Human rights watchdog: Hamas, PA tortured hundreds in 2014

Annual report from Human Rights Watch also blasts Israel’s settlement policy, military conduct, treatment of Bedouins and African migrants

Hamas gunmen in Gaza with suspected collaborators in August 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/euronews)
Hamas gunmen in Gaza with suspected collaborators in August 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/euronews)

Both Israel and the Palestinians committed “serious violations” in 2014, the Human Rights Watch NGO said Thursday.

The newly released 660-page HRW World Report 2015 warned that rights clampdowns worldwide were fueling jihadists, and blasted Hamas and Palestinian Authority security services for torturing or ill-treating 338 people as of October 31, 2014.

PA forces in the West Bank “beat peaceful demonstrators, detained and harassed journalists, and arbitrarily detained hundreds,” the report said. “Credible allegations of torture of Palestinians by the PA’s security services persisted.”

Palestinian terrorist groups were castigated for storing rockets in UNRWA schools in Gaza, and for endangering civilians by launching rockets from populated areas.

HRW wrote extensively about alleged Israeli abuses in Gaza, the West Bank, and in Israel itself. The army’s conduct in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza came under particular scrutiny, with the rights organization accusing Israel of a series of unlawful attacks which killed Palestinian civilians, including children.

The report also doubted Israel’s commitment to investigating accusations of crimes by its soldiers.

“The Israeli military opened about 100 probes into attacks by its forces in the 2014 fighting and referred 13 cases for criminal investigations, but the nearly complete absence of criminal prosecutions resulting from self-investigations of alleged war crimes committed in Gaza during the fighting in 2008-2009 and 2012 leaves little reason for expecting a different outcome,” the report read.

HRW also panned Israel for expanding settlements and appropriating land in the West Bank.

Israel’s policy of destroying Palestinian homes, both those belonging to terrorists and those that were built illegally, came under intense criticism as well.

The report also called into question Israel’s linking of Hamas to the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens in June, saying “there was no public evidence that Hamas ordered the killings,” despite evidence to the contrary.

“The group praised the abduction but denied responsibility for the teenagers’ murders,” read the report.

The organization, which is often viewed as critical of Israel, said it sees great benefit in the increased involvement of the International Criminal Court in the conflict, and appeared to support the Palestinians joining the ICC.

“The involvement of the ICC could help to deter both sides from committing war crimes, while potentially offering victims a modicum of justice. With its UN observer-state status, Palestine is eligible to join the ICC, and it marked the New Year by finally doing so. The ICC will have jurisdiction over war crimes committed in or from Palestinian territory; that is, its mandate will apply to both sides in the conflict.”

On the domestic front, HRW said Israel’s policy of demolishing some unrecognized Bedouin structures in the Negev was discriminatory.

Israel’s treatment of African migrants came under serious criticism as well: “Since June 2012, Israeli authorities have indefinitely detained thousands of Eritreans for entering Israel irregularly and have applied coercive measures to ‘make their lives miserable’ and ‘encourage the illegals to leave,’ in the words of Israeli officials.”

The report only mentioned anti-Semitism once. But it did point out that no one has yet been convicted for the 1994 attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead and over 300 injured.

“From the investigation’s outset, judicial corruption and political obstruction hindered criminal investigations and prosecutions,” the report said.

‘Abuses fueled rise of terrorism’

Governments increasingly view human rights as “a luxury” they can ill afford, Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth said as he presented the report, warning that abuses were fueling crises in world trouble spots like Syria and Ukraine.

Western powers, including the United States, are far from blameless and in some cases their wrongdoing has fed the very climate in which serial rights abusers like Islamic State group jihadists thrive, the group said.

Ignoring human rights while addressing global security risks “fails to get at the root causes that gave rise to many of these threats,” Roth told reporters in Beirut.

Even as it seems that “the world is unraveling,” he warned, many governments “appear to have concluded that today’s serious security threats must take precedence over human rights.”

“In this difficult moment, they seem to argue, human rights must be put on the back burner, a luxury for less trying times,” Roth said.

Such a calculation is false, Roth insisted.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during the annual press conference of the non governmental organization in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 (photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during the annual press conference of the non governmental organization in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 (photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Governments that flout human rights during crises are not only violating international law, but they are also following “short-sighted and counter-productive” strategies, he added.

From Iraq to Syria, Egypt, Nigeria and Ukraine “protecting human rights and enabling people to have a say in how their governments address the crises will be key to their resolution.”

The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group was in part fueled by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and also by the West’s failure to address atrocities in Syria.

The Iraq invasion led to a security vacuum and abuses in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay.

Later the United States and Britain “largely shut their eyes” to the sectarian policies of Shiite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and his persecution of the Sunni minority, and even continued to ply his government with arms.

In Syria, the US cobbled together a 60-strong coalition to combat the IS jihadists, but no nations have stepped up pressure on President Bashar Assad “to stop the slaughter of civilians.”

Speaking to AFP in Beirut, Roth said: “The West is not going to succeed in stopping ISIS if it allows ISIS to say that it’s the only one trying to stop Assad’s barrel bombs.”

He used the acronym ISIS to refer to the IS.

This same selectivity has been shown in Egypt, where the global response to “unprecedented repression” by general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has been “shamefully inadequate.”

 ‘Good-versus-bad mentality’

Washington shied away from denouncing the Egyptian military’s overthrow of elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi as a coup.

In this, it was driven by its own concerns for the security of the unruly Sinai peninsula and neighboring US ally Israel.

Support for the Sissi leadership is “a disaster for the Egyptian hopes of a democratic future” and sends “an appalling message to the region.”

“ISIS can now credibly argue that violence is the only path to power for Islamists because when they sought power through fair elections and won, they were ousted with little international protest,” Roth said.

Human rights abuses in Russia, which stifled critical voices inside the country over the past two years, and the West’s “relatively narrow reaction … may well have aggravated the Ukrainian crisis.”

The cell block on a typical ward in Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (photo credit: US Dept. of Defense/File)
The cell block on a typical ward in Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (photo credit: US Dept. of Defense/File)

Yet, the West has also fallen back on “a good-versus-bad mentality” and in its desire to show Ukraine as a victim of Russian aggression has been “reluctant to address Ukrainian abuses.”

The need for security in the digital age has also triggered concerns for Human Rights Watch, alarmed by daily data snooping by governments targeting hundreds of millions of people.

“Governments everywhere are expanding their own mass surveillance capacity,” argued senior HRW Internet researcher Cynthia Wong. The United States and Britain remain the leaders in the field, having “thrown away any notion of proportionality.”

Wong said the transatlantic allies “have provided a roadmap for governments of all political persuasions to build their own systems of mass surveillance.”

With few privacy protections built in, she warned, “a truly Orwellian scenario could unfold.”

A further HRW concern is the trampling of human rights during mega-sporting events such as the Sochi Winter Olympics, when Moscow cracked down on civil society and journalists.

The fact that only Kazakhstan and China — both with terrible rights records — are in the running for the 2022 Winter Olympics “should be keeping the IOC up at night,” the report says.

It proposed the International Olympics Committee build human rights monitoring into the hosting process in the same way “as they now do to build ski jumps, swimming pools and equestrian facilities on time.”

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