Palestinian Leaders Are Accused of Using Torture and Arbitrary Arrests to Crush Dissent

Hamas security officers during an operation in Gaza in March.CreditCreditKhalil Hamra/Associated Press


RAMALLAH, West Bank — A West Bank journalist was detained by Palestinian Authority security forces for four days after he took photographs on his cellphone of the Palestinian prime minister’s convoy stuck in line at an Israeli-controlled checkpoint.


An activist in Gaza said that Hamas security forces detained him for 15 days after he wrote a Facebook post protesting the lack of electricity in which he asked the group’s leaders if their children slept on the tiled floor to escape the heat, as his did.


Citing those cases and others in a report published on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy organization, accused both the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and its rival, Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, of routinely using arbitrary arrest and torture as tools to crush dissent.


The systematic practice of torture by the two authorities might amount to a crime against humanity and could be prosecutable at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the report said.


On Tuesday, spokesmen for the internal security forces of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas dismissed the group’s report as biased and inaccurate.


Adnan Damiri, a Palestinian Authority spokesman, said the report was “highly biased and full of mistaken information.”


In an annex to the report, the security agencies of both Palestinian territories argued that abuses occurred only in isolated cases where perpetrators were investigated and held to account.


Human Rights Watch said the evidence it had collected contradicted those claims.


Speaking at a news conference in Ramallah, Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch and the lead researcher on the report, said: “Abuses happen. When abuses happen, those who carry them out should be held responsible. When you have impunity, abuse continues. There has been impunity for a quarter of a century.”


Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, said that 25 years after the Oslo peace accord, “Palestinian authorities have gained only limited power in the West Bank and Gaza, but yet, where they have autonomy, they have developed parallel police states.”


“Calls by Palestinian officials to safeguard Palestinian rights ring hollow as they crush dissent,” he added.

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, at a news conference in the West Bank on Tuesday.CreditMohamad Torokman/Reuters


Many of the accusations are not new. Human Rights Watch drew attention to what it called the “perilous state of human rights in the Palestinian self-rule areas” in a report on both Israeli and Palestinian violations in 1995. Journalists and rights organizations have documented many cases since.


But the 149-page report published on Tuesday, which was two years in the making, drew on testimony from more than 140 witnesses, including former detainees, their relatives and lawyers, and it also reviewed medical records and court documents. Human Rights Watch detailed more than two dozen cases of people who it said were “detained for no clear reason beyond writing a critical article or Facebook post or belonging to the wrong student group or political movement.” The detentions often lasted for days or weeks, and the purpose of the authorities’ actions, the advocacy group said, was to punish critics and deter further activism.


Human Rights Watch also pointed to systematic abuse including beatings, foot-whipping and, in particular, a form of torture known as “shabeh” in Arabic, in which detainees are contorted for long periods into stress positions that cause pain but rarely leave marks.


Human Rights Watch called on countries that provide assistance to the various security agencies accused of such abuse to suspend that part of their aid.


Palestinian analysts have long noted the increasing autocracy of the octogenarian Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in his struggle to suppress real and perceived rivals, and the competition between his Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas has led to waves of tit-for-tat arrests.


In Ramallah, some Palestinians asked about the authority said that they did not dare speak publicly, making a snatching motion with their fingers to suggest that expressing criticism could lead them to be whisked off the street. Unauthorized protests have been brutally broken up. In Hamas-run Gaza, the authorities have long been accused of intimidating journalists and critics.


In response to questions posed by Human Rights Watch, one of the West Bank security agencies, the Preventive Security Service, said that 220 Palestinians had been detained following posts on social media because they “fell outside the bounds of criticism and expression of opinion,” and could have “endangered the lives of citizens.”


Jihad Barakat, the West Bank journalist who took the photographs of the Palestinian prime minister, was ultimately acquitted of any improper or unlawful behavior by a court in Ramallah.


Amer Balousha, the activist in Gaza who complained about the heat, was first summoned on suspicion of incitement after calling on people to demonstrate and was later released. He was then arrested on another, unspecified charge “of a criminal nature,” according to the Hamas security forces.


The Israeli authorities have so far refused to grant Human Rights Watch permission to enter Gaza to present its report there. And in a twist, the report comes as Mr. Shakir, an American citizen, is fighting an Israeli deportation order after the authorities moved to revoke his work visa under a contentious 2017 law barring entry to people who have promoted boycotts against Israel.


The Israeli authorities have accused Human Rights Watch of anti-Israel bias in the past and compiled a dossier on Mr. Shakir that documents his activities in support of a boycott, mostly from before he joined the advocacy group. The dossier also points to a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch that called on businesses to cease activities that benefited Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.


© 2018 The New York Times Company


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