim Hamed with his mother, Samaher Esmail at an unknown date.Courtesy Ibrahim Hamed

“As part of the operation, Samaher Esmail was arrested for incitement on social media,” the IDF said. “Suspects arrested in the operation were transferred to the security forces for further questioning.”

The IDF would not comment on what specific social media posts triggered the arrest.

Rights groups have warned that free speech is being threatened in Israel and the occupied West Bank in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and the war in Gaza.

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News it was “aware of reports of detention of a U.S. citizen in the West Bank” and is trying to get more information.

Videos shot by Esmail’s neighbors in Silwad on Monday show her blindfolded, handcuffed and without a hijab, and being taken away in the early hours in a jeep.

A review of her Facebook account by NBC News revealed posts that appeared to praise Hamas fighters and the Oct. 7 attacks. She also reposted a video on Oct. 13 that contained antisemitic tropes about “blood libel” and referring to Jews as “pigs.”

A selfie posted by Samaher Esmail to Facebook shows the date 10/07/2023 and Arabic text that translates to "Freedom fighters' cause," "Al-Aqsaa" and "history will not forget."
A selfie posted by Samaher Esmail to Facebook shows the date 10/07/2023 and Arabic text that translates to “Freedom fighters’ cause,” “Al-Aqsaa” and “history will not forget.”Courtesy Samaher Esmail via Facebook

There were also photos on Esmail’s Facebook that appeared to show her with a gun. 

Hamed, 27, who also lives in New Orleans and works at Xavier University of Louisiana, denied that his mother was antisemitic or supported Hamas. He also told NBC News that a photo of her carrying a gun was taken during his wedding in Louisiana, where gun ownership is legal, and not taken in the West Bank.

“We don’t discriminate against anyone,” Hamed said from New Orleans. “Maybe there is a bit of frustration due to everything that has been done to her. It’s not hatred; it’s frustration.” 

Hamed, who added that his mother was an American citizen who likes the Second Amendment and enjoys free speech, said he had learned about his mother’s detention in a call from his grandmother soon after it happened. 

Hamed said a relative went to Esmail’s house Monday morning to lock it up and sent photos and video of damage in the home to her family in Louisiana. These show broken windows, shards of glass littering the floor and a crumpled cerulean prayer mat.

religion religious muslim prayer mat islamic faith
Samaher Esmail’s prayer mat in her home in Silwad in the West Bank after she was detained in February.Courtesy Ibrahim Hamed

The IDF did not comment further when asked about the damage to Esmail’s home. 

Hamed said he had heard from his mother’s lawyer and was concerned about her treatment and whether she was receiving her medication. NBC News requested comment from Esmail’s lawyer via Hamed, but he said she had declined. 

“My mom was supposed to come back [to the United States] in a month or two because she has doctors’ appointments,” Hamed said, adding that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years ago and subsequently underwent a hysterectomy. Since then, he said the tumors have returned, and she was being treated for kidney stones.

Hamed told NBC News that his mother’s lawyer visited her in prison and was concerned about her health and alleged mistreatment in detention. He also alleged that his mother wasn’t being given her medication. 

A spokesperson for the Israeli prison service said Esmail was being given medical treatment for “problems that arose even before her arrest.” 

“All her rights are granted to her according to all laws,” the spokesperson added. 

Hamed said he and other relatives had urged his mother not to go to the West Bank after the war broke out, but Esmail had responded that she did not believe the military would target her. He said she had wanted to attend a hearing scheduled this week with the IDF where she planned to ask that soldiers whom she accused of beating her at a checkpoint near Ramallah in 2022 be punished.

“They pulled her and hit her with a rifle and broke two ribs as a result,” Hamed said of the 2022 incident. 

In a statement to NBC News on the 2022 incident, the IDF said that during an “operation by the security forces in the Ein Yabrud area, the forces conducted vehicle inspections. During one of the inspections, a subject approached the soldier who distanced her from them. The suspect remained on the side of the road until the inspection was completed and was released as usual without any complications.” 

Rep. Troy Carter, D-La., who represents the New Orleans area, wrote on Facebook that he has been in touch with the State Department, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Israel, to inquire about Esmail. 

“I am aware of and extremely concerned by the detainment of Samaher Esmail … in Palestine,” he said in a post Monday. “I am praying for her safety.” 

Another Palestinian American and Louisiana native, Tawfic Hafeth Abdel Jabbar, 17, was shot dead in the West Bank last month. His family said he was a victim of rising Israeli settler violence in the region. 

Hamed said his family knew Jabbar well; they were from the same community in Louisiana.

There has been a dramatic spike in violence in the West Bank in recent months, with Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers killing more than 300 Palestinians since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, according to the United Nations. 

On Feb. 1, President Joe Biden issued an executive order targeting Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Israel says most deaths in the West Bank are not settler-related but instead can be attributed to security forces carrying out counterterrorism raids against militants. The IDF said it will continue to do so “to protect and prevent further terror attacks.”

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