'Calls by Palestinians to safeguard rights ring hollow'

Abbas and Hamas use systematic torture to crush dissent – Human Rights Watch

In major NGO report on Palestinian Authority and Gaza, dozens of ex-detainees — critics, activists, political opponents — describe brutality including beating, forced contortion

Illustrative: The hands of a young man tied with rope (nito100; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: The hands of a young man tied with rope (nito100; iStock by Getty Images)

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas of routinely engaging in “systematic” unwarranted arrests and torture of critics, suspected dissidents and political opponents, and of developing “parallel police states” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively.

In a 149-page report based on interviews with 147 witnesses, Human Rights Watch detailed a common method of abuse and torture known as shabeh — used both by the PA and Hamas — in which detainees are placed in painful physical positions for lengthy periods of time. Such practices cause distress and trauma to detainees, while often leaving “little or no trace on the body,” the report said.

The widespread occurrence of such brutality indicates that “torture is governmental policy for both the PA and Hamas,” HRW stated.

Shabeh techniques include forcing detainees into squats, powerfully stretching their arms above or behind them, and leaving them standing or sitting in child-sized chairs for hours on end.

Palestinian security troops in Hebron, November 14, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

In one example from Gaza, “a PA civil servant, arrested after a friend tagged him in a Facebook post calling for protests on the electricity crisis, spent most of his days in the Internal Security’s Gaza City detention center subjected to positional abuse… causing him to feel ‘severe pain in my kidneys and spine’ and as if his neck would ‘break’ and his ‘body is tearing up inside,'” the report said.

In the West Bank, a detained journalist had his hands tied by rope to the ceiling of a holding room while officers “slowly pulled the rope to apply pressure to his arms, which caused him to feel so much pain that he had to ask an officer to pull his pants up after he used the toilet because he could not do it himself.”

According to the report, “Palestinian forces in both the West Bank and Gaza regularly use threats of violence, taunts, solitary confinement, and beatings, including lashing and whipping of the feet of detainees, to elicit confessions, punish, and intimidate activists.”

The report, titled “Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent,” cited more than 20 cases in which activists were arrested for critical news articles or social media posts, as well as membership in certain groups or movements frowned upon by authorities. Hamas and the PA regularly abused each other’s activists in the territories they control, it added.

Saying the systematic use of torture could amount to a crime against humanity under the United Nations’ Convention against Torture, HRW called on the United States, the European Union and other international powers to halt all aid to the Palestinian agencies responsible for persecution and abuse — including the PA Preventative Security Forces, General Intelligence Services and Joint Security Committee, and the Hamas-run Internal Security — “until the authorities curb those practices and hold those responsible for abuse accountable.”

“Twenty five years after Oslo, Palestinian authorities have gained only limited power in the West Bank and Gaza, but yet, where they have autonomy, they have developed parallel police states,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch.

“Calls by Palestinian officials to safeguard Palestinian rights ring hollow as they crush dissent,” he said.

“Systematic arbitrary arrests and torture violate major human rights treaties to which Palestine recently acceded,” the rights group said, and warned that the “systematic practice of torture by Palestinian authorities may amount to a crime against humanity prosecutable at the International Criminal Court.”

Hamas security forces in Gaza City, April 4, 2013. (Wissam Nassar/FLASH90)

Both Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority denied the accusations.

The two Palestinian factions split in 2007 after Hamas violently seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. For more than a decade, Hamas has maintained an iron grip on power and suppressed any signs of public dissent, including street protests and on social media.

Despite having Western backing, Abbas has also silenced dissent in the areas of the West Bank he administers under past agreements with Israel. Last year, he clamped down on social media and news websites with a vaguely worded decree that critics say allows his government to jail anyone on charges of harming “national unity” or the “social fabric.”

Mohammed Khatib, a 20-year-old law student and activist with Hamas’ student branch in the West Bank, told The Associated Press he was arrested last month and held for 19 days at a Palestinian intelligence center in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He said he was forced to stand for hours at a time and hung by his handcuffed hands to a door for 15 minutes, a stress position meant to cause pain but leave no sign of injury.

“This is not only a violation of human rights, it is a violation of human dignity, a violation of basic morals,” he said, adding that he believed the aim was to intimidate him.

HRW’s report also highlights other tactics used to silence Palestinian dissent and punish activists, among them the seizing of phones, leaving investigations and charges open, and coercing detainees to promise to stop any further criticism.

In Gaza, Taghreed Abu Teer, a 47-year-old journalist, told the AP that she was held by Hamas authorities for 11 days and interrogated under “humiliating circumstances” for her activities with the rival Fatah movement.

Palestinian police take part in a training session in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

She said she was kept in a dark cell for days at a time and forced to stand for lengthy periods. Although she was not physically beaten, she said she could hear the screams of men being tortured nearby, and that at one point, a man with a whip threatened to beat her as well. More than a year and a half later, she still cries when she recalls the “unforgettable experience.”

“As long as I was in the cell, I was wondering what had caused me to end up here,” she said. She spoke at a relative’s home so her six children would not hear about the ordeal.

Abu Teer said interrogators threatened to charge her with collaboration with Israel, widely feared as a stigma, and that most of the questions focused on a three-day trip she made to the West Bank, where she met senior Fatah officials and briefed them about the situation in Gaza. She said interrogators accused her of inciting the Palestinian Authority to make financial cuts and other punitive measures against Gaza, a tactic meant to squeeze Hamas.

She denied all the allegations, saying she had only led protests and lobbied for ending the Hamas-Fatah split.

While she was never charged, Hamas officers advised her “to be quiet” and focus on her home and family, “which I considered a veiled threat rather than advice,” she added.

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