The photos and videos were circulated widely, with NBC News able to geolocate some of the footage to the city of Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip. It was unclear exactly when and in what circumstances the detentions depicted in the images occurred, although it appears to be the first time that such images have been shared online and by Israeli news media.
In one photo shared on social media, men can be seen wearing nothing but underwear as they kneel in a line, surrounded by soldiers in full combat gear wielding guns amid shoes and clothing that are lying scattered on the ground.
They are kneeling in front of a bombed-out building that once housed a pharmacy in Beit Lahia, a city that has remained a hub of clashes in the north even as Israel’s military has turned its focus to an assault on the south. In the background, more Palestinian men can be seen herded in the back of a camouflaged Israeli military vehicle.
In another photo, several dozen blindfolded men can be seen kneeling in what appears to be a sandy field or pit, all facing one way as armed Israeli soldiers stand behind them. It was unclear exactly where that photo was taken.
The identities of the men in the footage and the reasons for their detention are unclear. Israel said it had detained a number of “military-age men” in the area for questioning to identify any Hamas fighters.
“We’re talking about military aged men who were discovered in areas that civilians were supposed to have evacuated,” Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said Friday.
He said that “now those individuals will be questioned and we will work out who indeed was a terrorist.” Levy added that it was “important to remember” that the IDF has been engaging in close quarter combat in the area with Hamas fighters who he said “have been deliberately disguising themselves as civilians and operating from within not just civilian areas, but civilian buildings.”
But at least some of those detained are civilians without any known affiliation to Hamas or another militant group, according to their employer — an Arab news outlet — and the testimony of a U.S.-based humanitarian worker who says three of his relatives are among the group.
“If Israel is after Hamas, they are wasting their time arresting my brother and nephews,” said Hani Almadhoun, a Washington, D.C. resident who works at a U.S charity that fundraises for and supports the work of the United Nations Palestinian Refugee Agency, UNRWA.
He told NBC News that it was his sister in Gaza who first informed him about the detention of his younger brother, Mahmoud, 32, as well as his nephews, Abdallah, 27, and Omar, 13. Almadhoun, 42, said he recognized both his brother and Abdallah in the footage that emerged.
“Is the joy the Israelis get from seeing naked Palestinian men humiliated worth compromising their future sense of security and safety?” he asked, suggesting the experience could “radicalize uninvolved people.”
Almadhoun told NBC News on the phone on Friday that he was able to get hold of his brother, who said the trio had been released by the Israelis less than 24 hours after their detention. They had been taken to an IDF-controlled wedding venue not far from where they were detained, he said, where they were interrogated and photographed before their release.
He said Mahmoud described it as a humiliating experience. Almadhoun said his brother is a shop owner, and his nephews are a former soccer player and a middle school student, and have nothing to do with Hamas. They are now sheltering in a local hospital, Almadhoun said.
An Arab news network said its reporter was among the men detained by the IDF.
The New Arab’s Arabic language service, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, said its correspondent Diaa al-Kahlout was arrested along with his brothers, relatives and other civilians in Beit Lahia.
Al-Araby Al-Jadeed said it lost contact with its correspondent Thursday afternoon before his family informed them of his arrest, The New Arab reported. It cited al-Kahlout’s sister as saying that her brother was forced at gunpoint to leave his disabled 7-year-old daughter, and the men were taken away, stripped and beaten by Israeli forces.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that promotes press freedom worldwide, said it was “alarmed” by reports of al-Kahlout’s detention along with members of his family, and called for his immediate release.
The Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said Thursday that “the Israeli army detained and severely abused dozens of Palestinian civilians in the northern Gaza Strip.” It said the IDF surrounded two shelters in Beit Lahia for days “before beating the individuals and stripping them of their clothes.”
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, called the footage of the detainees “very concerning” in a briefing with reporters Thursday, invoking “a basic right to human dignity.” NBC News reached out to Dujarric on Friday for further comment.
The footage appears to be consistent with what the Israel Defense Forces said Thursday about its recent activities in Gaza, which it said involved the detention of “hundreds of terror suspects” during combat operations in the north and the south.
“These suspects were transferred to security forces in Israel for further questioning,” said a joint statement from the IDF and the Israeli Security Agency. “In addition, over the last few days, IDF ground troops operated in the outskirts of the Jabalya Camp in order to clear the area and eliminate terrorists,” the statement said, referring to the refugee camp in the north of Gaza, just south of Beit Lahia.
“Throughout the day, over 150 wanted persons suspected of involvement in terrorist activity were apprehended,” the statement added. “Among those apprehended were Hamas terrorist operatives from the area of the Jabalya Camp. They are currently being questioned in the Gaza Strip.” The IDF did not immediately respond to a request for further comment from NBC News on whether civilians or journalists were among those it detained and whether any of the detainees were beaten.
Hamas said the detained men are civilians.
In a statement released Friday, the militant group blamed Israel for arresting what it called a group of “displaced civilians in a school in the Gaza Strip’’ and accused it of “stripping them of their clothes in a humiliating manner,” calling it a crime against “defenseless civilians” and demanding their immediate release.
It comes as Israel has been expanding its ground operation into southern Gaza, targeting what it says is Hamas infrastructure and leadership.
But Israel is facing growing pressure from the United States and humanitarian organizations to protect civilians and address concerns about the mounting deaths and the humanitarian crisis, with 1.9 million people displaced in the impoverished enclave.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Gaza since the resumption of fighting after a weeklong truce broke down last week, according to health authorities there. They say more than 17,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people, with around 140 still held captive in Gaza.