RAMALLAH, West Bank — A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report takes Palestinian leaders to task, documenting cases of systematic torture and unjustified arrests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The report published Oct. 23 accuses the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and its rival Hamas in the Gaza Strip of arbitrarily arresting and torturing their own and each other's citizens for mere peaceful criticism, especially on social media. Titled “Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent,” the report documents that “security forces routinely taunt, threaten, beat and force detainees into painful stress positions for hours at a time.”
The report raised the ire of both the PA and Hamas. PA security services spokesman Adnan al-Dumairi said in an Oct. 23 press statement that the report, the result of two years of investigation, was politically motivated. He said HRW “relied on the testimonies of political rivals and adopted them as facts without investigating or fact-checking with the Palestinian Ministry of Interior.”
Iyad al-Bazm, spokesman for the Hamas-run Ministry of Interior in the Gaza Strip, told The Gaza Post that the HRW report lacks “objectivity and accuracy” and “is far from the truth and reality in Gaza.” Bazm said that the ministry is ready to welcome a HRW delegation to the Gaza Strip to inspect all detention centers, jails and Ministry of Interior posts. “We have nothing to hide, and we are ready to cooperate completely,” he said.
In the West Bank, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said during a Cabinet meeting Oct. 24 that he had received the HRW report and would respond after reading the results and recommendations. He also said Palestine is developing national legislation to comply with its international commitments. On Oct. 16, the government adopted a reference paper to establish a preventive national mechanism against torture. On Dec. 28, 2017, PA President Mahmoud Abbas had ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, he added.
Haitham Arar, director of the Democracy and Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Interior in the West Bank, told Al-Monitor, “The Ministry of Interior formed a committee in coordination with partner organizations. The committee will [seek to] verify the testimonies in the report and will take practical measures regarding any case that was mishandled."
Ahmad al-Tamimi, a PLO member and head of its human rights and civil society department, told Al-Monitor, "The report is my priority now and I asked that it be studied and analyzed."
HRW Director in Palestine Omar Shakir commented on the PA and Hamas reactions to the report. He told Al-Monitor, “The report documents serious violations related to human rights, but the authorities claim there are no violations, as per our correspondent who spoke to them in February and March. The PA said there is no torture, while Hamas claimed there might be [individual] incidents, but no systematic torture and violations.”
However, Shakir said he believes the PA and Hamas will take the results of the report seriously. “We are ready to cooperate. We want to discuss with Hamas the results as soon as we receive permits from the Israeli army to enter Gaza," he said.
He added, “We call on the PA government to conduct serious studies, and [call] on the international community — especially countries funding the PA — to play a positive role and pressure them to stop arbitrary arrest and torture."
Research for the 149-page report was conducted from September 2016 to September 2018 and relied on the testimonies of 147 Palestinians, including 95 former detainees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, about arrest patterns and conditions of detention.
Fares Jbour, 23, an electric engineering student at Polytechnic University in Hebron in the southern West Bank, was arrested on Jan. 8, 2017. He said he was tortured when the intelligence services investigated him about his activity within the Islamic Bloc, Hamas’ student arm, at the university.
According to his testimony in the report, Jbour was blindfolded as soon as he reached the center after being summoned. He was kicked and beaten with a baton, and in an interrogation session he was hit with a hose each time his answers did not satisfy his questioners — about once every five minutes. This was while he was subjected to "shabeh," a method of torture in which victims are forced into painful positions for extended periods.
The situation in Gaza is no different from the West Bank, according to the HRW report. The Hamas-affiliated internal security forces arrested journalist Fouad Jarada, who works for the official Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, at his house on June 9, 2017, and confiscated his laptop and cellphone, he testified in the report.
Jarada said the investigation was prompted by a Facebook post in which he advocated the measures of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to isolate Qatar. He also talked about his ties with the PA and his political affiliation. He was whipped on the hands and legs during the investigation and was forced to stand or sit on a chair for children for hours.
Although HRW’s information and testimonies aren't new to Palestinians, they indicate the situation is likely to continue in the absence of a legislative council and will deepen the political rift between the rivals, unless each side takes action. Otherwise, the Palestinians will pay the price, losing their freedom of expression.