JERUSALEM – Gaza resident Bassam Waheidi is slowly going blind, but he won't pay what he says is the price of regaining his sight — spying for Israel in exchange for medical treatment.
Waheidi is one of 32 Palestinian patients who claims Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency tried to bully them into giving information about militants, according to the Israel branch of Physicians for Human Rights. The group documented the Palestinians' claims in an 80-page report released Monday.
"I would say it's self-explanatory and clear that you shouldn't extort patients," said Miri Weingarten of the group.
The Shin Bet denied the charge but said it does conduct security checks on Palestinians leaving Gaza to ensure they do not pose a security threat.
The Palestinians quoted in the report said the pressure began after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. That prompted Israel and Egypt to seal its borders with Gaza. Only residents needing urgent treatment can now leave the territory with Israeli permission.
The Associated Press interviewed two of the 32 independently — Waheidi and Shaban Abu Obeid.
Waheidi, a 28-year-old radio reporter, said he developed a visual problem last August, and Palestinian doctors in Gaza referred him for urgent treatment in Israel.
Waheidi says at the Erez border crossing, where Gaza residents pass into Israel, he was led by armed men in civilian clothes to a man sitting behind a desk in an underground room.
Waheidi said in an hours-long interrogation session, he was asked about militants who fire rockets at Israel. He said he refused to provide information, but that did not know much, anyway.
"I work on women's issues, social affairs and workers' rights," the radio reporter said.
Since then, Waheidi said, Israel has not granted him a permit, and he has gone blind in his right eye and is losing sight in the other.
Abu Obeid, a 38-year-old public worker, said he frequently went to Israel for years for heart treatment. He had a pacemaker installed at an Israeli hospital. He is a Fatah loyalist — bitter rival of Hamas.
But when Abu Obeid applied last August for a permit to enter Israel to check on his pacemaker, he said an intelligence official offered him a tough choice.
"He said, let's make a deal. You give me information, and I'll make it easy for you to go Israel," Abu Obeid said.
He refused, and he said Israel has not given him a permit since. Instead, he hopes to have his heart and pacemaker checked by a team of Arab doctors from Israel who make rare visits to Gaza to screen patients.
This is not the first time such allegations have been raised, and Israel has always denied them.
A Shin Bet official directed reporters' queries to a letter by Shoshi Golan of the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, which speaks on the agency's behalf. Golan said the agency did not make entry into Israel for humanitarian reasons "contingent on an applicant's willingness to submit any information, except for reliable information on his medical condition."
Golan said the security checks were conducted partly to "evaluate the degree of danger posed by the applicant" and noted several cases where Gaza residents tried to obtain permits to carry out attacks in Israel.