Human Rights Watch released a damning report into the persecution of journalists and activists by the Palestinian leadership on Tuesday, shining a spotlight on the extreme lengths both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip go to in curbing dissenting voices.
The report documents more than 80 cases of torture and arbitrary arrests, some for nothing more than writing a critical article or Facebook post, others for belonging to the wrong student group or political movement.
“The attacks by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on dissidents and demonstrators, reporters and bloggers, are both systematic and unpunished,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch.
Although the West Bank and Gaza remain under Israeli occupation, main population centers inside those territories are governed autonomously by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
The two Palestinian leaderships have failed to reconcile more than 10 years after Hamas wrestled control of Gaza from rival faction Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority. The discord has meant free elections have not taken place in more than a decade.
Both authorities downplayed the abuses documented in the report as isolated cases but vaguely committed to investigating the claims.
The report comes as the issue of press freedom in the Middle East and the treatment of dissidents has been put into sharp focus following the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Journalists, political activists, students and demonstrators described to Human Rights Watch being threatened, beaten and even forced into painful stress positions for prolonged periods during detention. Some of the detainees were ordered to provide access to their cellphones and social media accounts.
In Gaza, journalist Amer Balousha said he was beaten and detained by Hamas’s security forces for a Facebook post critical of the leadership. “Do your children sleep on the floor like ours do?” he said he wrote on the social media platform.
The report also charges the Palestinian Authority with holding hundreds of dissidents in administrative detention without charge or trial.
Journalists in the West Bank have reported lately on a widening and particularly brutal crackdown on their work.
Journalist Jihad Barakat said he was held for three days by security forces for simply photographing Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy at an Israeli military checkpoint.
“It is important for journalists to speak out about this mistreatment so that we can work freely in the future and without harassment,” Barakat told the Post.
Shawan Jabarin, the executive director of al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, said, “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.”
Human Rights Watch called on both leaderships to abide by international human rights conventions and called on governments worldwide to suspend aid to any of the agencies implicated.
Husam Arafat, head of human rights and civil society for the Palestine Liberation Organization to which the Palestinian Authority is affiliated, said that if the allegations were true “we will deal with it and hold those responsible accountable before the law.”
In Gaza, the report was welcomed by human rights activists who said persecution of dissenters had dropped slightly but that lack of accountability for the authorities was still a problem.
“There is one color that governs the Gaza Strip. Monitoring institutions are absent, there is no effective parliament and no clear separation between the authorities,” said Issam Younis, director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.
A spokesman for Hamas said the group had cooperated with Human Rights Watch but that “the report lacked precision and objectivity.”
“Unfortunately, many of our clarifications were ignored,” said Iyad al-Bozom, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. “Torture is absolutely unacceptable to us. When violations occurs, punitive measures are taken.”
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch, said it was “unfortunate that some Palestinian officials had resorted to the tactic of serial rights abuses and accusing human rights groups of foreign agendas, instead of dealing with the serious allegations of abuse we’ve documented.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Ruth Eglash, Sufian Taha