Hamas claims Gazans enjoy unprecedented freedoms

Hamas claims Gazans enjoy unprecedented freedoms

Local watchdogs disagree, saying improved personal security has not translated into better human rights

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Journalists in Ramallah protest the detainment of journalists in Gaza,  January 27, 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Journalists in Ramallah protest the detainment of journalists in Gaza, January 27, 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Gaza residents enjoy more civil liberties under Hamas than they did under the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s interior ministry claimed, rebuffing recent reports by local and international watchdogs on human rights abuses.

“The Gaza Strip is experiencing an unprecedented level of stability and freedom which did not exist since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority,” read a statement published on Hamas’s interior ministry website April 28. “The Palestinian citizen in the Gaza Strip can bear witness to this.”

Earlier this month, human rights organizations in Gaza criticized Hamas for increasingly curtailing civil liberties in the coastal area. On April 10, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Hamas of failing to investigate summary executions of suspected collaborators during November’s conflict with Israel.

Following an incident in which Hamas policemen forcibly cut the hair of two youths, an official in the local watchdog Al-Mezan said that his organization has come to realize that police violations “follow a pattern that forms a deliberate policy.”

But Hamas claimed that reports on human rights abuses in Gaza are either “unfounded” or “exaggerated and amplified.”

“[These reports] are a figment of the imagination of those who project their personal positions on their professional work,” the statement read.

Hamdi Shaqqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a Gaza-based watchdog, said that Hamas would do better to investigate specific, well-documented reports on abuses than accuse rights organizations of lying.

“We do not publish lies,” Shaqqura told The Times of Israel. “We have a well-established mechanism for examining reports on abuses, and so does the government, if it wanted to.”

In its statement, Hamas claimed that merely enabling open criticism of the government, “which sometimes reaches the level of incitement,” proves “the unprecedented level of human rights enjoyed in Gaza.”

But Shaqqura said that was simply not true.

“We are allowed to work in complete freedom, but this does not mean that the human rights situation is good,” Shaqqura argued.

Most violations in Gaza are related to the political divide between Fatah and Hamas, which erupted with Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. In Gaza, Fatah-affiliated organizations and individuals are the main target of abuses, he said. On Monday morning, a 500-gram explosive device was planted in the car of Fatah official Monther Bardawil, who survived the attack.

In the West Bank it is Hamas officials and institutions that are typically singled out and abused, Shaqqura added.

Amjad Al-Shawwa, head of the Palestinian NGO network in Gaza, agreed that most abuses in Gaza stem from the suspension of parliament, a crucial monitor of human rights issues in Palestinian society.

Hamas claimed that reports on human rights abuses in Gaza are either “unfounded” or “exaggerated and amplified.”

“The absence of legislation due to the political divide has created a situation where each faction issues decrees that harm human rights,” Shawwa told The Times of Israel. “This has compounded an already difficult economic and social situation.”

Hamas’s criminal justice system should concern human rights organizations most, said Bill Van Esveld, who monitors abuses for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“It is responsible for arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, ill-treatment and torture, unfair trials, and death sentences based on coerced confessions,” Van Esveld told The Times of Israel in an email correspondence.

Rule of law has, however, increased in the Gaza Strip, Shawwa said, adding that some violations still occur from time to time.

But Shaqqura of PCHR said that law and order have little to do with improved human rights; often the opposite.

“Most dictatorial regimes have security,” he said. “In many cases this security comes at the expense of human rights. The government’s challenge is to allow human rights to exist side by side with security, not at its expense.”

There were some positive developments, too. Van Esveld of HRW said he was allowed to hold a press conference in Gaza last year and expose more than 100 violations documented by human rights groups during 2012. Hamas also began allowing local rights groups to visit prisons in Gaza.

But he added that Hamas still needs to do much more.

“It should radically overhaul its abusive criminal justice system.”

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