DOZENS of people in the West Bank and Gaza have been unlawfully arrested, detained, and tortured for peacefully criticising the authorities, an investigation by Human Rights Watch has found.
The international organisation states in its report that the deepening feud between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), in Gaza, in recent years, has led to the increased use of arbitrary detention to target each other’s supporters.
“PA and Hamas use detention to punish critics and deter them and others from further activism. In detention, security forces routinely taunt, threaten, beat, and force detainees into painful stress positions for hours at a time.” This includes independent journalists, as well as people protesting on social media, on university campuses, and at demonstrations.
The report, Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent: Arbitrary arrest and torture under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, is the result of a two year-investigation into patterns of arrest and detention conditions. This included 147 interviews with ex-detainees, family members, lawyers, NGO representatives, and a doctor, as well as a review of photo and video evidence, medical reports, and court documents.
The investigation found 86 cases in which people had been arrested for their views and tortured in custody. “The arrests for non-violent speech acts constitute serious violations of international human-rights law, in contravention of legal obligations imposed through Palestine’s accession to major international human-rights treaties over the last five years,” the report says.
“The torture as practised by both the PA and Hamas may amount to a crime against humanity, given its systematic practice over many years.”
Both authorities “categorically deny” carrying out arrests solely because of political affiliation or expression. Human Rights Watch, however, has recorded specific cases in which individuals have been arrested because of previous political affiliation, or hours after posting a critical message on Facebook, or taking part in a public demonstration.
Human Rights Watch also found evidence of the torture of detainees for confessions or Facebook passwords, or to drive activists out of the country.
As well as beatings and threats, forms of torture included shabeh, an Arabic term for confining detainees in painful stress positions that leave little or no physical marks on the body; and “bus”, a room in which Hamas authorities in Gaza “blindfold detainees and force them to stand or sit in a small chair for extended periods of time, usually during interrogations, to pressure them to confess. Detainees cannot speak, move, take medicine, sleep, or eat without permission from guards.”
Palestinian authorities have failed to hold its security services to account for the human-rights abuses, the report says; there have been no known convictions for the arbitrary arrest or mistreatment of detainees.
Human Rights Watch has called on both the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas authorities to pledge publicly to end the practice, and create a watchdog to inspect places of detention regularly and investigate wrongdoing.
It points out that both PA and Hamas “rely heavily” on financial support from the United States. Since the Fatah-Hamas split in June 2007, the US Security Co-ordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (whose staff includes officers from the UK, Canada, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands) has overseen training for PA security forces.
Human Rights Watch calls on this support to be removed, and a statement of public concern issued by the international community; for social media platforms to scrutinise government requests for user data which could lead to human-rights abuse; and for the parties to end the feud behind the abuses.