A celebrated Palestinian poet and essayist who founded the Gaza Strip’s first English-language library disappeared on Sunday after he was stopped by the Israeli military as his family was fleeing to southern Gaza, relatives said.
The free speech organization PEN America said on Monday that the poet, Mosab Abu Toha, had been detained by Israel and expressed concern. The Israeli military did not respond to questions about whether he had been detained.
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 was making its way to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Sunday when Mr. Abu Toha was taken, they 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.
Other families arriving in central and southern Gaza have reported that their sons, husbands and fathers with no connection to armed Palestinian groups have also vanished after being stopped by Israeli’s military along the evacuation route for those fleeing northern Gaza. Human rights organizations say they are trying to ascertain how many have been taken under these circumstances and where they are being held.
The Israeli military said it had apprehended 300 people during the ground invasion that it said were connected to armed groups, “who 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.
“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.”
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.
The family hasn’t heard from Mr. Abu Toha since Sunday and has received no news about him.
“We want to make sure Mosab is safe,” said Mr. May, the brother-in-law of Mr. Abu Toha. “His young kids, they are even more worried than we are. They keep asking, ‘Where is Baba? We want Baba.’”
Of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, some 1.7 million have been displaced since the start of the war, according to the United Nations.
In 2017, Mr. Abu Toha opened the English-language Edward Said Library in northern Gaza. It is named after the Palestinian American academic, writer and political activist. In 2020 Mr. Abu Toha was a visiting poet and librarian-in-residence at Harvard University. While they were there, Ms. Abu Toha, 30, gave birth to his son Mustafa, who is an American citizen.
Mr. Abu Toha has written essays for a number of publications in his young career and during the past six weeks of war, including in The New Yorker magazine and The New York Times. The New Yorker has called for his safe return.
In an Oct. 14 essay in The Times, Mr. Abu Toha wrote about how intellectual life in Gaza had been crippled not only by the Israeli siege on the tiny coastal enclave and constant bombing, “but also by the invisible trauma that has been inflicted on our souls and bodies and on the streets and buildings that house our tired forms.”
“It can take a Gazan years to write about his wounds,” he wrote.