In the West Bank it’s called a “closet” and in Gaza it’s called a “bus.” Both are euphemisms for means of incarceration and torture used by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on detainees, according to an inquiry released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch.
“‘Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent’: Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas,” is a 149-page report describing how the Palestinian authorities suppress dissent, using arbitrary arrest that contravenes basic Palestinian law itself, attacks on protesters, criminalization of criticism on social media, and torture to extract confessions and deter opposition.
The report on patterns of arrest and conditions of detention in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also includes testimony from people arrested on suspicion of criminal actions, and who underwent torture. One Gazan was suspected of theft and died under torture; the authorities claimed he had killed himself.
Detainees may be charged with obscure offenses such as insulting “supreme authorities,” causing “sectarian strife” in the West Bank, or “harming the revolutionary unity” and also insulting the supreme authorities in Gaza. Rarely, however, do the charges reach court.
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HRW researchers met with and interviewed 95 people who had been arrested in the past, 47 in the West Bank and 48 in Gaza, mainly during 2016 and 2017. They also interviewed 52 relatives of the detainees, lawyers and representatives of Palestinian NGOs. The organization’s conclusion is that this conduct is systematic – the rule, not the exception, among both of the rival Palestinian governments.
Representatives of the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah (West Bank) and Gaza courteously answered all the questions the HRW asked in detail, and even thanked them for standing by the Palestinians’ side in exposing the actions of the Israeli occupation. In long letters that appear in full in the report, they note a list of laws and international conventions that prohibit torture, arrests on specious grounds, threats and suppression of free speech, and stated that they abide by them.
A representative of the Gazan Ministry of Interior and National Security wrote to HRW that the ministry abides by international treaties “that Palestine ratified” (referring to the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas), especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Representatives of the governments in Gaza and the West Bank reject the accusation of systematic abuses and admitted at most to exceptions – but HRW was adamant that its findings contradict that claim.
The human rights NGO states that despite the external monitoring mechanisms by Palestinian and International organizations such as The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and even though both the Palestinian governments have internal monitoring and control systems within the ministries, the routine of abuse has not stopped. HRW is not aware of any case in which a member of any security apparatus has been convicted for making false arrests or abusing inmates.
About 50 pages of the report are devoted to testimonies by 40 former detainees, who tell of torture and abuse.
Supporters of Hamas and the news media associated with the movement, members of the Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir and supporters of Mohammad Dahlan all fell victim to the PA’s methods of detention and torture in the West Bank. In Gaza, the victims were mainly members of Fatah or the PA’s security forces and broadcast corporation, as well as people identified with the Islamic Jihad and Popular Front.
The report lists some Hamas supporters who were arrested and tortured by PA forces – and were subsequently arrested by Israel, through administration detention.
There were cases in which Hamas forced detainees to sign a commitment not to criticize it as a condition for their release.
In both Gaza and the West Bank, some people experience serial arrest. Sharing a Facebook post, protesting about the electricity shortages, photographing a convoy bearing the Palestinian Prime Minister, stopped at a checkpoint in the West Bank, and political activity at universities are all grounds for arrest and abuse. Some former detainees left Gaza or the West Bank as a result; others eschewed further political criticism.
Among the recommendations HRW includes in its report, aiming at putting a halt to the phenomenon, it addresses the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. It says she “should consider arrests and treatment in custody of detainees by the PA and Hamas as part of any future investigation into the situation in Palestine.”
The organization’s researchers, and mainly Omar Shakir, the director of HRW Palestine/Israel, worked on the investigation for about two years.
Shakir, whom Israel had sought to deport on the grounds of past support for BDS, told Haaretz that some former detainees whom the NGO had contacted declined to be interviewed. About half of the interviewees whose testimonies appear in the report under their full names, are mainly journalists and people whose arrest was documented and published by the Palestinian media and Palestinian human rights organizations. Some talked with HRW but later asked that their ordeals not be mentioned in the report.
The HRW researchers were assisted by Palestinian human rights organizations, such as the independent Palestinian Commission for Human Rights, which continuously keep watch on the Palestinian governments and security organizations.
“The fact that Israel systematically violates Palestinians’ most basic rights is no reason to remain silent in the face of the systematic repression of dissent and the torture Palestinian security forces are perpetrating,” said Shawan Jabarin, executive director of the Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq and a member of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee.
Shakir says Israel denied him and two U.S.-based senior HRW managers permits to enter Gaza, neither while compiling the report nor for its publication this week. The organization plans a news conference in Ramallah and had wanted to hold one in Gaza too, with members of the press and representatives of civil society. Israel’s coordinator for government activities in the territories answered both requests, writing that HRW activity is not among COGAT’s criteria for entering the Strip.
Haaretz asked COGAT why HRW seniors were not being allowed to enter the Gaza Strip and participate in the press conference at which incriminating evidence against Hamas was to be courageously presented, and why they were denied entry in the past.
COGAT’s spokesperson answer was the same: their request is beyond the Israeli criteria allowing entry to the enclave.