PA’s arrest of journalist covering protest is latest in ongoing crackdown on dissent

Hamas-linked students and a reporter were arrested this week during a rally at Birzeit University

A protest at Bir Zeit University, October 2022 (video screenshot)
A protest at Bir Zeit University, October 2022 (video screenshot)

Palestinian Authority security forces arrested five students from Birzeit University in Ramallah this week, including a journalist, during a protest organized by the Hamas-affiliated organization that heads the student council.

The demonstration on Sunday was against the continued detention of three student activists.

Among those arrested was Hatem Hamdan, a photojournalist and communications student at Birzeit who had been covering the protest as a freelancer when he was detained.

An eyewitness said Palestinian Authority police beat Hamdan severely in the face before taking him into custody.

There was no comment from the PA.

The arrests of the five students, which also included three members of the student council, come amid a PA crackdown on dissent.

Critics accuse the Fatah-dominated PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas of corruption and ignoring democratic norms, as well as being a puppet of Israeli authorities.

Journalists have been a favorite target for the PA’s repression, and the international NGO Reporters without Borders ranks the Palestinian Territories 170th out of 180 in regards to press freedom, citing PA laws that punish criticism.

The Palestinian Authority often uses its “cybercrime” law to imprison journalists who publish negative views about the government online, and there are also reports of PA security forces having roughed up journalists as they documented protests.

Birzeit University, which counts among the West Bank’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, has historically served as a hotbed for activism — with students sometimes coming to blows on campus over political differences — and several members of its faculty have been part of the PA’s negotiating teams at US-sponsored peace talks with Israel.

“Birzeit’s student politics are reflective of wider trends within the Palestinian political arena, in which Hamas garners widespread support because it’s the only organized alternative to Fatah and the despised status quo it embodies,” said Tahani Mustafa, a West Bank analyst at International Crisis Group.

Birzeit’s most recent student council election in May 2022 culminated in a landslide victory for the Islamic Bloc – a student group closely aligned with Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU.

The Fatah-aligned student group, Shabiba, won only 18 out of 51 seats — 10 less than the Islamic Bloc. While the Islamic Bloc has won every student council election since 2015, this was the first time that a margin of victory for either party at Birzeit translated into a seat differential reaching double digits.

The election results were largely interpreted as a repudiation of Fatah by restless, politically dissatisfied youth who, having only vague memories of the “golden age” in which Yasser Arafat led that party, feel no loyalty to it.

Throughout its successful campaign, the Islamic Bloc denounced the overbearing presence of the PA’s security force in West Bank society. During the candidates’ debate, the Islamic Bloc’s spokesperson Mua’tasim Zaloom snarled at his Shabiba opponent: “Who wrote your speech? An officer from the PA security service? Those who chase and arrest us?”

Zaloom was widely perceived to have won the debate, and students who supported his Islamic Bloc frequently cited their displeasure at alleged abuses by the PA Security Forces.

In Mustafa’s view, such arrests often have an effect opposite to its intended one by “providing further space for radical elements to gain traction either through sympathy or protest against an increasingly authoritarian status quo.”

The protests organized by the Islamic-Bloc-led student council and reported on by Hamdan on October 30 were inspired by the PA’s continued detention of three student activists affiliated with the Islamic Bloc, including student council member Qasim Humayil, who has spent over 120 days in prison and more than a month of that time on a hunger strike still in progress.

The protests, which have been recurring weekly, have seen both Islamic Bloc activists and relatives of the imprisoned students calling for their immediate release by the PA.

Several student groups on the council joined the Islamic Bloc to release a condemnation of Sunday’s arrests, saying, “What is being targeted by these arrests is the unity of the university [and] its example of democratic unity — not the Islamic Bloc.”

Amnesty International this week called on the PA to investigate allegations by Humayil and the five other hunger-striking inmates at the PA-run Beitunia prison according to which they were subject to torture. Amnesty alleged that “the men have also been held in solitary confinement, denied family visits and phone calls and held under constant surveillance in punishment for their decision to go on hunger strike.”

In the days leading up to the protest and arrests, several students from Birzeit were briefly taken into custody by Palestinian police, who warned them not to participate in the scheduled march “against the Palestinian Authority,” according to London-based news outlet al-Araby al-Jadid.

Ouni Faris, the father of a detained student, told al-Araby al-Jadid that he has received no details about his son’s arrest, not even which of the several branches within the PA’s heavily staffed security forces had detained him.

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