It was only a month ago that award-winning Palestinian poet and writer Mosab Abu Toha, a 30-year-old husband and father of three, published an essay in the New Yorker describing his life in Gaza and the terror and destruction Israeli airstrikes were inflicting on his community. He wrote about bombs dropping in his neighborhood and a barrage of news notifications on his phone alerting to other explosions nearby. “Sometimes I decide not to check the news. We are part of it, I think to myself,” he wrote.
“One idea in particular haunts me, and I cannot push it away,” he wrote. “Will I, too, become a statistic on the news?”
On Nov. 20, NewYorker.com executive editor Michael Luo posted on X that the publication had “lost touch” with Abu Toha and learned that he had been arrested in central Gaza. “His whereabouts are now unknown,” the New Yorker reported on Monday, calling for his safe return.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former peace talks adviser, posted on social media that Abu Toha was “kidnapped by [the] Israeli army in Gaza as he was fleeing with his family.”
Buttu, who says she’s been in regular contact with Abu Toha’s family, told TIME that Abu Toha’s family filed for his three-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen, to be evacuated from Gaza around two weeks ago and that they got the clearance for evacuation days later. They waited until it seemed safe enough to travel from the north where they lived to the southern border with Egypt, but when they made the journey on Sunday, they were intercepted by Israeli forces midway—and a group of men including Abu Toha were allegedly arrested—despite assurances of “safe passage,” according to Abu Toha’s wife.
“The army took Mosab when he arrived at the checkpoint, leaving from the north to the south, as the army had ordered,” Abu Toha’s brother Hamza posted on social media. “We have no information about him. It is worth mentioning that the American embassy sent him and his family to travel through the Rafah crossing.”
“He was forced to put his son down,” Buttu recounted to TIME, attributing Abu Toha’s wife. “They were all forced to walk with their hands raised in the air. He raised his arms in the air … [and he and] around 200 others were taken out of this line and abducted. They have not heard from him since.”
Buttu said Abu Toha’s family remain in the dark about his location or condition, and she says countries with diplomatic relations with Israel should demand information about Abu Toha as well as the other abductees.
The Israeli Defense Forces told the Washington Post that they were looking into the arrest, and a U.S. State Department official told CNN they had no information to share so far.
While the death toll has surpassed 13,000, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, the total number of Gazans who have been detained by Israeli forces in recent weeks remains unclear. Palestinian authorities estimate that the number of Palestinians—excluding those from Gaza—held by Israel has risen to 7,800, according to a Nov. 18 report by Reuters. Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence forces said on Nov. 19 that they recently arrested more than 100 “terror operatives” in the Gaza Strip.
Some Palestinians have reportedly been arrested for expressing solidarity with Gaza’s civilian population amid the violence. “The police say that any slogans in favor of Gaza or against the war mean supporting terrorism,” human rights lawyer Abeer Baker told CNN.
Abu Toha was born in the Al-Shati refugee camp months before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. He went on to graduate with a degree in English from the Islamic University of Gaza before founding the Edward Said Library, the enclave’s first English-language public library, in his hometown of Beit Lahia in 2017. (A second branch was opened in Gaza City in 2019).
Abu Toha taught English at U.N. Relief and Works Agency schools in Gaza from 2016 to 2019. In October 2019, he left Gaza for the first time to become a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Last year, Abu Toha published his debut book of poetry, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear. It won an American Book Award, Palestine Book Award, and Arrowsmith Press’s 2023 Derek Walcott Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Earlier this year, he completed a graduate poetry degree at Syracuse University, where he also worked as a teaching assistant before moving back to Gaza.
Since the war that began with terrorist group Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Abu Toha has published essays and poems about the situation in Gaza in a number of U.S. publications, including the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and, most recently, the Nation. On social media, too, he has documented the destruction of his home, the death of one of his students, and periodic updates on his family’s status.
His latest post on Nov. 15 shared: “Alive. Thanks for your prayers. We don’t have any access to food or clean water. Winter is coming and we don’t have enough clothes. Kids are suffering. We are suffering. The army is now at Al-Shifa Hospital. More death, more destruction. Who can stop this? Please stop it now.”