Rights Group Slams Palestinian Authority, Hamas for Stifling Dissent, Abusing Critics

'Palestinian governments in both Gaza and the West Bank are arresting and even physically abusing activists and journalists who express criticism on important public issues,' Human Rights Watch says.

FILE PHOTO: Hamas militants grab a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with Israel before being executed in Gaza City August 22, 2014.
Reuters

The West Bank and Gaza authorities are trying to silence critics by prosecuting journalists and the political activists who speak to them, Human Rights Watch says in a report published this week.

The report details five cases, along with data gleaned by other groups. For example, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms documented 192 cases last year in which the Palestinian authorities undermined freedom of the press. And the Independent Commission for Human Rights says that last year 24 people were detained in the West Bank and 21 in Gaza for criticism they made.

Sari Bashi, the Israel/Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, says the Palestinian Authority leaders in the West Bank must abide by the agreements they signed to join the international community.

Fatah and Hamas representatives meet in Gaza City, April 22, 2014.
AFP

“In the absence of elections, Palestinians are stuck with the same leaders who took power a decade ago,” she says in the report. “At the very least, those leaders should listen to criticism, not punish it.”

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, "Palestinian governments in both Gaza and the West Bank are arresting and even physically abusing activists and journalists who express criticism on important public issues."

The report includes the case of Ayman al-Aloul, a Gaza correspondent and commentator for Iraqi and Persian Gulf television. Aloul, a Fatah activist, says that in January he was arrested at home by people who said they belonged to the security services. They confiscated his phone and two computers and took him to Gaza’s Ansar Prison. 

He says his interrogators accused him of distorting Hamas’ image via a picture on Facebook of a woman seeking food in a dumpster. They also mentioned his criticism of the Hamas authorities for not preventing a man from crossing the border into Egypt; the man was shot and killed by Egyptian troops. 

Palestinians watch an anti-Israel rally organized by the Hamas movement in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, July 29, 2016.
Suhaib Salem, Reuters

Aloul says his interrogators blindfolded him, forced him to sit for hours on a child’s chair in a cold room, beat him repeatedly and accused him of being a foreign agent. He was released only after signing a pledge not to deviate from Islamic customs and law, and to abide by accepted behavior. Aloul now lives in Egypt.

Another case is that of Ramzi Herzallah, a money changer who until 2011 belonged to Hamas’ military wing. In January he was summoned to the Gaza prosecutor’s office, where he heard a complaint against him for slandering his employees on Facebook. The complaint referred to a video where he criticized the authorities for the death of the man who crossed into Egypt.

Palestinian boy in Gaza hold a picture of the head of Hamas' politburo Sheikh Ismail Haniyeh. December 2016.
Reuters

Herzallah says that two days later five uniformed men from the security services came to his home in Gaza. They confiscated his phone and two computers and took him to Ansar Prison. There, while still blindfolded, he was slapped repeatedly.

Herzallah says he too received the child’s-chair treatment – for three days with very short breaks. When he fell asleep he was woken up with slaps. His interrogators accused him of a pro-Fatah bias, referring to his Facebook posts. They also banged his head against the wall. He was released after eight days and told to stop insulting the government.

Mousheera al-Haj was until recently the editor of a news site linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In April 2014, after the death of a newborn in Gaza, she blamed the doctors and asked for what crime the baby had been "killed," adding “you sons of dogs!”

She was interrogated several times and last August was ordered to apologize publicly. When she refused, she was taken to Ansar Prison for several hours. According to Haj, she was released only after promising to apologize “in her own way.” That day she wrote a post saying the shock she felt as a mother had led to her criticism.

For the West Bank, the report noted the arrest of Mutaz Abu Lihi, a communications student and rapper. He said that in November 2014 the security forces took him from his home to intelligence headquarters, where he was accused of spraying graffiti against PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He says one investigator threatened him with a handgun and others beat him with a wooden stick and plastic hose.

After his release, Abu Lihi says he received phone calls from members of the security services, who also visited his home. He was detained again for two days, during which he was cursed, beaten and kicked in the groin. They told him that if he confessed that he had sprayed the word “intifada” they would release him. He signed a confession and was released.

In January 2015 Abu Lihi was then detained for 24 days. He says he was again accused of spraying graffiti and ordered to confess or incriminate others. He says his interrogators forced him to strip and opened the windows to let in cold air, beat him, broke his teeth, sprayed him with cold and hot water, and hit him in the groin.

Majd Khawaja, Abu Lihi’s partner in a rap group, was also detained in November 2014. He says the security services held him for three days, prevented him from meeting with a lawyer, and accused him of spray-painting the word “intifada.” Khawaja says one interrogator kicked his leg so hard he has difficulty standing.

Khawaja was later accused of possessing a weapon and planning to smuggle people to Jordan. The interrogators also asked about his song “Corruption” that includes the words: “Dear President, I wish you could understand these words. A third intifada while you are sleeping and dreaming.”

The interrogators told him that verse against the PA was a crime. Since his release, Khawaja has received anonymous phone calls telling him to stop recording songs.

“I still rap politics, but I am more conscious about the choice of words, and I sometimes publish things under different names,” he says in the report.

For his part, Hamas official Ghazi Hamad says the Gaza authorities do not detain people for their politics. “People have the freedom to believe and support whoever they want,” he says in the report. We make the arrests if they try to use force against society.”

Hamad says Aloul made “unfounded allegations,” adding that the incident “was solved in a friendly, socially acceptable manner."

Mohammad Lafi, an Interior Ministry inspector in Gaza, denies that the security services beat or insulted the detainees. Regarding the questioning of Haj, Hamad says she published false statements.

In the report, the PA notes progress in civil rights in recent years, including the decision to stop prosecuting civilians in military courts. West Bank Attorney General Ahmed Barrak says he is trying to reduce the number of lawsuits for insulting public employees so that only the most serious cases go to trial. He says the law defined certain statements as crimes and he must enforce it.

Jamal Dajani, director of the Palestine Government Media Center, told Haaretz the PA strove to allow journalists and activists full freedom of expression. He said that compared to the broader Middle East, the situation in the PA was good.