As U.S. brokered negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders nearly ruptured last week, in the West Bank the Palestinian Authority was busy cracking down on a Salafi group attempting to stage protests against the talks. Two weekends in a row, after evening prayers at a central Ramallah mosque dozens of Palestinian Authority (PA) riot police and undercover security services conducted mass arrests of members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a marginal Islamic group that seeks the ouster of both the PA and Israel, and an anachronistic return of the Caliphate over the Levantine region.
Last Saturday around 8pm PA police closed the street in front of the Jamal Abdul Nasser Mosque. From a hostel window overlooking the structure I saw riot police with shields, helmets and night sticks form two lines blocking road access. Upon reaching ground level, police cleared the area within minutes. I was detained by Palestinian undercover security services who refused to identify themselves.
“I can bring ten police over, that’s my identification,” one officer told me. He then proceeded to review the images on my camera, noting that because I am American and he respects the “rules of law” I must acquiesce to the brief detention, and that “it is illegal to take pictures of this demonstration” or even be present on the street.
While detained the plain-clothed officer told me the police had arrested 50 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir who were protesting the late stage framework negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. He went on to say that the group was arrested because they were protesting without a permit, and that three days before another raid had occurred when around 200 attempted to stage a march. “They are internationalist,” the officer said shaking his head denoting Hizb ut-Tahrir’s unpopular status within Palestinian society for their lack of a national politic and the religious edifices of which their ideology is focused.
Speaking to a vendor with a stand across the street from the mosque who witnessed the arrests the following day, he said, police beat worshipers as they exited the religious site.
The previous week on Sunday PA police also arrested members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, as well as youth congregates of the mosque unaffiliated with the Salafi party. A Palestinian reporter and cameraman who attempted to document the raid were beaten and detained by PA police. Additionally the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) found undercover agents actually entered the mosque before the sting operation. Ahmed Melhem, the reporter with Watan TV told PCHR:
“I was with my colleague, Ahmed Zaki, in Jamal Abdul Nasser Mosque to cover a religious sermon of Hizb ut-Tahrir following al-Maghrib prayer yesterday. When we tried to go out, security officers in plain clothes stopped us and tried to forcibly confiscate the camera from my colleague. We refused that and showed our cards. Two other officers violently took us outside. I was beaten up. We were then taken to the security jeeps. They ordered us to get in, but I refused. In the meantime, an officer in military uniform interfered and ordered the security members to release us. They released us and ordered us to immediately leave the place.”
Although in discourse Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks radical political changes and an austere implementation of Islamic law, in the West Bank the group has largely conducted peaceful demonstrations against the PA and held religious lectures, which are regularly disrupted by Palestinian security forces. Most notably a 2010 conference to commemorate the fall of the Caliphate 86 years prior ended with thousands arrested across the West Bank from PA erected flying checkpoints. Although membership in the group is not unlawful, nearly all of their public activities are deemed illegal by local authorities, constituting a de facto ban. And for the Israeli authorities membership in any Palestinian political party is strictly forbidden, ironically even the negotiating partner Fatah.
The rise of Hizb ut-Tahrir and Salafi movements across the broader Middle East has elicited attention towards the group in the occupied Palestinian territories, despite its limited and perhaps fluid membership. The organization has engaged in the West Bank since 2006, yet in spite of the extreme rhetoric their activities are non-violent. Hizb ut-Tahrir actions nearly exclusively condemn the policies of the PA, not just on negotiations but also economic issues, such as a protest held at employment opportunity center in 2012 which also ended in arrests.
In 2007 they made their debut as political force when tens of thousands protested in Palestinian cities in coordination with other Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstration in the Arab World. The Guardian reported the party was “growing in strength and visibility,” but questioned, “what does the Hizb’s emergence as a political factor mean, and what implications may it have (if any) for the future direction of events between Israelis and Palestinians?” However, that level of protest was short-lived and has only resurfaced in 2010 and again with America’s back talks.
When negotiations resumed last spring, Hizb ut-Tahrir’s black flags cascaded through Ramallah’s downtown, denouncing American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders. When Obama visited Ramallah, they chanted “no, no Obama!” and now with the nine-month commitment to return to the table closing, they are back.
Yet it’s worth noting that while spread of Salafi movements are widely tracked by terrorism experts, in the West Bank Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a group with violent proclivities. The first Hizb ut-Tahrir attempted armed-action took place in 2013, and Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism noted that the individual arrested in preparation for the attack was also a member of Hamas. In short, in the West Bank Hizb ut-Tahrir offers an outlet for religious conservatives disenchanted with their local leadership.
With little outcry from Palestinian society over the negotiations in the past few weeks, the Hizb ut-Tahrir marches—or rather almost marches—stand as the sole temperature check for how the PA is dealing with political opponents with respect to peace talks. When discussion with Israel re-started a number of protests were held by disaffected Palestinian youth. They were not an organized group, but loosely affiliated with the March 15th Coalition, a now disbanded youth movement that sought reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and political alternatives to the protraction of Israel’s occupation they saw as produced by the Oslo Accords and its economic sister, the Paris Protocols.
But to the PA stability is sacrosanct, and these marches too were brutally repressed. Security forces even arrested protesters from their hospital beds after seeking treatment for injuries inflicted during the demonstrations. In this light Hizb ut-Tahrir and their nearly invisible spread outside of the increase of air-fresheners with the motif of the party’s flag dangling from taxi rear view windows, conveys not a rise in the Salafis per se. More clearly the last two weeks show the meekness of opposition parties. Indeed there is little public space inside of the West Bank to advocate for a new rule at home.