Bringing D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y to the West Bank

November 25, 2010

In News

Published: November 21 2010 17:20 | Last updated: November 21 2010 17:20

Palestinian security forces in Bethlehem. General Intelligence and
Preventive Security officers have been accused of human rights abuses Naiema
Abu Ayyash’s worst fears were confirmed this month when she finally managed
to visit her husband in Jericho prison.

Badr Abu Ayyash, 42, a farmer and local politician in the west Bank, was
arrested by the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security unit on
September 14. Aside from two brief and apparently supervised phone calls,
his family was denied all contact with him.

“He looked very different,” said Ms Abu Ayyash, a mother of four.
“He could hardly walk. He had difficulty breathing and was very thin.
When he shook my hand, I noticed that he had no strength at all.”

She has no doubt her husband was tortured. “I started screaming at the
officer: ‘What are you doing to him?”’ Her pleas fell on deaf ears.
After a few cursory exchanges, her husband was led back to his cell.

According to former inmates and activists familiar with Palestinian prisons,
Ms Abu Ayyash has every reason to be worried. They say prisoners affiliated
with the Islamist Hamas movement, which runs the Gaza Strip, are beaten
regularly and deprived of medicine and basic comforts such as blankets and

Internecine rivalry
The secular Fatah party and Islamist Hamas group are the two biggest and
most influential political forces in the Palestinian national movement.
They are also deadly rivals.
Hamas gunmen ousted the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority from the Gaza
Strip in June 2007, leaving Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and PA
president, with only the West Bank to govern.
In an attempt to cement control in their respective strongholds, both
parties launched an often brutal crackdown on their rival.
Hamas and Fatah officials have met repeatedly over the past years to
negotiate a reconciliation agreement, but have made little progress so far.
There is evidence that a significant number of detainees are tortured during
interrogation. The most common form of abuse is known as Shabeh, in which
detainees are handcuffed and bound in stress positions for long periods.

Claims of torture and abuse by members of the Palestinian security forces
are not new. There has, however, been a sharp rise in reported cases,
leading Human Rights Watch to remark last month that “reports of torture by
Palestinian security forces keep rolling in”. The New York-based
organisation also bemoaned the “rampant impunity” of officers allegedly
involved in the abuses.

Many analysts and observers fear that life in the west Bank is taking on an
increasingly authoritarian hue. “I feel real concern that we are reaching
the level of a police state,” says Shawan Jabarin, the director of al-Haq, a
Ramallah-based human rights group.

It is a concern shared by Randa Siniora, the director of the Palestinian
Independent Commission for Human Rights, the ombudsman responsible for
processing complaints against Palestinian officials. Her commission received
more complaints about torture in the west Bank in October than in any month
since mid- 2009. “We are looking at a very gloomy situation,” she said. “I
am afraid that this [problem of torture and abuse] will become systematic.”

Groups such as al-Haq, which once only documented human rights abuses by
Israeli authorities, say they are spending an increasing amount of time on
cases in which Palestinians abuse their fellow countrymen.

The deterioration is linked closely to a crackdown on Islamist activists and
sympathisers after a deadly attack on Jewish West Bank settlers by Hamas
gunmen in August. In an attempt to counter the renewed threat from Hamas,
and keen to prove the PA capable of dealing forcefully with its rival, the
authority’s General Intelligence and Preventive Security units rounded up
more than 700 suspects.

Human rights groups say almost all were arrested without proper warrants and
held, contrary to Palestinian law, without the assent of civilian judges or
prosecutors. Many were denied access to lawyers and family members. In
several dozen cases, including that of Mr Abu Ayyash, the Palestinian High
Court of Justice ordered an immediate release – only for its decision to be
either ignored or circumvented by the security apparatus.

For governments in Europe and North America, the worsening human rights
situation poses a thorny political dilemma. Many of them provide generous
financial support to the PA and regard Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, as
an indispensable ally.

The US, fearing an Islamist takeover of the west Bank, has provided much of
the training for Mr Fayyad’s security forces.

Some western diplomats say the harsh tactics will spark a popular backlash
and undermine the PA. “This is of concern to us,” says one European
diplomat. Human rights abuses threaten not only to “damage the long-term
legitimacy and credibility of the Palestinian Authority” but raise difficult
questions for donors: “If we are building a police state – what are we
actually doing here?”

The PA dismisses much of the criticism as an “exaggeration”. Ghassan Khatib,
director of the government media centre, concedes that there have been
isolated cases of abuses but disputes the figures cited by al-Haq and
others. “I am not trying to say there are no violations,” Mr Khatib argues.
“But they are the exception, not the norm. They are against the orders. And
whenever there are complaints we hold violators accountable.”

Diplomats and Palestinian activists say Mr Fayyad and his cabinet are keen
to end the human rights violations. The problem, they believe, is that the
prime minister lacks the authority to crack down on the two most problematic
units – General Intelligence and Preventive Security – which have close ties
to the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

Many argue that only concerted pressure by the US and the European Union, as
well as joint action by Mr Abbas and Mr Fayyad, can bring about lasting
change. There have been some signs that donor countries are starting to
raise human rights concerns more forcefully.

For Ahmad Salhab, any change will come too late. The 42-year-old former
mechanic says he was tortured on two occasions by Palestinian security
officers. Repeated application of Shabeh during detention in late 2008 had
left him with torn spinal discs.

He was arrested again by Preventive Security officers on September 19 and
later transferred to the same Jericho prison as Mr Abu Ayyash. Mr Salhab
says he was held in solitary confinement, deprived of the medication he
requires as a result of the earlier abuse and subjected again to Shabeh.
His condition deteriorated so badly that he could neither walk nor stand

“I had to eat lying on my back. I had to pray on my back and other inmates
had to carry me to the toilet,” he says.

Mr Salhab was released on October 16 but had to spend 10 days in Hebron
hospital before he could return home. Now he walks on crutches and has
little hope of ever making a full recovery.

“I never broke the law. I never assaulted anybody,” he says. “In the past,
nobody would have believed that the PA would torture its own people.
But now everybody knows that they do not respect human rights.”

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