JERUSALEM // Israel has detained the coach of a blind Palestinian karate team for “suspected involvement in terrorist activity” after he and five of his students were stopped by Israeli forces at the Erez border crossing earlier this week while trying to re-enter Gaza.
The five blind and vision-impaired students, all under 18 years old, were travelling with four sighted students from the same karate school on their way back from Dubai where they had been competing in an international tournament. One of the students’ mothers was also travelling with them.
Their coach, Hassan Al Ra’e, had intended to go to Dubai with the students but after crossing with them from Gaza into Israel and then the West Bank, he was unable to travel onwards, his brother, Nasser, told The National.
Mr Al Ra’e, 38, had received permission from Cogat, the Israeli military body responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to bring the nine students through Israel to attend the tournament, but the permit was delayed.
This meant Mr Al Ra’e, who is an employee of the Palestinian Authority (PA), did not have enough time to go to the West Bank city of Ramallah and apply for a vacation leave permit from the PA before the group’s flights to Dubai via Jordan. He went to Ramallah anyway, however, seeking help from the PA to ensure his students still made it to the tournament.
Officials from the PA sports council eventually helped the students and the mother to cross over from the West Bank into Jordan, while Mr Al Ra’e remained in Ramallah.
He rejoined the students upon their return from the tournament, travelling with them back to the Erez border crossing with Gaza.
After arriving at Erez just after 7pm on Monday, the nine students, the mother and Mr Al Ra’e were detained by Israeli forces and questioned for five hours.
One of the blind students, Momen Al Bitar, 15, said the group was mainly questioned by a female Israeli soldier at Erez, “who dealt with us badly as blind people”.
Mr Al Ra’e was subsequently separated from the group, and the soldier asked the students about their coach’s movements in Ramallah, shouting at them when they were unable to answer, according to Momen.
“We’re really angry that our coach has been detained,” said Momen. “We were supposed to be celebrating because we had a third place win at the tournament, [but] we can’t celebrate because our coach isn’t here.”
“The Israelis do not like it when there are heroes in Palestine – here we have blind people who can win and be famous. We won’t stop doing karate even though Hassan is being detained,” he added.
Momen said that even when the students were being held at Erez, Mr Al Ra’e tried to keep up their morale.
“He kept telling us, ‘You’re strong, you’re the best, you’re heroes, keep going – there are other championships in Europe very soon’,” he said.
Eventually the students, who are aged between 13 and 17, were told they could cross into Gaza – but without Mr Al Ra’e.
“At midnight we were told we could cross,” said Abdullah Al Ra’e, Mr Al Ra’e’s 17-year-old nephew and one of the sighted students. “I left with another team member and her mother. I was with the blind students the whole time and wanted to take them with me, but they refused to leave unless the coach was also released.”
“In the end I had to leave them.”
Momen said Israeli forces shouted at the blind and vision-impaired students for refusing to leave, insulting them in Arabic.
At 1am, Mr Al Ra’e was arrested by Israeli forces and taken away from Erez, Momen said.
The five remaining students then crossed back into Gaza, accompanied by three Israeli soldiers. They were met on the other side by Palestinian officials.
As of Thursday night Mr Al Ra’e, who is a father of four, was still being held by Israel and his family had not received any information from Israeli officials on where he is being detained or whether he has been charged with any offence.
However, after being contacted by The National, Israeli security officials said Mr Al Ra’e had been detained, “suspected [of being] involved in terrorist activity”.
“Hasan Rai (sic), a resident of the Gaza Strip, entered Israel intending to accompany a disabled sports team … [to] a competition in Dubai,” the official said.
“In reality, he didn’t travel with them via the Allenby Bridge to Jordan but rather stayed in the West Bank.”
They did not give any further details on his detention.
Al Ra’e’s family, meanwhile, are in shock over his detention.
His brother Nasser told The National he last heard from Hassan at 8pm on Monday when the coach called to update him on being detained.
“We knew Hassan had been arrested once his mobile cut out, we haven’t received any calls since and have had no calls or haven’t received any information from the Israelis.”
Hassan’s other brother, Tayseer, said he had written to both Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Jibril Rajoub, head of the PA’s sports council, asking for their support to get him released.
On Wednesday, the students stopped at Erez and their families, along with members of the Palestinian Karate Federation in the Gaza Strip, protested outside the Red Crescent’s headquarters in Gaza, calling for Mr Al Ra’e’s release.
Palestinian sports players face ongoing restrictions on their movements by Israel.
Last year restrictions on Palestinian football players led to a high-profile bid by the PA to ban Israel from Fifa, football’s world governing body. However, PA officials eventually backed down.
And earlier this month, Palestinian runners from Gaza were denied permission to enter Israel in order to take part in the Bethlehem marathon in the West Bank.
In another case, a prominent circus trainer working with children with disabilities was detained without trial in the West Bank last December. He has not yet been released.
The National interviewed Mr Al Ra’e and his blind karate team in Gaza last December. The coach has been a karate teacher for over ten years but in 2015 decided to focus on training nine blind and vision-impaired boys, five of whom competed in Dubai.
He had hoped to to take the students to Tokyo in 2020 to compete in the paralympics.
“These blind students have been very successful,” said Nasser.
“The Israelis are trying to stop the success of these people with disabilities and they’re doing this by stopping Hassan, but they won’t give up as Palestinians or blind people.”
Source: uae news