The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas authorities in Gaza routinely arrest and torture peaceful critics and opponents, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. As the Palestinian Authority-Hamas feud has deepened, each has targeted the other’s supporters.
The 149-page report, “‘Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent:’ Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas,” evaluates patterns of arrest and detention conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 25 years after the Oslo Accords granted Palestinians a degree of self-rule over these areas and more than a decade after Hamas seized effective control over the Gaza Strip. Human Rights Watch detailed more than two dozen cases of people detained for no clear reason beyond writing a critical article or Facebook post or belonging to the wrong student group or political movement.
“Twenty-five years after Oslo, 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,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Calls by Palestinian officials to safeguard Palestinian rights ring hollow as they crush dissent.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 147 witnesses, including former detainees and their relatives, lawyers, and representatives of nongovernmental groups, and reviewed photographic evidence, medical reports, and court documents. The report reflects substantive responses to the findings from the main security agencies implicated in the underlying abuses.
Systematic arbitrary arrests and torture violate major human rights treaties to which Palestine recently acceded. Few security offiers have been prosecuted and none have been convicted for wrongful arrest or torture, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine.
The European Union, the United States, and other governments that financially support the Palestinian Authority and Hamas should suspend aid to the specific units or agencies implicated in widespread arbitrary arrests and torture until the authorities curb those practices and hold those responsible for abuse accountable.
“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 the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee.
Human Rights Watch met with the Palestinian Authority Intelligence Services in Ramallah, but was unable to accept an offer from Hamas authorities to meet in Gaza because Israel refused to grant permits for senior Human Rights Watch officials to enter the Gaza Strip for this purpose. Israeli authorities also rejected Human Rights Watch’s request for senior representatives to enter Gaza during October 2018 to present this report at a news conference.
Both authorities deny that abuses amount to more than isolated cases that are investigated and for which wrongdoers are held to account. The evidence that Human Rights Watch collected contradicts these claims.
Palestinian authorities often rely on overly broad laws that criminalize insulting “higher authorities,” creating “sectarian strife,” or “harming the revolutionary unity” to detain dissidents for days or weeks, only to release most of them without referring them to trial, but often leaving charges outstanding. Palestinian Authority security forces also held 221 Palestinians for various periods between January 2017 and August 2018 in administrative detention without charge or trial under a regional governor’s order, according to the Palestinian statutory watchdog Independent Commission for Human Rights.
A number of former Palestinian Authority detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch had also been detained by Israel, which coordinates with Palestinian Authority forces on security issues. In Gaza, Hamas authorities sometimes condition release on the detainee signing a commitment to halt criticism or protests.
On September 27, the Independent Commission for Human Rights reported that Hamas security forces in Gaza had arrested more than 50 people affiliated with Fatah and that Palestinian Authority forces in the West Bank had detained more than 60 affiliated with Hamas, in the span of just a few days.
In the cases documented, Palestinian forces often threatened, beat, and forced detainees into painful stress positions for prolonged periods, including using cables or ropes to hoist up arms behind the back. Police often used similar tactics to obtain confessions by people detained on drug or other criminal charges. Security forces also routinely coerced detainees into providing access to their cellphones and social media accounts. These measures appear aimed at punishing dissidents and deterring them and others from further activism.
While the authorities regularly receive citizen complaints and have systems to investigate them, only a minority have resulted in a finding of wrongdoing, according to data provided by the agencies. Even fewer led to an administrative sanction or referral for criminal prosecution.
Palestinian authorities should abide by the international human rights treaties they acceded to over the last five years. Hamas authorities said in a letter to Human Rights Watch that it considered itself committed to uphold all international treaties ratified by the State of Palestine. Compliance requires Palestinian authorities to ensure that an independent body inspects detention sites and that the authorities investigate complaints credibly and impose appropriate sanctions if warranted.
The systematic practice of torture by Palestinian authorities may amount to a crime against humanity prosecutable at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Human Rights Watch has long encouraged the ICC prosecutor to open a formal probe into Israeli and Palestinian conduct in Palestine, which is a party to the ICC.
The US and European states provide support to Palestinian Authority security forces. While the US in 2018 slashed funding for health and education services for Palestinians, including all its support for the United Nations Relief Works and Agency (UNRWA), it continued to set aside funding for security forces, including allocating US $60 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) nonlethal assistance to Palestinian Authority security forces for the 2018 fiscal year and $35 million for the 2019 fiscal year. Qatar, Iran, and Turkey financially support Hamas authorities. All of these countries should suspend assistance to agencies that routinely torture dissidents – including, for the Palestinian Authority, the Intelligence Services, Preventive Security, and Joint Security Committee, and, for Hamas, Internal Security – as long as systematic torture and other serious abuses continue.
“The attacks by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on dissidents and demonstrators, reporters and bloggers, are both systematic and unpunished,” Porteous said. “Governments that want to help the Palestinian people develop the rule of law should not support security forces that actively undermine it.”