A female Palestinian reporter said Thursday that a member of the Hamas-run border patrol in Gaza beat her with a tree branch for not wearing an Islamic headscarf last month, an incident that sparked a public outcry.
The Islamic militant group has promised an apology and said it would punish the man. The incident highlighted Hamas' occasionally heavy-handed treatment of both reporters and women in Gaza, where it seized power in 2007 from the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority.
Rewaa Mershid, a 26-year-old reporter for a local radio station, was with colleagues filming at a privately owned farm near the heavily guarded Gaza frontier on April 25 when two members of a Hamas-run border patrol approached and asked them to identify themselves.
"The discussion took another turn, focusing on my way of dressing and why I'm not wearing a hijab," Mershid said, referring to the scarf that many devout Muslim women use to cover their hair in public.
The militants called a female police unit, but then an argument broke out and one of them cut a branch off a lemon tree and struck her three times, she said. She shared a medical report saying she had "bruises in the lower back and the lower part."
The Palestinian journalists' union issued a statement condemning the attack, sparking a debate on social media in which some took her side while others condemned her behavior.
Mershid had filed a complaint with the Interior Ministry, which oversees security services, on the day of the incident, but it said it was not directly responsible for the patrolmen. The lines between Hamas' armed wing and the security services in Gaza are often blurred.
After the incident was widely publicized, the ministry said it carried out an investigation and concluded that the militant "violated instructions for dealing with citizens and beat Mershid with a tree branch." The ministry said it would "present an apology" to Mershid and punish the militant with "imprisonment," without providing further details.
A spokesman for the ministry could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The ministry's report said Mershid was on a personal photo shoot and did not have permission to film in the area. In Gaza, journalists must get permission to film in a growing number of locations - not just the border area, but also beaches, hospitals and even some markets.
The International Federation of Journalists reported 76 cases of media rights violations by Gaza security forces and 42 by PA security forces in the West Bank in 2020. The violations included arrests and barring coverage at some events, such as demonstrations.
Since seizing power in Gaza, Hamas has occasionally taken steps to impose Islamic values on an already conservative society, often backing off after facing public criticism.
It requires most female high school students, as well as female lawyers trying cases in court, to wear the hijab. It barred women from participating in a marathon organized by a U.N. agency in 2013, prompting the organizers to cancel it.
Earlier this year, a Hamas-run religious court ruled that unaccompanied women could only travel with the permission of a male relative, but the ruling was suspended days later after an outcry from human rights groups.
Mershid said she was moved by the supportive messages she received on social media, saying it "encourages other women and men, not necessarily journalists, not to stay silent."
But she said she no longer feels safe in Gaza.
"I'm looking for any opportunity outside Gaza," she said. "I'm a journalist and love journalism, but Gaza isn't the place for me to continue."